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Friday, 5 August 2011

Help required

From linguists/philologists - maybe from Alex Woolf in particular!

I went for a drink with an old friend - Steve Brohan - whom I hadn't seen for ages and since we have a shared interest in post-imperial Britain discussion turned to that subject.  Now, Steve proposed a potentially radical idea, which I really like, concerning linguistic change in Britain.

The problem is this: There are pretty well no Brythonic borrowings in Old English.  There are, however, many hundreds of Latin ones, which (alongside other evidence) is leading to some people (including me) suggesting that the language of lowland Britain, encountered by the Anglo-Saxons, was a Romance low Latin, rather than a late Brythonic/proto-Welsh.  However, if this was the case, why did the 'Saxons' not end up speaking a Romance dialect, like (say) the Franks?  Hitherto, answers have focused on the scale of migration.  This is (I think) half right.  Right in that it might be down to different numbers of incomers, but wrong in that I think that that 'scale' is to be measured in chronological terms (that is to say, large numbers but over a long time-span, topping up the cultural value of English).  Only half-right too in that it ignores the other element of the equation, which is that Roman culture had collapsed more severely in lowland Britain than anywhere else (other than the far north of Gaul, where there was similar linguistic change).  Thus there was possibly much less cachet attached to Latin and Roman culture.  That's the aspect I have focused on in the past.

Yet, as Steve pointed out, this can't be entirely satisfactory, because Roman identity did matter so much to the Anglo-Saxons when we know about them from written sources - and it also mattered in the highlands.  He suggested that the dominance of Old English might have become because it was used as a politically dominant 'lingua franca' in areas where British and Latin were spoken.  That would work in that highland/lowland border zone - along the edge of the villa zone, where the greatest prosperity in late Roman period is attested, and where the most powerful AS kingdoms emerge.  The scenario (if I remember correctly) would run like this.  Pre-Anglo-Saxon British highlanders would know some Latin but not much - enough to be able to make transactions with lowland villa-owners etc, especially to pay taxes and so on.  The villa owners, by contrast, would know no British.  When an Anglo-Saxon military elite came to power, however, both would need to learn Old English to communicate with these warrior aristocrats, and knowing this language would enable them to communicate with each other in the new set up. 

Thus Old English would become a dominant language first on the frontier between the villa zone and the highland zone.  As this was an economically prosperous area in the late Roman period, and a politically dominant one in the middle Saxon period, some 'continuity' of dominance might be suggested.  The written sources suggest that the period around 600 was one wherein economic and other changes allowed kingdoms in the south-east briefly to acquire dominance before this was reclaimed by the 'border-zone' kingdoms (Mercia/Northumbria/Wessex) - the earliest action of Aethelberht of Kent is to defeat his predecessor as over-king, Ceawlin of Wessex...

I wonder if yet another aspect of the tyranny of the invasion narrative is that we always think in terms of Anglo-Saxon cultural influence moving 'of necessity' east to west.  But is it possible that it was first established in the west of the lowlands and then spread back east on the back of political dominance?  The archaeological traces of 'Saxon' culture are after all found right across the 'Saxon' zone from the start.  If they are less numerous on the 'frontier' then it is time we started seeing that as a result of the fact that furnished inhumation (symptom of instability) was less 'necessary' (for want of a better word) in regions of greater social stability, then 'Saxon' material culture would obviously show up less often.

This is an idea that I find very attractive but I am not a linguist or philologist.  I argued with Steve as long as I could before he convinced me.  Are there other crucial problems with this that I might have missed?  Or is it one to float or even push?  Thanks.