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Notes on ancestry and the modern Anglo-Saxon

arising from Meet the ancestors

There's a tendency to confuse nationality with ancestry in the former British colonies. For example, 'Australian' can mean both 'Australian citizen' and 'Australian of British or Irish ancestry'. "She's Greek, so her Mum wasn't happy about her marrying an Australian," is generally not a tale of two citizens - one Greek and one Australian. It is more likely, a tale of two ancestries - one Greek and one Anglo-Saxon (or Celt). In such cases, all parties concerned could be born and bred in Australia. It's not uncommon to hear a distinction made between 'Australians' on the one hand and 'Italians' or 'Greeks' or 'Koreans', on the other hand, in spite of a shared nationality. I'm sure similar observations could be made in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.

Ancestral identity is a central part of Audrey's journey in Anglo-Saxon without tears. I'll let the story deal with the theme more fully. However, in the following paragraphs I briefly outline a personal observation of one aspect of ancestral identity. In a nutshell, many Anglo-Saxons - particularly in the New World, tend to ignore their ancestry and to confuse it with nationality. This may have some consequences that are less than ideal. Early Middle English could help make the distinction between nationality and ancestry clearer.

Anglo-Saxons in the New World

The bulk of the first European settlers in the lands that have since become the USA, Australia and New Zealand, were British. And the bulk of those were English. Since the early years of course, waves of immigrants have arrived from all corners of the earth, particulary in the last century. For various reasons1, the descendants of those first English settlers, and in fact all but the most recent English immigrants, have tended to forget that their ancestry lies ultimately beyond the seas. These New World Anglo-Saxons identify strongly with their nationality - as Americans or Australians for example, but not with their ancestry, whereas those with different backgrounds - Italian or Greek or Korean for example, are more likely to recognise both their nationality and their ancestry, and see themselves as Italian-Americans or Greek-Australians or Korean-Canadians. For the Anglo-Saxon on the other hand, nationality and ancestry generally become fused. The result is a single identity which is generally referred to as nationality. A vague awareness of ancestry remains - enough to enable most Anglo-Saxons to distinguish between themselves and those with different ancestries. Unfortunately, that distinction is generally not along the lines: 'Anglo-Saxon and Italian', 'Anglo-Saxon and Greek' or 'Anglo-Saxon and Korean' but rather - 'American and Italian', 'Australian and Greek' or 'Canadian and Korean'. In other words, a difference in ancestry is recognised but it's expressed as a difference in nationality.

At this point, you might be wondering - "Why does that matter? Some people focus on their nationality rather than their ancestry. Or they forget about their ancestry. Or they confuse the two. So what?" It matters because there is a tendency for Anglo-Saxons to see themselves as the norm within their societies, as 'real Americans' or 'real Australians'.* And that can't be good for social cohesion. Journalists and academics are happy, where a distinction needs to be made, to use the terms 'Anglo-American' or 'Anglo-Australian' (or just 'Anglo'). But you'll rarely hear those terms 'on the street'. In everyday speech, our compatriots are divided into those who have some sort of 'background'2 - Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Poles, Koreans etc, and those who have none, who are just Americans or Australians. But the irony is that behind this apparent lack of ancestry is an ancestry indeed - English (often, but also Scottish, Irish or Welsh). Names like 'Baker' and 'Henderson' and 'Smith' and 'Johnson' are the ones thought of as typically 'American' or 'Australian' names, but of course these were English names originally. And the people considered to be typically 'American' or 'Australian', more often than not, have English ancestors. That fact that ultimately there is an 'Englishness' to all this, is often overlooked.3

This view isn't universal of course. Some Anglo-Saxons do make the distinction. They recognise their English ancestry as an important aspect of their identity, in addition to their nationality. That in turn leads to the realisation that all their compatriots share a common nationality, despite their varied ancestries. From that perspective, the place of the Anglo-Saxon is no longer at the centre, from which all other ancestries deviate, but rather along a continuum or spectrum of ancestries, all of which have equal value. In other words, there is no longer anything special or 'typically American' or 'typically Australian' about English ancestry. It's just one in the mix. Surely that's the outlook we should be aiming for.

Early Middle English and ancestral identity

The question then arises - how do we encourage Anglo-Saxons to recognise their ancestry, and to distinguish it from their nationality? What will help them to see themselves as part of the spectrum, alongside their compatriots of Thai or Italian ancestry (to name just two)? The problem appears to be that there is no obvious marker of 'Anglo-Saxonness'. Language is one of the most immediate and obvious identity markers for ethnicity or ancestry. But modern English is no longer an identifiable badge of Anglo-Saxon identity, since it is the national language - the common medium of communication between people of all ancestries, in the former New World British colonies. Moreover it's become a de facto world language. Modern English no longer belongs to the Anglo-Saxon. For that reason, we need to look a little further afield to find a unique "badge of identity". And we can find it - just thirty two generations back. It's fortunate for Anglo-Saxons that their twelfth century ancestors spoke an English that is so different to today's, that it strikes the modern speaker as a foreign language. Early Middle English then, can be that unique 'badge' of Anglo-Saxon identity. Those with English ancestry can display it with pride at a multi-cultural evening, for example. That's where englesaxe and Anglo-Saxon without tears come in. This site teaches Early Middle English, with a very gradual 'no tears' approach. That's its fundamental purpose. But I also hope that this will spark some interest in a few Anglo-Saxons for their ancestry, and that even in a very small way, this might remove some of the confusion between nationality and ancestry and in turn bolster social cohesion.

Anglo-Saxons in Britain

In Britain, the situation is somewhat different. For a start, England is the ancestral home of Anglo-Saxons (at least for the past 1500 years or so). Ancestry isn't generally ignored to the same extent, because it's tied to the land itself. (Nationality is also a slightly more complicated issue in the UK than in the New World. Is there an English nationality in addition to the officially recognised British or UK nationality, alongside Scottish and Welsh nationality? I'll let someone else tackle that. It's beyond the scope of this short article.) Nevertheless there is certainly common ground between the Anglo-Saxons of the 'Mother Country' and Anglo-Saxons in the New World. The language of their immediate ancestors - Modern English, is no longer a unique badge of ancestral identity. It is the mother tongue of people from many backgrounds and the national language of modern multi-cultural Britain. It is also spoken world-wide as a means of international communication. As outlined in the paragraphs above, Anglo-Saxons need to go back eight hundred years to find a form of their ancestral language which they can truly call their own.

Discover your roots

If you trace your ancestry to medieval England, and are looking to connect to the world of your ancestors, why not try Anglo-Saxon without tears »

  1. In each case, Anglo-Saxons were the majority when a sense of new national identity was being forged, their laws and customs held sway when the new nation was created, their language - English became the official national language, and there was a gap of at least two generations before the waves of immigration from continental Europe and beyond.
  2. It's interesting to note that the term 'ethnicity' is used much more often in this context than 'ancestry' and that Anglo-Saxons (and Celts for that matter), are considered not to have ethnicity. Ethnicity is something that 'others' have. 'Ethnicity' is essentially the same thing as 'ancestry'. The two terms are interchangeable in most cases. However, because of the widely held view that some 'lack ethnicity', I've used 'ancestry' instead. No one apparently, lacks that.
  3. not just by Anglo-Saxons