How the English language arose is a captivating story with a great cast of characters, though they happen to be groups of people and texts rather individuals. It’s the story of a language emerging out of the mists, seemingly out of nowhere, before catching wind and taking over the planet as the first truly global language. It’s also a story that’s been told by many authors and scholars in different ways. And it increasingly appears that for the past 100 years most of those telling the story have gotten it mostly wrong.
The Celtic problem
Let’s begin at a starting point far enough back in time to take in the larger view, the situation of the British Isles some 2,000 years ago. The isles were populated by one or two million Britons, scattered throughout the land in hamlets or homesteads, who, the story goes, spoke various Celtic languages and dialects, about which there remains a fair amount of uncertainty since they never wrote their language down. It’s assumed the Celts crossed over from the Continent in successive waves over the previous several centuries, bringing a new version of their language each time. For instance, the hostile tribes known as the Picts who had been pushed up to northern Scotland by newly invading Celts may have spoken an earlier version of Celtic. Collectively the Celtic tongues spoken in Britain have been variously termed “Insular Celtic,” “Brittonic,” or simply “British,” to distinguish them from the Celtic spoken on the Continent.