The East-West Divide: Stephen Oppenheimer’s ‘The Origins of the British’


Stephen Oppenheimer is an ‘Associate’ of the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, a popular science writer and a public speaker. In this book he drew on the research of many geneticists, archaeologists, historians, linguists, geologists, climatologists etc. He is a primarily a geneticist himself (his first career was in medicine and medical research) – and I’m sure it is the DNA data, that is only just starting to be uncovered, that is going to solve this riddle of what really happened in Dark Age Britain. I’ve seen Oppenheimer interviewed on television about his other important book ‘Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World’, where some of his ideas are new and hence controversial, as are his ideas about the origins of the British that I discuss here.

Stephen Oppenheimer’s argument in this book from 2006, as far as I understand it (and without all the nuances of his 600+ pages), is that Britain was re-peopled during the period since the northern ice sheets last retreated by different peoples from geographically separate areas of Europe.
Note: the end of the last glacial period was around 12,000 years ago – before that Britain was under a thick layer of ice and no one lived there permanently; and at that time and until about 8000 years ago it’s also important to realise that Britain was still attached by a ‘land bridge’ to Northern Europe ie to what is now Denmark, Holland and northern Germany, so it was not an island.

These different peoples that Oppenheimer proposes came to Britain had different cultures and presumably spoke different languages, and this latter is the aspect I am most interested in. Germanic people (whose language probably became English) arrived in the east side of Britain (possibly some even walked over the land bridge). People from the French south west coast and northern Spain migrated to the western side of the country and to Ireland. Oppenheimer suggests that the Celtic language(s) spoken in the west which eventually became Welsh, Cornish and the long extinct Cumbric (and Breton still spoken in Brittany in Northern France) may have arrived later with another group of peoples. Note: Gaelic and Irish and Manx form a different branch of the insular Celtic languages of the British Isles and may have arrived/developed separately.

Oppenheimer’s explanation is quite complex – languages and cultures may have arrived at different times, and over extended periods – but the basic idea is the same ie an ancient East-West divide of Britain, with peoples of different origins and languages present from early times. This probably happened thousands of years before the period of the Roman occupation of Britain, let alone that of the Anglo Saxons who ‘arrived’(?) in the fifth century when the Romans left.

The assumption has always been that all the peoples of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 spoke one language – Britonnic, a Celtic language. Thus the argument goes that the ‘poor’ native Britons who spoke this Celtic language must have retreated to the fringes of Britain – to Scotland/Cumbria and Wales and Cornwall – by the ‘nasty’ Germanic speaking Anglo Saxons who first settled in the East of the country and then moved further and further west – or so the story goes. However, all our history/pre-history books are wrong if Stephen Oppenheimer’s ideas about the origins of the British prove to be correct. Perhaps the British Celts were not so downtrodden, and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were not so oppressive as we have all been led to believe.

I could never understand how the Anglo Saxon ‘invaders’ could have brought English with them and imposed it on the indigenous Britons. My gut reaction has always been that this makes no sense. When I discovered this book by Stephen Oppenheimer it was a Eureka moment – and I couldn’t figure out (and still can’t) why everyone else wasn’t convinced by it, and why just about every history book or passing reference to the Anglo Saxon period continues to trot out the same old story (first told to us by Saint Bede in 731 AD in the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English people’).

Archaeologists have found no evidence of war or destruction at the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period – the native population was not wiped out, and there is evidence of continuous occupation of farming communities throughout the period eg at West Heslerton in East Yorkshire (I’ll be looking at this and other archaeological evidence in future posts). Yet the idea has persisted that there was an ‘invasion’ and this is how the English language arrived in Britain.

More recently some historians and archaeologists have started talking about an Anglo-Saxon elite, a small rather than mass migration, imposing their language on the native population. They’ve had to switch to this theory due to new DNA evidence, and the lack of a invasion evidence in the archaeology. According to this theory the Anglo-Saxon elite did not allow the native Britons to have children which is one way to account for new genetic evidence.

However, this seems just as unlikely as an invasion if you consider what happened when the Romans and the Normans came – both of which consisted of elites who took power. Think about this: a) when the Romans came in AD 43 they stayed for nearly 400 years but their language (Latin) didn’t stick; b) when the Normans came in 1066 they spoke French, which was used at court and by all people in positions of power in England and Wales for the next 400 years, but then English re-emerged – with lots of French and Latin now incorporated, but still basically English.

What is very interesting is that recent linguistic research (as I briefly mentioned in my first post on Francis Pryor’s TV programme ‘Britain AD’) shows that English was influenced by Celtic in its grammar. There is archaeological evidence in West Heslerton from the people buried in its cemeteries in the early Anglo-Saxon period, that a lot of people from the west of Britain were emigrating east – up to 50% were in-comers from western areas according to Powlesland’s research (based on teeth enamel evidence).

These internal immigrants probably spoke a dialect of Celtic, which may have been what caused changes to English grammar (when it starting diverging from other Germanic languages which use inflected grammar systems ie word endings change meaning rather than word order as in English). The proposal is that Celtic in-comers, who spoke English as a second language, struggled with the word endings, and eventually their ‘mistakes’ started to be used by native speakers, creating the next reincarnation of the English language.

English is a world-wide language today because it has always absorbed vocabulary from other languages, it has been adopted by different peoples, and now we learn it probably absorbed grammar changes from Celtic. Even in Britain today, the original home of English, there are many different regional accents and dialects – eg depending on if you are in Liverpool or Newcastle or London etc – which is one of the things second language speakers struggle to deal with when they come to live here. But we are a global community now and we need global languages – surely this is how a global language (a new phenomenon) could be expected to develop – no one owns it, and it changes and adapts – like any living thing.

I know when I write about Britain I talk about it in a very ethnocentric way – it’s hard to break out of that habit. But in fact I wasn’t born on this patch of earth, one of my parents is (or rather was, as he has recently died) American and his ancestors that carried my surname originally came from Bavaria (before Germany existed as a nation) to the US in 1851. So I am not British through and through, but I am a first language English speaker, and I suppose that’s where I feel I belong – part of a language community as much as a geographical one.

In my lifetime there has been the revolution of the internet and the world wide web, and then Facebook and blogging and other forms of social media, and we need global languages we can identify with in order to develop an exciting, creative and friendly global community. But we all know English speaking people have dominated empires and imperial world views over the last 500 years or so, and this is definitely a mark against the language. After all the Roman Empire and Latin similarly dominated until 1500 years ago, and look what happened to them.

In addition, we mustn’t forget that we need the history and ideas that are wrapped up in all of the 7000 or so languages that are spoken around the world today (plus the ‘dead’ ones like Latin and Old English, and those struggling to survive like Manx, Cornish and many others) – every language is so rich and exciting, and I so admire people who can speak/understand more than one (I have tried to learn lots and always failed!).

So what do other people think? I will be returning to these issues, including other research I have touched on here, and to Stephen Oppenheimer’s book, in future posts, but meanwhile I would be interested in anyone’s comments.


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