that both Britain and Ireland have been inhabited for thousands of years by a single people that have remained in the majority, with only minor additions from later invaders like Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans.That's pretty cool, certainly, but I get a little nervous at hearing that Stephen Oppenheimer, the lead geneticist here, is arguing that these populations are basically Basque. I haven't read the background material this point is based on (yet), but there's no evidence mentioned that shows that connection: It's clear that the area was inhabited by pre-Indo-European populations, but was it this particular group? I'm curious because, as Joe reminds me, Theo Vennemann has written a ton in recent years about pre-IE substrates in European languages, including arguments that languages related to Basque originally stretched across Europe and that important streams of Semitic speakers came to Celtic- and Germanic-speaking areas very early on. Such stuff is fascinating maybe precisely because it's basically impossible to confirm or disconfirm in any really rigorous way. That kind of discussion drives 'traditional' historical linguists utterly mad and DNA support for that position would stir the pot in a big way.
But then things turn to language and it all gets decidedly weird:
Dr. Oppenheimer has relied on work by Peter Forster, a geneticist at Anglia Ruskin University, to argue that Celtic is a much more ancient language than supposed, and that Celtic speakers could have brought knowledge of agriculture to Ireland, where it first appeared. He also adopts Dr. Forster’s argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, and was spoken in England before the Roman invasion.OK, you're tempted to leave aside the notion of a language being 'more ancient' in this sense, and whether the Celts really brought agriculture a few millennia back and whether their language supplanted the original, Basque-related tongue. That's all so shrouded in the mist of prehistory that it would seem very hard to really shoot down. Alas, Joe Eska (a leading specialist in early Celtic) and Don Ringe (a leading Indo-Europeanist who has done very important work in computational approaches to historical linguists) showed in considerable detail that Forster's approach to Celtic, and to historical linguistics generally, is profoundly and fundamentally flawed in virtually every regard. (See their discussion note, "Recent work in computational linguistic phylogeny", Language 2004, 80.569-582.) Here's a little slice of their conclusion:
We have shown that [Forster & Toth's] selection and analysis of data are full of errors, that their confusion about what kinds of evidence are valuable for research in linguistic phylogeny has compromised their project, and that their rejection of the principles of the comparative method is not only counterproductive, but also completely antithetical to historical linguistics as a science. Most importantly, they have not addressed the crucial computational problems involved in phylogenetic reconstruction from comparative data.Leaving aside comparative linguistics, I tend to assume that geneticists control quantitative methods and am pretty stunned at what look like basic problems found by Eska and Ringe. Forster's web page lists among his publications a reply in Language, actually a brief letter to the editor. I have to agree with Eska & Ringe's counter-reply that "Forster’s response … fails to address any of our criticisms concerning their methodology." Ouch.
When we get to the history of English, we're playing on turf where we have some clearer data, linguistic and otherwise. Maybe we could get some expert opinions on English as "a fourth branch of Germanic"?
Update, 8:18 a.m.: I've just been informed that the German version of Scientific American, Spektrum der Wissenschaften, has run pieces on the Basque DNA thing, here, and on Basque as the pre-IE language of Europe, here.