The English Are Celtic (or Something)

by | Sep 22, 2014 | The Postclassical Age (Medieval History), Linguistics & Philology

It looks like the Celtic hero, King Arthur, couldn't keep his people from going English (assuming he even existed).

It looks like the Celtic hero, King Arthur, couldn’t keep his people from going English (assuming he even existed).

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 English sentences would make as much sense without it: “How slaughter they their pigs?” and “He knows not Edgar.” No known modern language has this “do” grammatical requirement, except Welsh and Cornish: the Celtic tongues descended from Britain’s pre-Anglo language.

England & Wales around 600 C.E.

England & Wales around 600 C.E.

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. Results vary on the share of English genes we can trace back to migrations across the North Sea — to to the Anglos, Saxons, Jutes, and similar peoples. But much of the analysis suggests the English get a minority of their genes from those people. Some studies suggest the English have, on average, as little as 5% Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

If so, the English are Celtic — possibly just as much as the Irish, Welsh, and Scots.

© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


  1. John Keagy

    Hmmm. I’m English and always thought that meant I was part Italian since the Romans conquered England.

    • David Tollen

      You probably are: about 0.005%! Rome was a multi-ethnic empire, so it probably brought Britain a lot of people from around the Mediterranean. (In the 2004 movie “King Arthur,” Arthur and his “knights” are Roman soldiers from all over the empire, brought to defend Britain — probably not very good history in the details, but an interesting idea about soldiers’ immigration.)

      But it’s hard for any empire to put a dent in a 4 million population. So you probably trace most of your ancestry back to those folks who immigrated between 16,000 and 7,500 years ago. They came from Spain, incidentally — or so the geneticists think — and they’re related to the Basque people. They built Stonehenge, of course, among other monuments.

    • V St Clair

      For the first couple of hundred years the occupying Roman forces were not allowed to marry the natives. The DNA study carried out by one Professor Sykes found not much Roman dna was left behind here.

      • Jonty

        Very late to the party but yes, you’re correct, however by the time the Romans launched their second invasion of Britain under Claudius many of the provinces of Gaul or modern day France were already becoming quite “Romanised” therefore many soldiers were from alpine Gaul and even further north from the tribes, if only as Auxillia or mercenaries, and while they were told not to integrate with the locals in Brittania, throughout the next 100 years or so many Legionaries and Auxiliaries did settle in Britain and take Celtic women to wife (so says Tacitus and Suetonius near the end of the first century AD)

    • Talorc MacAllan

      Everybody conquered England so could be anything to be fare .

  2. Laura Rae Hulka

    And how does the ubiquitous word (now used everywhere, thanks to Outlander) Sassenach come into the mix? My brief research shows it to be Scottish-Gaelic- I know what it means, but it seems a rather odd word!



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