Sunday, 2 August 2015

The English were speaking English before the Romans came - and the Anglo-Saxons didn't wipe out the Celts

Eight years ago I bought a paperback entitled The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth About the English Language as the final item in a Waterstones threefer deal, mainly on the strength of the reviews on the cover: “The most outrageous book I have ever read” The Oldie; “The best rewriting of history since 1066 And All That” Fortean Times; “Mind-blowing, incredibly entertaining stuff” Daily Mail; “This book brings a blast of fresh air to British history” Rupert Sheldrake. Those comments all turned out to be accurate.

What was the fuss about? The author, M.J. Harper (a somewhat mysterious figure – just try finding anything out about him on the web and you’ll see what I mean), propounded the revolutionary theory that the English we speak today is basically the same language that was being spoken in England when the Romans arrived. Obviously, many loan words have elbowed their way in since then, and we simply have no idea how words were pronounced in the past – but, Harper argues, the early English probably spoke early English, not Celtic (Brythonic or otherwise).

This is certainly an outrageous claim, because we were taught at school – and many academics still maintain – that modern English (and, for that matter, Chaucerian English) is a derivative of Anglo-Saxon. We were also taught – and many academics still maintain – that, when the Anglo-Saxons invaded England from about 450 AD, after the Romans scarpered, they wiped out the indigenous Celts who allegedly occupied most of England, Wales and Ireland at the time, suppressed the prevailing Celtic culture (which was far more advanced than their own), and enforced their own language.

The only problem with the traditional narrative, Harper says, is that there is absolutely no proof that the pre-Roman English were Celts, just as there is no proof that the Anglo-Saxons committed wholesale genocide, just as there is no proof that the English language grew out of Anglo-Saxon. In one particularly startling table, Harper lists six Western European countries within the Roman Empire (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Britain), the tribes who occupied them (including Visigoths, Vandals, Anglo-Saxons, Arabs, Vikings, Danes and Normans) and then points out that of the total of nineteen tribes which subsequently took turns invading one or several of those six countries, only one of them – the Anglo-Saxons – are credited with changing the language spoken in any of those countries before their arrival, i.e. Britain (or England, to be more precise).

In another coup de théâtre, Harper presents us with three literary extracts, one from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon,  one from Chaucer (12th century) and one from T.S. Eliot. Harper concludes that the Anglo-Saxon poet was writing in a foreign language which just happens to be related to English (there are a few recognizable words), but which is incomprehensible to modern English readers, whereas, apart from the spelling, Chaucer was essentially writing modern English. The idea that Anglo-Saxon was the basis for English strikes Harper as ludicrous:
“…if the written language is any guide – and it seems to be a reasonable one – what the (Gaelic) Irish, the French and, inferentially, everyone else were speaking a thousand years ago is recognizably the same as they are speaking today…Anglo-Saxon is no exception to this rule in the sense that, according to its written records, it changes hardly at all for 500 years: and English is no exception either, since to judge from its written record, it hasn't changed radically for 700 years. Which means that Anglo-Saxon/English, if it’s one language, is unique in the entire annals of languages on this our Earth, since it changes every goddam word of itself."
Harper describes his approach as Applied Epistemology, which, he says, is based on the rule that “What is is what was unless there’s evidence to the contrary.” As far as he’s concerned, there’s no evidence that the English aren’t speaking the same basic language today that they were speaking in 55BC.

When I presented these arguments to an old and dear friend who studied English at Cambridge (and, therefore, some Anglo-Saxon as well) he became angrier than I had ever seen him, and dismissed the book with some distinctly un-academic language. He begged me not to read such trash. (To be fair, the book contains some fairly bizarre theories about the origins of Latin and whether or not Beowulf was actually a C16 forgery, and there’s no bibliography or notes or references, and nobody seems to know who M.J.Harper is, and it’s less than 200 pages long, so it feels like a parody rather than The Real Thing.)

But I wasn’t entirely convinced that everything in Harper’s book was nonsense, so when The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain: A Genetic Detective Story by Stephen Oppenheimer appeared in Waterstones a few weeks later, I bought it. It was over 600 pages long, stuffed with notes and a glossary and scary-looking maps and scientific language, and the author was a distinguished Oxford and London University-trained paediatrician who did research in genetics and pre-human history – in other words, a serious book from a serious scientist with impeccable credentials. And do you know what? He reached many of the same conclusions as the despised trickster, M.J. Harper. For a start, the Romans didn’t view the English as Celts – different hair-colour and taller. And, according to Tacitus, the “common language” spoken by the English was not Celtic, but was similar to the West Germanic one spoken by the Belgae across the channel (Oppenheimer argues that the split between Old English and Continental Germanic languages “goes much further back than the Dark Ages”).

Of course Angles and Saxons did settle in England (otherwise, why would all those Normans be forever sneering at “Saxon dogs” in Hollywood films)– but many of them were already here before the Romans left. According to the genetic make up of modern Britain, there is no evidence of anything but a relatively small-scale post-Roman "invasion". Genetic markers suggest an overall Anglo-Saxon “genetic intrusion” within England of 5.5%, rising to a maximum of between 9-15% in eastern England – i.e. only a couple of million modern Britons can boast Anglo-Saxon ancestry.  (The intrusion figure, as it happens, is exactly the same as it is for Vikings in Britain – made up of 1% Norwegian and 4.5% Danish genetic markers. At the time he wrote this book, Oppenheimer didn’t have similar information for the Normans, but, using other evidence, estimates their genetic intrusion to have been on a similar scale to that of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings.)

Harper and Oppenheimer both make the point that the Angles, the Saxons, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Jutes, the Frisians and other North Europeans were already established in Britain before the “Saxon advent” and the arrival of the Vikings – genetic evidence suggests that they’ve been comin’ over ‘ere, takin’ your jobs and stealin’ your birds for over 6000 years – and that England has been culturally distinct from the rest of Britain (i.e.definitely not Celtic) for at least that long.

The Harper book is a jolly romp – very sarcastic about the academic establishment and extremely funny – while Oppenheimer’s book is difficult in parts (some of the genetic analysis made my eyes water), but enormously stimulating and rewarding. I've just re-read both of them, and enjoyed them even more the second time around.

The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth About the English Language is available here, while The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain: A Genetic Detective Story is available here. (But please don't tell my old friend I recommended them!)


  1. Fascinating and not as unlikely as your English graduate friend would pretend, I suspect. Having everything you've had stuffed into your head at university challenged by some upstart is ontologically challenging. People get extremely ratty when it happens.

    On a vaguely similar theme I recall reading a book called The Roots of Witchcraft some 20 or 30 years ago. The thing that I recall most from it was the author's insistence that there must have been an influx of people from the Basque region in British pre-history., the evidence for which was in some of the spells and cantrips that survived.

    It was anathema to historians and completely shunned. Of course, we now know that, however he arrived at it, the author wasn't wrong - people from that region certainly did come here so fragments of the language they used would have come here with them.

    Clarke's First Law applies, as so often: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

    And it doesn't just apply to the sciences.

    1. There's an ancestor officially called "Ruy" whose gene marker can be found in 29% of people along the Weslh coast, and in between 17%-27% of people along the coast of Cornwall, the Channel islands, the south coast and Norfolk. Ruy - and his kin and, presumably, his magic rituals - reached the UK sometime during the Mesolithic, which started 11,500 years ago. Ruy is a Basque name, because he and his pals came from what is now Basque Country. In other words, you're dead right.

      What is particularly mind-blowing about the Oppenheimer book is that nearly the majority of Britons carry gene-markers from ancestors who repopulated these island(s) from soon after the ice melted some 16-17,000 years ago, and then again from 11,500 years ago after the relatively brief but severe reglaciation event known as the Younger Dryas (it says here). I wonder what future historians/geneticists will make of the huge change in Britain's genetic make-up caused by the GL&TT (Great Labour and Tory Terror) of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

    2. If things go on as they have been one might wonder what geneticists and historians?

      I still think we have a good case for putting Blair et al on trial for treason.

    3. If we tried every UK politician complicit in the great immigration scandal over the last 65 years, the criminal justice system would collapse - even with the admirable Michael Gove in charge. Still, it might be worth it just to see the Ceacescu-like fear in their squinty little eyes.