This is a word of diverse meanings. It pertains to Britain which is divided into two parts, Great Britain, the major landmass of the British Isles, and Little Britain or Brittany, which has been more or less integrated into France. The British constituted a Celtic people before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons who spoke P-Celt languages. These have descended to us as modern Welsh and the various dialects of Breton. These languages are distinct from the Q-Celt languages of Ireland, The Isle of Man and the Scottish Highglands. It has been suggested that this language difference predated the arrival of the celts in the British Isles. However a more probable account has emerged from the interaction of the British with the Africans and Romans which lead to their language developing in a particular direction.
At the time of the English invasion the British were removed from most of England, although settlements such as Walthamstow remained. 'Wal' here has the same root as 'Welsh' which means foreigner in Anglo-Saxon. Some British exiles went to Brittany, and some suggest that the old Celtic language had already died out here and that they in effect re-introduced it. Cornwall, which means the 'Foreigners of Kernow' remained another bastion of British culture. It was only in the sixteenth century with the defeat of the Prayer Book Rebellion that English replaced Cornish as the commonplace language.
Ironically enough this happened with the emergence of a British identity in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Prominent in this was her magician-cum-astrologer John Dee who first coined the expression British Empire. Here he was using a lot of the ideas developed by Dante in his Monarchia. On Elizabeth's death, James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and so became the first monarch of Great Britain

Return to Words
Return to LPA Home Page