My paternal grandmother is convinced she’s British. So much so, in fact, that she claims this is her ethnic heritage, and thus part of mine. I’m not so easily convinced, however, and when I first learned what her maiden name is, that alone planted a seed of doubt in me. That seed took root, and before long, I found myself exploring the history behind my paternal grandmother’s maiden name—her ancestral name. It’s now been several years, and the conclusion I can no longer avoid, that I continuously run into no matter how I approach the subject, is that British (or English, if you prefer) is an empty construct.
The first time I followed the English narrative all the way back to its hollow place of origin was when I dared myself to seek out the origins of my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. I quickly discovered that it was not English at all, but in fact, was of Scottish origin. It is a family name that was also attributed to a place called The Hunter’s Wood. This would have been my Scottish ancestors’ traditional homeland; and it may or may not, for all I know, be located in what is now called “Britain” or England. The name is considered a sept of a larger Scottish clan, which is in part determined by the limited size of the family and its relatively minor wealth; as well as inter-familial treaties that were formed throughout the history of Scotland and much of contemporary Northwestern (Anglo-Saxon) Europe, in order to establish and maintain trade routes, prevent internal conflict, and protect vulnerable populations in times of war and invasion. It occurs to me as I write this passage, just how much in common the historical Scottish clan system has with the many clan systems of indigenous peoples across Turtle Island—so much so, that it’s utterly remarkable. My grandmother’s ancestral name is also a family name that is only about a thousand years old today, despite the fact that the language that would have been predominant there (Scottish Gaelic) has a history much older than that.
Finding out that my paternal grandmother, who had always identified herself as British, is actually ethnically Scottish, opened a veritable can of worms. I suddenly started to wonder if English meant anything at all beyond the name we attribute to a language, and a civic identity (or nationality) that more often than not obscures one’s actual ethnic heritage. I started to ask myself what someone really means when they say they are “part English”, as I so often hear, and the only reasonable conclusion I could reach is that this sort of claim references late ancestral ties to a specific culture in a specific geographic location during a specific time period. But in North American feminist discourse, this cultural claim is intentionally referred to as something else entirely — white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture — because despite its dominant place in contemporary society (inherited generation after generation due to its role in global colonialism, both historically and currently), it is in fact a subculture. WASP culture is a construct that privileges a very specific, very narrow set of traits and cultural values in order to preserve and transmit the social construction of whiteness, white language and ethnicity, and white virtuosity and tradition to all future generations. “British” is a declaration of positively the height of WASP identity, and “English” is its marginally less-inherently-confrontational alternate label.
Putting North American feminist critique of whiteness together with my relatively new awareness of English identity as a thin veneer over a much more complex truth, I soon felt compelled to explore how exactly English identity and Anglo-Saxon roots came to be so intimately connected. The answer may or may not surprise a lot of white people. The answer is cultural genocide, forced assimilation, and language extinction. But the problem is when white people then proceed to compare their own history of colonization to the colonization of Turtle Island—by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who have continuously arrived on the shores of Turtle Island for the past 500 years, vomiting up a repetition of their own colonization onto indigenous peoples, having sought to systematically assimilate or eliminate an entire race of people; rather than reclaim their own ancestral roots in their traditional homelands, or seek to learn however much they can about what they share in common with the indigenous peoples who are given no choice but to share their homelands.
To circumvent this problem from the very moment I’ve anticipated it, I am detailing here what I now understand of the many successive waves of colonization that happened to the Scots, and to many more neighbouring nations and ancient clan systems. As I’ve briefly noted earlier in this piece of writing, our ancestral language was not English, but Scottish Gaelic. English is even a foreign language to England, as Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic would have been the dominant languages throughout much of the territory prior to Roman invasion and occupation. Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic were two of the languages of the Celtic language group, and in particular in Northwestern Europe from the time of the Iron Age — or roughly 600 years BCE (before the common era). This is a significant detail and hardly an arbitrary choice, as the Iron Age resulted in significant changes to the human condition in Northern Europe; allowing us as a people to develop critical advancements in technology to facilitate our continued survival and the transmission of culture to future generations, and bringing us up to pace in terms of our technology with the rest of our trading partners and neighbouring nations throughout the rest of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. This change also rapidly transformed the political landscape of the land and fundamentally altered the collective needs and capacities of our different societies in terms of our self-defense. Prior to the Iron Age in Northern Europe, our access to iron and bronze was maintained through trade relations with more technologically advanced peoples across three connected continents. The arrival of our own Iron Age changed the entire face of our way of life.
So there our story—my story, and my grandmother’s story—really begins. As Scottish and Irish Gaels, not as the “English”. 600 years before the common era, we found our homelands, and for 600 years, we maintained traditions, languages, and cultures that preserved us as a people, connected us to the land which we called home, and connected us to ancient trade relations. And then the Roman Empire came. And they didn’t leave for 500 years. With a military that served a dual function as a totalitarian government, communicating exclusively in Latin and imposing its systems of written law (also in Latin) upon occupied peoples, any resistance against invading Romans was swiftly and violently struck down. Occupied peoples were forced into slavery and their cultures criminalized. The long-term influences and effects of Latin-speaking Roman occupation on the spoken languages of the Gaels and several other peoples of the Celtic language group is generally referred to as romanization. Though it is rarely ever acknowledged, if at all, this literal colonization of indigenous languages by the Latin-speaking Roman military government is also where the modern term “romantic languages” comes from. The place-name “Britain” also comes from Roman occupation.
When the Roman Empire fell, and occupation ended, the Germanic-language-speaking peoples known as the Angles wasted no time at all in assuming the same dominance of the Romans over the Gaels. The Saxons (another Germanic-language-speaking people) soon followed, and throughout the roughly 450 years of concurrent occupation by the Angles and Saxons, Latin-speaking Roman Catholic peoples also returned, to supplant the last remaining institutions of Pagan spirituality among the Celts. The occupation by the Angles and Saxons, and their domineering influence over the already-weakened languages and cultures of the Gaels, is where the socially constructed culture described by the term “Anglo-Saxon” originates from. This is in fact, at the very root of why Anglo-Saxon continues to refer to such a specific and narrow set of traits and values. The romanization of Celtic languages, and the influence of the Angles and Saxons who immediately followed — concurrent with religious colonization by Latin-speaking priests and the empire they represented — together combined to produce the language that is now known as English. The language of roughly a thousand years of systematic cultural genocide and indigenous language extinction.
Following the occupation of the Angles and Saxons, the Vikings expanded from roughly 1,000 CE (common era; give or take a few decades) in what is described variously as violent colonization taking the form of war, raiding, raping, and looting; peaceful cultural exchange taking the form of inter-marrying; exploration; and trade missions. As the Vikings had participated in trade throughout Europe, the Middle East, parts of Northern Africa, and Asia, for millenia; and as the Holy Roman Empire had already been thoroughly spiritually colonizing the same territories by that time for several hundred years; I personally remain skeptical that the historical narratives of Vikings (people who, like the Celts, were Pagans) as impulsively violent, conquering peoples, raping, pillaging, raiding, and leaving territories ablaze in their wake — narratives that continue to persist to this very day — are entirely accurate. Many family names rooted in place-names among Scottish clans and neighbouring Anglo-Saxon clans emerged in the time of the Viking Expansion, including that of my paternal grandmother, and I hardly see this as a coincidence. In fact, I personally believe that the expansion of the Vikings directly resulted in a revival of pre-Roman Celtic cultures for the roughly 500-year period.
Were it not for the Viking Expansion, I am not confident that any trace of Celtic cultures and languages would have survived the both the concurrent occupations by the Angles and Saxons, and the religious expansion of the Holy Roman Empire (the effects of which persist to this very day, over 1500 years after it began). Much of the history of early European cultural genocide also continues to remain fragmented and incomplete, despite the very concrete trail of evidence nearly anyone can pick up today and trace back through multiple successions of occupation — evidence that tells us, loud and clear, that the English identity and language is a paradox. A thin veneer over our ancient roots, which are buried beneath hundreds of years of oppression we have yet as a people to begin healing from.
The first step towards that healing is remembering.