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
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',
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
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