Traditional histories say that when the English migrated to Britain during the 400’s A.D., they almost completely replaced the native Celtic population. In other words, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — the Germanic peoples who became the English — wiped out the Celts or herded them all into Wales and Cornwall. The result: England’s people are almost completely Germanic, and so is the English language.
But a recent linguistic analysis tells a different story. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (Penguin 2008), linguist John McWhorter points out several English grammatical rules found in no other language — except in the Celtic family. For instance, English grammar requires the word “do” in sentences like “How do they slaughter their pigs?” and “He does not know Edgar.” But “do” adds nothing. Those sentences would make as much sense without it: “How slaughter they their pigs?” and “He knows not Edgar.” No known modern language has this meaningless “do” requirement, except Welsh and Cornish: the Celtic tongues descended from Britain’s pre-Anglo language.
McWhorter argues that if the Celts added so much grammar to English, they must have lived alongside the Anglo-Saxons for centuries. It’s possible four million Celts lived in Roman Britain, while the invaders numbered only 250,000 or so. So the Celts made up the majority. They must have adopted a Celticized version of their foreign rulers’ language and come to call themselves “English.”
Genetic testing backs up McWhorter’s analysis. It turns out less than 5% of English genetic material can be traced to invasions across the North Sea.
The genetic data give the story another interesting twist. About 75% of England’s genes come from a population that arrived between 16,000 and 7,500 years ago — before the Celts. So the Celts’ own migration, around 650 B.C.E., must have looked a lot like the Anglo-Saxon migration a thousand years later: invaders bring a new language and ethnic identity, soon adopted by the natives, but they don’t bring a lot of people. I suspect the same pattern applies to many populations: they trace their ethnic identity to relatively recent invaders, but most of their ancestors come from a forgotten people who blended into the invaders’ culture.
© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.