Cumbric: An Introduction
Cumbric is the name given by linguists to a relatively little known
language spoken in parts of southern Scotland and northern England
during the Middle Ages. It forms part of the Brythonic Celtic
group of Indo-European languages and was closely related to Welsh,
Cornish, Breton and Pictish.
Origins of the Term
The word Cumbric is a modern (English) linguistic term,
equivalent to the Welsh Cymraeg 'Welsh language' but taking
influence from the Old Irish Combrec 'any British language' and
the name Cumbria, which was originally a much wider region than
the modern English county.
Cumbric is not a language as we usually understand the term: Cumbric
does not exist in its own right, with a distinct lexicon and grammar.
Instead, Cumbric is a term used to describe the historical evidence of a
Brythonic tongue from a particular area of Great Britain. Whilst
we can say that this word or sentence is English because it has a
collection of features which are unique to English (vocabulary,
pronunciation, syntax etc), the only way to define something as Cumbric
is to say that it is a Brythonic feature which originates in a
particular area at a particular time in history. To understand
Cumbric we must first define the region and the period in which it
occurred; only then can we investigate whether this academic term really
applied to a language, understood as such by its speakers.
The Cumbric Region
There is little consensus regarding the extent of the area in which
Cumbric was spoken, with different authorities defining the term in
different ways. The problem here is that Brythonic dialects were
once spoken across most, if not all, of Britain and did not simply
vanish with the appearance of the English and Gaels in the 5th and 6th
centuries. Cumbric was still developing at the same time as it was
It can hardly be doubted that the areas roughly covered by the old
kingdoms of Strathclyde and Rheged should form the core of the Cumbric
region; that is, the south west of Scotland, excluding Galloway, and the
north of modern Cumbria. It is in these areas that the British
identity appears to have lasted longest. But beyond that core, the
extent of a Cumbric region has been treated differently by different
Jackson (1953) set a trend by placing the southern boundary of
the area at the River Ribble in Lancashire, probably because that was
the border of the Anglian kingdom of Merica in the 7th century, whilst some, such as Koch, include evidence from as far south as Cheshire in
their discussions of Cumbric.
There is a funadmental problem with trying to define the Cumbric
region according to specific boundaries, namely that language does not
conform to lines on a map. Even in modern states with their
carefully drawn borders, languages merge into one another rather than
simply stopping at passport control. Furthermore, the power
relationships in early medieval Britain were not usually defined by
physical borders with kings or lords exerting equal power over an entire
area. Instead, control tended to be focussed near estate centres,
with those in more distant parts having more autonomy.
Instead of simply defining a Cumbric region, this website has defined
several zones based on the political history of the area and its
topography, as shown on the map below. Zone I
covers the early kingdoms of Rheged and Strathclyde and is the Cumbric
heartland, in which the majority of the Cumbric evidence is found.
This area is divided topographically into two smaller zones: the
watershed of the Solway Firth plus Galloway, and Strathclyde plus
Ayrshire. The former of these was brought under Anglian control in
the 7th century but continued speak Cumbric. Zone II
covers the Lothians, which contain a significant number of Brythonic
place names, suggesting some continuation of the Cumbric after the
Anglian advance around AD 600. Zone III is
divided into two sections. The first covers south Cumbria and
Lancashire north of the Ribble; an area which seems to have remained
distant from Anglian control at York. The second section covers the
heartlands of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia: the valley of the River
Tweed and adjacent coastal corridor, which includes the royal centres of
Bamburgh and Yeavering and the monasteries of Lindisfarne and Melrose;
and the valley of the Tyne in which were located the monasteries of
Hexham, Jarrow and nearby Monkwearmouth.
It was once thought that the Celtic languages were brought to Britain
from central Europe in the Iron Age (from 500bc)
by a people called the Celts as part of a cultural package which
included certain types of art and the knowledge of ironwork. It
now seems more likely that the Celtic people originated in southern
France and that their language came north either through Gaul into the
east of Great Britain or via sea trade along the Atlantic seaboard into
Ireland and western Britain. When this occurred is not known, but
it must have been sufficiently early to allow the languages of Britain
and Ireland time to diverge considerably.
During the Roman Occupation of Britain, the language of (most of) its
inhabitants was British. Roman Age Britain was divided into three
areas. The south of England and the Midlands became highly
Romanised and was ruled as an integrated part of the Empire according to
Roman systems of government. In these areas it is believed that
Vulgar Latin was widely spoken, especially in the cities and towns.
In northern England and Wales the Roman hold was less absolute - this
was a militarised zone but it was ruled by local people who agreed to
work alongside their occupiers in return for relative freedom and
stability. Beyond Hadrian's wall the people were technically
outside the Roman Empire for most of the occupation but nevertheless
seem to have been influenced by Rome and probably traded with those to
the south. It was perhaps only those who lived north of the
Forth-Clyde isthmus who largely escaped the Romanisation of Britain.
Latin certainly influenced British and all the modern Brythonic
languages have numerous early Latin loans, such as pons 'bridge' (gs.
pont, C. pons) and cāseus
'cheese' (W. caws, C. keus, B. keuz).
One of the major legacies of the Roman period was the introduction of
Christianity, which appears to have survived in north and western
Britain whilst the east fell back to paganism. This legacy
survives in words like ecclēsia
'church' (W. eglwys, C. eglos, B. iliz) and
monachus 'monk' (W. mynach, C.
managh, B. manac'h). St Patrick and St Ninian,
founder of the original house at Whithorn, were both Romano-Britons
from, or at least active in, the Cumbric region.
The exact political situation in northern Britain in the centuries
following the end of Roman Britain (c. ad 400)
is still poorly understood, but it seems that a period of continuity
gradually gave way to the development of small kingdoms, such as
Strathclyde, Rheged, Bryneich and Gododdin. At the same time, the
language was undergoing massive changes as the old system of
inflectional endings was lost and British became a syntactic language.
This was the period at which the bards Aneirin and Taliesin were active
and their inspiration was the stuggle for power between the Britons of the
north and the invading Angles who had established kingdoms called
Bernicia (based at Bamburgh, Northumberland) and Deira (based at York).
By the seventh century, the dialects of the north, Wales, Cornwall
and Brittany had taken on the shape of separate languages, though quite
how different they were is a matter of some debate. The written
languages of Old Welsh, Old Cornish and Old Breton are so similar that
they are barely distinguishable but it is probably true that they
represent a more conservative register than the everyday speech of
people, one which was based on centuries-old practices of writing
British Latin. Parallels for this kind of divergence between
writing and speech are not hard to find: it occurred between Classical
and Vulgar Latin and again between Vulgar Latin and the medieval Romance
languages; it is occurring today between Standard Written Welsh and the
spoken dialects of north and south Wales; and Scottish Gaelic and Irish
were written as one language up to the 18th century, though they were
divergent five centuries earlier.
The picture of the next few centuries for Cumbric is somewhat blurry
as the overlap between policital and linguistic history is hard to
define. By the end of the seventh century the English had
political control over the Lothians, the Solway region and the whole of
South Cumbria and Lancashire. How quickly these areas became
English in terms of language and identity is hard to say. Based on
place name evidence, it would seem that most of the area south of the
Lakeland massif was heavily anglicised, though the later influx of Norse
settlers (from the 10th century) may have obscured the evidence of
British speakers who survived in the less accessible parts of the
region. It is worth noting that in the late 7th century, St Cuthbert was
said to have been granted the land of Cartmel 'with all the Britons
thereabouts'. Though the source of this information is relatively late
(11th century), it suggests that the British remained a visible presence
in that area.
Further north in the Eden Valley and Solway Plain of Cumbria, and in
Strathclyde, the evidence suggests that Cumbric may have remained for
longer. Even under English control, it has been argued that the
people of today's north Cumbria continued to have a degree of autonomy
and that Cumbric continued to be spoken for a century or so after the
The kingdom of Strathclyde, after suffering invasion by the Norse
Vikings and attempts at domination by the Gaelic Scots, finally fell to
the kingdom of Scotland in the first half of the 11th century and became
fully integrated into Scotland with the ascension of David I in 1124.
It was David who codified the Leges inter Brettos et Scottos
'Laws between the Britons and Scots', which shows that the Cumbrians
still had a distinct identity at this time and this may have been partly
based on language.
If Cumbric was still spoken up to this point (which is far from
certain), there is almost no knowing how much longer it survived.
By the 11th and 12th centuries Cumbric found itself squeezed between
Gaelic, English, Norse and French speakers. The elites of Cumbria
must already have been bi- or tri-lingual in order to communicate with
their English and Gaelic overlords and with the arrival of Norman French
as a language of power in the late 11th century, Cumbric may well have
been forsaken as the least practical language to retain. If the
lower orders did not already speak English or Gaelic they may well have
found it expedient to learn in order to communicate with their superiors
and Cumbric could easily have been lost within a generation or two.
Beyond the 12th century there are only a handful of personal names to
suggest a continued Cumbrian identity and that is in no way proof of the
survival of the language. Indeed, we might well expect names to
continue for longer, not only because they are often handed down through
families, but because they are easily applied and conspicuous indicators
of identity with no real pragmatic implications. But the Cumbrian
identity itself was about to be forgotten as territorial wars between
Scotland and England heated up and the former began to carve for itself
a new identity as a unified nation.
Evidence for Cumbric is scant and almost entirely secondary, coming
down to us through a mixture of other languages.
The major source of evidence for Cumbric comes from place
names, which can be found across the region from large towns
and cities (Glasgow, Carlisle, Penrith, Lanark) to small villages
(Cumrew, Tranent, Blenket) and geographical features (Clyde, Derwent,
Devoke, Blencathra). The variety of place names are invaluable for
giving us an insight into Cumbric vocabulary and even grammar.
However, even with early records, place names usually come to us through
English, Latin or Welsh sources which can often distort the evidence.
Remnants of Cumbric in the dialects of the region
are scarce but not entirely absent and can provide some support to other
sources of evidence. Most notable among the dialectal offerings
are the so-called sheep-counting numerals,
sets of numbers from 1-10 or 20 which occur in various guises across the
region and are believed to derive from Brythonic.
There are no known texts written in Cumbric, either
whole or fragmentary. The three apparently Cumbric words
mercheta (cf. W. merch 'daughter), galnys (cf. W.
galanas 'murder') and kelchyn (cf. W. cylch
'cycle') occur in the 11th century Scottish text Leger inter Brettos
et Scottos. These are the nearest we come to direct records
of Cumbric, but the text itself is in Latin and it isn't clear whether
these are contemporary or archaic terms.
Frustratingly, some of the most ancient Welsh texts were probably
composed in Cumbric. Some of the works in the Book of Aneirin
and Book of Taliesin are set and were presumably composed
in Cumbria and Scotland for Cumbric-speaking patrons, but the works come
to us through 13th and 14th century Welsh manuscripts. Although
both books are believed to be based partly on older 9th and 10th century
sources it is impossible to know whether these were written in Cumbric
or Welsh. In any case, it is likely that there were three or four
centuries of oral transmission before the poems were ever written down,
during which time changes would have been made to suit local audiences.
The final source of evidence comes from personal names,
of which numerous examples survive. The names of Cumbrian royalty
were recorded in Gaelic, Welsh and English but are of limited use.
There are also a number of names with the initial Cumbric element
Gos- (e.g. Gospatric, Gosmungo, Goscuthbert), which is
cognate with W. gwas 'servant' and appears to be based on
Gaelic names in Maol and Gille.
Cumbric and Other Languages
Cumbric is part of the Brythonic branch of Celtic languages. which
itself is part of the large Indo-European family of languages. It
is closely related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton and may also have
connections with Pictish.
The Celtic family of Indo-European languages may be divided in two
- P-Celtic vs Q-Celtic, which separates
the languages according to whether the Proto-Indo-European
appears as p or c (often written qu in
old scripts), as in the word kʷennom 'head'.
According to this method, the Brythonic languages are grouped with
Gaulish (cf. W. pen, CB. penn, Gaul. penno-),
whilst the Goidelic languages are seen as a separate, older group
(cf. I. ceann).
- Insular vs Continental Celtic, in which the
languages of the British Isles (Brythonic and Goidelic) are viewed
as one branch, whilst all the other languages are grouped together
These divisions are based on differences and likenesses between the
various Celtic languages. In the past, the favoured view was the
P- & Q-Celtic division which placed Brythonic as the offspring or sister
of Gaulish, but today a greater concensus is in favour of the
Insular/Continental division, which sees the Brythonic and Goidelic
languages as more closely related.
The nature of Pictish, the language spoken in northern Scotland up to
the later Middle Ages, is not well understood and its place in the
scheme of Celtic languages is debatable. Bede (7th - 8th C)
considered Pictish to be a separate language to British and it was a
long held view (Jackson, 1955) that Pictish was not a Celtic, or even
Indo-European, language but a remnant of a much more ancient and lost
tongue with some later influences from Gaelic and Brythonic. More
recently, however, it has been argued by Forsyth (1997) that Pictish
was a Brythonic Celtic language and that it merely reflects "the
most northerly reflex of Brittonic", but one which was influenced by an
The Descent of Cumbric
- Insular Celtic
- Scottish Gaelic
- Pictish ?
- Continental Celtic
The idea of 'reviving' the Cumbic language is moot. The modern
Manx and Cornish languages have been successfully revived thanks to
their respective bodies of literature and the fact that revival began
soon after the languages died out. But Cumbric has no extant
literature - not even a single sentence - and it has been so long dead
that even its bones are crumbling in the dust.
There is also a cultural element to bear in mind. Both Cornwall
and Mann continue to have distinct identities, which are not merely the
work of nationalists and romantics. It is immediately obvious to
any visitor to these regions that their place names are different to
other parts of the UK - the many pens and tres in
Cornwall, and the many cronks and ballas in
Mann. The historical area of Cumbria has no such common identity,
having been influenced to varying degrees by English, Norse and Gaelic
speakers and having been divided between the states of England and
Scotland. The modern dialects of Cumbria and Scots language owe
little to Cumbric, and we would be hard-pressed to find any genuine
vestiges of a Celtic Cumbrian heritage surviving into the post-medieval
All this may seem very pessimistic, but it serves no one with a
genuine interest in history or language to be too romantic about the
past. Of course, the Cumbrian element to the region's history is
important and often overlooked but to over-emphasise it would be to deny
the important contributions other cultures have made to the various
identities of the area.
The Cumbric language is a fascinating and tantalising part of the
region's heritage, and one which bridges the divide between Scotland and
England with a common history. It is something which deserves
attention and proper study, and it deserves to be understood on its own
terms without the heavy baggage of nationalism and invented history
which so often burdens anything associated with the word Celtic.