Articles

The English Language, Antecedence and Adaptation

CultureHistory

Published on undefined

Futhorc Runes Photo by Dagmara Dombrovska from Pexels
John Cavalier
Written by John

12 min read

The English language is a complex beast, full of rules and anomalies. It is something which has evolved over the space of more than a millenium and a half and over that time it has incorporated Latin, French and Old Norse (among other influences). It has grown and developed almost like an organism, with it's usage being adapted by the user over generations with elements being changed, added, or disposed of to suit regional tastes and catastrophic events.

What follows are 4 examples of the English language, each of which, in their time, would have been very familiar and natural to ‘the English’ but which might look fairly incomprehensible to the modern reader, particularly so the runes which I daresay most would never associate with English, nevertheless English it is:

  • ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ ᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨ ᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ ᛁᚳ ᚦᚨᛏ ᚪᛚ ᛒᛁᚻ
  • þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon. Hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon! Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah, egsode eorl, syððan ærest wearð feasceaft funden.
  • Ymende. þet þis boc is uolueld ine þe eve of þe holy apostles Symon an Iudas of ane broþer of þe cloystre of sanynt Austin of Canterburi ine þe yeare of oure lhordes beringe 1340
  • Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, The droȝte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour

The English language has its root in the Proto-Indo-European, thought to have been a single spoken language from around 4500 BC to 2500 BC, and this is believed to the the root of all of the later Indo-European languages of which we can include the European: Hellenic, Italic or Romance, Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic etc, as well as those of the Northern Indian subcontinent and the Iranian plateau. The English language itself is derived from the Germanic and not the Insular Celtic of rural Britain, nor the Romantic of the urbanised, romanised towns and cities of the far-flung, but unforgettable, Northernmost province of the Roman Empire.

For 450 years the Britons had played a role in the Roman Empire, sometimes willingly, often unwillingly, but by 410 AD Roman rule, if not yet Roman custom, would cease. Decades of Barbarian attacks on Britain and war with Alaric I at home had sapped Roman will to power in the region. With most of its troops withdrawn, and reinforcements to the region ceased, the remaining Roman garrisons in Britain would declare one of their generals, Constantine III, to be the Emperor of the West and they would cross the Channel to invade Gaul, leaving Britain to its own devices once again. Somewhere between 446 and 454 AD the final appeal from the Britons to the Romans is made, in latin it says:

Agitio ter consuli, gemitus britannorum. [...] Repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur.

To Agitius [or Aetius], thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. [...] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.

Bede, in paraphrasing an earlier account by Gildas, tells us that Vortigern, king of the Britons, in the early decades of the 6th century made a plea to Hengist and Horsa, of the Angles and Jutes who arrived on three cyulis (or "keels", perhaps the earliest know word of 'English'). He invited them to come and settle in Britain in exchange for their aid in fighting the Picts (un-romanised Britons, possibly non-celtic in origin, from North of the Forth of Clyde) and Scots (invaders from Ireland). Sadly for Vortigern, who Gildas scorns, the Britons were betrayed and Vortigern's own son killed in the process. Vortigern flees to Wales (the Pillar of Eliseg in Wales, a 9th century stone cross, indicates that he would go on to found the Welsh royal family of Powys), and the Saxon Kingdom of Kent is created. Thus having been settled in the East of the Island, what started as a small number of warriors eventually ballooned as they invited their families across until the settlers overpowered and defeated their hosts. It may have been these barbarians to whom the aforementioned ‘groans of the Britons’ are referring to.

Why is this relevant? Because the Angles and the Jutes (& co.) did not speak Latin, or even Insular Celtic, they spoke in their own tongue which they would have brought with them when they first arrived on the shores of the strange land to which they had been welcomed to fight. Over the next 600 years the language, both verbal and, crucially, written, would propagate and replace (almost) entirely the Celtic vernacular in the territory which would come to be known as Englaland - Land of the Angles. Whether the replacement of language was a sign of the total displacement and replacement of the British people with the Saxons is a hotly debated topic, however unlike post-roman Gaul, Iberia or North-Africa, where Germanic invaders adopted the native tongue, in Britain they did not. Evidence exists for a bow-wave of migration out of the path of Anglo-Saxon expansion and into the far flung corners of Britain: Wales, and Cornwall as well as to Brittany. What is certain is that those that remained adopted the language of the conqueror, since there is very little Brittonic influence on the English language.

As well as the spoken language, these Germanic and Scandinavian tribal warriors brought with them their written language. By 300 AD runes were the only written alphabet in Scandinavia, whereas the majority of the rest of Europe were using the Latin alphabet. The futhorc (a modern name derived from the sounds of the first 6 letters of the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet) is thought to be a direct development of the Elder Futhark, the oldest runic alphabet. Interestingly it is speculated that the runic alphabet is itself derived from Old Italic scripts, perhaps Etruscan or Raetic or even the latin alphabet itself. Items such as sword pommels, scabbards, copper brooches, cremation urns, coins, bowls, bone combs, rings and antlers dating from between 5th to the 9th century, including two 7th century Christian inscriptions, demonstrate the widespread use of the runic alphabet in England. Mostly found along the East coast with some scattered further inland in Southern England. These finds help tell a story of the replacement of one culture with another emanating out from an initial contact point.

The alphabet itself contained the first 24 runes of the Elder Futhark, but also expanded upon it (in contrast to the younger Futhark which was simplified in Scandinavia), containing additions made by the Frisians and the Anglo-Saxons. In fact, over the period of its usage (up to around the 11th century in places), and across the geographical breadth of its usage, there is not one single corpus containing a ‘complete’ listing of these runes. Such was the progressive and utilitarian nature of the language, that people living what we would consider a relatively short distance apart, either in time or space, would know different letters and even sounds attributable to those letters (see the ‘great vowel shift’ for further reading). 

The majority of the above are depicted in Codex Vindobonensis 795, the first 24 runes are a direct continuation of the Elder Futhark. The final 2 appear elsewhere (along with a number of other runes).

During the 5th and 6th centuries, the Christian Britons who had fled to Wales enjoyed the “Age of Saints”, Saint Dubric, Saint Illtud, and others completed the Christianisation of Wales. Unwilling or unable to missionize among the pagan Saxons in England, Britonic refugees and missionaries such as Saint Patrick and Finnian of Clonard would proceed to convert the island of Ireland and also comprise the Seven Founder Saints of Brittany. In their own turn, the Irish would set about converting the rest of the British Isles to Christianity with missions to the Anglo-Saxons and the Picts. Columba was sent to found a religious community in Iona in 563, off the west coast of Scotland. Then Aidan was sent from Iona to set up his See in Northumbria, at Lindisfarne, between 635 and 651.

Pope Gregory I sent Augustine in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons; however Bede reports that the British clergy refused to help Augustine. Despite Bede's complaints, it is now believed that the Britons played an important role in this evangelism. On arrival in the south east of England in 597, Augustine was given land by King Æthelberht of Kent to build a church, following which he would found the See at Canterbury. However by the time of Augustine's arrival (also the death of Columba), Christianity had been preached and received in every district in Caledonia and in every island along its West coast. Iona was so prosperous that from it had gone Aidan, and others, to evangelise Northumbria, Mercia and Essex.

The Christian missionaries brought with them the latinised alphabet and from the 8th Century the runic system would begin to be replaced with the alphabet from which, as we have discussed, it was itself perhaps spawned. Latin letters were adapted to fit the sounds of the anglo-saxon spoken language, and a number of carry-overs remained, either as diphthongs or even as runes! The ash (Æ æ), the eth (Ð ð), the thorn (Þ þ) and the wynn (Ƿ ƿ).

a æ b c d ð e f g h i l m n o p r s t þ u ƿ x y

A Æ B C D Ð E F G H I L M N O P R S T Þ U Ƿ X Y

The Latin alphabet of the time lacked the letters j and w (the wynn being a stand-in for the latter), there was no v as distinct from u and native English spellings did not use k, q or z. Functionally it remained similar enough, at least verbally, to the Germanic over this period as Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, following the Viking invasion and establishment of the Danelaw, were able to communicate without great difficulty and indeed both languages made adoptions of the other. Old Norse influence can be seen in words such as lagu law, utlaga outlaw, eorl earl, husting tribunal and so on. Some places in England today still have the fingerprints of this cross-pollination of brother languages in their place names. In some counties such as Northamptonshire, which contained key Roman roads, as well as having traded hands between English and Viking rulers and playing host to English parliaments, not only can you see the heritage of the Celtic and Roman in place names such as ‘Crick’ (primitive Welsh creig) and Grafton Regis (rex being latin for king), but also that of the Norse and Old English sometimes even blended together in cases such as Kingsthorpe (cyning being king in Old English and þorp being Old Norse for a smaller, or secondary settlement or hamlet).

Unlike much of the Christian speaking world where latin was the written language of administration and religion, Old English would serve as both the language of the elite, the cynings (kings) and æthlings (princes), and indeed the recorders (as evidenced by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles), as well as that of the commoners until 1066. What happened in 1066? The year of the three kings; Edward the Confessor's death precipitated a fight for the crown of England with three claimants; 

  1. Harold Godwinson, an Englishman with links to Cnut the Great, first Viking king of England, and the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king, chosen by the Witenagemot (a proto-parliament) to succeed his brother-in-law, Edward, upon his death. 
  2. Harald Hardrada, a Viking, known as the last great Viking ruler, defeated and killed by Harold and his army at the battle of Stamford Bridge. 
  3. William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, also of Norse descent who had familial ties to Cnut and who would defeat Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings.

Following the English defeat, William quickly set about completing a changing of the guard that had already begun under Edward the Confessor (who himself had been raised in Normandy and relied heavily upon Norman councillors in his own court), expediting a transference of power from the ethnic English nobility to the Norman by rewarding, with conquered lands, those whom he had brought with him from Normandy and who had helped ensure his ascension to the throne. The language of the Norman invaders, Anglo-Norman (a relative of French), would become, for a time, the spoken language of the Elite. It would be commonly used for administrative purposes from the 12th to the 15th centuries and Latin would again become the written language of royal charters and legislation. This remained the case until around the end of the 13th century where it too began to be replaced by anglo-Norman French. Anglo-Norman would remain the language of official legal documents until the beginning of the 18th century, three centuries after the Kings of England had already ceased speaking primarily in French.

During this period one thing was constant, the spoken language of the commons was English. Despite being influenced, as one might expect, by the influx of French speakers and the profligation of the Anglo-Norman in particular. Unlike the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons which almost entirely erased both the Celtic and the Latin (other than for predominantly written religious usage) the French language was absorbed, in some cases words were even used in tandem (see pig, swine and pork, both the former being Old English in origin, the latter Old French) but it did not replace the English. In fact the invaders were forced to adopt the English language themselves as tensions grew on the continent regarding conflict over the French and English holdings and between their respective Kings. Far from being an imposition of the Elite upon the commons, the Elite were forced to adapt to the commons. A culturally emergent as opposed to top down phenomenon. Although it was not unchanged, the cultural heritage of the commons, their word-horde, endured and overcame.

How does this apply today? A cultural imposition is being made by the elite upon the masses, it takes the form of political correctness, of Critical Race Theory, of Green science and LGBTQ dogma, and it represents a hi-jacking of language for the purpose of spreading an ideology. Though this language has been adopted by boardrooms and institutions, by government departments and NGOs, it is not the language of the commons. In those places where normal English people meet, out of the eye of a watchful elite, an older, more traditional language is still spoken. It may adopt some of the words in order to facilitate a common understanding, but the purpose to which those words are put is very different. Over time the forces driving this imposition will wane, as did those that drove the Anglo-Norman and the Latin before it did likewise, but the language of the common people will remain, changed undoubtedly, but still very much recognisably the language of the common people, as it has been since those first three mercenary ships made land-fall on British shores in the 5th century.

Language, like music, can be tweaked and altered, shaped and manipulated by the speaker, it can even be heard and interpreted differently by the listener, but like music, language cannot be bent out of all form and shape jarringly and carelessly, or else it ceases to have any coherent melody for the listener, at which point it loses all purpose.


 

Wellington Project Logo

Contact Us

Follow us