Monday, August 28, 2006

Of Anglo-Saxons and Venerable Bede

In my previous article we finished with the Anglo-Saxons, and noted that their arrival and settlement in the British Isles mysteriously coincided with one of the darkest periods in the history of our language. Apparently they had little time for writing things down, so busy were they fighting each other and the native Celts. Therefore it wasn’t until a period of relative stability had descended on the country that they got round to putting pen to paper. But which language did they use to record their thoughts and deeds?

When the first texts started to appear in the seventh century the English language was still very far from a single, unified system. If you remember, our shores had been invaded in the fifth century by boatloads of fiery foreigners from various parts of what is now Holland, Germany and Denmark, and each had brought their own dialect with them. The kingdoms that they then went on to establish reflected these linguistic differences. So we had varieties of Saxon English in the south western kingdoms of Wessex and Sussex, the Jutes version of it in Kent, and the Angles’ English in the northern kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, not to mention other variants in East Anglia and beyond. As you can imagine, all of this was quite confusing for the hapless traveller in the British Isles of the seventh and eighth century.

However, our shores were blessed with one notable scribe of the times, a church man called the Venerable Bede. In fact, so distressed was he with the apparently conflicting dialects of the eighth century that he wrote his “History of the English People” in Latin, which was still the language of culture and the church in those times. Anyway, few battling Anglo-Saxons would have taken the time out from fighting to read it in their native dialect, presuming they could actually read, that is. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t until a full century later that his book was translated into Old English, the official name given to the ragbag of competing dialects that were present at the time.

The Venerable Bede went on record (presumably in Latin) as saying that the principal dialect divisions of the British Isles at that time were a reflection of the original invading tribes and their differing linguistic backgrounds. What this means in simple English is that they still spoke the tongues that they had brought with them when they had first arrived, as we noted above. Moreover, they were not entirely ‘mutually intelligible’. This is a term that linguists use to mean that the speakers of one language can not understand the speakers of another, despite the languages having similar roots (rather like Geordies and Cockneys today).

Yet modern linguistic historians disagree, claiming that after the initial migrations, the inhabitants’ social, economic and cultural development would have thrown them together and obliged them to try and communicate in some form of common tongue. Although they do not know this for sure, they have studied what happened in America and Australia, where many differing dialects eventually fused into one broadly recognisable language. If that had not happened, current American English would probably be an accurate reflection of British dialects in the 17th and 18th centuries.

One more key point to bear in mind, back in the dark days of our language, is that there was a force for political and linguistic unity in the British Isles of the ninth century: King Alfred. Not only was he keen to win all the wars between the competing Anglo-Saxon tribes at that time, but he also had the Bible translated from Latin into his West Saxon dialect. What this in fact meant was that his version of the tongue was one of the first into print, and thus led to the establishment of a standard Old English. However, multiple spellings still survived, depending on where the texts were written, and tended to reflect local pronunciation. For example, our current word ‘guardian’ has evolved from ‘uard’ in Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon and ‘weard’ in King Arthur’s version. And the northern pronunciation of ‘water’, to rhyme with ‘fatter’, gave way to a pronunciation as in ‘daughter’. So things were starting to get together.

Finally, we should not forget the pervasive influence of the Celtic tongue, not to mention the resistance of the Welsh to any domination by the Anglo Saxons. The fact that they were able to resist enslavement meant that their language managed to survive intact. But many Celtic words still exist in modern English, notably placenames and geographical references. Strangely perhaps, the word ‘welsh’ itself is of Old English origin, meaning both ‘slave’ and ‘foreigner’. Curiously, the Welsh name for themselves, in Welsh of course, is Cymraeg, which is related to ‘cwm’ or ‘cym’, the Celtic word for valley. This word often appears in its anglified version in many place names in modern English, typically as ‘combe’ and ‘compton’: Ilfracombe, Old Compton, etc.

However, just when you thought the dialects of the language might have been settling down to form some sort of recognisable version of unified English, another tragedy struck. A new tide of invasion came, once again from the East, in the form of Scandinavian raiders. The first boat arrived around the end of the eighth century, and they didn’t stop coming for around/almost 300 years. These brutes were known as Vikings, or Norsemen, and they made their most significant settlements in the north of England and southern Scotland. Fortunately for the language, they spoke a tongue that was not too unlike the Anglo-Saxon dialects of their predecessors. Thus began the period of Later Old English, from 850 to around 1100, and we’ll have more about this next week.

Until then, one simple question: Who invaded the British Isles in 1066?

Here are the answers to last month's questions:

1) Apparently they were invited by the King (according to the Venerable Bede).
2) Not much: they sent back word that the Brits were cowardly.
3) They didn’t integrate, they just subjugated!