Origins of the British

A while ago I discussed a theory that Germanic languages were spoken in Britain long before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons.

Today I came across an article by Stephen Oppenheimer, author of The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, in which he argues that many people in what is now England spoke Germanic languages quite a long time before the Anglo-Saxons showed up.

Julius Caesar mentioned that a tribe called the Belgae had settled in parts of soutern Britain before he invaded the country, and that they spoke essentially the same language as their continental cousins. The Belgae are thought to have spoken either a Celtic language or a Germanic one. Oppenheimer thinks they probably spoke a Germanic language, and Caesar implies as much.

Among the evidence for a pre-Roman Germanic-speaking population in Britain, Oppenheimer mentions the near absence of place names of Celtic origin and Celtic inscriptions in most of England, the handful of Celtic words in English. He also uses genetic evidence to demonstrate that there is are significant Scandinavian elements in the genes of people from the east coast of Britain from the Shetlands to East Anglia, and that these elements dates back to Neolithic times. He also cites lexical evidence that suggests that the split between English and the Germanic languages spoken on the continent of Europe goes back a lot further than conventionally thought.

10 thoughts on “Origins of the British

  1. That’s a great article! It makes wonder that if the early inhabitants of Britain possibly spoke a language related to Basque that no longer exists, how many other such languages are lost forever without any trace? Thousands?

  2. That’s really fascinating! I’m currently taking a course on Celtic History in Britain, and I would have loved to see this theory in our course reader. I found the slight mention of the difficulty in distinguishing between Celtic and Germanic ethnos in the geography of the ancient world disappointing, but this goes a long way toward satisfying my interest.

  3. Not to sound crude, but one reason the genocide theory never sat right with me even before I read this article was this: in the ancient world, what did soldiers do to assert their control over the new territories? They claimed the women as prizes and raped them. I would’ve expected a LOT of that to be going even with the slaughter, so I would’ve expected at least SOME preservation of some pre-existing Celtic bloodline. But the fact that this didn’t happen certainly dovetails with this theory that the English have been Germanic-speakers for much longer than thought. The idea of the Basque as one of the most ancient peoples in Europe also makes sense…that area has been isolated for so long that it’s always seemed like the perfect “time capsule” to reveal what may have been more widespread a long time ago.

    What I would be interested in finding out is why the Basque-speakers’ influence was so greatly diminished over time. If they were capable of settling England at some point in history, they must’ve had a pretty good civilization going…so what happened?

  4. Oppenheimer has got the academics and armchair historians arguing about this. I am a little sceptical though of his suggestion of there being a Germanic language spoken in Britain before the Romans, because he does not look at the linguistic evidence, which I would have thought was necessary if one is commenting on the history of a language.

    Additionally, the comment of a lack of Celtic place names in England is farcical as England is covered with Celtic places names. Examples such as London, Dover, York jump out, not least many others for smaller settlements and farmsteads and field names around England. Growing up in Sussex, whenever I was reading about place name origins in that county, it was always pointed out that Sussex was different to the rest of England due to the lack of Celtic origins – suggesting that the rest of England is replete with them. I’m afraid Oppenheimer is very wrong on that point.

  5. However, I do agree with him in that the genetic evidence suggests the make up of the British population is not straightforward, and terms such as Celtic and Anglo-Saxon or Germanic are misleading from a genetic point of view.

    Just like everything else in life, history is complex and we like to try and make sense of it, often by simplifying it too much.

  6. As a Welshman as was aware that Welsh was spoken in at least parts of England because of the heroic poetry from Yr Hen Ogledd (the Old North) – Strathclyde, Cumbria etc which at the time of the Roman retreat were ‘Welsh’ speaking.

    However, I was always puzzled by the lack of Welsh in other parts of England and how the Welsh managed to ‘lose’ so much land so quickly, especially is Welsh/Brythnic would have been a language of some social-status as at least a part of that population would have been part of the ruling Cambro-Roman elite.

    I believe Oppenheimer is on the right track. There is so little genetic ‘Celtic’ evidence in Easter England that there was either ethnic cleansing on a startling scale or / and the Brythnic-speakers fled West and to Brittany or that the genetic/ethnic difference is much older than we used to believe.

    Oppenheimer seems to imply (and others too) of an ancient genetic ‘border’ which goes down the spine of England, along the Pennines and the source of the Thames, with the West being ‘celtic/Welsh/Brythonic’ and the East being ‘English’ i.e. pre-Anglo-Saxon. The A-S, he and others seem to believe, were another elite Germanic people who came to conquer England and rule over an other resident Germanic-speaking population – the English.

    Sturart is right about Welsh/Celtic names in England – Dover is from Dwfr old or archaic Welsh for ‘water’ – which is pronounced as doovr – (it’s ‘dwr’ in modern Welsh). But then, there are Welsh names for Cologne/Koeln (Cwlen) or Dublin (Dulyn) so it’s doesn’t necessarily mean that Welsh was the main language of that area.

    It’s all very interesting but Oppenheimer’s theory does go some way to explaining what happened to all the Celtic/Welsh/Brythonic speakers in parts of England following the retreat of the Romans in the 6th century.

    I’d like to know more and I’m amazed that nobody’s picked this up as a radio or television series.

  7. Stuart,

    Just out of interest, what is the celtic origin of ‘York’? I’ve heard that traced back to ‘Jorvik’ (Old Norse?). The A/S name was apparently something like ‘eoforwic’ and the roman name was ‘eboracum’, but obviously that’s only some of the history of the name.

  8. The word for York in modern Welsh is Efrog (f = v in English) though Caerefrog (fort, as in Roman fort, + Efrog) is more specific and I think correct.

    One presumes the Romans used an existing Brythonic name for the area and Romanised it. But I don’t know – I’m sure other Omniglot readers know more than I do.

  9. The origins of the name for York are as follows:

    Although not certain, it is thought that the Romans got the name from the British “Eborakon” meaning either “place of the yew trees” or “the field of Eburos”. The Romans took this and named the city Eboracum or Eburacum (both names occur in the record).

    This survived over the centuries, probably with some sound changes, especially with the /b/ becoming a /v/ sound, so that by the time Anglo-Saxons came across the area the name was taken from the native population and twisted to suit “English” ears and vocal chords and ended up with “Eoforwic” (the letter ‘f’ in the middle of a word in Old English was pronounced like /v/. And the change of sound from a /b/ to a /v/ is attested in other European languages, and Spanish is now in a situation where both letters have the same sound).

    As Sion from Aberystwyth points out, the modern Welsh for York is Efrog, with the /v/ sound still there, and would no doubt have originated from the time that Old Welsh was spoken in the York area.

    The Viking tradesmen and then settlers contracted the name further to Jorvik, which over time was contracted further to York.

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