History Files


Prehistoric Britain

What's in a Name - Britain

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 3 October 2017

Britain, as the name is pronounced today, appears to be a Roman alteration of a Brythonic word which started with 'p'.

This has been retained today by the Welsh as Prydein (although southern Brythonic speakers may have used a 'b' themselves - the modern Cornish version is Breten).

At some point in prehistory a change in pronunciation swept through many of the speakers of Celtic and Italic languages (known as Q-Celtic and P-Celtic for the former, and Q-Italic (divided into Latin and Faliscan) and P-Italic for the latter). During this transformation a 'kw' sound ('qu' in Latin) was replaced by a 'p'. Most Italic speakers changed to a 'p', except for the inhabitants of Latium (the early Romans and their kin) and nearby Faliscan speakers.

Most of the Celtic speakers also changed, except for the far western lands of Iberia and Ireland. The former were eventually submerged within a Romance language-speaking population while the latter evolved their speech into modern Gaelic which is noticeably different from other surviving Celtic tongues.

If the name 'Britain' is Celtic in origin, then an examination of similar words in proto-Celtic beginning with 'kw' might discover its meaning.

The Celtic name

The most likely candidate appears to be *kʷrito- (?), meaning 'poet', with *kʷrito- meaning 'poetry'. Could the country have been the '[land of] poets'?

Other words with the required structure are *kʷrit-er-āje/o- (?), meaning 'consider, look after', or *kʷritero- (?) possibly meaning 'care', or *kʷrīto-, meaning 'expensive', or *kʷritu-, meaning 'form'. Notice that none of those make any sense in terms of naming the island!

More usefully, it was in Britain that the centre of the druidic practice was based. Druids were trained to memorise, and what they memorised was mostly poetry. Could the name 'Britain' simply be a reference to the island being the source of the druids in their role as poets?

The Belgic name

A less certain alternative is informed by the theory that the Belgae were a large group of eastern and northern tribes - primarily Celtic but with Germanic influences.

In some of their words they used a 'b' in place of the Gaulish (P-Celtic) 'p' sound. As an example of this shift, albeit from a tribe which should have been P-Celtic, the Insubres tribe of northern Italy had a third century BC leader named Viridomarus, but he is also referred to as Britomartus (a 'b' instead of a 'v').

Along the same lines, Britain was recorded as Prettan by the Greek explorer and writer, Pytheas, but this probably originated from a Celtic name, this being Viritos plus '-an' as a suffix.

But Viritos would be the Roman spelling, and the 'v' is actually a 'w'. 'Wiro-' means 'man', and 'wirito-' would either be a 'little man' or a 'manly man'. Or, since Celtic was so close to Latin, 'wiritos' could be cognate with 'virtus', meaning 'manliness'.

So which Celts came to Britain first and what dialect did they speak? They would have been Q-Celtic speakers like the Hallstatt culture Celts, but it has to be wondered whether the first Celtic tribe to reach Britain was called the 'Manly' (from 'virit-', pronounced 'wirit', plus a plural suffix '-an'). It would provide a (possibly unlikely) explanation for the name, as well as being very much in the tradition of Celtic tribal names.

Could the La Tène P-Celtic speakers who followed afterwards have mangled this proposed 'Wiritos' to 'Pretto-' and then the 'third wave' Belgae altered it further to 'Bretto' or 'Britto', which was then picked up by the Romans and Latinised as Britannia?

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
Emerging out of the Urnfield culture, the Celts of the succeeding Hallstatt culture reached Britain perhaps as early as around 1200 BC, with the 'second wave' of La Tène Celts arriving some eight hundred years later, and the 'third wave' Belgae following on very soon afterwards (click on map to show full sized)

Asia (coming soon)

The 'White Cliffs of Dover' name

Another possible, and quite plausible explanation of the name's origins is that it is an early word for white clay and chalk.

The aforementioned Pytheas used the work 'prettanik', which most definitely has a suffix on the end in the form of '-ik'. The '-an' before this may or may not be a second suffix. The initial 'p' would likely have been a 'k' or 'kw' sound prior to the 'kw' to 'p' shift of Hallstatt to La Tène Celtic-speakers. So we get 'kwrettan' as a possible name.

In possible proto-Celtic can be found *kwreid-, *kwrīd, meaning 'clay'. This is the same sequence of sounds if one understands that a 't' and a 'd' are interchangeable. So a check has to be made for cognates in Latin, providing 'creta', meaning clay or chalk.

One can then easily posit an extension of the Celtic word meaning chalk, and you have what everyone sees as a first impression of Britain while standing on the continental side of the English Channel: the chalk cliffs of Dover.

The other traditional name for the island is Alba, meaning 'white'. This is highly likely to be derived from seeing the white cliffs. Britain is the [land] of the white cliffs [of Dover]. It couldn't be more apt!



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler and Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.