Literary Yard

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McSanskrit: The origins of Scottish language   

By: James Aitchison

The debate rages in scholarly circles: what language did the ancient inhabitants of Scotland speak?  Did the Picts possess a lost language, was it an Indo-European dialect, or was it simply Celtic?

Our first clues can be found in the Pictish nation itself.  

The Picts inhabited northern Scotland from the first millennium BC until the ninth century AD.  Their precise homeland in Europe remains contentious.  Some historians believe they were Scythians, a nomadic Eastern Iranian people who migrated from Central Asia and occupied the Eurasian Steppe, north of the Black Sea, in the region of Crimea and Anatolia.  Other experts argue for Spanish origins; the Picts were a short, dark-haired race of Iberian appearance.  Spiral-patterned grooves carved into rocks and boulders of northern Scotland can also be found in Spain and France.  Burial chambers in Orkney suggest a link to Iberian origins too.

At which point, a third hypothesis arises: the Picts were of Romani descent.  The Romani are a nomadic group whose origins are in northern India.  Like the Picts, the Romani share Pictish physical characteristics and practice tattoo art.

The next question: what languages were being spoken in the early millennia BC?  

Proto-Indo-European is the common ancestor of the Indo-European language family.  The spread of Indo-European languages began from around 8,100 years ago, from a homeland immediately south of the Caucasus in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia.  Five main branches emerged 7,000 years ago.  As people diverged through migrations, so their language underwent shifts.  Over many centuries, these dialects transformed into the known ancient Indo-European languages, and from there further divergence led to the evolution of the modern Indo-European languages.  (Today, 46% of the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, French and German.  Written forms of Indo-European language first appeared in the Bronze Age.)  

Given that the Picts arguably originated from the Eurasian Steppe and Iran, could they have spoken one of the earliest forerunners of classical Sanskrit?  If so, you would have to look back past its immediate ancestor — the language of the Vedas (Vedic Sanskrit) — and even back before that to the earlier Indo-Iranian tongue before it split into Avestan (in Persia) and Vedic (in India).   A long period before that, maybe thousands of years, the common language or collection of loosely related mutually intelligible tribal dialects was Proto-Indo-Iranian.  Another long age before that, Proto-Indo-European was spoken, spawning ancient Greek and Lithuanian.  Pockets of even older Proto-Indo-European ancestries (and languages) doubtless existed.  Basque, for one, could well have a direct connection with languages of the Caucasus.  A new study of Basque DNA points to them being descendants of Neolithic farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming genetically isolated from the rest of Europe for millennia.  Their language remains pre-Indo-European to this day.  Given the Iberian hypothesis of the Picts’ origin, could the enigmatic Picts have spoken an early form of Basque?   

Some historians, however, won’t have a word of it!  They believe the Picts were Celts and spoke Celtic.  Certainly the Celts were Indo-European people from Europe and Anatolia.  Their numbers included Gauls, Brittons, Gaels and Galatians.  (The Greeks coined the word “Keltoi” for them.)  

Yet, evidence strongly points to the Picts being a fiercely independent nation with their own language.  Picts came to Britain at the beginning of the first millennium BC, while Celts arrived only from the seventh century.  Such a substantial gap in time points to the fact that the Picts were not a Celtic nation.  And while Picts were short and dark-haired, the Celts were famous for their blonde or red hair, blue or greenish eyes, and tall statures.  They followed a religion presided over by druids.  Pictish Ogham inscriptions remain indecipherable, but reliably suggest a non-Indo-European idiom.  Certainly they do not appear Germanic or Celtic in origin.

When the Romans invaded Britain in the first century AD, they perceived a distinct difference between Picts and Celts.  Roman authors coined the name “Pictus”, from the Latin verb pingere, meaning painted.  Picts were often painted or tattooed, faces, hands, and even complete bodies.  Sadly, we have no idea what the Picts called themselves.

When the Romans left Britain, Celts, Angles, Saxons and Vikings invaded.  In the early medieval period, a Celtic king massacred all the Pictish nobles, and took control of Pictish lands.  Within a few generations, Pictish language and culture had been obliterated, subsumed into Celtic.  

A recent genomics study provided an insight into genetic affinity between ancient and modern populations of the British Isles.  High-quality genomes of two individuals buried in Scotland in the Pictish period reveal a close genetic affinity to Iron Age populations in Britain, but with some genetic differentiation between samples.  The findings also challenge the older hypothesis that Pictish succession was based on a matrilineal system.  The “Pictish problem”, as one authority dubbed it, is yet to be solved.  

And it continues to tantalise us.  A recently discovered DNA marker (labelled R1b-S530) suggests that 10% of Scottish men are directly descended from the Picts.

So what language did the Picts speak?  The Picts and Caledonians in Scotland’s remote north were arguably linguistically different.  Even the word “Caledonian” has Indo-European but not Celtic roots.  And because the Pictish people had arrived in Scotland centuries before the Celts, it seems reasonable to assume their language was both non-Celtic and pre-Celtic.  The question remains, was their language derived from ancient Sanskrit?


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