Britain’s first settlers emigrated from what is now France or Spain, anywhere from seven to twelve thousand years ago, while Britain was still mostly covered with ice, and before the English Channel made an island of it. Well, that’s the conventional wisdom. I think France is a reasonable guess, but Spain might have been too far to come by boats made of woven reeds.
I’ve never heard of any guesses as to why the first settlers moved from their homes to an uninhabited land at the end of the habitable earth. Were they nomads who slept in caves, or rude shelters in forests like those of the Australian aborigines? Were they men-only, or mixed company? Did they move of their own accord, or were they exiled by the folks back home, to survive if they could? Might they have been a convict colony, an early Devil’s Island? Or the remnants of a clan defeated in battle, victims of prehistoric ethnic-cleansing?
Despite the huge time-gap, could the 17th Century settlement of Cayman hold any clues? Maybe so. Our islands were first settled by vagabonds, outlaws and escaped slaves. There was no existing population, and no law or administration. We don’t know their individual names or colours, except to the degree that we can trace backwards in time from their descendants.
The point is that there is a huge difference between settling a land where others already live, and virgin territory. Britain would not have been a welcoming place: wild animals and weeds are all that would have greeted the original adventurers, and some young forests growing up as the ice retreated northward. The population of the new land may have amounted to only a few hundred – maybe a thousand – for the first several generations.
It has been claimed that the DNAs of those first few hundred are present in today’s “native” British (not just the English). If that’s so, then it’s more likely than not that one common language was spoken – the language of the folks back home. And it’s more likely than not that that language was the ancestor of both French and English.
The ancestral languages would have changed under the influence of other languages they met – more in France than in Britain, since there were no other languages in Britain to begin with. The rampaging tribes from the east took hundreds of years to reach Britain in any numbers.
Last year I blogged (English as she is spoke, July 2013) that it is accents that are responsible for the way words are pronounced, not dialects. In the course of time, seemingly insignificant changes of pronunciation cause words to become incomprehensible. Look at French and English words. Look at French and English personal names.
What names did the aborigines of Britain bear? We’ve no idea. Ug and Ogg… Ben and Ken… Molly and Polly… who knows? We don’t even know what they called themselves as a community, or what differentiations existed within the community. Were they from a single family or clan, or were they clans that coalesced into a new tribe – like The Children of Israel did (as per my blog of January 2012)? And like the settlers of Cayman did in the 19th Century when former slaves and their former owners shrugged off their distinctions and became “native” Caymanians with a tribal identity that was peculiarly their own.
Molly and Polly are the same name, differentiated only by dialectal preferences in the way the initial consonants are sounded. Matt and Pat, too. The letter -p- requires only the slightest vocalization to become -mp- and then -m-. There’s no change of lip movement, even. In the middle of French words, it‘s called nasalization when mp shrinks to p – and when nt skips the n sound. La plume de ma tante… C'est simple.
The earliest recorded name of the island of Britain is, actually, Britain, called after the inhabitants whom the scribes called “Britanni” or "Pretani”. Unfortunately, that record is thousands of years – hundreds of generations – after the original settlement, and its value as evidence is negligible. Nevertheless, it’s the only hint we have. And if we can find a plausible base for Britanni, we may be onto something.
Next blog: The Ancient Clans of England.