Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Are the English and Irish Basque People Speaking Belgian?

As people of Northern Ireland go to the polls today to elect a new parliamentary aimed at creating once again a power-sharing administration between Protestants and Catholics that previously failed, a new study (see this IHT article) shows that the Irish and the English have a lot more in common than is usually acknowledged.

Contrary to what historians usually teach - that they are mostly descended from different peoples: the Irish from the Celts and the English from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded from Northern Europe and drove the Celts to the western and northern fringes – DNA tests seem to prove otherwise:
Stephen Oppenheimer, a medical geneticist at the University of Oxford, says the historians' account is wrong in almost every detail. In Oppenheimer's reconstruction of events, the principal ancestors of today's British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque.

In fact:

the similarity between the English and Northern European Y chromosomes arises because both regions were repopulated by people from the Iberian refuges after the glaciers retreated.

It even seems that the influence of the later invaders such as the Celts, the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans just played a minor role.

This, if it turns out to be true, it may even change the way we see the English language:

English is usually assumed to have developed in England, from the language of the Angles and Saxons, about 1,500 years ago. But Forster argues that the Angles and the Saxons were both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule. They did not bring their language to England because English, in his view, was already spoken there, probably introduced before the arrival of the Romans by tribes such as the Belgae, whom Caesar describes as being present on both sides of the Channel.

So the Celtic identity may be no more than a myth after all. This is all far from being confirmed of course and the jury was still out. According to the article "there is not yet a consensus view among geneticists" and the “genetic story may well change”.

It is an interesting idea though… if nothing else because this new research challenges our well-established view.

The conclusion drawn by Oppenheimer is nonetheless realistic:

Oppenheimer said genes "have no bearing on cultural history." There is no significant genetic difference between the people of Northern Ireland, yet they have been fighting with each other for 400 years, he said.
As for his thesis that the British and Irish are genetically much alike, "It would be wonderful if it improved relations, but I somehow think it won't."

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