This is, in part, a review of Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland (hereafter SV&C), which I am carelessly posting here without even checking to see whether actual smart people, notably the ones over at Albion’s Seedlings (to say nothing of Gene Expression), have already written it up, mainly because they’ll have done a better job than me. Notice: “in part.” The book doesn’t take long to summarize, so after the genetics I’ll wander off into culture, including but not limited to linguistics.
Warning: spoilers. SV&C is, in a sense, a series of cliffhangers, and I’m going to reveal the ending.
The traditional narrative of the peopling of the British Isles goes something like this:
- An aboriginal population wandered in at the close of the last Ice Age and hung around for several thousand years, building megaliths and what not.
- Around the middle of the first millennium BC, they were displaced, and effectively exterminated, by an invasion of Celts from continental Europe.
- The Celts, at least those in what is now England and Wales, were then conquered by the Romans in the 1st century AD. Roman domination was political rather than demographic and in any event ended in the 5th century.
- After the Roman withdrawal, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded from northwestern Germany and overran most of Great Britain, confining the Celts to Cornwall, Wales, and the Scottish Highlands.
- Viking raids, mostly from Norway, began in the late 8th century but did not result in significant colonization.
- A Danish invasion in the 9th century was contained by Alfred the Great and limited to northeastern England (the Danelaw).
- The Norman Conquest in 1066 led to the replacement of a large minority of the population by Normans (themselves the descendants of Vikings) and their French allies.
- Northern Ireland was colonized by Anglo-Saxons from northern Britain in the 17th century, displacing some of the native Celtic population.
- The population of the isles is therefore minority Celt (Ireland, Wales, Scottish Highlands) and majority Anglo-Saxon, with admixtures of Dane, Norman, and French.
The above sequence turns out to be linguistically correct but demographically pretty wildly wrong, with interesting implications for those of us descended from Britain, and (as I will contend) dramatic implications for Anglospheric culture.
To cut to the chase: the vast majority, on the order of 90%, of the British genome is as indigenous as it could possibly be. The people living in the UK and Ireland today are, with surprisingly minor exceptions, directly descended from the aboriginal post-Ice Age population of the Atlantic coast of Europe, and are most closely related to the inhabitants of western France, Spain, and Portugal.
To the modest extent that their ancestry departs from this, by far the largest contribution is Danish, the people supposedly handily suppressed by Alfred. Genetic evidence of the Anglo-Saxon-Jute invasion is far less abundant, and the Norman Conquest is all but invisible. It is not surprising that the Romans left almost no trace; but there is no evidence of any substantial Celtic invasion from mainland Europe. As for the plantations in Northern Ireland, the Protestants turn out to have the same ancestors as the Catholics they displaced.
We are left, then, with a reality in which terms like “Celt” and “Anglo-Saxon” don’t mean what we are accustomed to thinking they mean. The British Isles are inhabited by people who are no more Celtic or Anglo-Saxon than are a majority of Americans today – a point to which I will return. But they speak Celtic and (interestingly enhanced) Germanic languages.
As David Hackett Fischer could tell you, cultures transmit rather easily across ethnic lines in the right circumstances, the more spectacular American examples being southern/western England/Chesapeake Bay -> African-Americans and East Anglia/New England/Puritan -> Irish/Italian-American Catholic. I note that Fischer attempts to trace the four prominent American subcultures arising from the 17th and 18th century waves of colonization both forward, to the late 20th century (Albion’s Seed was published in 1988), and backward, to the first-millennium colonization of Britain from the Continent and the early second-millennium warfare between England and Scotland. SV&C makes this seem much more reasonable – indeed, recognizable cultural antecedents of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borderers very likely lie, or lay, across the Channel (or the North Sea) just as surely as do the nearest relatives of the language they all spoke.
For a more recent example, see the linguistic Anglicization of Ireland in the 19th century, and the explosion of stereotypically Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurialism in Ireland in the late 20th. And of course, a large majority of the American population is not descended from the British Isles. The transmission of English language and culture to the UK’s former colonies outside of North America has been dealt with so well elsewhere that I will not mention it in any detail here. In light of the genetic findings of SV&C, which clearly demonstrate that a small (sometimes vanishingly small) ethnic minority can effectively impose its language on an indigenous population, the question that leaps to my mind is:
What are the limits of diffusion for the Anglosphere?
To make the question less conceptual: can a relatively small American presence, backed by the gravity well of an $11 trillion economy, the largest language in the world (over 1 million words), and enormous charm industries – and frequently accompanied by aggressively evangelical religious proselytizing – draw much of humanity into its orbit? Are the conquests of the past the only sufficient mechanism, or can the soft power of the present and future do it all?
The usual objection is that ancient cultures have too much momentum, or perhaps merely inertia, of their own to be supplanted by a young upstart. But the inhabitants of the British Isles had been there for at least six thousand years before they began speaking Celtic, and another thousand when Anglo-Saxon arrived. Why should we think it unusual if most of humanity, with no European ancestry whatsoever, is speaking English, and going about their daily lives in startlingly American-seeming ways, by the end of this century?
The point cannot be overemphasized: ancestry is not destiny. Cultural diffusion matters; an emphasis on processes, or simple pragmatism, matters; ideas matter. Watch for the spread of English as a first language (the Netherlands), of dollarization (Ecuador, El Salvador), of “Southern Christianity,” of common law legal systems. Most of all, watch for neat definitions of the Anglosphere to become less workable as its boundaries blur. The near future may see the massive, yet bloodless, displacement of the language and folkways of billions of people.
Whatever SV&C‘s implications for the Anglosphere, we can look forward to the duplication of its techniques elsewhere. I would be fascinated to see the results of a good genetic survey of Brazil (which is far more multiethnic than even the US), and of India, where the Aryan/Dravidian dichotomy seems likely to be subject to immense elucidation.