What’s in a name?

After discussing the linguistic changes and yet continuity in Dalriada yesterday, lets look at the names for the Britons and Picts in the Early Historic Period. Fraser points out that the usual explanation that Pict means ‘painted people’ doesn’t really hold up historically or linguistically.

What do you call an inhabitant of Britain in the early Roman period?

  • Prydyn (Brythonic)
  • Cruithni (Old Irish)
  • Britanni (Latin)

All three of these words denote a Briton. Fraser believes that terms for Britons and Picts were finalized after the Severen settlement in 211. He believes that only at this point when the Romans accepted their limits was there a need to differentiate civilized Britons from barbarian Britons. Fraser notes that both Old Welsh and Old Irish borrowed the Latin word Brittons for the inhabitants of the Roman province. He reminds us how proud Romano-Britons were of their Roman citizenship. For example, Patrick stresses that he and his accusers are fellow Romans. The spirit of fellow citizenship, initially Roman citizenship, is behind the term Cymry, which means fellow countrymen, in effect fellow citizens. We often like to think of the Romans as oppressing noble Britons who wanted their freedom, but there is certainly no evidence of this in late Romano-British written material. Quite the opposite, Roman citizenship is lauded and cherished. 400 years, twice as long as the United States has existed, is more than enough time for the Britons to embrace Romanitas.

This linguistic development seems to have rose in Roman Britain and doesn’t imply any unification among the Picts or even that the Picts initally accepted the term. (Pict seems to have developed out of Prydyn; Picti being the short form for Prydyn like Britto is the short form for Britanni) Fraser notes that it would have taken time for these terms to be universally accepted among the Romano-Britons, Barbarian Britons (Picts) and the Irish. We can see this in the Irish insistence to continue to call the Picts Cruithni, meaning Britons. The Irish just restricted their use of their ancestral term for Britain to the Picts and adopted the Latin name Britto/Britanni (Old Irish Breatain) for southerners.

I think this can also explain the fuzzy application of Briton and Pict in the northern frontier zone. We know archaeologically that ‘Pictish’ material culture is spread over what we usually consider an ethnic border. Pictish symbol stones and objects with Pictish symbols have been found south of the firths and probably shouldn’t be attributed to left-behind objects or carvings of Pictish raiders. How much were the Damnonii (Strathclyde) and Votadini (Gododdin) really different than that the Picts on the other side of the firth of Forth? Along this border was their language really that different? I doubt it.


James Fraser. (2009) From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. Edinburgh UP, p. 47-50.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Great coloumn! really interesting subject matter that I find myself ever questioning-particuraly the Britons/Picts questions you brought up

    You do seem to find many with an interest in late antiquity do not like any mention of Rome or Romanisation.Yet even in the somewhat many times that Britain was apart from Rome for instance the Gallic Empire or that of Carausius,Britain continued to function as a Romanesque model.
    Gildas as we remember spoke of a council of Britain,Ive never heard it suggested that after the split from the Empire that Britain may have been a republic? perhaps our Vortigern we could equate to a Sulla or a Caesar? just a thought.

    again thanks Michelle great piece of writing!

  2. You’re mining linguistic gold, here. Thanks for the post. I thought your comments on the Romanization of southern Britain to make sense. I also like Professor Tibbs thoughts about Vortigern. Hmmmm….

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑