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The language of the Picts

One of the great mysteries surrounding the Picts is the language they spoke. This topic has stimulated much discussion and argument over the ensuing centuries.

According to the few surviving historical references relating to the Pictish language, the Picts spoke a language of their own - different to the languages spoken by the other people of Britain.

In his A History of the English Church and People, the venerable Bede wrote that at the time (early eighth century) there were five languages in Britain - English, British, Scots (Gaelic) and Pictish.

But, like the good churchman he was, he added: "all are united in their study of God's truth by the fifth - Latin - which has become a common medium through the study of the Scriptures."

Admonan's Life of Columba seems to back this up. It states that when Columba visited the court of the Pictish high-king Brude, on the River Ness, he needed a translator. This implies that the Pictish language was different to the Scots/Irish Gaelic spoken by Columba.

However, as the Picts themselves kept no written records of their lifestyles, beliefs or heritage, their language has now all but disappeared. The only sources that can give vague clues as to its nature are some of the carved inscriptions they left, placenames and certain accounts of Pictish names written by external sources at the time.

As with all things Pictish, however, the lack of concrete evidence has led to a number of opinions and theories as to the form of the spoken language of the inhabitants of Northern Scotland in the early centuries of the first millennium.

These generally fall into one of three camps:

  • The Picts spoke an ancient language indigenous to area - a language that predated the Celtic languages of the Britons, the Scots and the Irish. This language did not have an Indo-European origin, but was instead a survival of the ancient language used by the Bronze Age people of the area.

  • The Picts spoke a P-Celtic language - that is a Celtic language related to the language of the Ancient Britons. When the Celts arrived in Britain they brought with them an Indo-European language which replaced the existing languages of country. This, say supporters, is clear from the known Pictish placenames in north-east Scotland.

    But if this was the case why did Bede regard Pictish as a different language? Was there perhaps a strong regional accent? Just as a visitor to Orkney in past years often struggled with the Orcadian accent, although the islanders were still essentially speaking English.

  • Along the same lines is the idea that the Picts spoke a Q-Celtic language, a version of Ancient British that contained elements of Irish Gaelic - fragments picked up over the years through contact with the Scotti, the invading Irish settlers who claimed territory down the west coast of Scotland.

    This theory is strengthened by the fact that the writing system known to be used by the Picts – Ogham – actually originated in Ireland.
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