Pictish written language discovered in Scotland

grantown01A new language dating back to the Scottish Iron Age has been identified on carved stones.

These inscriptions are believed to belong to the early Pict society living from ca 300 to 843 AD, in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland. The Picts, meaning “the Painted Ones”, were named by the Roman Eumenius in 297 AD and are renowned for having repeatedly repelled invasions from both Romans and Angles, creating a clear North-South division of the British Isles.

Celtic tribes around Ireland, Wales and Scotland are known for their use of stylised stones as signs of ownership and to indicate their names. In the past, some two dozen Pictish Ogham inscriptions had been found in the north and north-west of Scotland. Oghams, also called Primitive Irish, compose an Early Medieval lexigraphic alphabet and the earliest inscriptions discovered date back to the 4th century AD.

The new written language discovered in Scotland differ however very much from the Ogham inscriptions as the study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, led by Rob Lee, Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman reveals.

Indeed, in order to identify the languages, the three professors applied a mathematical method called Shannon Entropy. This process studies the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of the different engravings. The results have then been compared to English prose fictions, Chinese prose and poetry, Egyptian monumental texts, Mycenaen lists, king and genealogical list, English texts transposed in morse code and Sematogram heraldic. This calculation also included Irish, Welsh, Norse, Turkish, Basque, Finnish, Korean as well as ancient inscriptions from the British Isles (Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish and Old Welsh).

Even though the study reveals that the Pictish symbols discovered are part of a lexigraphic writing (containing symbols that represent parts of speech), the researchers came to the conclusion that the stones would also present semasiographic symbols (that do not represent speech). Thus, the stone called Hilton of Cadboll features pictures of riders and horn blowers next to hunting dogs.

The team conducting the study however did not possess enough information to achieve a decipherment. As they say: “In order to answer the question of whether the symbols are words or syllables, and thus define a system from which a decipherment can be initiated, a complete visual catalogue of the stones and the symbols will need to be created and the effect of widening the symbol set investigated”.

In the future, more research will probably derive from the existing findings leading to a complete decipherment of this Iron Age language.

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32 Responses to Pictish written language discovered in Scotland

  1. Dave says:

    impressively intricate for a language

  2. VapRhap says:

    So. Cool.

  3. Connor says:

    Picts are fascinating. I wish we knew more of them – but this is a good development!

  4. Aled says:

    Is this a new language – as claimed in the headline – or a new writing system (as the article seems to suggest: “lexigraphic writing system”)?

    Given that the team “did not possess enough information to achieve a decipherment” and cannot say whether the symbols are words or syllables, it seems that claiming either (language/writing system) may be too much.

    The article seems confused on other related issues also, suggesting that Ogham is a language (it is not a language but an alphabet). That Ogham was most often used to write early Irish does not change the fact that it is no more a language than the Latin alphabet (used to write English, Welsh, French, German, etc., etc.).

    • TermCoord says:

      Dear Aled,

      Thank you very much for your input.

      According to the researchers, the inscriptions found on the Pictish stones could be the written version of a spoken language. Rob Lee, who conducted the study with Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman, gave an interview to Discovery News in which he stated “We know that the Picts had a spoken language to complement the writing of the symbols, as Bede (a monk and historian who died in 735) writes that there are four languages in Britain in this time: British, Pictish, Scottish and English”.
      They have not been able to confirm their theory, due to the lack of information and material but still believe that the stones could be the written form of the Pictish language.

      As for the Oghams, you are right. Ogham is not a language but an alphabet. We are very sorry for the confusion and correct this mistake straight away. Thank you very much again and do not hesitate to bring more input for future posts.

      The TermCoord Team

  5. MKB says:

    Hrm. Are we going to have to use a different word now for pictograms not located in Scotland? ;-)

  6. Cindy Fleming says:

    Can’t wait for more information.

  7. Sylvia Herbert says:

    It’s a picture of a reindeer!

  8. Lea says:

    I need something dating eariler than that.

  9. KJourneay says:

    Hey so this article is awesome, but more importantly to me… where did the image come from? This is not an image of the Hilton of Cadboll stone. What is it? I have never seen this particular carving before.

    • TermCoord says:

      Hello! The stone pictured in this article is called the ‘Grantown’ stone. It is a class I stone; The Pictish Symbol Stones were divided into two classes for the purpose of the study. The Class I stones consist of “undressed stones with the symbols inscribed onto the rock”. On the other hand, the Class II stones “contain the depiction of a cross, use dressed stones and relief carving for the symbols and may have other, often Christian, imagery”. Nowadays, between 180 and 195 Class I stones have been discovered.

      The TermCoord Team

  10. Johnny Ellis says:

    To see and touch them is to know that they are much more than a pretty picture. Thank you for this glimpse of what is to be discovered.

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  12. Rob Fleming says:

    Very interesting, our Fleming crest is of a Stag bust. Pioneered into Rhodesia with Cecil Rhodes.

  13. The Grantown stone was found in a sandstone hillock known as Freuchie (the heathery hill) near to the present day Castle Grant near Grantown-on-Spey

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  15. Darren says:

    Do you think the Picts weren’t called the Picts but rather they belonged to a select band of a named tribe,lost to history rather than .what A roman emperor called them by looking at their appearance ?

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  17. ron hagg says:

    very cool Again, thanks for sharing.

  18. Interesting post, but there has been criticism of this paper and its conclusions. See for example http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2227 What this however may point to is that the combinations of symbols have meaning but this may not be language per se, but could be some other form of information. My own ideas are set out in my blog http://lastofthedruids.com/

    • TermCoord says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. It is very interesting to see both sides of the argument. As no answer as to what the symbols represent has been found, we can only hope that further research will be conducted on the subject. Thank you as well for mentioning your blog hosting very interesting posts and showing a thorough research.

      Have a good day

      The TermCoord Team

  19. Tom E. Lehman says:

    “Picts” called themselves “Cruithne”, (Khroo-eeth-neh). It is now believed they were originally from the edge of Continental Europe (ie. Belgium), and comprise either another branch of Keltic languages (Kelt but not Gaul/Gael), OR, a branch of Indo-European related-to, but DISTINCT FROM (Proto-)Celto-Italic. Certainly, later Gaels (entered N Ireland/Scotland ~200 BC) considered Cruithne as distant relatives; the language, though clearly recorded as different, was not beyond Gael comprehension; the two groups not only fought against and along-side each other, but intermarried often!

    • TermCoord says:

      Dear Tom,

      Thank you very much for your very interesting input on the subject. We really appreciate ypur interest in the post.

      Have a good day!

      The TermCoord Team

  20. Ronald Henderson. says:

    I welcome any addition at all to the general research into the Pictish Language and ‘Shannon Entropy’ could fall into that research, but there appears to me to be rather a lot of ‘special pleading’ here.
    I would recommend some further reading: Decoding the Pictish Symbols by W.A.Cummins. The Language of the Ogam Inscriptions of Scotland by Richard Cox. The Lost Language of the Picts by W.A. Cummins.
    Perhaps the whole problem is being looked at in the wrong way. I’m sorry, but I doubt that mathematics will find the solution.
    The solution may be much more prosaic. Has anyone ever done any proper research into the origins of may of the words in the Scots language? My Scots Dictionary is packed with words that are classed as having an etymology ‘unknown’ or at best ‘obscure’.
    Perhaps if a little more research was done into the etymology of these ancient Scots words that appear to have mysteriously arrived on the scene we may discover that many of the words we use in our everyday speech in Scotland may be actual Pictish ‘fossils’.
    Therein may lie the link.

    • E says:

      Thanks Ronald for beating me to the further reading recommendations there. Cummins also has some others in his bibliography that I don’t recall offhand. I’ve only read only of Cummins books cover to cover, so I can’t speak to all of them. Of the one I read, I found Cummins’ logic to be a bit of a stretch at times in some of the particulars, but the theory that the reason the Pictish symbols so often appear in pairs is because they are following the “X son of Y” form so common in other insular inscriptions at the time (with the “son of” part implied by symbol order) makes more sense to me than most other theories I’ve seen presented.

      Katherine Forsyth also has a number of relevant articles about the Pictish language such as “Language in Pictland: spoken and written,” ” Language in Pictland : the case against ‘non-Indo-European Pictish” and ” “Pictish Language and Documents.” Anyone interested in the Pictish language would do well to chase down all her articles on the subject.

      I know some dictionaries will actually identify a handful of words as Pictish in origin; I don’t know how much scholarship vs assumptions goes into those claims. I also know we have a handful of Pictish words from comparing versions of the Pictish king lists – some lists were translated more thoroughly than others. So, for instance, we have someone who is given the byname (in Irish) “the Rich” in one manuscript and “Diuberr” in another…so, there is a strong argument that “diuberr” means “rich” in the Pictish language. We get some other probable Pictish words from Pictish placenames that continued in use.

      As for the study described, it sounds to me oddly simplistic. We can tell by looking over the stones that the symbols are symbols, distinct from the more decorative pictures or interlace designs. So all this math has just added a bit of confirmation to what we already knew–the symbols mean…something… I think the most exciting line is “In order to answer the question of whether the symbols are words or syllables, and thus define a system from which a decipherment can be initiated, a complete visual catalogue of the stones and the symbols will need to be created and the effect of widening the symbol set investigated.” A complete visual catalogue of the stones would be VERY exciting for research into all aspects of study related to them. In fact, I would hope for such a visual database to include the non-symbol carvings as well as the carved scenes are fascinating for what they reveal about Pictish society and material culture. http://www.mathstat.strath.ac.uk/outreach/pictish/database.php has an excellent beginning to such a calalogue, but it is still a work in progress. Seeing more funding go their way to speed that project along would be excellent.

      • TermCoord says:

        Thank you very much for your comment and the resources you provided.

        We hope to see further developments in the field.

        The TermCoord Team

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