What language would I speak if the Anglo-Saxon's hadn't arrived?

Hi All

I guess this might not be classed as a general question as it doesn’t have any hard answer, so mods should feel free to move this to IMHO or GD…

Anyway, my question concerns the British Isles and more to the point, what type of language the inhabitants of the British Isles might well speak nowadays had not the Germanic tribes successfully colonised (at least the English part) of the Islands.

Is there any evidence of what language the common people of 5th century Britain spoke? I’m assuming common latin (and the lack of many Celtic words in modern English might suggest this), so does that mean that modern inhabitants of the British Isles in my scenario would likely speak some form of Romance language? Could we all be speaking, god forbid, French??


Given that Celtic languages survived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and the only Romance elements come from Anglo-Norman French and later influences, I would suspect that the BNritish would speak one or more Celtic languages, with the people of what is now England mostly speaking something like present-day Welsh, with something like Cornish in the southwest, and Scots Gaelic in the north.

The common people of the British isles did not speak Latin. They spoke Celtic languages, which varied by region.

To answer your question about what language would be spoken today, we would have to know whether your theoretical Britain was still invaded by the Normans in the 11th century.

Interestingly the Normans were a Germanic tribe speaking a Romance language, so perhaps the OP’s scenario excludes their successful invasion (which was a close-run thing in real life).

In any case, if a variety of closely related Celtic languages prevailed in early 11th-century Britain, I’m not sure that French-speaking invaders would change that, other than by adding to the vocabulary of what would be called “British”, and perhaps simplifying the grammar, as it did to Anglo-Saxon.

I think you’re right, but OP is missing something. The Angles and Saxons invaded because they could. And the “could” because the Romans pulled out of Britain. The main way for the invaders to have not invaded would be that the Romans stayed. In that case, we might be speaking a Romance language today. Perhaps one that had a lot of Celtic loan words, but still the language of the state would have eventually filtered down to the people.

Also, slight nitpick. A few Romance elements entered English before the Battle of Hastings once England became Christianized. Church Latin had some influence on English, although nowhere near as much as French (via the Normans). And of course most of the Latin loan words in Enlgish were borrowed later, too, for the newfangled scientific discoveries.

Don’t forget the many Romanized towns and cities in England, before the Angles and Saxons showed.

Don’t forget the Danelaw. The OP didn’t exclude the Norse settlements of NE England. The Norse speakers assimlated well with the Anglo-Saxons linguistically (and some of the simplification of English is believed to have come about because of this).

If you take out the Anglo-Saxons, the Norse might have taken over the whole country and “English” would be a Scandanavian variant now.

Also, Canute the Great (the only King of all England to be called “the Great”) and family might have been able to hold onto England longer, which also would have been another way Norse could have taken over.

Then there’s Harald Hardråda whose 1066 invasion was supported by the local Norse decendants but thwarted by the Anglo-Saxons.

In other words, if the Anglo-Saxons hadn’t taken England, the Norse would have.

But of course this is all a big if. No one can say who would have taken England had the Anglo-Saxons not done so. Or maybe no-one at all would have taken it. C’est la vie.

No necessarily. The Normans might still have invaded, defeating the Norse (kinsmen from afar!), and we’d be speaking a Frenchified Norse language.

I think Breton is probably the closest existing language that would satisfy the conditions of the OP. The Bretons came from what is now England to what is now France, and their language is a Celtic one with a heavy admixture of Northern French and a substantial percentage of French vocabulary loans.

Sample sentence:

Me a zo o vevañ e Londrez, pennkêr ar vro.
I live in London, the capital of the country.

I must have been having some kind of blackout when I suggested that the Celtic population of Britain during the Roman occupation spoke Latin - I am aware they would have spoken a Celtic language, I think I was trying to suggest that it may well have been ‘latinised’ (if that’s a word).

Anyway, let me put this a slightly different way… The Roman pull-out not only affected the British Isles but, I assume, Roman possessions in the rest of Europe - how did France and Spain end up speaking Romance languages, rather than, say, a Celtic tongue? Actually, weren’t the Franks a Germanic tribe as well? Why don’t the French speak a Germanic tongue? And the Normans - why did the Norman’s speak Norman French rather than a Norse tongue?

Is this a question of cosy continental Europe vs the isolated British Isles? Successive waves of continental invaders wanting to imitate the Romans? The greater proximity to Rome? The continuing influence of the Roman church/ the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire?

I have a feeling there’s too many ifs here.


The Welsh language is actually already heavily romanized. It has a load of assimilated Latin loans dating back to the occupation. The reason why it is still Celtic rather than replaced with a completely Romance language like French, Spanish or Romanian is probably because of the time scales - Britain was only part of the Empire comparatively briefly, compared to Gaul, Iberia and Dacia. If the Romans had lasted for longer we probably would have seen a British branch of the Romance languages.

Copy/paste of a post I made long ago on another board on the same topic :

There’s no practical reason for latin to prevail over a germanic dialect. Concerning Gaul, you musn’t imagine huge numbers of germanic invaders chasing the gallo-romans, seizing their lands, and destroying everything. In fact, these germanic tribes were limited in number, and had already close relationships with the roman empire. Most of them were already a part of the roman army, serving as auxiliaries troops to defend the borders (against other germanic invaders…), and have been granted lands to settle inside Gaul.

When the empire collapsed, they seized the power, the public properties (there was extended land belonging to the roman state) and probably in a lot of places major private domains.But they kept what seemed useful to them in the former imperial system (like tax-collectors!!), used the litterate gallo-romans for they (limited) administrative needs, etc…For a long time, a distinct gallo-roman upper class coexisted with the new germanic rulers, with its own ways and even laws.Then, they slowly mixed-up. The prestige of the roman empire, the familiarity of these germanic tribes with the existing system, the importance of the latin-speaking church and religious people (Gaul was already christianized by this time), and of course the lack of a written form of the germanic dialects, insured a dominant role to the latin language, which anyway was the language of the wide majority of the people. I believe that a lot of these elements were non-existent in Brittania.

Concerning the celtic language, it is usually assumed that it has already dissapeared at this time in Gaul (the celtic language in Brittany is supposed to have been reintroduced there by celtic fugitives/invaders from Brittania (hence the name of this region). However, there’s some words (but not so much) of celtic origin in the french language, and the name of a lot of places has celtic roots, too…I’ve no idea why the latin prevailed over the celt. The lack of a written form of this language probably played an important role, as someone pointed out. Probably also the importance of exchanges (including trade and people)during this period (as opposed to the middle-ages), the presence of various immigrants from all parts of the empire, the “universal language” role of latin…

Concerning the normans, they weren’t germans but danes (usually called vikings). Some generations ago the king of France gave to one of their chiefs a duchy which will be known therafter as “Normandy” in exchange for peace. But the very limited danish population who settled in Normandy quickly forgot its customs and language to adopt the local ways. So, when William invaded England, even though he was a direct descendant of this danish chief, he was culturally before everything else a french noble, and probably most of his men had no links at all with the Danes. And they spoke the local french dialect they imported in England.

It certainly appears to be, Jason. (That site uses the American spelling.)

Well, of all the various invasions of the British Isles over the years, only three or four ever provided enough admixture to the population to shift the vernacular language. In general, conquerors taking possession and throwing a governing elite will not change the vernacular tongue. Neither China nor Russia ever adopted Khalkha Mongol as a result of the Genghis and Kublai Khan incursions. Norman French lingered as the court language in England for less than 200 years. The Visigoths added a little vocabulary to the vulgar Latin that was turning into Old Spanish, as the Lombards did to that which was turning into Italian, but neither had a significant impact on the everyday language. The Habsburgs ruled over much of Eastern Europe for 300 years, but almost none of their subjects adopted Oesterdeutsch as their native language.

It’s when an invasion is followed by colonization that a language shift occurs. Late Latin-speaking Roman troops settled the Danube and Bug valleys of Dacia and replaced whatever vernacular Dacian was with what evolved into Romanian and Moldavian/Moldovan. The Magyars colonized Pannonia and turned it into Hungary.

In terms of colonizations which changed the native vernacular into something substantially different, Great Britain had four waves.

  1. The Picts. We don’t know a great deal about Pictish language and culture, and I’ll defer to one of the experts. But clearly the lowest “substrate” of British culture, farthest back in time, that is still discernable, dates from whenever the Picts invaded and colonized the islands.

  2. The Goiledic Celts (debatable). There may or may not have been an incursion of the Celts speaking Goiledic dialects that influenced the language of the land. At present, Irish, Scots Gaelic, and the extinct-as-vernacular tongues like Manx, are spoken in Britain only by immigrants or their descendants. Granted that some of those incursions date back to 500 AD or so, the Dalriada Scots. The Goiledic Celts may have colonized England, Lowlands Scotland and/or Wales in prehistory, or may not have.

  3. The Brythonic Celts. England, Wales, and southern Scotland spoke dialects in what may be termed “British” at the time of the Roman conquest. This language continued to be spoken, with a strong infusion of Latin loan words, throughout Roman times and for a century or so afterwards across virtually all of Great Britain. It remained in use for centuries thereafter in the West and North, gradually being replaced by

  4. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The dialects spoken in the North German coastal area by the tribes called the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes were brought to England by them when they invaded and colonized around 550-650 AD. Their tongue spread slowly from southwest to northeast across Britain.

Welsh is the survivor language of incursion #3. It is, of course, heavily influenced by English, having survived alongside it for 1400 years. Breton is the tongue of refugees from the Anglo-Saxon invasion taking over the Armorican Peninsula (Bretagne). Cornish, a third language of the group, survived as a vernacular until the turn of the 19th century. A fourth dialect group, which may be called Cumbrian, died out for the most part before the Norman Conquest in the Lake District, Cumbria, Strathclyde, and neighboring areas.

Playing “what if” games is always subject to argument, because “if X had not happened, what would have happened with Y?” is a valid question.

But, as a bottom line, the most probable answer to the question at hand is, in the absence of a conquest followed by widespread colonization, if the Anglo-Saxon incursions had not happened, the language of the British Isles would be “British” – and very much similar to modern Welsh.

Are you descended from Anglo-Saxons? If so, you’d have to re-define the word “I.”

Pictish is pretty clearly a Brythonic Celtic language related to Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. The theory that Pictish is not an Indo-European language or is somehow extra-mysterious are popular, but long discredited in Celtic Studies.

Again, we know that there was some Goidelic settlement in Southwest Britain as well as the more successful Scottish settlement. We have clear examples of British loanwords in Irish and Irish words in Welsh. A few groups are actually attested on both islands.

And probably more English than we realize. “Hog” is a lot closer to Welsh hwch and Cornish hogh than any other language, but it cannot be derived from either. It probably comes from another, extinct Brythonic Celtic language, but since there’s no solid evidence, we just throw up our hands and say “etymology unknown.” There are a lot of words like that in English. Many of the words marked as “unknown origin” or “Dutch?” in the OED could actually be Celtic, but few of the English etymologists active in the 19th & early 20th centuries knew the Celtic languages, and the Celtic evidence isn’t usually strong enough to dethrone convention. (English words cannot end in -g, but Dutch words can, so such words first attested in southern England are usually marked “Dutch?” and if first found in northern England, “Scandinavian?”)

I only said Breton rather than Welsh because Welsh is so influenced by English, and Breton not so much.

Speaking of which, two very cool constructed languages are Brithenig and Breathanach – it’s one version of what Latin might have looked like if the sound changes that happened to Welsh and Gaelic had happened to it instead.

Depending on your predominant heritage, you might be one of those Anglo Saxons who demurred from invading. You’d be living in present-day Saxony, or Jutland, or Angeln (which is a small region of Germany whence the Angles came…a German Anglia as it were). By this time, you’d be speaking STandard German, but would very possibly also know some version of Plattdeutsch.

I read some time ago that the origin of the word “dog” is unknown, and that it just seemed to appear suddenly about 1000 years ago, replacing the traditional Anglo-Saxon word for “dog”. Was this just one of those factoids that float about, or was there some basis for it? could it have been a loan word from one of the celtic languages?