Cumbric language

Cumbric was the Brythonic Celtic language, often considered to be a dialect of Welsh, spoken in Northern England and southern Lowland Scotland, i.e. the area anciently referred to as the Hen Ogledd ("old north") and centred on Cumbria. Place name evidence suggests it may also have been spoken as far south as the Yorkshire Dales. Most linguists believe that it became extinct in the 11th century, after the incorporation of the semi-independent kingdom of Strathclyde into the kingdom of Scotland.

It is debatable whether Cumbric should be considered a separate language or a dialect of Welsh. The North Welsh speaking area was probably isolated from the Welsh speaking kingdoms of Wales after the Battle of Chester in 616, which appears to have sealed the Northumbrian conquest of Cheshire, dividing the Brythonic peoples into 3 areas (Modern Wales, Cornwall and Northwest England. The latter two later accepted the King of Wessex's dominance and dissolved into England. It is impossible for us to know how long Brythonic speech persisted in these conquered areas (although the Celtic place-name cluster around Wigan suggests there may have been pockets in which the language survived for a considerable time) or whether language innovations were transmitted between the North Welsh and the Welsh of Wales.

The scarcity of linguistic evidence means that Cumbric's distinctness from Welsh is more deduced than proven. However, Cornish and Welsh evolved into separate languages with low mutual intelligibility in the period between 597-1000, after being geographically separated by the fall of the Cotswold region at the Battle of Deorham. It is therefore highly probable that the final stages of Cumbric were very different from Welsh.

Equivalence with Old Welsh

Some linguists argue that the differences between Cumbric and Old Welsh are not enough to classify it as a language. Since, at some stages in its development and usage, it was probably mutually intelligible with Welsh, it is not certain whether and when exactly it should be classified as having existed as a separate language.

Linguistic evidence

Although the language is long extinct it is arguable that traces of its vocabulary persisted into the modern era. In the 19th and 20th centuries sheep counts and children's counting rhymes which are possibly derived from Cumbric were collected throughout northern England and southern Scotland: eg Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp compared to Old Welsh Un, Dou, Tri, Petwar, Pimp. Whether these counting systems bear any relation to the Brythonic dialects spoken in the region is a matter of some debate. It has been argued that these numerals were introduced to England by Welsh shepherds or monks during the medieval period. The fact that some have also been collected outside of the region in which Cumbric was spoken may indicate that they were a later introduction from Wales, or less probably that they are part of a wider Celtic sub-stratum. It is also possible that the counting systems were preserved in the Cumbric speaking region then exported into neighbouring areas.

More concrete evidence of Cumbric exists in the place-names of the extreme northwest of England and the South of Scotland, the personal names of Strathclyde Britons in Scottish, Irish and Anglo-Saxon sources, and a few Cumbric words surviving into the High Middle Ages in South West Scotland as legal terms.

From this scanty evidence, little can be deduced about the singular characteristics of Cumbric, not even the name its speakers used to refer to it. What is known is that the language was Brythonic Insular Celtic, descended from Old North Welsh, related to the presumed Brythonic Pictish language, and to Cornish and Breton. Due to its location, it is likely that Goidelic and Scandinavian loan-words were incorporated into the language before its demise.

Counting Systems of Possible Cumbric Origin

* Keswick Westmorland Eskdale Millom High Furness Wasdale Teesdale Swaledale Wensleydale Ayrshire
1 yan yan yaena aina yan yan yan yahn yan yinty  
2 tyan tyan taena peina taen taen tean tayhn tean tinty  
3 tethera tetherie teddera para tedderte tudder tetherma tether tither tetheri  
4 methera peddera meddera pedera medderte anudder metherma mether mither metheri  
5 pimp gip pimp pimp pimp nimph pip mimp(h) pip bamf  
6 sethera teezie hofa ithy haata - lezar hith-her teaser leetera  
7 lethera mithy lofa mithy slaata - azar lith-her leaser seetera  
8 hovera katra seckera owera lowera - catrah anver catra over  
9 dovera hornie leckera lowera dowa - horna danver horna dover  
10 dick dick dec dig dick - dick dic dick dik  
15 bumfit bumfit bumfit bumfit mimph - bumfit mimphit bumper -  
20 giggot - - - - - - - Jiggit -  

The numbers show some similarity to one another, and commonly go into folk etymology, e.g. bumper or into rhyming patterns, e.g. yan, tan or leetera, seetera. In some cases, there is also some shift, e.g. in Ayrshire, "seetera" means seven, but in Keswick, "sethera" is six.

The Cumbric origin of these counting systems is debatable, but there is a clear Celtic component in their origin, e.g. pethera/methera Welsh pedwar. Similar Yan Tan Tethera counts have been collected throughout upland England.

Cumbric Place-names

Cumbric placenames are found in the whole of Northern England and southern Scotland, particularly Cumbria and Lancashire. Here is a list of some of these names and their translations. These come with estimated Cumbric root words that are not yet certain until the attempted revivals are completed.

  • Blencathra, Cumbria. This comes from the Cumbric words 'blen' (summit) and 'caddera' (seat), meaning 'seat shaped summit'.
  • Bryn, Lancs. Comes from the Cumbric (also Welsh) word 'Bryn', meaning hill.
  • Culcheth, Cheshire. From the Cumbric words 'cul' (narrow) and 'caidd' (wood), Culcheth means 'narrow wood'.
  • Culgaith, Cumbria. From the words 'cul' (narrow) and 'gaidd' (woods), Culgaith translates to 'narrow woods'.
  • Cumdivock, Cumbria. This comes from the Cumbric words 'cum' (valley) and 'Devoc' (a personal name). This translates to 'Devoc's valley'.
  • Dunragit, Scotland. This comes from the words 'dwn' (fort) and 'Rheged', meaning 'fort of Rheged.
  • Helvellyn, Cumbria. From the words 'mellyn' (yellow) and 'heldir' (highland), Helvellyn means 'yellow highland'.
  • Hesketh, Lancs. Comes from the Cumrbic words 'hais' (thorny) and 'caidd' (wood). Hesketh translates to 'thorny wood'.
  • Lindow, Cheshire. From the Cumbric words 'lin' (lake) and dow (black), giving the translation 'black lake' (possibly meaning a bog).
  • Pendle, Lancs. 'Pen' is the Cumbric word for hill, mixed with the Old English word 'hyll', also meaning hill.
  • Penketh, Cheshire. This comes from the Cumbric words 'pen' (hill) and 'caidd' (wood), meaning 'wooded hill'.
  • Penrith, Cumbria. From the Cumbric words 'pen' (hill) and 'rydd' (red), meaning 'red hill'.
  • Penruddock, Cumbria. Nearby to Penrith, it comes from the words 'pen' and 'rydd' with the suffix 'og', meaning 'little red hill'. An area exists between Penrith and Penruddock still called 'Redhills'.
  • Pen-y-Ghent, Yorks. From 'pen' meaning 'top of the ghent'.
  • Poltragow, Cumbria. Poltragow comes from the Cumbric words 'pol' (lake) and 'tragow' (lowlands), meaning 'lowland lake'.
  • Rochdale, Lancs. This comes from the name of the river 'Roch', which also comes from the name of the kingdom Rheged, or possibly the word 'rached' meaning 'river by the forest'. 'Dale' is Old Norse for valley, meaning 'valley of the Roch'.
  • Treales, Lancs. This comes from 'tre' (settlement) and 'llys' (court).
  • Tranent, Scotland. 'Tre' means settlement, and 'nant' means 'steep sided valley'. So Tranent means 'town on the steep sided valley'.
  • Tulketh, Lancs. Comes from the Cumbric words 'tul' (cave) and 'caidd' (wood), meaning 'cave wood'.

Scots and English words of possible Cumbric origin

A number of words occurring in Scottish and Northern England dialects of English have been proposed as being of possible Brythonic origin. Ascertaining the real derivation of these words is far from simple, due in part to the similarities between some cognates in the Brythonic and Goidelic languages (see Linn below, for instance) and the fact that borrowing took place in both directions between these languages. Another difficulty lies with some words which were taken into Old English as in many cases it is impossible to tell whether the borrowing is directly from Brythonic or not (see Brogat, Crag). The following are possibilities:

  • Bach - cowpat (cf Welsh baw "dung", Gaelic buadhar)
  • Baivenjar - mean fellow (Welsh bawyn "scoundrel")
  • Brat - apron; often cited as a relic of Brythonic, the word is found in the Welsh language ("apron", originally "cloak"), Scots and northern English dialects but originates in Old Irish brat "cloak". Possibly spread into English by Hiberno-Norse settlers.
  • Brogat - a type of mead (Welsh bragod "bragget" - also found in Chaucer)
  • Coble - small flat bottomed boat (also North East England), akin to Welsh ceubal "a hollow" and Latin caupulus
  • Crag - rocks (either from Brythonic craig or Goidelic creag)
  • Croot - a small boy (Welsh crwt, Gaelic cruit "someone small and humpbacked")
  • Croude - type of small harp, as opposed to clarsach (Welsh crwth, Gaelic croit)
  • Galnes - weregeld, or fine for homicide (Welsh galanas)
  • Linn - pool in river; waterfall (Welsh llyn, Gaelic linne, compare "King's Lynn", Norfolk, which retains its Celtic topographical element)
  • Lum - Well known Scottish word for chimney (Middle Welsh llumon "chimney")
  • Peat - probably from Brythonic for "piece" (Welsh peth "thing")
  • Pen - pointed conical hill (Welsh pen "head, top")
  • Poll - a pool (Welsh pwll "pool", Goidelic poll "hole")
  • Vendace - fish of Lochmaben, Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite Lake, possibly cognate with Welsh Gwyniad


See also


  • Jackson, Kenneth H. (1953). Language and History in Early Britain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Russell, Paul (1995). An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London: Longman. ISBN 0-582-10082-8.
  • Schmidt, Karl Horst (1993). The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-01035-7.

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