The Pictish language (or dialect, see below) was spoken in what is now northern and eastern Scotland approximately between the Fourth and Tenth centuries, when it was eclipsed by the language which evolved into modern Scotts Gaelic. Very few records of Pictish language have survived, mostly as brief mentions in Irish or Welsh sources.
That presents certain difficulties for one of my works in progress, a novel tentatively titled Caledfwlch, the second book in my historical fantasy/progressive pulp series Bel Nemeton. The Picts feature very prominently in Caledfwlch. As part of bringing that people and their land to life, I wanted to be able to use some “Pictish” in the story.
I’ve turned that quest into a blog post not only because some of my readers may find it interesting but also in hopes it might be useful to other writers seeking to use a poorly documented extinct language in their work.
First, a few caveats on the scope of my project. I am not so ambitious as to try to go Tolkien/Star Trek on the problem and create a fully functional language. My goal is much humbler, to be able to drop the occasional word or phrase into the text for effect. Also, I am not attempting to recreate the actual, historical Pictish language. With such a miniscule sample size, that task has proven beyond the abilities of the world’s best linguists. I know I have no hope of doing so (nor do I have the time or inclination). Rather, my objective is creating plausible facsimiles of fragments of Pictish for use in fiction.
Here is how I tackled the problem.
I began by looking at how Pictish relates to other languages, living and dead:
Yes, there are a few claims that Pictish was a non-Indo-European tongue…or other outlier hypotheses. But the overwhelming academic consensus is that Pictish was an Insular Celtic language and a member of the Brittonic/Brythonic (P-Celtic) sub-family. From there, opinion appears about evenly divided whether Pictish was a dialect of or a sister language to Common Brittonic. Either way, that means the surviving languages descended from Common Brittonic (Breton, Cornish, and Welsh) are the closest living relatives to Pictish.
From there, I made an assumption (a well-reasoned one, I hope): geographical proximity suggests, of those three living languages, Welsh is likely to have been the most similar to Pictish. That geographical argument is strengthened if one considers the now extinct Cumbric dialect of Welsh, which was spoken in northern Britain and southern Scotland.
So I used Welsh (Old Welsh or Middle Welsh when available) as my jumping-off point for Pictish. There are a number of sources for Old and Middle Welsh online. When I couldn’t find relevant Old and Middle Welsh information, I turned to the plethora of Modern Welsh resources as well as good ol’ Google Translate.
Locating a Welsh translation for the word or phrase I wanted, sometimes I used it directly as Pictish. Other times I shifted a few sounds. Again, I understand this is not a linguistically sound way to actually recreate an extinct language. But I am hoping it creates a plausible, if utterly fictitious, facsimile that helps bring that fascinating people to life in my novel.
So, my solution to using a poorly documented extinct language was to identify the closest living language (or nearest well documented extinct language) and use it as inspiration for the language I was trying to recreate.
So, yes, at the end of the day, I am not so much trying to “Dr. Frankenstein” the language as I am making a hand puppet out of the corpse’s fist and hoping that will engage the suspension of disbelief of my readers. Nevertheless, I hope this has been entertaining and possibly useful for my readers.
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