A correspondent sent me a Prospect Magazine story by Stephen Oppenheimer about the ethnic origins of modern Britons. Now, I’m very suspicious of attempts to apply biology to linguistics, and I’ve bashed Oppenheimer before, but what the hell, I’ll toss an excerpt up and see if anyone has anything useful to add:
So who were the Britons inhabiting England at the time of the Roman invasion? The history of pre-Roman coins in southern Britain reveals an influence from Belgic Gaul. The tribes of England south of the Thames and along the south coast during Caesar’s time all had Belgic names or affiliations. Caesar tells us that these large intrusive settlements had replaced an earlier British population, which had retreated to the hinterland of southeast England. The latter may have been the large Celtic tribe, the Catuvellauni, situated in the home counties north of the Thames. Tacitus reported that between Britain and Gaul “the language differs but little.”
The common language referred to by Tacitus was probably not Celtic, but was similar to that spoken by the Belgae, who may have been a Germanic people, as implied by Caesar. In other words, a Germanic-type language could already have been indigenous to England at the time of the Roman invasion. In support of this inference, there is some recent lexical (vocabulary) evidence analysed by Cambridge geneticist Peter Forster and continental colleagues. They found that the date of the split between old English and continental Germanic languages goes much further back than the dark ages, and that English may have been a separate, fourth branch of the Germanic language before the Roman invasion.
Apart from the Belgian connection in the south, my analysis of the genetic evidence also shows that there were major Scandinavian incursions into northern and eastern Britain, from Shetland to Anglia, during the Neolithic period and before the Romans. These are consistent with the intense cultural interchanges across the North sea during the Neolithic and bronze age. Early Anglian dialects, such as found in the old English saga Beowulf, owe much of their vocabulary to Scandinavian languages. This is consistent with the fact that Beowulf was set in Denmark and Sweden and that the cultural affiliations of the early Anglian kingdoms, such as found in the Sutton Hoo boat burial, derive from Scandinavia.
A picture thus emerges of the dark-ages invasions of England and northeastern Britain as less like replacements than minority elite additions, akin to earlier and larger Neolithic intrusions from the same places. There were battles for dominance between chieftains, all of Germanic origin, each invader sharing much culturally with their newly conquered indigenous subjects.
Oh, and he thinks Brits are really Basques: “But the English still derive most of their current gene pool from the same early Basque source as the Irish, Welsh and Scots.”
Thanks for the link, Paul!