*Brittonikā, Brythonic, British Celtic
Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, in antiquity all of Great Britain and the Isle of Man, during the Early Middle Ages in Northern England and Southern Scotland and other western parts of Britain, Pictland, Galicia
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
Proto-languageCommon Brittonic
The Brittonic-speaking community around the sixth century

The Brittonic languages (also Brythonic or British Celtic; Welsh: ieithoedd Brythonaidd/Prydeinig; Cornish: yethow brythonek/predennek; and Breton: yezhoù predenek) form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family; the other is Goidelic.[1] It comprises the extant languages Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. The name Brythonic was derived by Welsh Celticist John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython, meaning Ancient Britons as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael.

The Brittonic languages derive from the Common Brittonic language, spoken throughout Great Britain during the Iron Age and Roman period. In the 5th and 6th centuries emigrating Britons also took Brittonic speech to the continent, most significantly in Brittany and Britonia. During the next few centuries, in much of Britain the language was replaced by Old English and Scottish Gaelic, with the remaining Common Brittonic language splitting into regional dialects, eventually evolving into Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Cumbric, and probably Pictish. Welsh and Breton continue to be spoken as native languages, while a revival in Cornish has led to an increase in speakers of that language. Cumbric and Pictish are extinct, having been replaced by Goidelic and Anglic speech. The Isle of Man and Orkney may also have originally spoken a Brittonic language, but this was later supplanted by Goidelic on the Isle of Man and Norse on Orkney. There is also a community of Brittonic language speakers in Y Wladfa (the Welsh settlement in Patagonia).


The names "Brittonic" and "Brythonic" are scholarly conventions referring to the Celtic languages of Britain and to the ancestral language they originated from, designated Common Brittonic, in contrast to the Goidelic languages originating in Ireland. Both were created in the 19th century to avoid the ambiguity of earlier terms such as "British" and "Cymric".[2] "Brythonic" was coined in 1879 by the Celticist John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython.[2][3] "Brittonic", derived from "Briton" and also earlier spelled "Britonic" and "Britonnic", emerged later in the 19th century.[4] It became more prominent through the 20th century, and was used in Kenneth H. Jackson's highly influential 1953 work on the topic, Language and History in Early Britain. Jackson noted that by that time "Brythonic" had become a dated term, and that "of late there has been an increasing tendency to use Brittonic instead."[3] Today, "Brittonic" often replaces "Brythonic" in the literature.[4] Rudolf Thurneysen used "Britannic" in his influential A Grammar of Old Irish, although this never became popular among subsequent scholars.[5]

Comparable historical terms include the Medieval Latin lingua Britannica and sermo Britannicus[6] and the Welsh Brythoneg.[2] Some writers use "British" for the language and its descendants, although, due to the risk of confusion, others avoid it or use it only in a restricted sense. Jackson, and later John T. Koch, use "British" only for the early phase of the Common Brittonic language.[5]

Before Jackson's work, "Brittonic" and "Brythonic" were often used for all the P-Celtic languages, including not just the varieties in Britain but those Continental Celtic languages that similarly experienced the evolution of the Proto-Celtic language element /kʷ/ to /p/. However, subsequent writers have tended to follow Jackson's scheme, rendering this use obsolete.[5]

The name "Britain" itself comes from Latin: Britannia~Brittania, via Old French Bretaigne and Middle English Breteyne, possibly influenced by Old English Bryten(lond), probably also from Latin Brittania, ultimately an adaptation of the native word for the island, *Pritanī.[7][8]

An early written reference to the British Isles may derive from the works of the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia; later Greek writers such as Diodorus of Sicily and Strabo who quote Pytheas' use of variants such as πρεττανική (Prettanikē), "The Britannic [land, island]", and νησοι βρεττανιαι (nēsoi brettaniai), "Britannic islands", with *Pretani being a Celtic word that might mean "the painted ones" or "the tattooed folk", referring to body decoration (see below).[9]


Knowledge of the Brittonic languages comes from a variety of sources. The early language's information is obtained from coins, inscriptions, and comments by classical writers as well as place names and personal names recorded by them. For later languages, there is information from medieval writers and modern native speakers, together with place names. The names recorded in the Roman period are given in Rivet and Smith.[10]


The Brittonic branch is also referred to as P-Celtic because linguistic reconstruction of the Brittonic reflex of the Proto-Indo-European phoneme * is p as opposed to Goidelic k. Such nomenclature usually implies acceptance of the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic hypothesis rather than the Insular Celtic hypothesis because the term includes certain Continental Celtic languages as well. (For a discussion, see Celtic languages.)

Other major characteristics include:

Initial s-:


Voiceless spirants:

Nasal assimilation:


The family tree of the Brittonic languages is as follows:

Brittonic languages in use today are Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Welsh and Breton have been spoken continuously since they formed. For all practical purposes Cornish died out during the 18th or 19th century, but a revival movement has more recently created small numbers of new speakers. Also notable are the extinct language Cumbric, and possibly the extinct Pictish. One view, advanced in the 1950s and based on apparently unintelligible ogham inscriptions, was that the Picts may have also used a non-Indo-European language.[12] This view, while attracting broad popular appeal, has virtually no following in contemporary linguistic scholarship.[13]

History and origins

Britain & Ireland in the early–mid 1st millennium, before the founding of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
  Mainly Brittonic areas.
  Mainly Pictish areas.
  Mainly Goidelic areas.

The modern Brittonic languages are generally considered to all derive from a common ancestral language termed Brittonic, British, Common Brittonic, Old Brittonic or Proto-Brittonic, which is thought to have developed from Proto-Celtic or early Insular Celtic by the 6th century BC.[14]

A major archaeogenetics study uncovered a migration into southern Britain in the middle to late Bronze Age, during the 500-year period 1,300–800 BC.[15] The newcomers were genetically most similar to ancient individuals from Gaul.[15] During 1,000–875 BC, their genetic markers swiftly spread through southern Britain,[16] but not northern Britain.[15] The authors describe this as a "plausible vector for the spread of early Celtic languages into Britain".[15] There was much less inward migration during the Iron Age, so it is likely that Celtic reached Britain before then.[15] Barry Cunliffe suggests that a Goidelic branch of Celtic may already have been spoken in Britain, but that this middle Bronze Age migration would have introduced the Brittonic branch.[17]

Brittonic languages were probably spoken before the Roman invasion throughout most of Great Britain, though the Isle of Man later had a Goidelic language, Manx. During the period of the Roman occupation of what is now England and Wales (AD 43 to c. 410), Common Brittonic borrowed a large stock of Latin words, both for concepts unfamiliar in the pre-urban society of Celtic Britain such as urbanization and new tactics of warfare as well as for rather more mundane words which displaced native terms (most notably, the word for "fish" in all the Brittonic languages derives from the Latin piscis rather than the native *ēskos – which may survive, however, in the Welsh name of the River Usk, Wysg). Approximately 800 of these Latin loan-words have survived in the three modern Brittonic languages. Pictish may have resisted Latin influence to a greater extent than the other Brittonic languages.[18]

It is probable that at the start of the Post-Roman period Common Brittonic was differentiated into at least two major dialect groups – Southwestern and Western (also we may posit additional dialects, such as Eastern Brittonic, spoken in what is now the East of England, which have left little or no evidence). Between the end of the Roman occupation and the mid 6th century the two dialects began to diverge into recognizably separate varieties, the Western into Cumbric and Welsh and the Southwestern into Cornish and its closely related sister language Breton, which was carried to continental Armorica. Jackson showed that a few of the dialect distinctions between West and Southwest Brittonic go back a long way. New divergencies began around AD 500 but other changes that were shared occurred in the 6th century. Other common changes occurred in the 7th century onward and are possibly due to inherent tendencies. Thus the concept of a Common Brittonic language ends by AD 600. Substantial numbers of Britons certainly remained in the expanding area controlled by Anglo-Saxons, but over the fifth and sixth centuries they mostly adopted the English language and culture.[19][20][21]


Main article: Celtic language decline in England

The Brittonic languages spoken in what is now Scotland, the Isle of Man and what is now England began to be displaced in the 5th century through the settlement of Irish-speaking Gaels and Germanic peoples. Henry of Huntingdon wrote that Pictish was "no longer spoken" in c. 1129.[18]

The displacement of the languages of Brittonic descent was probably complete in all of Britain except Cornwall and Wales and the English counties bordering these areas such as Devon by the 11th century. Western Herefordshire continued to speak Welsh until the late nineteenth century, and isolated pockets of Shropshire speak Welsh today.

Sound changes

The regular consonantal sound changes from Proto-Celtic to Welsh, Cornish, and Breton are summarised in the following table. Where the graphemes have a different value from the corresponding IPA symbols, the IPA equivalent is indicated between slashes. V represents a vowel; C represents a consonant.

Proto-Celtic Late Brittonic Welsh Cornish Breton
*b- *b- b b b
*-bb- *-b- b b b
*-VbV- *-VβV- > -VvV- f /v/ v v
*d- *d- d d d
*-dd- *-d- d d d
*-VdV- *-VðV- dd /ð/ dh /ð/ z /z/ or lost
*g- *g- g g g
*-gg- *-g- g g g
*-VgV- *-VɣV- > -VjV- (lost) (lost) (lost)
*ɸ- (lost) (lost) (lost) (lost)
*-ɸ- (lost) (lost) (lost) (lost)
*-xt- *-xθ- > -(i)θ th /θ/ th /θ/ zh /z/ or /h/
*j- *i- i i i
*-j *-ð -dd /ð/ -dh /ð/ -z /z/ or lost
*k- *k- c /k/ k k
*-kk- *-x- ch /x/ gh /h/ c'h /x/ or /h/
*-VkV- *-g- g g g
*kʷ- *p- p p p
*-kʷ- *-b- b b b
*l- *l- ll /ɬ/ l l
*-ll- *-l- l l l
*-VlV- *-l- l l l
*m- *m- m m m
*-mb- *-mm- m m m
*-Cm- *-m- m m m
*-m- *-β̃- f /v/, w v ñv /-̃v/
*n- *n- n n n
*-n- *-n- n n n
*-nd- *-nn- n, nn n, nn n, nn
*-nt- *-nt- nt, nh /n̥/ nt nt
*-pp- *-ɸ- > -f- ff /f/ f f
*r- *r- rh /r̥/ r r
*sr- *fr- ffr /fr/ fr fr
*-r- *-r- r r r
*s- *h-, s h, s h, s h or lost, s
*-s- *-s- s s s
*sl- *l- ll /ɬ/ l l
*sm- *m- m m m
*sn- *n- n n n
*sɸ- *f- ff /f/ f f
*sw- *hw- chw /xw/ hw /ʍ/ c'ho /xw/
*t *t t t t
*-t- *-d- d d d
*-tt- *-θ- th /θ/ th /θ/ zh /z/ or /h/
*w- *ˠw- > ɣw- > gw- gw gw gw
*-VwV- *-w- w w w
*-V *-Vh Vch /Vx/ Vgh /Vh/ Vc'h /Vx/ or /Vh/

Remnants in England, Scotland and Ireland

Place names and river names

Further information: Celtic toponymy and Toponymy in the United Kingdom and Ireland

The principal legacy left behind in those territories from which the Brittonic languages were displaced is that of toponyms (place names) and hydronyms (names of rivers and other bodies of water). There are many Brittonic place names in lowland Scotland and in the parts of England where it is agreed that substantial Brittonic speakers remained (Brittonic names, apart from those of the former Romano-British towns, are scarce over most of England). Names derived (sometimes indirectly) from Brittonic include London, Penicuik, Perth, Aberdeen, York, Dorchester, Dover and Colchester.[22] Brittonic elements found in England include bre- and bal- for hills, while some such as combe or coomb(e) for a small deep valley and tor for a hill are examples of Brittonic words that were borrowed into English. Others reflect the presence of Britons such as Dumbarton – from the Scottish Gaelic Dùn Breatainn meaning "Fort of the Britons", or Walton meaning a tun or settlement where the Wealh "Britons" still lived.

The number of Celtic river names in England generally increases from east to west, a map showing these being given by Jackson. These names include ones such as Avon, Chew, Frome, Axe, Brue and Exe, but also river names containing the elements "der-/dar-/dur-" and "-went" e.g. "Derwent, Darwen, Deer, Adur, Dour, Darent, Went". These names exhibit multiple different Celtic roots. One is *dubri- "water" [Bret. "dour", C. "dowr", W. "dŵr"], also found in the place-name "Dover" (attested in the Roman period as "Dubrīs"); this is the source of rivers named "Dour". Another is *deru̯o- "oak" or "true" [Bret. "derv", C. "derow", W. "derw"], coupled with 2 agent suffixes, *-ent- and *-iū; this is the origin of "Derwent", " Darent" and "Darwen" (attested in the Roman period as "Deru̯entiō"). The final root to be examined is "went". In Roman Britain, there were three tribal capitals named "U̯entā" (modern Winchester, Caerwent and Caistor St Edmunds), whose meaning was 'place, town'.[23]

Brittonicisms in English

Main article: Brittonicisms in English

Further information: List of English words of Brittonic origin

Some, including J. R. R. Tolkien, have argued that Celtic has acted as a substrate to English for both the lexicon and syntax. It is generally accepted that Brittonic effects on English are lexically few, aside from toponyms, consisting of a small number of domestic and geographical words, which 'may' include bin, brock, carr, comb, crag and tor.[24][25][26] Another legacy may be the sheep-counting system Yan Tan Tethera in the north, in the traditionally Celtic areas of England such as Cumbria. Several Cornish mining words are still in use in English language mining terminology, such as costean, gunnies, and vug.[27]

Those who argue against the theory of a more significant Brittonic influence than is widely accepted point out that many toponyms have no semantic continuation from the Brittonic language. A notable example is Avon which comes from the Celtic term for river abona[28] or the Welsh term for river, afon, but was used by the English as a personal name.[24] Likewise the River Ouse, Yorkshire contains the word usa which merely means 'water'[29] and the name of the river Trent simply comes from the Welsh word for a trespasser (an over-flowing river).[30]

Scholars supporting a Brittonic substrate in English argue that the use of periphrastic constructions (using auxiliary verbs such as do and be in the continuous/progressive) in the English verb, which is more widespread than in the other Germanic languages, is traceable to Brittonic influence.[31][32] Others, however, find this unlikely since many of these forms are only attested in the later Middle English period; these scholars claim a native English development rather than Celtic influence.[33] Ian G. Roberts postulates Northern Germanic influence, despite such constructions not existing in Norse.[34] Literary Welsh has the simple present Caraf = I love and the present stative (al. continuous/progressive) Yr wyf yn caru = I am loving, where the Brittonic syntax is partly mirrored in English (Note that I am loving comes from older I am a-loving, from still older ich am on luvende "I am in the process of loving"). In the Germanic sister languages of English there is only one form, for example ich liebe in German, though in colloquial usage in some German dialects, a progressive aspect form has evolved which is formally similar to those found in Celtic languages, and somewhat less similar to the Modern English form, e.g. "I am working" is ich bin am Arbeiten, literally: "I am on the working". The same structure is also found in modern Dutch (ik ben aan het werk), alongside other structures (e.g. ik zit te werken, lit. "I sit to working"). These parallel developments suggest that the English progressive is not necessarily due to Celtic influence; moreover, the native English development of the structure can be traced over 1000 years and more of English literature.

Some researchers (Filppula et al., 2001) argue that other elements of English syntax reflect Brittonic influences.[30][35] For instance, in English tag questions, the form of the tag depends on the verb form in the main statement (aren't I?, isn't he?, won't we? etc.). The German nicht wahr? and the French n'est-ce pas?, by contrast, are fixed forms which can be used with almost any main statement. It has been claimed that the English system has been borrowed from Brittonic, since Welsh tag questions vary in almost exactly the same way.[30][35]

Brittonic effect on the Goidelic languages

Far more notable, but less well known, are Brittonic influences on Scottish Gaelic, though Scottish and Irish Gaelic, with their wider range of preposition-based periphrastic constructions, suggest that such constructions descend from their common Celtic heritage. Scottish Gaelic contains several P-Celtic loanwords, but, as there is a far greater overlap in terms of Celtic vocabulary, than with English, it is not always possible to disentangle P- and Q-Celtic words. However, some common words such as monadh = Welsh mynydd, Cumbric *monidh are particularly evident.

The Brittonic influence on Scots Gaelic is often indicated by considering Irish language usage, which is not likely to have been influenced so much by Brittonic. In particular, the word srath (anglicised as "Strath") is a native Goidelic word, but its usage appears to have been modified by the Brittonic cognate ystrad whose meaning is slightly different. The effect on Irish has been the loan from British of many Latin-derived words. This has been associated with the Christianisation of Ireland from Britain.



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  2. ^ a b c "Brythonic, adj. and n.". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. June 2013. Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  3. ^ a b Jackson, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b "Brittonic, adj. and n.". OED Online. Oxford University Press. June 2013. Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  5. ^ a b c Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 305. ISBN 1851094407. Retrieved 18 July 2013.
  6. ^ Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 306. ISBN 1851094407. Retrieved 18 July 2013.
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  8. ^ Chadwick, Hector Munro, Early Scotland: The Picts, the Scots and the Welsh of Southern Scotland, Cambridge University Press, 1949 (2013 reprint), p. 68
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  11. ^ Brown, Ian (2007). The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: From Columba to the Union (until 1707). Edinburgh University Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-7486-1615-2. Retrieved 5 January 2011.
  12. ^ Jackson, 1955
  13. ^ Driscoll, 2011
  14. ^ Koch, John T. (2007). An Atlas for Celtic Studies. Oxford: Oxbow Books. ISBN 978-1-84217-309-1.
  15. ^ a b c d e Patterson, N.; Isakov, M.; Booth, T. (2021). "Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age". Nature. 601 (7894): 588–594. Bibcode:2022Natur.601..588P. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-04287-4. PMC 8889665. PMID 34937049. S2CID 245509501.
  16. ^ "Ancient DNA study reveals large scale migrations into Bronze Age Britain". University of York. 22 December 2021. Retrieved 21 January 2022.
  17. ^ "Ancient mass migration transformed Britons' DNA". BBC News. 22 December 2021. Retrieved 21 January 2022.
  18. ^ a b Rhys, Guto. "Approaching the Pictish language: historiography, early evidence and the question of Pritenic" (PDF). University of Glasgow. Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 October 2022.
  19. ^ R. Fleming, Britain After Rome (2011), p. 45-119.
  20. ^ H. Tristram, "Why Don't the English Speak Welsh? Archived 2011-07-19 at the Wayback Machine", in Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (2007), p. 192-214.
  21. ^ D. White, "On the Areal Pattern of 'Brittonicity' in English and Its Implications" (Austin, Texas, 2010).
  22. ^ op. cit.
  23. ^ Matasović, Ranko (2009). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic, p. 413. Brill, Leiden-Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-17336-1
  24. ^ a b Coates, Richard, ‘Invisible Britons: The View from Linguistics’, in Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. by Nick Higham, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies, 7 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), pp. 172–91 (pp. 177–80).
  25. ^ Kastovsky, Dieter, ‘Semantics and Vocabulary’, in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 1: The Beginnings to 1066, ed. by Richard M. Hogg (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 290–408 (pp. 318–19).
  26. ^ D. Gary Miller, External Influences on English: From Its Beginnings to the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 19–20.
  27. ^ Dictionary of Mining, Mineral, and Related Terms by American Geological Institute and U S Bureau of Mines (pages 128, 249, and 613)
  28. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  29. ^ A. Room (ed.) 1992: Brewer's Dictionary of Names, Oxford: Helicon, p. 396-7.
  30. ^ a b c Hickey, Raymond. 'Early Contact And Parallels Between English and Celtic.' in 'Vienna English Working Papers'.
  31. ^ White, David L (2010), "On the Areal Pattern of 'Brittonicity' in English and Its Implications" (PDF), in Tristram, Hildegard (ed.), The Celtic Englishes IV, Potsdam University.
  32. ^ Tristram, Hildegard (2004), "Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or what was spoken Old English like?", Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, 40: 87–110
  33. ^ John Insley, "Britons and Anglo-Saxons," in Kulturelle Integration und Personnenamen in Mittelalter, De Gruyter (2018)
  34. ^ Roberts, Ian G. Verbs and diachronic syntax: a comparative history of English and French Volume 28 of Studies in natural language and linguistic theory Volume 28 of NATO Asi Series. Series C, Mathematical and Physical Science.
  35. ^ a b van Gelderen, Elly. A History of the English Language.