Britain has a particular allure. It’s probably the sense of timelessness and age-old tradition, and a language that’s been exported to the far corners of the globe.
Actually there is much more of Britain cloaked in the mists of time. One needs to take a long view, much further back on the timeline than Downton Abbey or any of those glorious costume dramas on television.
At the height of their power, the Romans invaded and set up camp on the River Thames (probably known by another name). Their legions battled the local Celtic tribes, one of which – the Iceni – was led by the fierce female warrior Boudicea who burnt down their town Londinium. The Romans left Britannia after 400 years.
We can blame our somewhat distorted view on the Brits who hold tight onto their Anglo-Saxon traditions. But even their tongue was imported.
Melvyn Bragg in The Adventure of English says the native Celts or Britons fought Germanic tribes – notably Saxons, Angles and Jutes – for over a hundred years. Celtic and Gaelic are managing a toehold, but apparently only two dozen Celtic words remain in modern English.
In the Dutch province of Friesland, Bragg says, the language sounds very much like Britain’s ancestral tongue. On paper it is hard to imagine the sounds, but he cites examples like ‘froast’ (frost), ‘trije’ (three) and ‘blau’ (blue) as echoes of Britain’s ancient language.
“Frisian was a strong parent of English. ‘Laam’ (lamb), ‘goes’ (goose), ‘bûter’ (butter)… are in the shops; outdoors we have ‘see’ (sea), ‘stoarm’ (storm)… and ‘snie’ (snow),” Bragg writes.
Then came the Danes.
“The Vikings were unloosed and for almost three centuries raids and settlements by these Scandinavian warriors devastated huge tracts of these islands…”
If you want to see what that looked like, watch the television series The Last Kingdom, set in 9th century Britain. It’s vicious and bloody, but you’ll get the picture.
Though mostly a fictional narrative, it is based on real events and some real historical characters like Alfred, the pious and astute king of Wessex. He kept the Danes at bay with a strategy to build a nation through Saxon alliances welded by a common language: English.
King Alfred defeated the Danes in 878 at Ethandune, now called Edington near the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. Although they came back many times, little remains of their Old Norse language – some place names ending in ‘by’ like Derby and Rugby, and the word ‘dale’ for a valley. Another lasting example is the Danish manner of adding ‘-son’ to a first name to create a surname, like Johnson and Stevenson.
Alfred is credited with saving the English language. “He set out to teach the English English and make them proud of it…,” Bragg argues.
Then his efforts almost came to nothing.
In 1066 the Duke of Normandy crossed to England and defeated Harold Godwineson (note the surname of the Anglo-Saxon king) in the Battle of Hastings. The duke was crowned King William on Christmas Day at Westminster in London.
William the Conqueror spoke a dialect of French. For three hundred years the language at court was French. The Normans spoke “an alien tongue and they imposed it,” according to Bragg. “The Normans seized the centre of power and it was their language which described the new order…”
William was both pious and brutal. He spent years quelling English insurrections and persistent Danish invasions. He even used scorched earth tactics, as historian Dr Marc Morris writes, quoting the 12th century chronicler Orderic Vitales:
“In his anger, he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance.”
He built churches and cathedrals all over the land. And he built castles – something the Anglo-Saxons had not seen before. Interestingly, his homeland Normandy was named for the Scandinavian Norseman who had terrorised that French territory for hundreds of years.
The Conqueror’s reign saw English and the English language being sidelined. Bragg quotes the historian, William of Malmesbury, as saying that within sixty years of the Battle of Hastings, no Englishman held a position as earl or bishop.
According to estimates, Bragg says, “in the three centuries following the Conquest perhaps as many as ten thousand French words colonised English.”
That’s why English today has words like throne, crown, soldier, govern, traitor and authority – all derived from French. Legal terms abound: think of judge, arrest, prison, sentence, acquit and defend. In the home and business: blanket, chimney, couch, pantry, merchant, money, price, bargain. Our food words originated from French: beef, pork, mutton, sausage, salmon, sole, mustard, herb, vinegar, grapes, lemon, tart, biscuit, sugar, cream…
More to the point, modern English retained a vast amount of the French lexicon, giving us ‘synonyms’ like commence and start, room and chamber, ask and demand, axe and hatchet. Of course, their meanings have become slightly different, but still the point is clear.
Three centuries after Hastings, English became a royal language again. As Henry IV took the crown in 1399, he addressed his subjects – not in Latin or French, but in English.
Melvyn Bragg. 2003. The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language. Hodder & Stoughton, London.
Marc Morris. 2013. The Norman Conquest. Windmill Books, London.