Breaking Glass

Once There Was a War

Sut mae?  Sut rydych chi?”

I’m going to assume that most readers did not understand those phrases, which translate roughly to “How are you?  How are things going?”  And that lack of comprehension is a critical historical fact, because, if a generation of British historians and archaeologists is correct, then you should have no problem in following that conversation.  The words are in Welsh, which is the lineal descendant of the Celtic languages that ordinary people spoke in Britain for many centuries before about a.d. 400.  Yet somehow, between 400 and 600, that older language more or less disappeared in the most prosperous parts of that island, which became England.  It was English, not British or Welsh, that spread around the world.

How did the linguistic change happen?  Up till 60 years ago, the answer was simple.  At the end of the Roman Empire, Britain was raided by Germanic peoples, variously known as Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes.  Hoping to buy them off, British rulers took some of those barbarians into their service, but around 440, the mercenaries rebelled and launched a horrendous massacre described by the British writer Gildas.  Native British peoples were annihilated or ethnically cleansed, or else survived as slaves and tributary peoples on the distant margins of society.  By the seventh century Germanic peoples had spread their...

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