Great Britain or Little England?

Many people are confused about the nomenclature of the countries that exist in the British Isles that lie to the north-west of Europe, that have just voted by a majority to leave the EU (the Brexit).  There are in fact only two sovereign countries in the British Isles, the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic (Eire).   The correct name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Great Britain is a geographical name referring to the largest island of the group, consisting of the countries of England, Scotland and Wales (it has nothing to do with being “great”). The name Britain comes from the original Celtic inhabitants who were similar to the people who inhabit the northern French region of Brittany.  They are called Bretons and the people of Britain were called Britons. England conquered Wales in 1283, Ireland in 1169-1536 and Scotland in 1296-1707.  Although they are not sovereign countries, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved local autonomy, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own Parliaments, while Wales has a National Assembly. These countries also have their own national football (soccer) teams, etc.  England ceased to be a separate sovereign country when the act of Union was promulgated in 1707.

The early medieval invasions of Germanic tribes (500-700’s ce), particularly of the Angles and the Saxons, introduced the term Anglia (for the south-eastern region of the main island), which came to be known as England.  People from this period were also known as Anglo-Saxons.  They pushed the Celtic tribes into the periphery of the islands, namely into Ireland, Wales and Scotland, where they still speak the original Celtic-Gaelic languages.  There was also a Celtic tribe in Cornwall, but they and their language of Cornish have all but died out.

The Norman invasion of 1066 introduced French into the language then spoken, known as Old English, and the English language subsequently became a mixture of both Latin and Teutonic roots.  This is what gives English its particular power, and it often has duplicate words for almost everything, the short words often being of Anglo-Saxon origin and the longer ones being Latin; for example, to walk and to perambulate, to think and to cogitate, to hate and to despise, to want and to desire, and so on.  Only native English speakers can often distinguish subtle differences in meaning between these synonyms.

By the way, the Normans, although totally French by the time they invaded England, were of Northern or Norse origin and were originally Vikings who had conquered the Frankish tribes of France.  Also, the upper classes in England were derived from the French Norman conquerors, so that French was spoken by the aristocracy for a long time and their use of the language and that of the lower Anglo-Saxon classes were quite different (hence “My Fair Lady” and restaurant menus in French).

The term “Little England” refers to a diminished power after England was shorn of its Empire (after WWII) and then the possibility of a breakup of the UK.  If Scotland has another referendum and decides this time to leave the UK, it will cause a change in the name of the country, especially if Northern Ireland follows it, since they both voted to remain in the EU, against the votes of Wales and England (except for London).  Then the countries of Scotland and possibly a United Ireland will become sovereign and members of the EU, while England and Wales will be left.  If Wales then also opts out of what was the UK, then what will be left is England.   Back to square one.



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