Posted by: lcm | July 28, 2011

Bronze and iron

Bronze and Iron: The Prehistory of English

For this first post on the history of the English language, it just makes sense to me to get all prehistoric with it, so I’m going to start with Bronze Age Britain and leave off just before the (spoiler alert!) Roman occupation.

Note: There are a lot of resources linked in the text below. You can rest your cursor on them to get a brief description if you don’t feel like visiting them right now.

According to archaeological and DNA evidence, the British Isles have been home to homo sapiens for about 25,000 years. Because there are no written records of any kind to go on, nothing at all is known about the languages of these earliest inhabitants, except that they were unlikely to have been Indo-European languages.

The first speakers of Indo-European languages in the area probably did not arrive for another 20,000+ years. These immigrants probably brought Celtic languages when they migrated to Britain from the European continent and beyond, around 4,000 years ago, launching the British Bronze Age. There is not a lot of agreement in the scholarly community about where they came from originally or when and why they migrated to Britain, but there have been many important archaeological finds — including many discoveries by metaldetector enthusiasts — that help to give us some idea what life might have been like for the first speakers of Indo-European languages in the British Isles.

These discoveries include human remains, pottery, weaponry, and of course metal objects of all kinds. The story of the 1991 discovery and excavation of a 3,300-year-old boat in Dover is particularly fantastic. You can see pictures of the boat’s cargo here.

Early Broze Age gold sheets

Celtic speakers remained in Britain through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. In Britain, the earliest days of the Iron Age date back to around 750 BC, and the latest run up against the first-century AD expansion of the Roman empire into England. It is still too early for there to be any records of the languages spoken in Britain during the Iron Age, but a lot of other artifacts remain.

And from the looks of things, these Iron-Agers were no angels, as we’ve learned from a number of bog bodies discovered in peat bogs in the vicinity over the past few hundred years as well as other human remains that have turned up. Some of these individuals show evidence of having died violently and many are well preserved (disturbingly so) thanks to the chemical conditions of the bogs:

Tollund Man

Listen to Seamus Heaney read “The Tollund Man” (Internet Poetry Archive)

So, some of these early inhabitants of the British Isles were pretty interesting if complicated characters. But we leave off here knowing that they aren’t going to be left to their devices for much longer, as the restless Roman empire moves to satisfy its hankering for westward expansion.

For more about early Britain, check out this episode of Britain BC, hosted by the archaeologist and Bronze-Age aficionado Francis Pryor:

And for more about the Iron Age, enjoy this episode of Living in the Past, a 1978 BBC series about 15 young people who spent a year living the Iron Age dream, partying like it was 199 BC, and making a go of it with only what would have been available to them 2,000 years before. Fun! (I mean, if you’re insane.)

Note: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain. I colorized the map because that’s how I roll.

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