1066 and all what? A counterfactual history of English

19 Oct

Next week, I’ll be heading to the Sage Gateshead for the BBC Free Thinking festival, where all of this year’s ‘new generation thinkers’ (great gig, naff name) will be giving talks – it’s free in, and everyone’s welcome. My talk is here, and make sure you get tickets for the other talks too – there are some brilliant topics and speakers. If you don’t live nearby, consider marching north en masse in some bizarre reverse-Pilgrimage of Grace sort of deal. 

I mention this because I’ve been working on my talk, which is called ‘The language wars of early modern England’. It’ll be about the ways in which the English language – and, by extension, what it meant to speak and to be English – was contested in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and how these debates played out not just between the covers of books, but on the streets and in everyday social life. 

One thing I want to get to the bottom of is how we’ve ended up with this bizarre pride in the ‘mongrel’ nature of English. You’ll find fierce debates in, say, the prefaces to Elizabethan translations, about whether authors should add to the stock of English vocabulary by borrowing from Italian and French as well as Latin and Greek. To see how this pride in the somewhat ragtag character of English grew, I thought I’d take a survey of some writing on the history of the language between the early modern period and today, which is how I came across Richard Chenevix Trench. 

Trench was a Dubliner by birth, and went on to become the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin and the Dean of Westminster Abbey, where he’s buried. I came across the tenth edition of his English, past and present (London: Macmillan, 1877) and took a quick look before becoming ever more intrigued. 

First things first: Trench is a fan of English. A pretty big fan. On page three he’s already getting effusive: 

‘For, indeed, the love of our native language, what is it in fact, but the love of our native land expressing itself in one particular direction? If the noble acts of that nation to which we belong are precious to us, if we feel ourselves made greater by the greatness, summon to a nobler life by the nobleness of Englishmen, who have already lived and died, and have bequeathed to us a name which must not by us be made less, what exploits of theirs can well be worthier, what can more clearly point out their native land and ours as having fulfilled a glorious past, as being destined for a glorious future, than that they should have acquired for themselves and for us a clear, a strong, an harmonious, a noble language? For all this bears witness to corresponding merits in those that speak it, to clearness of mental vision, to strength, to harmony, to nobleness in them who have gradually shaped and fashioned it to be the utterance of their inmost life and being.’

Trench’s paean to the proud Saxon roots of the English language is nothing new, though. What caught my eye was a pair of lectures (the book’s made up of lectures given at King’s College School) in which he presents a counterfactual history of the English language if the Norman Conquest had never happened. 

For Trench, and for some of his contemporaries, 1066 seems still to carry a visceral sense of loss: the defeat of the English and their subjection to the ‘Norman yoke’ of William the Conqueror and his descendants, in their eyes, marked the moment at which the language departed from its sturdy, manly Saxon roots and took on the vocabulary of France. An account from 1952, C.L. Wrenn sees invasion, language change, and the subjection of the freeborn Englishman as all part of the same process: 

‘With the Conquest and the re-ordering of the Government and upper social life of England which soon followed it, we begin to find, at first only gradually, but with increasing abundance as the twelfth century advances, the kind of French words which the influence of an ‘occupying power’ would suggest. A man is caught shooting a deer in the New Forest (a royal prerogative), and finds himself quickly surrounded by a group of armed jabbering foreigners who arrest  him: and he quickly learns to recognize the new French term prisun (which is recorded in the reign of William the Conqueror): and terms like foreste, tur (tower), market, rent, justise, soon follow.’

For Trench, back in 1877, the Norman influence on English was perpetrated with all the manic glee of a Bond villain: 

‘there is a secret satisfaction, a conscious sense of superiority, in thus stripping the language of its grace and ornament, outraging its laws, compelling it to novel forms, showing, even while it is used, how little it is regarded, and making thus not merely the wills, but the very speech of the conquered, to confess its subjection.’

From the ‘Rich and expressive’ vocabulary of ‘the palmy days of Anglo-Saxon literature’, he argues, ‘those [words] pertaining to higher domains of thought, feeling, and passion, and to all loftier culture either moral or material, had in vast multitudes dropt out of use and been forgotten’. 

The rest of the lecture is devoted to a thought experiment: how would English have developed had Harold won at Hastings and the French influence – on language, on politics, on daily life – been repulsed? Trench’s counterfactual history of English draws on German as a language which likes to make compound nouns out of its own word stock, and proposes a few that might have come into being in English – ‘threefoldness’ for trinity, say, or ‘shewholiness’ for hypocrisy. He would, I think have been happy to see that Wyclif’s use of ‘sourdough’ for ‘leaven’ has staged something of an unexpected comeback. 

In the end, Trench is reconciled to English’s hybrid vocabulary: the combination of borrowed terms and ‘Saxon’ remnants ‘gives the opportunity of weaving now a homelier, now a more scholarly garment of speech, as may seem most advisable for the immediate need’. In my talk next Sunday, I’ll talk a bit more about how people – early moderns and moderns – have tried to deal with a perceived tension between English roots and foreign inheritance. I’ll ask how they used language to think about identity, nation, and belonging – questions which, as these final words from Trench show, can be very hard indeed to pull apart. 

‘Looking at this process of the reception of foreign words, with their after assimilation in feature to our own, we may trace a certain conformity between the genius of our institutions and that of our language. It is the very character of our institutions to repel none, but rather to afford a shelter and a refuge to all, from whatever quarter they come; and after a longer or shorter while all the strangers and incomers have been incorporated into the English nation, within one or two generations have forgotten that they were ever extraneous to it, have retained no other reminiscence of their foreign extraction than some slight difference of name, and that often disappearing or having disappeared. Exactly so has it been with the English language. No language has shown itself less exclusive; none has stood less upon niceties; none has thrown open its doors wider, with a fuller confidence that it could make truly its own, assimilate and subdue to itself, whatever it received into its bosom; and in no language has this confidence been more fully justified by the result.’


If you want to read more, RCT’s English, past and present is available (though not, sadly, in the edition I’ve used) on Project Gutenberg, because Project Gutenberg is brilliant. Read it here

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: