AskDefine | Define Brythonic

Dictionary Definition

Brythonic n : a southern group of Celtic languages [syn: Brittanic]

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Proper noun

  1. A Celtic language.

Extensive Definition

The Brythonic languages (or Brittonic languages or British languages) form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family, the other being Goidelic. The name Brythonic was derived by Sir John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython, meaning an indigenous Briton as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael. The name Brittonic derives ultimately from the name Prettanic recorded by Greek authors for the British Isles. Some authors reserve the term Brittonic for the modified later Brythonic languages after about AD 600.
These languages have been spoken in Britain and Ireland (including the Isle of Man) since at least the Iron Age until today, originally as the majority languages but now as minority ones in Wales and Cornwall. In Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland the Brythonic languages have been replaced by Goedelic ones. By emigration there are also communities of Brythonic language speakers in Brittany, and Patagonia.


Knowledge of the Brythonic languages comes from a variety of sources. For the early languages 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.


The Brythonic branch is also referred to as P-Celtic (like Gaulish) because the Brythonic reflex of the Proto-Indo-European phoneme *kw is p as opposed to the Goidelic c. Such nomenclature usually implies an acceptance of the P-Celtic hypothesis rather than the Insular Celtic hypothesis (for a discussion, see Celtic languages).
Other major characteristics include:
  • the treatment of -m, -n as -am, -an.
  • initial s- followed by a vowel was changed to h-
    • Irish sean "old", sior "long", samail "similar"
    • Breton hen, hir, heñvel
  • Brythonic retains original nasals before -t
    • Breton kant "hundred" vs. Irish céad
  • sp, sr, sv/sw became f, fr, chw
    • *swero "toy, game" became Welsh chwarae and Breton c'hoari
    • *srokna "nostril" became Welsh ffroen and Breton froen.
  • all other initial s- fell before consonants
    • smero became Welsh mwyar, Breton mouar "fruit"
    • slemon became Welsh llyfn, Breton levn "smooth"
  • v became gw where in Goidelic it is f
    • vindos "white" became Welsh gwenn
    • vassos "servant, young man" became Welsh gwas
  • double plosives transformed into spirants: pp, cc, tt became f, ch (c'h), th (z) before a vowel or liquid
    • cippus > Breton kef "tree trunk", Welsh cyff
    • cattos > Breton kaz, Welsh cath
    • bucca > Breton boc'h, W boch
  • single voiceless plosives and voiced d, b, and m in an intervocalic position became soft spirants
    • Welsh dd[ð], th[θ], f [v]
    • Breton z, v''


The family tree of the Brythonic languages is as follows:
The major Brythonic languages today are Welsh and Breton, both of which survive as community languages. The Cornish language died out at the end of the eighteenth century, but attempts at reviving it started in the 20th century and are ongoing. Also notable are the extinct language Cumbric, and possibly the extinct Pictish although this may be best considered to be a sister of the Brythonic languages. The late Kenneth H. Jackson argued during the 1950s, from some of the few remaining examples of stone inscriptions, that the Picts may have also used a non-Indo-European language, but some modern scholars of Pictish do not agree.

History and origins

The modern Brythonic languages are generally considered to all derive from a common ancestral language termed British, Common Brythonic, Old Brythonic or Proto-Brythonic, which is thought to have developed from Proto-Celtic and which was possibly introduced to Great Britain by the 6th century BC. Some linguists such as Vennemann have suggested that an earlier language, Atlantic, may have influenced the Brythonic languages, but this is not generally accepted. Mario Alinei denies the existence of a pre-Celtic language and says that Celtic languages arrived in the Paleolithic but this is not generally accepted either. It is possible that a Germanic language may have been present in Eastern England because of cultural links across what is now the southern North Sea but was dry land in the Mesolithic, and this could have influenced the Brythonic languages. Stephen Oppenheimer has suggested that the Belgic invasions in the first century BC could have brought a Germanic language to Britain. However, it is clear from classical authors that Celtic was used for place and river names by 300 BC.
Brythonic languages were probably spoken prior to the Roman invasion at least in the majority of Great Britain south of the rivers Forth and Clyde, though the Isle of Man later had a Goidelic language, Manx. Northern Scotland mainly spoke Pritennic, which became Pictish, that may have been a Brythonic language. The theory has been advanced (notably by R. F. O'Rahilly) that Ireland was populated by speakers of Brythonic before being displaced by speakers of a Q-Celtic language (possibly from the Quarietii tribe of southern France), although the authors Dillon and Chadwick reject this theory as being implausible.
During the period of the Roman occupation of southern Great Britain (AD 43 to c. 410), Common Brythonic borrowed a large stock of Latin words, both for concepts unfamiliar in the pre-urban society of Celtic Great Britain, such as urbanisation and tactics of warfare, and for rather more mundane words which displaced native terms (most notably, the word for "fish" in all the Brythonic languages derives from the Latin piscis rather than the native *ēskos > Wysg river). Approximately eight hundred of these Latin loan-words have survived in the three modern Brythonic languages. Romano-British is the name for the Latinised form of the language used by Roman authors.
It is probable that at the start of the Post-Roman period Common Brythonic was differentiated into at least two major dialect groups - Southwestern and Western (in addition we may posit additional dialects, such as Eastern Brythonic, spoken in what is now eastern England, which have left little or no evidence). Between the end of the Roman occupation and the mid sixth century the two dialects began to diverge into recognisably separate languages, the Western into Cumbric and Welsh, and the Southwestern into Cornish and its closely related sister language Breton, which was carried from the south west of Great Britain to continental Armorica. Jackson showed that a few of the dialect distinctions between West and Southwest Brythonic go back a long way. New divergencies began around AD 500 but other changes which were shared occurred in the 6th century. Other common changes occurred in the seventh century onward and are possibly due to inherent tendencies. Thus the concept of a common Brythonic language ends by AD 600. It is thought that substantial numbers of Britons remained in the expanding area controlled by Anglo-Saxons, but the only information on their language may be obtained from place names. Over time it is thought they gradually adopted the English language.
The Brythonic languages spoken in Scotland, the Isle of Man and England began to be displaced in the 5th century through the influence of Irish (Scots), Norse and Germanic invaders. The displacement of the languages of Brythonic descent was probably complete in all of this territory, (except Cornwall and the English counties bordering Wales), by the 11th century (date of extinction in various parts of the territory is debated). Ivernic is a Brythonic language that may have been spoken in Ireland.

Remnants in England, Scotland and Ireland

Place names and river names

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

Celtic effects on English

Celtic has acted as a substrate to English for both the lexicon and syntax. It is generally accepted that linguistic effects on English were lexically rather poor aside from toponyms, consisting of a few domestic words, which may include hubbub, peat, bucket, crock, noggin, gob (cf. Gaelic gob), nook; and the dialectal term for a badger, i.e. brock (cf. Welsh broch, and Gaelic broc). Arguably, the use of periphrastic constructions (using auxiliary verbs like do and be) in the English verb (which is more widespread than in the other Germanic languages) is traceable to Brythonic influence.
Some researchers (Filppula et al., 2001) argue that English syntax reflects more extensive Brythonic influences. 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 Brythonic, since Welsh tag questions vary in almost exactly the same way. This view is far from being generally accepted, though.

Brythonic effect on the Goidelic languages

Far more notable, but less well known, are the many Brythonic influences on Scottish Gaelic. Like English, periphrastic constructions have come to the fore, but to a much greater degree. Scottish Gaelic contains a number of apparently 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. In particular, the word srath (anglicised as "Strath") is a native Goidelic word, but its usage appears to have been modified by the Brythonic cognate 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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  • Dillon M and Chadwick N (1967). Celtic Realms.
  • Filppula, M., Klemola, J. and Pitkänen, H. (2001). The Celtic roots of English, Studies in languages, No. 37, University of Joensuu, Faculty of Humanities, ISBN 9 5245 8164 7.
  • Forster Pa and Toth A (2003). Towards a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic and Indo-European. PNAS 100/15 9079-9084.
  • Hawkes, J. (1973). The first great civilizations: life in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt, The history of human society series, London: Hutchinson, ISBN 0 09 116580 6.
  • Jackson, K., (1994). Language and history in early Britain: a chronological survey of the Brittonic languages, 1st to 12th c. A. D, Celtic studies series, Dublin: Four Courts Press, ISBN 1 85182 140 6.
  • Nichols and Gray (2004). Quantifying Uncertainty in a Stochastic Model of Vocabulary Evolution.
  • Rivet A and Smith C (1979). The Placenames of Roman Britain.
  • Vennemann T, (2003). Europa Vasconica - Europa Semitica. Berlin
Brythonic in Tosk Albanian: Brythonisch
Brythonic in Bengali: ব্রিথনীয় ভাষাসমূহ
Brythonic in Breton: Yezhoù predenek
Brythonic in Catalan: Llengües britòniques
Brythonic in Welsh: Brythoneg
Brythonic in German: Britannische Sprachen
Brythonic in Modern Greek (1453-): Βρυθονικές γλώσσες
Brythonic in Spanish: Lenguas británicas
Brythonic in Faroese: Brythonisk (mál)
Brythonic in French: Langue brittonique
Brythonic in Galician: Linguas britónicas
Brythonic in Korean: 브리소닉어
Brythonic in Upper Sorbian: Britaniske rěče
Brythonic in Italian: Lingue brittoniche
Brythonic in Cornish: Brythonek
Brythonic in Kurdish: Zimanên Brîtanî
Brythonic in Lithuanian: Britų kalbos
Brythonic in Dutch: Brythonisch
Brythonic in Japanese: Pケルト語
Brythonic in Norwegian: Brytoniske språk
Brythonic in Polish: Języki brytańskie
Brythonic in Portuguese: Línguas britônicas
Brythonic in Russian: Бриттские языки
Brythonic in Swedish: Brittiska språk
Brythonic in Walloon: Britonike
Brythonic in Chinese: 布立吞亞支
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