How the English Language came to Britain   Leave a comment

English in the early twenty-first century is an international language, spoken as a mother tongue by over 400 million people in the nations of the British Isles, Canada, the United States, the Caribbean islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is also a second language in some of those nations and states, as it is in many others, including those of the Indian subcontinent, and some other African states, where it is also used as an official language of government and education. There are a great many varieties of spoken English in and between these countries, but there is one main variety, ‘Standard English’ which is used both in writing and in educated speech.

It is codified in dictionaries, grammars and guides to usage, and is taught in the school system at all levels and is almost exclusively the language of printed and online materials in English, implicitly sanctioned by all forms of modern media. Yet a little over four hundred years ago, English was spoken exclusively in England, and by minorities (mostly bilinguals) in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. A young Hungarian visitor to London and Canterbury had some difficulty communicating because he had little English and could find few people, other than clergy, who had any command of Latin. Only in Dover did he find a multilingual official with Dutch and German. This had probably been the case since at least the Reformation, if not from the time that Caxton set up his English printing press in the century before. Before that, English had been the common tongue of most of lowland Britain for a thousand years, since it had first become established at the beginning of the seventh century, having arrived in the form of the related Germanic dialects of the Anglo-Saxons over the course of the previous two centuries following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britannia.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records how and why these languages arrived in Britain in the fifth century, forming into one common speech, recognisable in its written form as Engelische. It has survived in several manuscripts, the most frequently quoted of which are the Peterborough Chronicle and the Parker Chronicle, which provide interesting examples of language change. The former was copied in the twelfth century from an earlier copy first written in the ninth century. The entry for 443 reads:

…Her sendon brytwalas ofer sae to rome… heom fultomes baedon wid peohtas. ac hi paer nefdon naenne. forpan pe hi feordodan wid aetlan huna cininge… pa sendon hi to anglum… angel cynnes aedelingas des ilcan baedon.

 

In word-for-word translation:

…Here sent Britons over sea to rome… them troops asked against picts, but there they had not one, because they fought against Attila huns king… then sent they to angles… angle peoples princes the same asked.

 

In modern translation:

…In this year the Britons sent overseas to Rome and asked the Romans for forces against the Picts, but they had none there because they were at war with Attila, king of the Huns. Then the Britons sent to the Angles and made the same request to princes of the Angles.

 

By this time, in the middle of the fifth century, Britain had been part of the Roman Empire for just over four hundred years, and was governed from Rome. The official language of government was Latin, not only spoken by the Roman civil officials, military officers and Roman settler families, but also by those Britons who served the Romans or traded with them in their settlements, like at Caerleon in modern-day Monmouthshire. The term Romano-British is used to describe these Britons, though the degree to which they became ‘Romanised’ is debatable. Their native language was Brythonic or ‘British’, a family of Celtic languages which mutated into Welsh, Cornish and Breton, the language of those who migrated across the Channel in the sixth century to escape the Anglo-Saxon incursions. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are also related, but have no Latin influence, since their peoples were never conquered by the Romans. None of these languages resemble any of the West Germanic antecedents of English.

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The Angles and Saxons had been raiding along the east coast of Britannia since the early third century, and a military commander had been appointed to organise its defence. He was called, in Latin, Comes litoris Saxonici, the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’, but as Roman power declined throughout the fourth century, larger scale Saxon raids were taking place by the end of that century. By 443, the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, so when Hengest and Horsa were invited by Vortigern, ruler of the Canti, to help defend their coast from Pictish pirates, they found Britain undefended, ready for incursion and settlement. Though this may have begun by agreements between British and Anglo-Saxon leaders, with grants of land, it soon turned into full-scale invasion, at least according to Bede, in his eighth-century Latin text, History of the English Church and People:

 

It was not long before such hordes of these alien peoples crowded into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror… They began by demanding a greater supply of provisions: then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless larger supplies were forthcoming, they would terminate the treaty and ravage the whole island…

These heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition, and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests and crags, ever on the alert for danger.

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When reading Bede, we need to be aware that, although he never referred to himself as British, this is indeed British propaganda, but that it was also written at a time when the then Anglo-Saxon Christian rulers of the ’Heptarchy’ were facing further raids and incursions from other ’heathens’, Danes and Norwegians, for which they seemed similarly unprepared. Bede was concerned to send them a clear message which would resonate with the oral traditions from their own pre-Christian days. The same is true of Gildas, an earlier British monk writing of The Ruin of Britain, at a time when the Anglo-Saxons had not yet converted, in the mid-sixth century. Nennius, a Welsh monk writing in the early ninth century, wrote in a similar vein to Bede, more like an Old Testament prophet, calling the Anglo-British to defend the newly established Christian order from the ravaging Norsemen.

The complete ’conquest’ of lowland Britain by the Germanic tribes took two centuries, but it was as much a conquest made by trade as by fire and blood. The recent archeological evidence from the grave burials in East Anglia, especially at Sutton Hoo, suggest that the Britons were highly regarded for their artwork, and even the illuminated texts and carvings of the Hiberno-Northumbrian monks indicate a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon forms. Certainly, the Anglo-Saxon dialects became the practical language of exchange between peoples, but the survival of large numbers of Celtic words and place-names in connection with rivers, woods, hills and valleys throughout the lowlands, suggests that the British farmers did not simply abandon their homesteads, and that they may well have continued to farm quite large estates alongside the Saxon settlers as equals rather than serfs.

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Certainly, their dynastic leaders and warriors may well have been driven into the upland western corners of the island. Both Gildas and Nennius referenced tales of a Romano-British chieftain called Arthur who led successful resistance from the 470’s to 515, winning twelve battles, recorded in Welsh heroic legends. He was probably a Romano-British noble, possibly a cavalry commander who had fought in the Roman Army. Nennius dates the last of these battles, at Mount Badon, to 515. However, there is no reference to Arthur’s in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although it details a number of battles from the period, including one in 519 in which ’Cerdic and Cynric’ established the West Saxon dynasty after beating the Britons at Cerdic’s Ford. Nevertheless, we know that, in terms of dynastic control, much of western Britain remained under Romano-British rule for much of the following period into the seventh century, until the rise of the Northumbrian and then Mercian Saxon kingdoms. By the eighth century, they had been driven as a fighting force from what was becoming known as Engaland and continued to be known as Wealas or Walas and Cornwalas, meaning ’foreigners’. They called themselves Cymry, meaning ‘compatriots’, giving us the modern-day ‘Cumbria’. The Peterborough Chronicle for 614 refers to a battle in which Cynegils, King of Wessex for 31 years, slew two thousand and sixty-five Welsh. The Parker Chronicle for 755 tells of Cynewulf, King of Wessex, who often fought great battles against the Welsh. It also mentions in passing how a Welsh hostage was the only survivor, badly wounded, of a battle against Cyneheard, Prince of Wessex. These entries are clear evidence of continued British resistance.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: MacMillan.

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