They Probably Always Talked Like That
One of the startling revelations by Stephen Oppenheimer is that a form of English was probably spoken from the beginning of the colonization of the British Isles. Just as genetic bedrock was laid down by the earliest inhabitants, to persist relatively unchanged through subsequent invasions by other peoples like the Romans, the English tongue has been dominant as the language of the land, admitting little admixture with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. (See Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British, pp. 303ff.)
Pretty heady stuff, but Mick Harper, author of The Secret History of the English Language (Hoboken: Melville 2008), goes Oppenheimer one better by proposing that it was not proto-Anglo Saxon that the Ice Age inhabitants of Britain spoke but something very like Chaucer’s pilgrims, only lacking, clearly, later invasive elements due to the Celts, Belgae, Romans and Normans.
Harper compares a sample of Old English (which we are taught is the same as “Anglo-Saxon”) with Middle English and Modern English to show that Anglo-Saxon does not appear to be the same language as English—something all English graduate students suspect from the moment they are forced to read Beowulf for their comps. In the Anglo-Saxon epic (which survives in a single copy turning up in suspicious circumstances in Tudor England and is set in Sweden and never mentions England), “virtually every single word is incomprehensible except by translation,” while in “the early English poetry of Chaucer and Piers Plowman…virtually every single word is comprehensible except for spelling.”
In case you do not believe it, here are the samples:
Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard,
Metudaes maeti end his modgidanc,
Uerc uuldurfadur, sue he uundra gihuaes,
Eci dryctin, or astelidae.
(Caedmon, ca. 8th cent.)
A swerd and bokeler bar he by his side…
A whit cote and a blew hood wered he.
A bagpipe wel koude he blow and sowne,
And therwithal he brought us out of towne.
(Chaucer, The Prologue, 14th cent.)
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
(T. S. Eliot, 20th cent.)
Harper’s comment is: “If Anglo-Saxon/English is one language, it’s unique in the entire annals of languages on this our Earth, since it changes every goddamn word of itself” (p. 44). (Yes, he writes like that, too.)
The Anglo-Saxons were a small, obscure and illiterate tribe from, well, no one is quite sure, but perhaps northeast Germany, who arrived in waves after the Romans abandoned Britain in the fifth century, and who conquered most of the land and held it until the Danes and Norse (ca. 900) and Normans (1066) replaced them as rulers. In Harper’s view, they were just like the previous invaders, the Romans, Belgae and Celts, in having little effect on the language and customs of the populace. Just as there are only a handful of Celtic words in the English language, there was little impact on the linguistic bedrock of the kingdom the Anglo-Saxons carved out before they too had had their day. The fact that they left few monuments is unsurprising.
Which brings us to questions about the depth and breadth of Celtic heritage in Britain. If you are a Celtic fan (I’m not referring to the basketball team) you will not want to read The Secret History of the English Language. This book will disabuse you of many cherished notions. In Harper’s view, the Celts were just one of the alternating foreign conquerors of the long-suffering English-speaking peoples. Their numbers were few, even on the Continent, and they left little genetic or cultural footprint except on the “Celtic fringe” where they were squeezed in their final days.
England has always been England. It’s always spoken English. And France has always spoken French. "But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead."We will have to save the French linguistic heresy for another post.
If you like the unusual and provocative ideas of M. J. Harper, who lives in London, check out the community of people who have bid farewell to the dunciad of academic research and unleashed their own personal pursuit of truth on a variety of intellectual topics at The Applied Epistemology Library. You can browse on the sly but must register (for free) to post your own comments and questions on threads.