We were all taught in school that the English were descended from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries, bringing their lowland German language with them. That now appears to be one of the greatest historical mistakes of the early Middle Ages.
The English themselves first made the mistake in the sixth century, writing in their histories that the invading Germans wiped out or drove off the native Britons, a somewhat Romanized Celtic-speaking people who retreated to the wilds of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. Since then the mistake has been handed down without question to the present day.
Now we know, thanks to the 9,000-year-old Cheddar Man, that the Britons weren’t all wiped out or driven off: They stayed right where they were and carried on as usual, in the best British fashion, under their new Anglo-Saxon overlords.
This raises the questions: When did they all learn English? And, more mysteriously, why did they forget their own native “Brittonic” so completely?
It is possible for conquering elites like the Anglo-Saxons to teach their tongue to conquered locals, but it is virtually impossible for conquering elites to stop the locals from speaking their own tongue. Why? Because language is learned in the home, in the most intimate of settings, out of the reach of the powers that be.
History is replete with examples proving this point. The Welsh, Scots, and Irish all learned English in time, yet their own Celtic languages still survive — 900 years later — while the conquering Normans (Norse-men, originally from Scandinavia) were obliged to learn French in Normandy, English in England, and Sicilian in Sicily.
So what explains the sudden disappearance of Brittonic in England? Only a thorough “ethnic cleansing” can, but the genetic evidence proves that England was not ethnically cleansed of Britons, for the English today are mostly descended from them.
It seems now likely that the process of teaching Britons the Germanic language that became English began much, much earlier, well before the arrival of the Angles and Saxons in the fourth and fifth centuries, and even well before the arrival of the Romans in the first. Geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer explains in the British magazine Prospect (emphasis added):
When I looked at exact gene type matches between the British Isles and the continent, there were indeed specific matches between the continental Anglo-Saxon homelands and England, but these amounted to only 5 per cent of modern English male lines, rising to 15 per cent in parts of Norfolk where the Angles first settled. There were no such matches with Frisia, which tends to confirm a specific Anglo-Saxon event since Frisia is closer to England, so would be expected to have more matches.
When I examined dates of intrusive male gene lines to look for those coming in from northwest Europe during the past 3,000 years, there was a similarly low rate of immigration, by far the majority arriving in the Neolithic period. The English maternal genetic record (mtDNA) is consistent with this and contradicts the Anglo-Saxon wipeout story. English females almost completely lack the characteristic Saxon mtDNA marker type still found in the homeland of the Angles and Saxons. The conclusion is that there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion, but of a minority elite type, with no evidence of subsequent “sexual apartheid.”
The orthodox view is that the entire population of the British Isles, including England, was Celtic-speaking when Caesar invaded. But if that were the case, a modest Anglo-Saxon invasion is unlikely to have swept away all traces of Celtic language from the pre-existing population of England. Yet there are only half a dozen Celtic words in English, the rest being mainly Germanic, Norman or medieval Latin. One explanation is that England was not mainly Celtic-speaking before the Anglo-Saxons. Consider, for example, the near-total absence of Celtic inscriptions in England (outside Cornwall), although they are abundant in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany.
To summarize Oppenheimer’s main points: The original (post Ice Age) settlers of Britain were Basques from Iberia, who came up the coast as the ice receded; most Britons are descended from Neolithic peoples in Britain over 7,000 years ago; Celtic influence in England was slight, probably on account of very early Scandinavian presence in Britain; when the Romans arrived, Britons were already speaking a Germanic language similar to that of the continental Belgae (and Frisians, who were probably Belgae); and the Celts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, and Normans didn’t add much to the English gene pool.
To top things off, Oppenheimer says some researchers suggest English might represent a fourth branch of Germanic language evolving simultaneously with West Germanic (Dutch, Low German, High German, Frisian, Afrikaans) and North Germanic (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese).