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Spoken in Iron Age Britain, south of the Firth of Forth
Language extinction Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton by 600 AD
Language family Indo-European
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 cel
ISO 639-3 None

British or Brythonic (also known as Brittonic, Old Brythonic or Common Brythonic) was an ancient P-Celtic language spoken in Britain.

British is a form of Insular Celtic, which is descended from Proto-Celtic, a hypothetical parent language that had already begun to diverge into separate dialects or languages in the first half of the first millennium BC.[1][2][3][4] By the sixth century AD, British had produced four separate languages: Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and Cumbric. There is some evidence that the Pictish language may have had close ties to British and could in fact be a fifth branch.[5][6][7]

Evidence from Welsh shows a great influence from Latin on British during the Roman period, and especially so in terms related to the Church and Christianity, which are nearly all Latin derivatives.[8] British was later replaced in Scotland south of the Firth of Forth by Scottish Gaelic and English (which developed here into the Scots language), though it survived into the Middle Ages in Southern Scotland and Cumbria—see Cumbric. British was gradually replaced by English throughout England; in the north, Cumbric disappeared as late as the 13th century and, in the south, Cornish was effectively a dead language by the 19th century. O'Rahilly's historical model suggests the possibility that there was a Brythonic language in Ireland before the arrival of Goidelic languages there, but this view has not found wide acceptance.





No documents written in the British language have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified.[9] Curse tablets found in the Roman reservoir at Bath, Somerset contain about 150 names, about half of which are undoubtedly Celtic but not necessarily British. There is an inscription on a metal pendant discovered in 1979 in Bath, which seems to contain an ancient Brittonic curse:[10]

Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai

The affixed - Deuina, Deieda, Andagin, (and) Uindiorix - I have bound[11]

There is also a tin/lead sheet with part of 9 lines of text. This is damaged, but seems to contain British names. (see Tomlin 1987).

Place-names are another type of evidence. The place names of Roman Britain were discussed by Rivet and Smith in their book of that name published in 1979. They show that the majority of names used were derived from British. English place names still contain elements derived from British in a few cases. Latinised forms of these place names occur in Ptolemy's Geography, for example.

Modern knowledge of the tongue is limited to a few names of people and places. Comparison with Continental Celtic languages, specifically Gaulish, shows that it was similar to other Celtic languages of the time. Tacitus (in his book The Agricola) noted that the language of Britain differed little from that of Gaul.


British competed with Latin since the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, at least, in major settlements. A number of Latin words were borrowed by British speakers.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain during the 500s marked the beginning of a decline in the language, as it was gradually replaced by Old English. Some British speakers migrated to Armorica and Galicia. By AD 700, British was mainly restricted to Northwest England, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. In these regions, it evolved into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Place names

British survives today in a few English place names and river names. However, some of these may be pre-Celtic. The best example is perhaps that of the River(s) Avon, which comes from the British abona "river" (compare Welsh afon, Cornish avon, Cumbric *avon, Irish abhainn, Manx awin, Breton aven; the Latin cognate is amnis).

List of place names derived from British

British-derived place-names are scattered across Great Britain, with many occurring in the West Country; some examples are:

  • "Avon" from abonā = "river" (cf. Welsh, afon)
  • Britain from Pritani = People of the Forms (cf. Welsh Prydain, 'Britain', pryd, 'appearance, form, image, resemblance')
  • Dover from dubrīs = "waters" (cf. Welsh, dŵr, older dwfr)
  • Kent from cantus = "border" (cf. Welsh cant, 'rim')
  • Severn from sabrīna, perhaps the name of a goddess (cf. Welsh, Hafren, unknown meaning)
  • Thanet from tan-eto- = "(place of the) bonfire" (cf. Welsh, tan, 'fire', Breton tanet "afflame")
  • Thames from Tamesis = "darkness" (akin to Welsh tywyll, 'darkness', from Brittonic *temeselo-)
  • York from ebor-ākon = "stand of yew trees" (cf. Welsh, Efrog, from efwr + -og 'abundant in')

Some British place names are known but are no longer used. In a charter of 682 the name of Creech St. Michael, Somerset is given as "cructan".


  1. ^ Henderson, Jon C. (2007). The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and Identity in the First Millennium BC. Routledge. pp. 292-95. 
  2. ^ Sims-Williams, Patrick (2007). Studies on Celtic Languages before the Year 1000. CMCS. p. 1. 
  3. ^ Koch, John (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1455. 
  4. ^ Eska, Joesph (2008). "Continental Celtic". in Roger Woodard. The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge. 
  5. ^ Forsyth, Katherine (2006). John Koch. ed. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1444, 1447. 
  6. ^ Forsyth, Katherine, Language in Pictland : the case against "non-Indo-European Pictish" (Utrecht: de Keltische Draak, 1997), 27.
  7. ^ Jackson, Kenneth (1955). "The Pictish Language". in F. T. Wainwright. The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson. pp. 129-66. 
  8. ^ Lewis, H. (1943). Yr Elfen Ladin yn yr Iaith Gymraeg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 
  9. ^ Philip Freeman (2001). Ireland and the Classical World. University of Texas Press. 
  10. ^ Tomlin, R.S.O. (1987). "Was ancient British Celtic ever a written language? Two texts from Roman Bath". Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 34: 18–25. 
  11. ^ Mees, Bernard (2009). Celtic Curses. Boydell & Brewer. p. 35. 


  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves (2003). La langue gauloise. 2nd edition. Paris, Editions Errance. p.176
  • Price, G. (2000). Languages of Britain and Ireland, Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21581-6
  • Sims-Williams, Patrick (2003) The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: phonology and chronology, c.400-1200. Oxford, Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-0903-3
  • Trudgill, P. (ed.) (1984). Language in the British Isles, Cambridge University Press.
  • W.B.Lockwood. Languages of the British Isles past and present, ISBN 0-521-28409-0
  • Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word
  • Atkinson and Gray, Are Accurate Dates an Intractable Problem for Historical Linguistics. In Mapping Our Ancestry, Eds Obrien, Shennan and Collard.
  • 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.
  • K Jackson (1953), Language and History in Early Britain.

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