As discussed earlier, the loss of all original documents written by the Picts in their own language, or perhaps more accurately languages, means we have no clear idea of what language(s) the Picts actually spoke. The King Lists are of almost no help at all, as they appear to have been written in various forms of phonetics by Irish scribes attempting to use the Latin and Gaelic alphabets to convey the sounds of Pictish names as they were being transmitted to them orally by persons unknown to us. The best that linguists have come up with is that there were probably two languages spoken by the Picts; one in the North and the other in the South.
This conclusion was reached by study of the place names in those areas known to have been inhabited by the Picts, and by statements made by contemporary and medieval writers who recognised the existence of autogenous Pictish speech. For example, St. Columba’s biographer Adamnan noted that the Saint was forced to use the services of an interpreter on two separate occasions. Once, while on the Isle of Skye in the North-West of Scotland when he baptised a “decrepit old man, the chief of the Geona cohort,” (Book 1 Ch.xxvii), and again, this time in an unspecified area of Pictland, when through prayer he brought a child back to life. Prior to this the whole family had been baptised (Book 2 Ch.xxxiii).
It is not our purpose here to discuss whether or not Columba really brought the child back to life. We were not there to witness what actually happened and so are unable to pass comment. The point is that all of the conversations with “the husband, together with his wife, children, and the domestics” (this was obviously a family of some substance) could only take place with the aid of an interpreter. St. Columba doesn’t appear to have required a translator’s help however, during the course of his visit(s) to King Brude’s fort and his dialogues with various people there, so plainly there were at least two languages being used in Pictland in the sixth century.
In consequence, it has been widely accepted that the language spoken in the South of Pictland was a form of P-Celtic, rather similar to that spoken by the Britons of Strathclyde or the early Welsh, and that the language spoken in the North, (though this view has somewhat fallen out of favour in recent years), may have been an aboriginal non-Indo-European speech; possibly akin to Basque. Curiously, as regards the Basque theory at any rate, extensive D.N.A. research, carried out during 2004 by a team from Trinity College, Dublin, shows striking genetic affinities between the Scots, Irish and Welsh and the people of N.W. Spain; in particular the Basque Region and Galicia. The study was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics in an article entitled; ‘The Longue Durée’.
As a subject for investigation it could probably best be described as akin to looking for a black cat in a windowless coal cellar, yet occasionally a glimmer of light flickers in the Stygian blackness that is Pictish language study. One such is the word ‘cartait’ that was recorded by the bishop of Cashel c.900A.D. as being a Pictish expression, (“berla Cruithneach”), meaning a thorn or a pin. This word is neither Gaelic nor Welsh, yet how alike ‘cartait’ is to the Latin word ‘carduus’ and the Spanish word ‘cardo’, both meaning a thistle; that well known prickly thorny plant that has become such a well loved symbol of Scotland.
Yet another glimmer (though paler and even more obscure) may be found in the word ‘Peever’, the flat stone or similar object that is used as a puck in the well known children’s hopping and skipping game called ‘Beds’ in Scotland, but ‘Hop-scotch’ everywhere else. The word Peever is often applied to the actual game itself. There is no known original source for this word. It certainly isn’t English and its origins appear to be quite a mystery.
If we take a look at Gaelic however, we find an obsolete mid-Perthshire Gaelic word ‘Piobhair’ (bh in Gaelic sounds like the letter V.), meaning a sieve or a honeycomb. The usual Gaelic word for a honeycomb is ‘cir-mheala’. Now, if we examine the game of Hop-scotch, we find that the pattern of squares and spaces chalked or scratched on the ground for playing the game resembles in many ways a sieve or honeycomb, and a little diligent research tells us that the Latin word for a honeycomb is ‘Favus’.
Is it really beyond a stretch of the imagination to see a link between Peever, Piobhair and Favus? Perhaps Gaels simply borrowed the word Favus from Latin and hardened the F to a P, but Perthshire was at the very heart of Pictland, and Piobhair, for a honeycomb, seems to have been used solely by Gaelic speakers in Mid-Perthshire. Could it be like ‘cartait’ and ‘carduus’ mentioned above? Nobody is saying that the Picts spoke Latin, but isn’t there a chance that they may have spoken a previously unlooked-for branch of Indo-European? Language links are often found existing as ‘fossils’ in quite unexpected ways. The author accepts that those discussed above may be tenuous to say the least, but they could be the sort of clues that we are seeking. Might the name ‘Beds’ derive from the Pictish word Pett or Pit, believed to signify a division? The game is based on numbered divisions. Might the ‘scotch’ in Hop-scotch derive from Old Norse ‘skyt’ or ‘skjota’, meaning to propel? The puck is propelled. Perhaps a nice thought we could also ponder is; did the Pictish and Norse children play Hop-scotch?
Frustrating as it is that we have no surviving documents written in Pictish, we do have something rather more enduring than parchment, and that is the evidence provided by the Ogam inscriptions, carved onto a number of stone monuments, presumably by the Picts themselves.
Ogam is a method of representing alphabetical characters by cutting grooves or strokes into wood or more generally stone; either along one edge of the stone or across one face with the strokes incised along a straight baseline. Various groups and angles of stroke represent different letters of the alphabet. The difficulty is that, although we know what the individual letters are in the Ogam alphabet, it has proved quite impossible so far to translate the Pictish inscriptions into any form of recognisable language.
The complaint often heard from those struggling to translate Pictish Ogam, is that what we need is a Pictish ‘Rosetta Stone’. That is, a stone or manuscript, written in both Pictish and another language that we already know, with both languages giving the same message; in other words, a contiguous bi-lingual text.
The idea is, that by referring from one text to the other, as was done with the famous Egyptian Rosetta Stone, when the black basalt slab which now carries this name was discovered in the early 18th century and was found to bear information written in both Greek and the then unfathomable Egyptian hieroglyphs, we should hopefully be able to build up a Pictish vocabulary that we could then use to translate all the Ogam inscriptions, the meaning of which so frustratingly continues to elude us.
The fact is that a stone that is believed to carry a bi-lingual text hopefully proving it to be the miracle Pictish ‘Rosetta Stone’ everyone has been looking for, was found in 1803 in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire. It is known as the ‘Newton Stone’, as it lies about a mile south of Newton House, although previously to this it was called the ‘Pitmachie Stone’ due to its proximity to Pitmachie Farm. This stone, or perhaps more accurately, elongated boulder, is around two feet (610 m.m.) thick and six and a half feet (two metres) in height. The material is quartzite gneiss, which is a very hard, durable type of rock, and it is extremely difficult to carve.
The stone carries two inscriptions. Engraved down the left-hand side and turning up at the bottom to run across part of the face, is an inscription in Ogam; while across the top third of the stone is an engraving in a different form of text altogether. The lettering is curvilinear in its form and execution, and consists of six lines comprising 49 characters in total. It is usually assumed that both inscriptions bear the same message and information. The problem, and it’s a very big problem, is this; quite apart from the Ogam lettering on the stone, no one has been able to translate the curvilinear script either.
Among the various suggestions made for the origin of this language is that it may be one of the following: Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, Latin, Palmyrene, or Aryan-Phoenician. Many brave attempts at deciphering both of the languages on this stone have been made over the past 200 years and all of them have ended with inconclusive results. This caused one academic half a century ago to declare, (rather sniffily it might be added), that the inscription “may be, in any event, a nineteenth–century forgery”. Readers can rest assured that it is no such thing. The author of this book is a stone carver, well acquainted with stone in its many forms, and he knows ancient weather worn carving when he sees it. Indeed, it is his opinion, from close observation of the stone, that the curvilinear script is considerably older than the Ogam script, as shown by clear signs of more advanced weathering.
A relatively recent endeavour at a completely new translation of the inscriptions on the Newton Stone has been made, however, by Dr. Richard A.V. Cox whose book, “The Language of the Ogam Inscriptions of Scotland” (1999), provides an argument to show that, while carrying different messages and therefore not bi-lingual, both of the inscriptions may have been made using 11th.-12th century Norse. He believes that the curvilinear script is a type of Roman alphabet known as Insular Minuscule. Dr. Cox extends his conclusions to several more Ogam stones in Scotland, yet his findings seem to raise more questions than answers, and have, frankly, left linguists and archaeologists scratching their heads. If, as he believes, the language of the Ogam inscriptions was indeed Old Norse, then why was it not written using Norse runes, as one would expect, instead of Ogam script? In many ways the Runic alphabet is superior to that of Ogam, and if the time frame for their creation was c.11th century, how does that equate with the archaeologists’ opinions that the inscriptions were made between the 5th and 9th centuries?
A strong criticism of Dr. Cox’s ‘Norse theory’ has been made by Dr. W.A. Cummins in his book “The Lost Language of the Picts” (2001) where he says of Dr. Cox’s findings that “the uncertainties of the interpretation are obscured by a great deal of learned linguistic camouflage”. Dr. Cummins’ view is that the Picts spoke a form of Q-Celtic similar to Old Irish. Obviously more research is required before we can say for sure what language(s) the Picts spoke.
On the subject of Ogam itself, it is generally believed and stated that this script was invented in Ireland sometime in the 4th century by an erudite Irishman called Ogma, though the credit is sometimes given to a Gaulish God called Ogmios. Yet what is often overlooked is that ‘ogam’ is not an Irish word; it stems from an ancient Greek word ‘ogme’ meaning a groove. From it is derived the Greek word ‘ogmos’ meaning a straight line, specifically a straight ploughed furrow; it can also mean a row or a file, as in a line of people. Certainly the Greek words provide a pretty accurate description of this ancient script, but, if it were invented in the 4th century by the Irish, why would they use a Greek word to describe their own invention? The grooved base line for Ogam letters is not called an ogmos, it is called by a Gaelic word, ‘fleasg’, meaning a rod or wand, and the Gaelic word for a row or straight ploughed furrow is ‘scriob’. Surely either word would have served perfectly well instead of the Greek ogmos, itself derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Ag-m-as,’ which has an equivalent meaning.
Unpalatable as it may be for some, the evidence seems to show that Ogam was not invented in Ireland in the 4th century, but came originally from the Middle East, along with its distinctive name. Consider this:
The 12th century Irish ‘Auraicept na n-éces’ (the Scholars’ Primer), which is the work of several different hands, states in one section that Ogam was invented in Ireland. Yet it also states in another section, (Lines 1105 to 1106), that Gaelic and the Ogam script was invented in “the plain of Shinar” i.e. Sumer or Mesopotamia, and in another yet again, (line 251), in “Achaidh”, i.e. ‘Accad’, or ‘Akkad’, also in Sumer (Genesis ch.10 v.10.). It is widely acknowledged by scholars that this magnificent work is the principal authority on Ogam script, so why its conflicting claim for a Middle Eastern origin for Ogam should be generally ignored by so many academics is quite beyond this author.
According to Middle East historian L. A. Waddell, Ogamoid inscriptions have been found in Sumerian hieroglyphs dating from around 1000-1500 B.C. which show remarkable affinity with the Ogam alphabet used in inscriptions in Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
|‘I’ is written in Ogam by five parallel strokes perpendicular to the baseline. The Sumerian ‘I’ is represented by five perpendicular strokes.
‘E’ in Ogam comprises four perpendicular strokes crossing the baseline, and the Sumerian sign for the god EA is identical to this.
‘B’ in Ogam consists of a single perpendicular stroke, and the Sumerian ‘B’ is a single bolt sign or stroke.
‘S’ in Ogam is formed by four perpendicular strokes, exactly the same as the Sumerian representation.
In conclusion, these facts and the other similarities surely establish that Ogam is a much more archaic form of writing than is generally acknowledged. Its arrival on these shores could well have pre-dated the coming of Christianity by some considerable time.
As to why this clumsy form of lettering should have been used by the Picts for their inscriptions, (assuming that it was the Picts that made them), instead of the much more convenient and adaptable Latin or Runic alphabets is a mystery in itself, which may never be solved.
Could it be that they just liked to hang on to their age-old traditions? From what little we do know of our Pictish ancestors and their spirit of independence, we needn’t be surprised.