To recap, briefly, there's a Professor Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University who has painstakingly gathered sophisticated, high-tech genetic data proving that the British are just as indigenous to Britain as the Aborigines are to Australia, or the Inuit to the Arctic. Forget all that nonsense, he says, about Celts being the true Britons, or the English really being “Anglo-Saxons”, relatively new arrivals from the land of the Angles (Denmark) or Saxony on the north German plain.
All of us, he says, English, Scots, Welsh, and even the Irish ( yes the Irish as well, bless their little linen socks ) are for the most part descended from Basque immigrants. It was these hardy folk, Europe’s great survivors, who migrated from their homeland, in the Pyrenees, and who re-populated Britain after the last Ice Age. But it happened so long ago (15,000 years) that Britain was then still part of Continental Europe, joined by a land bridge.
So the new arrivals would have had to make some effort to get on with their new neighbours. At some point these Basque settlers dumped their own language in favour of the local lingua franca (hardly surprising, one might think, looking at the complexity of Basque, at least to our eyes and ears: Basque is like no other language).
In so doing the Basques became 'proto-British', in exactly the same way, many millennia later, a group of Scandinavian settlers in northern France adopted the local language, dropped their own, and in so doing became proto-French. We call them the Normans ( a good name because it alludes to their origins).
Oppenheimer has some other surprises too (while straying away from hard genetics into more contentious areas of linguistics): he believes that English is NOT derived from a 5th century Germanic tongue, brought in by Anglo-Saxon settlers, as we were told at school, but from an earlier Germanic tongue that was established well before the Roman invasion.
So our genes are mainly (typically 80-90%) indigenous, rather than foreign imports. We are not mongrels, Heinz 57 varieties, forced to console ourselves with the thought that what we may lack in ethnic authenticity, in finely groomed pedigree status, we hopefully make up for in hybrid vigour.
Whether we consider ourselves as English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, we are all “British”. Ah, but meaning what, you may ask ? A second generation Jamaican living in Manchester is British, but is unlikely to have Basque genes, and is indeed very happy with the ones he has got. Whilst not especially enamoured of my first name, I’d have been very happy to have Powell as a surname, all nicely preceded by General, with gold braid, chauffered limousine and salary to match ! Yes, Colin (“Coe-leen”) Powell has a Jamaican Mum and Dad.
So if we want to talk meaningfully about our origins in pre-history - our roots- what we are clearly lacking is a word that is a collective for the indigenous population of the British Isles , ie GB and Ireland (Eire and Ulster) prior to the arrival of more recent immigrants.
But I can't think of one, off the top of my head. So let’s invent one, for the purpose of this exercise, to avoid possible confusion, and likewise to avoid giving offence to the many splendid folk of so-called New Commonwealth origin. Many of them have contributed in numerous ways, large and small, to modern British society.
How about “Basque-British” or simply “Basquish” for starters?
There's one drawback : 15,000 years is a long time to be separated from one's antecedents. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge. Actually, there's quite a lot we share in common - raising sheep, fishing, building ships etc. But the problem has been that language of their's. A lot of Brits have learned to speak Spanish, both Castilian and Catalan. But how many do you know how can speak Basque ? As I say, we've lost contact with our forbears. The linguistic phone went dead a long time ago. We both of us hung up. So few of us will rush precipately into calling ourselves Basquish.
So while we gradually get back on speaking terms, let’s look for a different name for ourselves, enlighted with Oppenheimer's research and scholarship.
There are many folk these days who make no secret of their dissatisfaction with the term "British". I know I do. It’s too vague to mean anything useful. Some have now retreated back to their "footballing" national identity.
Here’s a suggestion. The Romans had a
But that leaves the problem what to call the Irish ? Oh dear, there's just no escaping that Irish Question.
Well, one thing's for certain. The inhabitants of the Irish Republic (Eire) will probably not be rushing to celebrate their genetic kinship with us Brits, so are not a problem.
The difficulty as ever, is with those folk in the north, they of the Scottish antecedents, we are told. Although before that I understand they were Irish, like, you know, Irish Irish. (It’s all so complicated ! ).
The Romans called the island of Ireland “Hibernia”. By this reckoning, the Rev Ian Paisley could be described as “Hiberno-Britannian”. I'm sure he's had some less flattering descriptions in his time. But in the event that even he, with his formidable tongue, might find "Hiberno-Britannian" too much of a mouthful, he might prefer to go on calling himself an Ulsterman, or just plain British (on the assumption that he won't be confused with the Paisleys who divide their time between Brixton and Kingston. Kingston, Jamaica that is).
All this semantic ground-work is in preparation for tomorrow’s post. It’s to placate a little fellow who’s been crashing around on a certain hippo- campus for days, staging endless protests, sit-ins, waving placards, having tantrums, demanding instant solutions, immediate redress.
So what’s got hippo so worked up ? Well, I'll tell you. It began with his reading about Stephen Oppenheimer. And it progressed from there. And it's all come to be focused on one little word. Correction: two hyphenated words. It’s that term that the French have for us, whenever the subject of economic and social policy differences arise, which is like – every day. You’ve guessed it. Anglo-Saxon.
Yes, hippo demands action and redress. And if he doesn’t get it, then you know what ? He’ll start to retaliate in kind, by referring to the French* as, guess what ? Normans !
Read what hippo has to say tomorrow, dear friends.
*Well, the northern ones at least. Not my antiboulenc* next-door neighbours, perish the thought. Some of our best friends (now) are French.