The Brythonic Celtic languages

The Brythonic languages (also known as Brittonic languages) all come from a single language known as “Common Brittonic” spoken throughout Great Britain during the Iron Age and while the Romans were on the island

The Brythonic languages all come from a single language known as “Common Brittonic” spoken throughout Great Britain during the Iron Age.
The Brythonic languages all come from a single language known as “Common Brittonic” spoken throughout Great Britain during the Iron Age.

Author: Joshua Burns

Some In my last article, I spoke about the Celtic languages in Britain and Ireland. I began by explaining that there are two groups of languages that are entirely separate called the Goidelic languages and the Brythonic languages.

The previous article dealt with* the Goidelic languages, which include Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. So, now we’re going to look at the Brythonic languages.

History of the Brythonic languages

The Brythonic languages (also known as Brittonic languages) all come from a single language known as “Common Brittonic” spoken throughout Great Britain during the Iron Age and while the Romans were on the island. Later, in the 5th century, this language also spread to Brittany in the north of France.

From there, the single language split into different dialects, much like how the Romance languages derive from Latin. This resulted in the languages known today as Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric.

Welsh

Welsh is by far the most widely spoken of the Brythonic languages and, as you might expect, comes from Wales. According to a census in 2011, 19 per cent of people in the country are able to speak the language.

With its origins in Common Brittonic, Welsh went through a few different stages to get to the language spoken today. There are no clear sources on the origin of the language, but it is generally accepted it went from Primitive Welsh to Middle Welsh to Modern Welsh.

Generally, most Welsh speakers are in the north of the country. Like in Ireland, everyone can also speak English but many choose to carry out their day-to-day lives in Welsh. It is very common in the north to hear builders or shop workers speaking in the language.

Interestingly, during wartime in order to keep codes safer, cryptographers* used lesserknown languages. For this reason Welsh was used in Bosnia by the military in order to keep the messages secure.

The language is also known for being notoriously difficult to pronounce. One of the most famous examples of this is a town on the isle of Anglesey that is almost impossible for non-Welsh speakers to pronounce. Believe it or not, the name of the town is Llanfair Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It is the second-longest town name in the world.

Cornish

Out of all the Brittonic languages, Welsh is the only one that survived from ancient times. That doesn’t mean that the other languages are dead though. While the last native Cornish speaker died out in the 1800s, the language was brought back by the people of Cornwall in the south of England.

Cornish is considered a key part of the local’s identity and they take great pride in it. After the language was revived,* the system was standardised with words added to describe more modern concepts or inventions. In 2002 it was recognised as a Minority Language by the UK government and in 2010 the ‘extinct’ label was seen as no longer accurate.

Cornish is an incredible example of how a language can come back to life. Nowadays, people speak it in and out of the home and there are festivals, literature and even music in the language.

Breton

In the beginning of the article, I mentioned that the languages were from Great Britain and Ireland but that isn’t exactly true. France is also home to one of the languages, which is known as Breton.

Like Cornish, Breton is also a revived language but with more limited success. While the French government considered starting language-immersion schools in the 20th century, this was initially blocked*. It wasn’t until 1977 that the schools finally were allowed to open, and as of 2018 around 2 per cent of the population of Brittany attend one of the schools.

Cumbric, unfortunately, is the non-surviving member of the Brittonic languages as it is entirely extinct. It was originally spoken in the Cumbria region in the north of England, and perhaps even into the south of Scotland.

However, unlike Cornish that died out in the 1800s before being brought back, Cumbric is thought to have become extinct in the 13th century. While a group of enthusiasts tried to bring the language back in the year 2000, it was too long gone and they had little success.


Glossary

Dealt with: Spoke about

Cryptographers: People who make secret codes

Revive: Brought back to life

Blocked: Stopped from happening

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