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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 disappearing.

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 authorities.

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.

History

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. pontis: WB. 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 Norman Conquest. 

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

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 ways: 

  • P-Celtic vs Q-Celtic, which separates the languages according to whether the Proto-Indo-European phoneme kʷ 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 in another.

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 earlier language.

The Descent of Cumbric

  • Indo-European
    • Celtic
      • Insular Celtic
        • Goidelic
          • Irish
          • Manx
          • Scottish Gaelic
        • Brythonic
          • Welsh
          • Cornish
          • Breton
          • Cumbric
          • Pictish ?
      • Continental Celtic
        • Gaulish
        • Celtiberian
        • Lepontic
        • Noric
        • Galatian
        • Lusitanian

Revival

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 period. 

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. 

 
    © Neil Whalley 2008-2013