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Anglo-Saxons and Britons

Debate about Anglo-Saxons and Britons continues as to the exact nature of the Anglo-Saxon settlements. Some scholars have seen them as the arrival of a ruling minority who assumed control over British populations, whereas others envisage larger groups of settlers. Such groups may in some cases have lived alongside and integrated with British populations, while in some cases they may have replaced existing British populations.
The Germanic language of the incomers became the dominant one, and there are few traces of Celtic influence on Old English (OE); indeed, the number of Celtic words taken into English in the whole of its history has been very small. The names of some English towns were taken over from the Britons, for example London and Leeds. Rivers often have Celtic names: Avon and Ouse are Celtic words for ‘water’ or ‘stream’; Derwent, Darent and Dart are all forms of the British name for ‘oak river’; the Thames is the ‘dark river’; while Trent has been interpreted as meaning ‘trespasser’, that is, a river with a tendency to flood. Among county names, Kent and Devon are Celtic, and so are the first elements in Cornwall and Cumberland; the latter means ‘the land of the Cymry (that is, the Welsh)’, and testifies to the long continuance of British power in the north-west. A few words for topographical features also suggest Celtic influences, such as OE cumb, a word for a type of valley that may have been influenced by the Old British term from which modern Welsh cwm developed.
These few Celtic words in Old English were merely a drop in the ocean, however. Even in English place-names, where Old British left its biggest mark, Celtic forms are far outnumbered by English ones, and only in areas where the Anglo-Saxons penetrated late are Celtic names at all common for villages. The failure of Old British to influence Old English to any great extent does not mean that the Britons were all killed or driven out.

There is in fact evidence that a considerable number of Britons lived among the Anglo-Saxons, but their language quite possibly had no prestige compared with that of the Anglo-Saxons. Whether or not the prestige associated with the language of a political elite would have been sufficient in itself to achieve the replacement of Old British with Old English remains an open question. Alternatively, one might suppose that the Anglo-Saxons had settled in such large numbers that there could be no question of their absorption by the Britons, but recent work on the genetic make-up of the population of the British Isles has called this model into question. The Old English word wealh, which originally meant ‘foreigner’, seems usually to have been used to mean ‘Briton, Welshman’, but is also used to mean ‘servant, slave’ in some texts, which illustrates both the survival of Britons among the Anglo-Saxons, and their low status in some contexts. The OE wealh has survived as the second syllable of Cornwall, and also in the word walnut (OE wealh-hnutu ‘foreign nut, walnut’). Our word Welsh is from the related adjective, OE wylisc.

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