That's a good question. And it's also the title of an interesting website that I have recently discovered. Its authors ("Michael Goormachtigh with the help of Dr Anthony Durham") propose an alternative view on the origins of English. According to them, English was spoken in England long before the 'arrival' of the Jutes, Angles and Saxons in the 5th c. AD. And there are important reasons to think so, as they show in the various sections of the website. Sound familiar? Definitely. They're not the only ones who have proposed these hypotheses, as we have seen in this blog with reference to the Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm (PCP) and the works of Mario Alinei and Xaverio Ballester. Apparently, however, Goormachtigh and Durham are not aware of the existence of the Continuity Theory, and it's quite interesting that they have reached similar conclusions independently.
One of the arguments they use to back their thesis is population genetics. The authors draw extensively from Stephen Oppenheimer's (2007) The Origins of the British, a book that I reviewed in a previous post. Maybe they should try to read other sources too. Oppenheimer's book offers an apparently simple and comprehensive analysis of the population history of Europe and the British Isles, and the results of his research seem really spectacular, offering the perfect answer for the whole process. I really enjoyed the book when I read it, but now I'm more sceptical about Oppenheimer's methodology (for further criticism, see here). Very probably things are not as simple as Oppenheimer portrays them.
One of the most interesting aspects of Goormachtigh and Durham's website is their study of place-names. They take some ancient toponyms, already recorded in Roman times, e.g. Thames, Lincoln or London, and interpret them as originally Germanic. Needless to say, this analysis would be completely verbotten in the traditional view, where Germanic languages were not expected to be there at such an early time. As a consequence, the whole tradition of British toponymy has treated ancient place-names as non-Germanic, not even allowing the slightest shade of doubt about it. But now we have some authors trying to offer an alternative view for some of those place-names. And not only on their website: Goormachtigh and Durham have also published an article with their toponymic proposals in a journal (see reference below). These authors are probably not at the cutting edge of place-name studies, and they cannot be qualified as 'expert' toponymysts, but in any case their proposals are interesting enough to be taken seriously, and they actually open a completely new line of research in British toponymy. As far as I know, there are no major research projects exploring these possibilities, and for the moment what we have is Goormachtigh and Durham's suggestive proposals and little more. Now, let's see one example of their proposals. And a big one: London.
According to the authors, the toponym London derives from the Germanic word 'land'. In origin, it would be the plural form of this word, meaning something like "the lands by the river Thames', which the Romans rendered simply as Londinium. Now, why 'Londinium' with an "o", and not *'Landinium'? The answer is quite simple: before a nasal + consonant, West Germanic */a/ was written "o" in the Anglian dialect of English, probably reflecting the local pronunciation at the time. This "o" spelling was later replaced by standard "a", as in 'land', but was kept in some place-names, which tend to be more conservative in general.
I think this proposal about the interpretation of 'Londinium' looks quite promising. But, obvioulsy, if you want to accept it, first you have to accept the fact that Germanic languages were present in the British Isles in Roman times, which is currently an academic anathema. Now, what have the experts said so far about the origins of this toponym? I have recently read an article about it (Coates, 1998), with a thorough analysis of the literature and a new proposal, connected with Hans Krahe's Old European stratum. Richard Coates' article is a good piece of scholarly work, one done by an expert, with richness of detail and depth of linguistic analysis. However, I find his proposal a bit artificial, or a bit forced, requiring a complicated set of events to make sense of the evolution of London as a place-name. I think it would be great if some eminent scholars such as Coates decided to explore other possible ways of analysing the ancient place-name material of England.
- Coates (1998). "A new explanation of the name of London", in Transactions of the Philological Society, 96 (2): 203-229.
- Goormachtigh, M., and A. Durham (2009). "Kentish place-names: were they ever Celtic?", in Archaeologia Cantiana, 129, 279-293.
Picture: a plaque with the Latin name of London (source).