We are so accustomed to thinking of English as an inseparable adjunct to the English people that we are likely to forget that it has been the language of England for a comparatively short period in the world’s history. Since its introduction into the island about the middle of the fifth century it has had a career extending through only 1,500 years. Yet this part of the world had been inhabited by humans for thousands of years: 50,000 according to more moderate estimates, 250,000 in the opinion of some. During this long stretch of time, most of it dimly visible through prehistoric mists, the presence of a number of cultures can be detected; and each of these cultures had a language.
Nowhere does our knowledge of the history of humankind carry us back to a time when humans did not have a language. What can be said about the early languages of England? Unfortunately, little enough. What we know of the earliest inhabitants of England is derived wholly from the material remains that have been uncovered by archaeological research. The classification of these inhabitants is consequently based upon the types of material culture that characterized them in their successive stages. Before the discovery of metals, human societies were dependent upon stone for the fabrication of such implements and weapons as they possessed. Generally speaking, the Stone Age is thought to have lasted in England until about 2000 B.C., although the English were still using some stone weapons in the battle of Hastings in 1066. Stone, however, gradually gave way to bronze, as bronze was eventually displaced by iron about 500 or 600 B.c.1 Because the Stone Age was of long duration, it is customary to distinguish between an earlier and a later period, known as the Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age and the Neolithic (New Stone) Age.
Paleolithic humans, the earliest inhabitants of England, entered at a time when this part of the world formed a part of the continent of Europe, when there was no English Channel and when the North Sea was not much more than an enlarged river basin. The people of this period were short of stature, averaging about five feet, long-armed and short-legged, with low foreheads and poorly developed chins. They lived in the open, under rock shelters or, later, in caves. They were dependent for food upon the vegetation that grew wild and such animals as they could capture and kill. Fortunately, an abundance of fish and game materially lessened the problem of existence. Their weapons scarcely extended beyond a primitive sledge or ax, to which they eventually learned to affix a handle. More than one distinct group is likely to be represented in this early stage of culture. The humans whose remains are found in the latest Paleolithic strata are distinguished by a high degree of artistic skill. But representations of boar and mastodon on pieces of bone or the walls of caves tell us nothing about the language of their designers. Their language disappeared with the disappearance of the race, or their absorption into the later population. We know nothing about the language, or languages, of Paleolithic culture.
“Neolithic” is likewise a convenient rather than scientific term to designate the peoples who, from about 5000 B.C., possess a superior kind of stone implement, often polished, and a higher culture generally. The predominant type in this new population appears to have come from the south and, from its widespread distribution in the lands bordering on the Mediterranean, is known as the Mediterranean race. It was a dark race of slightly larger stature than the Paleolithic population. The people of this technologically more advanced culture had domesticated the common domestic animals and developed elementary agriculture. They made crude pottery and did a little weaving, and some lived in crannogs, structures built on pilings driven into swamps and lakes.
They buried their dead, covering the more important members of society with large mounds or barrows, oval in shape. But they did not have the artistic gifts of late Paleolithic peoples. Their language has not survived, and because our hope of learning anything about the language they spoke rests upon our finding somewhere a remnant of the race still speaking that language, that hope, so far as England is concerned, is dead. In a corner of the Pyrenees mountains of Spain, however, there survives a small community that is believed by some to represent this non-Indo-European culture. These people are the Basques, and their language shows no affiliation with any other language now known.
Allowing for the changes it has doubtless undergone through the centuries, the Basque language may furnish us with a clue to the language of at least one group in the Neolithic cultures of Europe. The first people in England about whose language we have definite knowledge are the Celts. It used to be assumed that the coming of the Celts to England coincided with the introduction of bronze into the island. But the use of bronze probably preceded the Celts by several centuries. We have already described the Celtic languages in England and called attention to the two divisions of them, the Gaelic or Goidelic branch and the Brythonic branch. Celtic was probably the first Indo-European tongue to be spoken in England. One other language, Latin, was spoken rather extensively for a period of about four centuries before the coming of English. Latin was introduced when Britain became a province of the Roman Empire. Because this was an event that has left a significant mark upon later history, it will be well to consider it separately.