|Region||Southern Scotland, Cumberland, Westmorland parts of Northumberland, Lancashire and possibly North Yorkshire|
Cumbric was a variety of the British language, in the Celtic language group, spoken during the Early Middle Ages in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North", or what is now northern England and southern Lowland Scotland, the area anciently known as Cumbria. It was closely related to Old Welsh and the other Brythonic languages. Place name evidence suggests Cumbric speakers may have carried it into other parts of Northern England as migrants from its core area further north. It may also have been spoken as far south as the Yorkshire Dales. Most linguists believe that it became extinct in the 12th century, after the incorporation of the semi-independent Kingdom of Strathclyde into the Kingdom of Scotland.
It is debated whether Cumbric should be considered a separate language or a dialect of Welsh. The contiguous land connection between the Brythonic speaking areas of the Old North and those of Wales was severed in the 7th century, although some maritime links between the areas would have remained. In the 10th century the Brythonic speaking Kingdom of Strathclyde appears to have maintained hegemony over Cumberland – though possibly not Copeland – and the Eden Valley southward to Stainmore. The original boundaries of the Diocese of Carlisle are said traditionally to mark the extent of the rule of Strathclyde. Cumbric placenames are also common in Lothian, Peebleshire, Dumfriesshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. They exist in Galloway but are overlain and influenced by the spread of Gaelic there.
Dauvit Broun sets out the problems with the various terms used to describe the Cumbric language and its speakers. The people seem to have called themselves *Cumbri the same way that the Welsh call themselves Cymry (most likely from British *kom-brogi meaning 'fellow countrymen'). It is likely that the Welsh and the Cumbric speaking people of what are now Southern Scotland and Northern England felt they were actually one ethnic group. Old Irish speakers called them "Britons", Bretnach or Bretain. The Norse called them 'Brettar'. In Medieval Latin the English term Wales and the term Cumbri were Latinised as 'Wallenses' of Wales or 'Cumbrenses' of Cumbria. The usual English usage was to call them Welsh. In Scots a Cumbric speaker seems to have been called 'Wallace', from the Scots Wallis/Wellis Welsh.
The term "Cumbric" is strictly a geographical one, used by linguists to refer to the evidence for a Brythonic language within a particular area of northern England and Southern Scotland. The definition of that area is therefore essential to any further study of Cumbric, though there has been no scholarly consensus as to exactly what constitutes the Cumbric region.
Koch defines the region roughly as "the area approximately between the line of the river Mersey and the Forth-Clyde isthmus", but goes on to include evidence from the Wirral peninsula in his discussion and gives no real indication of the easterly extent of the region. Others have been more restricting in their definitions. Jackson describes Cumbric as "the Brittonic dialect of Cumberland, Westmorland, northern Lancashire, and south-west Scotland..." and goes on to define the region further as being bound in the north by the Firth of Clyde, in the south by the river Ribble and in the east by the Southern Scottish Uplands and the Pennine ridge.
Charles Phythian-Adams goes further in defining the "Land of the Cumbrians", though his primary interest is historical rather than linguistic. He defines the southern part of this region essentially as the historic county of Cumberland with the northern part of Westmorland as far south as Rere Cross, the highest point on Stainmore, bound in the east by the crest of the Pennine chain. The modern area of Cumbria and Lancashire south of that zone are emphatically omitted from the region as, he asserts, they have no historic claim to be called Cumbrian. Phythian-Adams includes the region bound by the watershed of the Solway Firth (the modern council area of Dumfries and Galloway) as part of his historic Cumbria and goes on to say that "This entire region..., together with its neighbours to the north in what became Strathclyde and Lothian long comprised a last northerly bastion of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic language (which has been dubbed 'Cumbric')...".
There is, then, some agreement that the region of western Britain roughly between the Firth of Clyde and the Lakeland Dome comprises the central bloc in which the Cumbric language was spoken, though how far south and east the language continued to function is debatable. The definitions given above are based partly on a historical understanding of the relationship between Britons, Angles and Gaels (and later, Norse and Normans) which was more complex than a simple process of invasion and settlement, and partly on geography which becomes less well defined as we move north.
The evidence from Cumbric comes to us almost entirely through secondary sources, since there are no contemporary written records of the language. The majority of evidence comes from place names of the extreme northwest of England and the south of Scotland and other sources include 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. Although the language is long extinct it is arguable that traces of its vocabulary persisted into the modern era in the form of "counting scores" and in a handful of dialectal words.
From this scanty evidence, little can be deduced about the singular characteristics of Cumbric, not even the name by which its speakers referred to it. What is generally agreed upon by linguists is that Cumbric was a Western Brythonic language, closely related to Welsh and more distantly to Cornish and Breton.
Cumbric place names are found in Scotland south of the firths of Forth and Clyde. Brythonic names north of this line are arguably Pictish. They are also found commonly in the historic county of Cumberland and bordering areas of Northumberland. They are less common in Westmorland with some in Lancashire and the adjoining areas of North Yorkshire. As we approach Cheshire, late Brythonic placenames are probably better described as being Welsh rather than Cumbric. As noted below, however, any clear distinction between Cumbric and Welsh is difficult to prove. For references see Armstrong et al., Watson and Jackson. There remain many Brythonic place-names in northern England which should not be described as Cumbric because they originate from a period before Brythonic split into its daughter dialects e.g. Welsh, Cornish, Breton and – arguably – Cumbric.
The following names have been suggested by toponymists as having possible Cumbric origins.
|*||Keswick||Westmorland||Eskdale||Millom||High Furness||Wasdale||Teesdale||Swaledale||Wensleydale||Ayrshire||Modern Welsh|
Among the evidence that Cumbric served as a substratum that influenced local English dialects are a group of counting systems, or scores, recorded in various parts of northern England. Around 100 of these systems have been collected since the 18th century; the scholarly consensus is that these derive from a Brythonic language closely related to Welsh. Though they are often referred to as "sheep-counting numerals", most recorded scores were not used to count sheep, but in knitting or for children's games or nursery rhymes. These scores are often suggested to represent a survival from medieval Cumbric, a theory first popularized in the 19th century. However, later scholars came to reject this idea, suggesting instead that the scores were later imports from either Wales or Scotland, but in light of the dearth of evidence for any of these theories, Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola, and Heli Paulasto note that it remains plausible that the counting systems are indeed of Cumbric origin.
A number of words occurring in the Scots and Northern English variants 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:
The linguistic term ‘Cumbric’ is defined according to geographical rather than linguistic criteria: that is, it refers to the variety of Brythonic spoken within a particular region of northern Britain and infers nothing about that variety except that it was geographically distinct from other varieties. This has led to a discussion about the nature of Cumbric and its relationship with other Brythonic languages, in particular with Old Welsh.
Linguists appear undecided as to whether Cumbric should be considered a separate language, or a dialect of Old Welsh. Koch calls it a ‘dialect’ but goes on to say that some of the place names in the Cumbric region “clearly reflect a developed medieval language, much like Welsh, Cornish or Breton”. Jackson also calls it a ‘dialect’ but points out that “to call it Pr[imitive] W[elsh] would be inaccurate”, so clearly views it as distinct in some meaningful respect.
It has been suggested that Cumbric was more closely aligned to Pictish than to Welsh, though there is considerable debate regarding the classification of that language. On the basis of place name evidence it has also been proposed that all three languages were very similar.
The whole question is made more complex because no principled distinction can be made in any case between languages and dialects.
Below, some of the proposed differences between Cumbric and Old Welsh are discussed.
In WCB the British cluster *rk was spirantized to /rx/ (W rch, C rgh, B rc’h) but a number of place names appear to show Cumbric retained the plosive in this position. Lanark and Lanercost are thought to contain the equivalent of W lannerch ‘clearing’.
There is evidence to the contrary, however, including the place names Powmaughan and Maughanby (containing W Meirchion) and the word kelchyn (related to W cylch). Jackson concludes that the change of Brit. *rk > /rx/ “may have been somewhat later in Cumbric”.
There is evidence to suggest that the consonant cluster mb remained distinct in Cumbric later than the time it was assimilated to mm in WCB. The cluster remains in:
Jackson notes that only in the north does the cluster appear in place names borrowed after circa 600AD and concludes that it may have been a later dialectal survival here.
A few examples appear to contradict the idea: Old English Cumerland "Cumberland" and Cumera ⁊ Scotta "Cumbrians and Scots".
James mentions that devoicing appears to be a feature of many Cumbric place names. Devoicing of word final consonants is a feature of modern Breton and, to an extent, Cornish. Watson notes initial devoicing in Tinnis Castle, Drumelzier (W dinas ‘fortress, city’) as an example of this, which can also be seen in the Cornish Tintagel from C din ‘fort’.
There are also a significant number of place names which do not support this theory. Devoke Water & Cumdivock (which Ekwall derives from Dyfoc) and Derwent (< Brit. Derwentiō) all have initial d-. The name Calder (from Brit. *Caletodubro-) in fact appears to show a voiced Cumbric consonant where Welsh has Calettwr by provection, which Jackson believes reflects an earlier stage of pronunciation. Jackson also notes that Old English had no internal or final /g/ so would be borrowed with /k/ by sound substitution. This can be seen in names with c, k, ck (e.g. Cocker < Brit. *kukro-, Eccles < Brit. eglēsia).
The Cumbric personal names Gospatrick, Gososwald and Gosmungo meaning ‘servant of St…’ (WCB gwas ‘servant, boy’) and the Galloway dialect word gossock ‘short, dark haired inhabitant of Wigtownshire’ (W. gwasog ‘a servant’) apparently show that the Cumbric equivalent of WC gwas & B gwaz ‘servant’ was *gos. Jackson suggests that it may be a survival of the original Proto-Celtic form of the word in –o- (i.e. *wosto-).
This idea is disputed by the Dictionary of the Scots Language and the occurrence in Gospatrick's Writ of the word wassenas ‘dependants’, thought to be from the same word gwas, is evidence against Jackson’s theory. Koch notes that the alternation between gwa- and go- is common among the Brythonic languages and does not amount to a systematic sound change in any of them.
In the Book of Aneirin, a poem entitled ‘Peis Dinogat’ (possibly set in the Lake District of Cumbria), contains a usage of the word penn "head" (attached to the names of several animals hunted by the protagonist), that is unique in medieval Welsh literature and may, according to Koch, reflect Cumbric influence ("[r]eferring to a single animal in this way is otherwise found only in Breton, and we have no evidence that the construction ever had any currency in the present-day Wales"). The relevant lines are:
The modern Brythonic languages have different forms of the definite article: W yr, y, C an, B an, ar, al. These are all taken to derive from an unstressed form of the British demonstrative *sindos, altered by assimilation (compare the Gaelic articles). Throughout Old Welsh the article is ir (or -r after a vowel), but there is evidence in Cumbric for an article in -n alongside one in -r. Note the following:
The modern and medieval forms of Carlisle (Luel c1050, Cardeol 1092, Karlioli c1100 (Medieval Latin genitive), Cærleoil 1130) and Derwent (Deorwentan stream c890 (Old English), Derewent) suggest derivations from Br *Luguvaljon and *Derwentjō. But the Welsh forms Caerliwelydd and Derwennydd are derived from alternative forms *Luguvalijon, *Derwentijō which gave the -ydd ending. This appears to show a divergence between Cumbric and Welsh at a relatively early date.
If this was an early dialectal variation, it can’t be applied as a universal sound law, as the equivalent of W mynydd ‘mountain’ occurs in a number of Cumbric names with the spirant intact: E.g. Mindrum (Minethrum 1050) from ‘mountain ridge’ (W. mynydd trum). It might also be noted that Medieval Welsh forms of Caerliwelydd and Derwennydd both occur in poems of supposed Cumbrian origin whose rhyme and metre would be distrupted if the ending were absent.
It is impossible to give an exact date of the extinction of Cumbric. However, there are some pointers which may give a reasonably accurate estimate. In the mid 11th century some landowners still bore what appear to be Cumbric names. Examples of such landowners are Dunegal (Dyfnwal), lord of Strathnith or Nithsdale; Moryn (Morien), lord of Cardew and Cumdivock near Carlisle and Eilifr (Eliffer), lord of Penrith.
In the Battle of the Standard in 1138, the Cumbrians are noted as a separate ethnic group. Given that their material culture was very similar to their Gaelic and Anglian neighbours, it is arguable that what set them apart was still their language. Also the castle at Castle Carrock – Castell Caerog dates from around 1160–1170. Barmulloch earlier Badermonoc (Cumbric 'Monk’s Dwelling'  – ) was given to the church by King Mael Choluim IV between 1153 and 1165.
A more controversial point is the surname Wallace. It means “Welshman”. It is possible that all the Wallaces in the Clyde area were medieval immigrants from Wales, but given that the term was also used for local Cumbric speaking Strathclyde Welsh it seems equally if not more likely that the surname refers to people who were seen as being "Welsh" due to their Cumbric language. Surnames in Scotland were not inherited before 1200 and not regularly until 1400. William Wallace (known in Gaelic as Uilleam Breatnach – namely William the Briton or Welshman) came from the Renfrew area – itself a Cumbric name. Wallace slew the sheriff of Lanark (also a Cumbric name) in 1297. Even if he had inherited the surname from his father it is possible that the family spoke Cumbric within memory in order to be thus named.
There are also some historical pointers to a continuing separate ethnic identity. Prior to being crowned king of Scotland in 1124, David I was invested with the title Prince of the Cumbrians. William I of Scotland between 1173–1180 made an address to his subjects, identifying the Cumbrians as a separate ethnic group. This does not prove that any of them still spoke Cumbric at this time.
The legal documents in the Lanercost Cartulary dating from the late 12th century show witnesses with Norman French or English names, and no obvious Cumbric names. Though these people represent the upper classes, it seems significant that by the late 12th century in the Lanercost area, Cumbric is not obvious in these personal names. In 1262 in Peebles, jurymen in a legal dispute over peat cutting also have names which mostly appear Norman French or English, but possible exceptions are Gauri Pluchan, Cokin Smith and Robert Gladhoc, where Gladhoc has the look of an adjective similar to Welsh "gwladog" = "countryman". In the charters of Wetherall Priory near Carlisle there is a monk called Robert Minnoc who appears as a witness to 8 charters dating from around 1260. His name is variously spelled Minnoc/Minot/Mynoc and it is tempting to see an equivalent of the Welsh "mynach" – "Robert the Monk" here.
Given that the Anglicisation of the upper classes in general has happened before the Anglicisation of the peasantry in other areas which have given up speaking Celtic languages it is not implausible that the peasantry continued to speak Cumbric for at least a little while after. Around 1200 there is a list of the names of men living in the area of Peebles. Amongst them are Cumbric names such as Gospatrick: servant or follower of St Patrick, Gosmungo: servant of St Mungo, Guososwald: servant of St Oswald and Goscubrycht: servant of St Cuthbert. Two of the saints – Oswald and Cuthbert —are from Northumbria showing influence on Cumbric not found in Welsh.
The royal seal of Alexander III (who reigned 4 September 1241 – 19 March 1286) bore the title "Rex Scotorum et Britanniarum", or "King of Scots and Britons".
It seems that Cumbric could well have survived into the middle of the 12th century as a community language and even lasted into the 13th on the tongues of the last remaining speakers. Certain areas seem to be particularly dense in Cumbric place-names even down to very minor features. The two most striking of these are around Lanercost east of Carlisle and around Torquhan south of Edinburgh. If the 1262 names from Peebles do contain traces of Cumbric personal names then we can imagine Cumbric dying out between 1250 and 1300 at the very latest.
In the 2000s a group of enthusiasts proposed a revival of the Cumbric language, and launched a social networking site a "revived Cumbric" guidebook to promote it, though this would appear to have met with little success. Writing in Carn magazine, Colin Lewis noted that there was disagreement in the group about whether to base "revived Cumbric" on the surviving sources for the language, or try to reconstruct the form Late Cumbric may have taken after the attested period, though his own suggestion was to simply use Modern Welsh with its rich literature, culture and history.
Here you can share your comments or contribute with more information, content, resources or links about this topic.