» Home > In the News

The origins of the English language

3 July 2013
Ancient history

In MJ Harper's book, The History of Britain Revealed:the shocking truth about the English language, Icon Books:2006, the author makes some funny but very irreverent remarks about academics – even to the point of accusing them of cognitive dissonance. He says anything with the label of crazy, crank, or pseudo-science, can be resolutely ignored, and with fewer and fewer professionals thereby investigating the anomalies in their respective disciplines, the relevant consensus theory so to speak, they become even more marginalised (sidelined anomalies – where have we heard that one before?). When such anomalies have been proscribed for a length of time any enquiries about their current status are stonewalled – 'not that old chestnut again …' or words to that effect. The anomalies eventually fall off the radar screen of academics at large and new generations are unaware such anomalies exist.

On page 9 he remarks, and this is a nice bit of sarcasm, 'academics with careers head off to greener pastures where all the overfed cows are munching away on the grass growing out of their own manure.'

With little professional activity anomalies are avoided and are met with a stock answer such as, 'more research is required …' – but nobody is going to do it.

The author's axe to grind in this book is the study of the Anglo Saxon language – which he claims is quite unlike English (which surfaced in the late medieval period following the fall from grace of the French spoken by the ruling Norman elite). He claims Anglo Saxon is a Scandinavian tongue – and it is true that Beowulf is a story brought from that region of the world, the earliest piece of English literature. Here is where the author takes issue – it is not English. In fact, the nearest thing to English is recognised to be Frisian – yet they did not invade Britain in the dark ages. It was Saxons (Germans) and Angles (Scandinavians) and Jutes (from Jutland in Denmark) – not Frisians. Why then does English most resemble the language of Frisia – on the other side of the southern basin of the North Sea. Well, for half of the period of the Holocene southern Britain was attached to that part of Europe that includes Frisia and it is the author's contention that English is the language of the Mesolithic hunter gatherers that roamed across Dogger Land into Britain after the Ice Age.

The author is well aware that the theory sounds a bit whacky which is why he resorts to laugh a minute tongue in cheek ridicule of the scholars who insist otherwise. I read the book in a couple of hours. Can't say I agree whole heartedly – but an interesting theory. Most damning is the fact that English, he claims, contains an awful lot of Latin loan words, one third of all the words in the language. It is often thought this came about via the Normans – but they used French. English was the language of the peasants. It is quite possible those words are directly due to 350 years of Roman rule – and for no other reason. Anglo Saxons lived beyond the reach of Roman influence and so they could not possibly have inherited so many Roman words for everyday things. In other words, English was being spoken prior to the arrival of the Romans. In addition, he claims Lowland Scots also spoke a form of English – and Anglo Saxon warlords only had a fleeting presence in Scotland. Therefore, he surmises large tracts of Scotland also spoke a form of English (Lallan) and Celtic speakers were confined to the western coastal region and the islands, where Gaelic is still a spoken language. It is likely the Highlanders also spoke a Celtic language, including the Picts, and those Welsh on the western seaboard, and the Cornish and Bretons etc. The same applies to Ireland, he assures the reader. Only the western coastal region spoke a Celtic language, and they dominated the rest of Ireland most of the time. The area around Dublin, he says, also spoke a language resembling English – and they still do tend to favour English over Gaelic. The evidence here is less pronounced than in the case of Scotland, or the Welsh border zone, and requires some backing up. However, it would not be unreasonable if Meoslithic inhabitants of Ireland and Britain both had a common origin, and spoke a similar tongue. The problem is that both countries were subject to various invasions and changes in the ruling elite, imposing their own speech (or ignoring the speech of the conquered) which obscures the real situation. This is where his beef with academics comes in. They ignore the anomalies inherent in the idea English is derived from Anglo Saxon, a ruling minority (and only for a couple of hundred of years before being replaced first by the Danes and secondly by the Normans, all of them with Scandinavian antecedents and speaking a language quite unlike English).

He reaches these conclusions without falling back on DNA and the fact that most indigenous people in Britain and Ireland are descended from those first immigrants into the two countries after the end of the Ice Age, the Mesolithic hunter gatherers. As he says none of this precludes the possibility Boedicca was Celtic, or any other British chieftain or ruling elite encountered by the Romans. It is quite probable they were Celtic in origin and just as likely they were also a ruling elite in the same way the Anglo Saxon kings were for a brief period of our history. The underclass rumbled on, speaking their own language amongst themselves, quite separate from the folk in the villas or the manors. I rather like this theory – and the way the author presents it, in a sort of 'I know this sounds like hogwash but here it is anyway ..' kind of way, a self effacing sort of hypothesis which contrasts with many of the bumptious sort of consensus theories. In addition, the author also seems to have read and absorbed Velikovsky's Ages in Chaos series as he claims Egyptian chronology, the academic top of the pile consensus on dates and king lists, is in fact hundreds of years out of kilter. In fact, mentioning Egyptology gets him back into the 'ignoring' the anomalies theme once again, and academic bashing.

Skip to content