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Myth Of British Ancesrty


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Well, that article goes a long way towards explaining why modern Irish sounds so much like a hodgepodge of old Norse and French. Thanks for the link!

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Guest logorrhoeal

This is my very first post to this forum, and it's a very long one. But it's to do with my favourite geeky subject, ancient languages, so I hope no one is too annoyed.


Oppenheimer wants to claim the glory for geneticists but the fact that the Anglosaxons did not wipe out or replace the previous inhabitants of England was established by British archaeologists way back in the 1960s - and had been known for a long time prior to that. Modern genetic research has not overturned any myths here, this particular myth was overturned a very long time ago by scholars in other fields.


The idea that the Celts were wiped out by the Anglosaxons dates back to the writings of the Welsh monk Gildas in his text De Excidio Britanniae (Concerning the Ruin of Britain) written around the year 540CE. Gildas described how thousands fled in terror from the pagans, but of course pagans never got a good press from Christians. Gildas' account was adopted by Victorian scholars whose model of language replacement largely derived from the experience of European colonialism. However other historical texts (for example the Anglosaxon Chronicles) confirm that Celtic speaking Britons formed a large segment of the population living under the rule of Anglosaxon chieftains. Their language is usually known as Brittonic or Brythonic and it was the ancestor of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Across large regions of northern England in particular, Brythonic settlement patterns were not disrupted by the Anglosaxon political takeover.


It's been known for several decades that the establishment of Anglosaxon rule in England was not accompanied by a major shift in population. At around the same time, a similar process was occurring in what would become Scotland, except there the new rulers spoke Old Irish and were spreading the Gaelic language amongst speakers of Brythonic and Pictish. Ony the rulers changed, the ruled stayed where they were. This is not a new insight, recent work in genetics merely confirms what was already long known from other sources.


More worryingly, the article contains numerous errors. In particular the linguistic information it gives is quite inaccurate and is not accepted by any specialists in the field.


The term Celtic was introduced into Western scholarship in the early 18th century by the pioneering Welsh philologist Edward Lhuyd. Lhuyd was the first to identify a close relationship between the Gaelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx), the Brythonic languages (Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and a number of extinct languages spoken in classical times - Gaulish, Celtiberian, Galatian etc. As a linguistic term, Celtic has a precise scientific definition.


The term was soon adopted by nationalists in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, being popularised especially by Irish, Scottish and Welsh cultural revival movements of the 19th century. The Gaelic word Ceilteach and the Welsh word Celtiadd meaning 'Celtic' are borrowings from Greek via Latin like the English word. No modern Celtic language has an indigenous term for Celtic, but then equally English, Dutch, German and Scandinavian lack a common indigenous term for Germanic languages as a whole. 'Germanic' is also borrowed from Latin.


The location of the ancestral Celtic language in Central Europe derives from more than an erroneous understanding of Herotodus as claimed in the article. As members of the wider Indoeuropean language family, Celtic languages show linguistic features which link them particularly with Italic and Venetic languages on the one hand, and Germanic languages on the other. It's thus reasonable to assume that as the original Indoeuropean dialect complex broke up, proto-Celtic was spoken somewhere between proto-Germanic and proto-Italic speaking regions. This would place proto-Celtic in Central Europe.


Had Celtic developed in South Western Europe rather than Central Europe we'd expect to see a significant number of early Celtic loanwords in Basque but there are few Celtic loanwords of any date in Basque, and on linguistic grounds these loanwords are rather later and probably entered Basque through Latin. Equally there are no loanwords in Celtic as a whole which have been identified as Basque or Iberian, despite the fact that the ancient Iberians had an advanced material culture and should have exerted considerable cultural influence on evolving South-West European Celts. Iberian influence in Celtic is strictly limited to Celtiberian. This is consistent with Celtiberian being introduced into Iberia from outside and Celtic having evolved elsewhere.


On the other hand there is a significant number of very early Celtic loan words in Germanic, (eg English - oath, iron: German - Reich, Amt etc.) This locates speakers of early Celtic close to speakers of early Germanic. It also implies that the Celtic speakers were culturally or politically dominant because the direction of loan words was from Celtic to Germanic. In any case Central Europe is again the obvious location.


Central Europe is also the obvious dispersal site from what is known of later Celtic movements. According to Classical authors there were Celtic speakers in modern Hungary and Austria, as well as the historically attested migration of Celtic speakers from the Balkans into Anatolia where they became known as the Galatians. There are a fair number of place names of Celtic origin attested from Europe east of the Rhine, amongst them could be mentioned Vienna, Bohemia (from the Celtic tribal name Boii), and even the name of the river Danube.


In all these cases it's likely that a small Celtic speaking elite imposed their rule, and eventually their language, on a local population. This is most likely how Celtic speech arrived in the British Isles and Iberia and is actually attested historically in the case of the Galatians. There is no reason to believe these Celtic speakers would have replaced the previous inhabitants of the regions where they settled. Numerically they would have formed a tiny percentage of the population, but their political dominance caused the spread of their language.


The Belgae were certainly not Germanic speaking as Oppenheimer believes. Caesar just got it wrong. The Romans weren't particularly interested in the niceties of the linguistic classification of barbarians. The Belgae spoke a variety of Celtic all but identical to Gaulish and to early Brythonic, at most it was a different dialect. There is abundant evidence from other sources to confirm this. For example there are no early Germanic place names in territories in modern England known to have been Belgae in pre-Roman times. However there are plenty of Celtic place names - Kent, Penge and many more, all in south east England. The Christian writer St Jerome in his commentaries writes that the language of the Galatians (known to have been Celtic) was very similar to the language of Trier (now in Germany). The area around Trier was inhabited by Belgae tribes in pre-Roman times. Place name evidence from the former Belgae region confirms the closeness of the Belgae language to Gaulish as do the names of Belgae tribes and notables recorded by Classical writers.


The article mentions evidence that Old English separated from its continental cousins at an earlier date than is usually accepted. I'm really not at all sure how a geneticist can examine lexical evidence from a language and arrive at a date when it separated from its closest relative. There is only one such technique known to comparative linguists, it's called lexicostatistics and is regarded as being so inaccurate it's of no real use. It's even less useful when applied to deliberately artificial types of language like the literary style used in Old English epic poetry.


The statistical models used by geneticists posit binary splits and create "family trees" of genes, the date of the genetic split can then be measured against a known rate of genetic change over time. These models work well with genes, it's unlikely that a single gene will show two simultaneous mutations so binary splits are precisely what occur, and the rate of random genetic mutation is more or less constant. However this doesn't reflect how languages change over time. Languages do not change at a consistent rate. The rate of linguistic change varies over time, linguistic change is more rapid during periods of social change and when different languages come into contact. Some languages change far more rapidly than others, modern English is quite a different language from Old English. Modern English speakers have to learn Old English as a 'foreign' language - yet speakers of modern Icelandic can quite easily read texts in Old Norse. There is no 'lexical clock' analagous to the 'genetic clock' that geneticists use to date genetic lineages.


To further complicate matters, a single parent language can quite easily give rise to several daughter languages more or less simultaneously. The family tree of languages should show many multiple splits, not simple binary ones. Germanic shows precisely this pattern - Old English, Old Frisian, Old West Franconian and the rest all appear more or less simultaneously as the original Germanic dialect complex broke up. Old English bears clear and obvious connections with Old Frisian and Old Low Franconian. In the 5th century they were not distinct languages, together with other Germanic dialects they formed part of a dialect complex. To their south and east were Low German dialects, to the north the predecessors of Scandinavian. It's therefore to be expected that earlier forms of English would show features in common with Scandinavian, they were neighbouring dialects and during their earlier history they were mutually intelligible.


The fact there are few Celtic loanwords in Old English isn't really relevant here. Whether and how one language borrows from another is a function of the political and cultural relationships between speakers of the languages concerned and the roles played by the respective languages within their own communities. Old English did not borrow much from the Celtic language Brythonic for the simple reason that Brythonic speakers were politically dominated by speakers of Old English, and within Brythonic society itself the language of prestige was Latin, not the Brythonic vernacular. For this reason Brythonic speakers are usually referred to as Romano-Britons. Under the circumstances of a political take-over by small groups of Anglosaxon speakers, the only route to social advancement for a Brythonic speaker would be a rapid assimilation to Anglosaxon linguistic and cultural norms. Any surviving aspects of their previous Romano-British identity would naturally be expressed in Old English by loan words from Latin not from Celtic.


Oppenheimer's study of the date of the separation of the English language from its closest relatives is quite simply useless. It takes no account of linguistic realities. Languages do not behave like genes.


Oppenheimer also states in his article "Given the distribution of Celtic languages in southwest Europe, it is most likely that they were spread by a wave of agriculturalists who dispersed 7,000 years ago from Anatolia..." Since the primary distribution of Celtic is North West Central Europe with later extensions into the British Isles, South East Europe and Iberia, this theory can be discounted. Oppenheimer's theory ultimately derives from the work of the British archaeologist Colin Renfrew who believes that Indoeuropean languages first evolved in Anatolia. Renfrew's view is not accepted by most specialists in Indoeuropean languages as it does severe violence to the linguistic facts. Most linguists believe Indoeuropean to have emerged as a distinct language complex in the Pontic Steppe region or in the area north of the Black Sea around 5000 to 6000 years ago. Renfrew's theory does not easily explain why ancient Greek and Sanskrit are far more similar to one another than either is to the Anatolian Hittite. Neither does it account for the early contacts between Indoeuropean and Uralic languages as evidenced by a considerable number of early Indoeuropean loanwords in Uralic languages. Uralic languages were originally spoken across much of what is now central European Russia.


In fact some linguists believe that Indoeuropean and Uralic are actually related to one another and are different branches of a larger language family called Eurasiatic or Nostratic. Adherents of this view usually recognise a particularly close association between Indoeuropean and Uralic as they share a number of grammatical features which don't tend to be borrowed.


Oppenheimer's genetic study does not require any revision of current archaeological or linguistic theories regarding the origin and dispersal of the Celts as a linguistic-cultural complex. It's a great pity that geneticists often have such a poor notion of processes of language change and language shift. The truth is that genes tell you very little about language. A person can only have one allele of any given gene, but they can have two languages. Many cultures are characterised by patterns of bilingualism or multilingualism. Multilingualism was certainly far more prevalent in the ancient past. Languages and genes can and do travel independently of one another. We always inherit our genes, but we only tend to inherit our language. We inherit either our father's or our mother's version of a given gene, but if the parents speak different languages then the child can end up with either language, or both, or a third and different language entirely. Genes come only from your parents, but the single biggest influence affecting what becomes your dominant language is not your parents, it's the peer group you grew up in.


I come from a district in Scotland where there have been no less than 4 dominant languages in the last 1200 years or so - without any shift in population or one group arriving and replacing another. The area where I was born and brought up was largely Brythonic (Old Welsh) in speech until around the year 900 when Scottish Gaelic became dominant, Gaelic in turn gave way to Lowland Scots around the 13th century. After the union of Scotland with England in 1707, the dominant spoken language and only written language became English. I learned a somewhat anglicised dialect of Lowland Scots as my mother tongue, in early childhood I learned to distinguish 'proper English' from Lowland Scots. Still a young child I began learning Gaelic, which had been spoken by older generations in my family. Which one of these languages is 'really' mine?


Modern Celts are not a myth even though they cannot be defined genetically. Identity and ethnicity do not derive from your genes, instead they derive from your culture and your language(s) and the historical experience of the society into which you happen to be born and where you grew up. Modern Celts are defined by and united by the common historical experience of being small cultural-linguistic groups on the Atlantic edge of Europe which had the misfortune to fall under the political and cultural domination of far larger and more powerful neighbours. All of them share the recent historical experiences of language shift and political struggles for self-government which can fairly be described as anti-colonialist. These historical experiences created the modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh nations. It just so happens that these nations have indigenous languages which all belong to the same language family - Celtic.

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Welcome to ExC, and thanks for a well penned post.


I find these interesting articles from all over 'net and hang them here. Commentaries and opinions from others, such as yours on this subject, make for great discussion and learning.


Pleased to have you onboard.



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