Stephen Oppenheimer responds to readers' questions and comments on his October 2006 article on British ancestryby Stephen Oppenheimer / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect’s blog
Stephen Oppenheimer’s article “Myths of British ancestry” in the October 2006 issue of Prospect attracted a huge online readership, and continues to generate comments and responses. Here, Oppenheimer replies to a number of them.
Q—Stephen Oppenheimer’s fascinating thesis helps to answer one of the most vexing questions of dark-age British history: why is there so little trace of Celtic culture in England and in the English language? The fact that so little remains of Celtic influence in England in terms of place names—outside Cornwall and Cumbria—and in the language points to a long process of cultural conquest by the 4th and 3rd centuries BC Belgic invaders, who were Germanic, as implied by Julius Caesar’s history of his British adventures. The cultural and linguistic origins of the English are thus pre-Roman. The Anglo-Saxon elite invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries AD reinforced, rather than created, a pre-existing difference between the proto-English and the culturally Celtic of the western fringes of the British Isles.
A—This letter draws attention to an aspect of the evidence that I understate in my book, namely the near-absence of Celtic influence in modern English place names. Whereas there are a couple of examples of near-complete “language shift” with absence of borrowing from a previous aboriginal vocabulary, indigenous place names are in general more resistant to extinction. This can be seen in America and Australia, which retain a considerable number of indigenous place names. These two examples are interesting, not only because massive replacement and genocide took place, but also because Australian and American English retain far more aboriginal vocabulary than native English retains Celtic. England itself retains pre-Indo-European place and river names, but few Celtic names, and the English language has literally only a handful of Celtic words.
The fact that England is such a “Celtic desert” is a problem for linguists who believe that Anglo-Saxon triumphed in what had been a totally Celtic-speaking region, even given the gory stories of massacre. This problem is because the Angles and Saxons apparently carried out a much better job of language extinction than in Australia and America, where genocide and massive replacement are so well documented. The “overkill” problem is acknowledged by English place name authority Richard Coates in a recent article “Invisible Britons: the view from linguistics,” where he concludes either that the genocide was complete…