Doubts over the Roots of the English Language

Doubts over the Roots of the English Language

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The traditional conception of the origins of the English language is well known. Its roots were transplanted into British soil after the end of the Roman occupation by the Germanic invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Roman armies (and all their soldiers!) supposedly left at the beginning of the 5th century and the military vacuum was supposedly filled by these “Anglo-Saxon” invaders.They then proceeded to conquer the land and within two centuries the Old English speech community had become dominant. Prior to this, the peoples of the British Isles were all supposedly Brythonic speech communities who had become Romanised and had embraced, partly at least, Latin. The roots of the English language supposedly arrived later.

Some researchers in the relevant areas are now questioning this ‘established’ conception. For example, Francis Pryor in his text ‘Britain AD’ and Stephen Oppenheimer in his ‘The Origins of the British : A Genetic Detective Story’. Moreover, ancient historiographical sources – such as Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’ – also appear to point us in a different direction in regard to the roots and origins of the English language.

The languages and dialects spoken by all the different peoples and tribes of pre-Roman Britain cannot be known for definite, beyond ‘all reasonable doubt’ so to speak. It remains an area of open research and academic debate. It is so remote historically and there is so little historiographical and archaeological evidence regarding the specific character of the languages spoken, that this invariably invites scepticism and even speculation.

Pryor, for example, in regard to the 5th and 6th centuries, stresses the continuity in tradition over the centuries and I think he is correct when he asserts that there was not a “mass” Germanic invasion in these centuries of hundreds of thousands of “Anglo-Saxons”. However, how do we account for the cultural discontinuities (within the historic continuity) in these centuries? Or do we actually need to account for them in terms of conquest? Are we looking at cultural changes as a result of mass invasions or military-cultural conquest by a Germanic warrior elite? Or could we be actually looking at a re-birth, a sort of post-Roman cultural ‘Renaissance’ where the cultural elements were already present throughout the Roman period? For example, in language, in actual place names in landscape, in the names of people, etc : do we actually know what local people called the areas where they lived? i.e. what words they actually used in everyday speech? Do we actually know the names which they used to address each other? Only the aristocratic elite took on Romanic culture and this was also the tendency amongst town dwellers. Most people in Roman Britain actually lived on the land and must have continued with established pre-Roman traditions. Oppenheimer raises a very interesting question : why are there so few Brythonic loan words in English? If Britain had been exclusively an assortment of enduring Brythonic speech communities in pre-Roman and Roman Britain, why did so few of their words become integrated into English after the “Anglo-Saxon” conquest? Moreover, why are there significant genetic differences (genetic markers) between the populations of south-eastern Britain and the rest of the island?

The idea of a mass invasion of hundreds of thousands of marauding Angles and Saxons, etc, in the 5th and 6th centuries sounds as implausible as such an invasion by the Romans before or the Normans after them. A military conquest of the south-eastern part of the country over many decades seems less implausible. By a Germanic military warrior elite which was a Western Germanic speech community. This new ruling elite then contributed to alterations in cultural changes in the course of these and subsequent centuries. Including alterations in the language. We have historical models for such a type of conquest prior to and subsequent to the post-Roman Germanic incursions and conquests in the form of the Roman and Norman conquests.

The Roman and Norman conquests did not involve many thousands of people from the continent “swamping” the indigenous culture. Cultural changes arose out of the historic-structural alterations stemming from these conquests. The Romans conquered with their legions and imposed these changes and the Normans conquered with how many? 10,000 which includes their retinues, etc. In a way, American culture has “conquered” Britain but by means of economic and political power and through the mass media but there has not been a mass migration of Americans into the country.

In other words, for these changes to have taken place in these centuries, new cultural elements could have been introduced into the post-Roman culture and become organically integrated into it. However, such post-Roman Germanic introductions could merely have re-invigorated Germanic or Brythono-Germanic elements already present throughout the Roman period inherited from the late Iron Age. These exogenous introductions then brought to life (acted as a sort of ‘cultural spark’) a ‘Neo-Germanic Renaissance’? No mass migration is necessarily implied. And, actually, neither is an invasion from continental Europe of a Germanic military overlordship. Even before centralised Roman rule ended, these Germanic elements could already have been present in the form of Germanic legionaries, auxillaries, mercenaries, etc, and their families, etc. The Romans hired foreign mercenaries to defend the boundaries of their empire. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the inheritors of post-Roman Britain were already living and established as communities in sufficient numbers within the province of Britannia.

Hence, Germanic military “incursions” could have been “endogenous” and not the commonly and traditionally held “exogenous” incursions and conquest. This is not to discount the possibility that these endogenous communities also had exogenous contacts. The cultural changes which took place throughout the post-Roman centuries could have been, in all essentials, endogenous i.e. alterations arising organically but with some exogenous influences. With the movement of peoples around and through the Roman empire in its final centuries, this cannot be discounted.

But I think we have to consider the changes taking place in the post-Roman period in Britain as not “dark” at all but possibly as an organic evolution (with possible exogenous influences) of the conditions which existed when centralised rule from Rome ended.

The question of linguistic changes could be considered within such an evolving context. It seems to be a ‘bolted development’ for a whole people to be articulating a new language (Old English) – from a ‘dead start’ so to speak – in such a short space of historical time. With no adopted loan words from the previously and supposedly dominant Romanised Brythonic speech communities. This, however, could be taken as an argument for the ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Romano-Brythonics by the Germanics. All of them “pushed to the west” into Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria, etc. Is it possible for the indigenous languages of established speech communities to be obliterated in this way and replaced by the language of the conquerors without leaving hardly any traces in terms of loan words, etc?

Some researchers are now suggesting that conversing pre-Roman Britain was not simply of the Brythonic sub-branch of the Indo-European Language tree. It may well be that parts of the south and east of England actually spoke a language from the Germanic branch actually before the Roman or later Germanic invasions. And Oppenheimer is even suggesting that English originates from linguistic roots which are not West Germanic but of a totally different sub-branch of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European tree. That it even possibly has roots in and evolved from a sub-branch which was a hybrid of the Germanic and the Brythonic. This implies that at the time of the Roman occupation, the British tribes were divided into Brythonic and Non-Brythonic speech communities, the latter already, at least if not fully, being a Germanic or Brythono-Germanic speech community in the eastern and southern tribes of the land. The northern and western tribes tending to be exclusively Brythonic in speech.

These differences are accredited to the invasions of the Belgic (Belgae) tribes about 400 years before the Roman conquest. Some sources – including Caesar in the ‘Gallic Wars’ – seem to suggest that their language was of the Germanic branch and not the Brythonic. Oppenheimer’s work in genetics tends to support this historiographical suggestion. This would tend to suggest that the English language has deeper roots, indeed pre-Roman, and that the exit of Rome combined with the Germanic conquest merely served to give re-birth in new form and sustenance to the earlier ‘Belgic’ Germanic form or Belgic ‘Brythono-Germanic’ form. Perhaps the conception that all of Britain was ‘Brythonic’ in speech needs to be re-evaluated. We are so absolutely conditioned into the traditional conception that the English language starts with the 5th century. We need to consider, perhaps, the possibility that the Britons in the south-east were already speaking a Germanic or even ‘Brythono-Germanic’ language at the time of the invasion of the Roman legions and even three centuries before it. And that this linguistic heritage carried through and beyond the Roman occupation so that the cultural cauldron within which English finds its point of orignation is a combination (a synthesis) of this Belgic Germanic (or Belgic Brythono-Germanic) legacy and the language of the Western Germanic cousins coming to the south and east of the land in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Has the degree of disruption (discontinuity) of the post-Roman period been overrated or even “de-romanticised” into an enduring so-called “Dark Age”? Perhaps the conception of a pre-Roman (and therefore Roman) ‘Belgic Germanic’ or ‘Belgic Brythono-Germanic’ speech community in the tribes of the south and east may carry legitimacy. There is lots of food for thought and research here, both archaeological and historiographical. Is the post-Roman “lights out and into a dark age catastrophe” conception possibly a cherished romance or a ‘fin de l’epoque’ fantasy of the classicists or a ‘commencement de l’epoch’ fantasy of the Anglo-Saxonist philologists?

Shaun May

May 2014


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