Pictish Language and Symbols


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

A walk through the language and symbols used by the Pictish peoples, the origins of Pictish language, and the different meanings of inscriptions and symbols employed by the Pictish people.

Image of Brandsbutt Stone.
Difficulties in understanding the ogham inscriptions, like those found on the Brandsbutt Stone, led to a widely held theory that Pictish language could be a non-Indo-European language. (Image: Stephen Samson/CC BY-SA/Public domain)

The questions regarding the origins and the propagation of Pictish language are difficult to answer. We don’t know much because we only have a few inscriptions to go on. These inscriptions tend to be concentrated in the north and east of Scotland. Hence, we presume that to be the heart of Pictish-speaking territory. We can’t be sure, though, since we don’t have inscriptions from the rest of Scotland in other languages at this time. It might even be a distribution of inscriptions rather than the distribution of a language.

What may also have been the case was that these areas of inscriptions corresponded with the area where a Pictish dynasty was able to establish political control. This theory could significantly undercut the amount of territory where Pictish was considered to be the main language. So if we were to look at a supposed map of where Pictish was spoken, we should take it with a grain of salt. We’re not really all that certain.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Origins of the Pictish Speech

Difficult though it is to believe, the question of where Pictish was spoken is still less controversial than the question of where it came from. There have been various theories about the origins of Pictish. However, all of these theories derived themselves from a small number of words. Words like personal names, which are not at all ideal to reconstruct a language. Some of these theories proposed that Pictish was related to Irish, while another suggested its relations with English. These theories, nevertheless, have been discounted by our modern linguists since they don’t hold up to the linguistic scrutiny.

The strangest but also the most intriguing theory was that Pictish might be a pre-Indo-European language. A language that had somehow survived the supposed arrival of the ‘Celts’ in northern Britain. This theory has the merit of making the Picts seem like some special remnant of a deep prehistoric past. But the facts do not bear out the claim. Linguists and historians have now reached the full consensus that Pictish was a Celtic language. They are not quite in similar agreement on how distinct Pictish was from the British though. There is no certainty on even if these two languages, Pictish and British, evolved here or made their way into Britain independently.

Unfortunately, in the state of our current knowledge, we really can’t be sure about the origins and the underlying distinctions of the Pictish and British languages. Nevertheless, Pictish was perceived as a separate language by the observers at the time. And since it died out in the 10th or 11th century, we will never be able to test all these propositions thoroughly.

Learn more about ancient Celts though the lens of Greece and Rome.

The Pictish Scripts, Symbols, and Inscriptions

A map of Pictish stones.
A map displaying the distribution of Pictish symbol stones, present in northern Britain (Image: David Lloyd/CC BY-SA/Public domain)

The reason we can even understand this linguistic relationship is because of the inscriptions. Some Pictish inscriptions use the Latin alphabet, but other inscriptions use a different script called Ogham. Ogham probably comes from Ireland, where it was fairly widespread from the 4th to the 6th centuries, but one also sees it in various parts of western Britain and Scotland. It’s a system of writing that uses a centerline as the base, and then lines come out from the centerline to form various letters. It’s something akin to an early medieval bar code. Irish ogham typically uses the edge of a standing stone as the centerline, whereas Pictish ogham often has a line cut into the face of the stone.

Most of these stones serve as memorial markers of some kind. We have mostly personal names: x son of y, etc. But these inscriptions have provided enough evidence to help settle the language question in favor of Pictish being a p-Celtic language, very similar to British.

Learn more about who the Celts are.

There is one more mystery about the Picts that we really don’t have an answer to. And it is the meanings hidden behind the Pictish picture stones. These stones feature repeating motifs that are common to the whole area of Pictish inscriptions. They seem to belong to some kind of standardized pictorial vocabulary or formulary, but nobody knows what they represent.

Modern scholars have given these symbols names, such as the double-disc and the z-rod, but we don’t really understand what they represent. The most remarkable one of these symbols is the ‘Pictish beast.’ It doesn’t seem to represent any known animal. It looks a little like a seahorse or perhaps even a dolphin. Some people have even proposed that it depicts the Loch Ness monster. Scholars are working on these images even as we speak, so sooner or later we shall have some answers.

Image of Pictish Beast.
Maiden stone in the sunshine, showing comb, mirror, Pictish beasts, and Z-rod markings. (Image: Dr. Kacie Crisp/Shutterstock)

For now, though, we can say that, with the exception of the Pictish beast, the Picts are not quite as mysterious as we used to think. They grew out of the same political and cultural developments as we see in the rest of Britain. They are not some strange remnants of a pre-Celtic past. They are as much Celts as anybody else in Britain. Furthermore, they were speaking a Celtic language even though nobody was calling them ‘Celts’ at the time.

After the fall of Rome, several Pictish kingdoms emerged, primarily, in northern and eastern Scotland. By the 7th century, the most powerful Pictish kingdom, the kingdom of Fortriu in northeastern Scotland had started exercising a coherent hegemony over the smaller Pictish territories.

The major takeaway perhaps from this exploration of northern Britain is that this later kingdom of Scotland was the most diverse of all Celtic regions. And this mixture of British, Pictish, Irish and English elements will soon become even more multi-ethnic with the advent of the Viking age.

Common Questions About Pictish Language and Symbols

Q: What language was spoken by the Picts?

The language that Picts spoke was an insular Celtic language related to the Celtic languages such as Irish, Scottish, Gaelic, and Manx.

Q: Are Picts and Celts the same?

The Picts and Celts were the same since the Picts were a tribal confederation of Celtic peoples living in ancient eastern and northern Scotland. But the Picts were only called so because of Romans who called them the painted ones.

Q: What did the Picts paint themselves with?

Picts Painted themselves with woad was claimed by Julius Caesar himself. He had recorded that Picts dyed themselves with woad to produce a blue color, which made their appearance more dangerous in battle.

Q: Where did the Picts come from originally?

The Picts came from a confederation of Celtic-speaking people. Picts lived in ancient eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

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