How English arose is a captivating story with a great cast of characters, though they happen to be groups of people and texts rather individuals. It emerges out of the mists seemingly from nowhere, flounders, and changes into something else, before finally catching wind and taking over the planet as the first truly global language. It’s also a story that’s been told and retold by many authors and scholars. And it increasingly appears that for the past 100 years most of those telling the story have gotten it 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. One or two million Britons populated the land, scattered about in hamlets or homesteads, and the story goes, speaking various Celtic languages and dialects, about which there is much uncertainty as they were never written 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. The hostile tribes known as the Picts, for instance, who had been pushed up to northern Scotland by newly invading Celts, may have spoken an earlier form of Celtic. Collectively the Celtic tongues of Britain have been termed “Insular Celtic,” “Brittonic,” or simply “British,” to distinguish them from the Celtic on the Continent.