Posted by: lcm | August 12, 2011

Rome in charge

Rome in charge: Some thoughts on the Roman occupation of Britain

When I teach the history of the English language, which I do at least once every academic year in a course known as English 3720: Development of Modern English, I approach the topic of the Roman occupation of Britain with a small but persistent sense of dread. The reasons for this dread fall more or less into two categories:

1. A lot of English speakers take for granted that English is descended from Latin.

2. A lot of Early Modern English speakers fetishized Latin, which is something that still causes problems for us today.

Let’s explore these issues. First, a lot of English speakers take for granted that English is descended from Latin. However, there is a slight problem with that assumption, which is that it is wrong. English is a Germanic language. I think that talking about the Romans in Britain in a course on the history of the English language might have a tendency to reinforce the widely held folk-linguistic belief that English is descended from Latin. Which it isn’t.

It really shouldn’t annoy me so much that such easily correctable misinformation is still so ubiquitous, but it does, especially in the context of other thoughtless but rather more damaging language attitudes and ideologies that are out there, and that affect the lives of real people. In other words, misinformation about language can cause a lot of unnecessary problems, so the last thing I want to do is contribute to them.

I probably would not have decided to be a professor if I weren’t a pretty idealistic person in the first place. I mean, what would be the point in teaching and conducting research if you’re not deeply and wholeheartedly invested in the belief that not everything that is knowable is yet known and that actual, meaningful learning is possible, valuable, and awesome?

So it hurts my heart a little bit that even though every student who takes English 3720 with me learns on the first day of class that English is a Germanic language, not an Italic (Latin-derived) one, and even though this point is reiterated in any number of ways throughout the semester, I sometimes see an answer or two on the final exam indicating the author’s belief in the Latin ancestry of English (which, as I might have mentioned already, is nonexistent). Sure, these exam answers seem to say, their authors have kindly humored me for 15 weeks (or not heard me or or not come to class or not done the reading), but come finals week, it’s back to the intuitive, the “fact” that just feels right. I should note that it is a very, very small number of students who fall into this category, but any number greater than zero is greater than my capacity not to be devastated by it.

There are a lot of Latin-derived words in English, which is probably a big part of the reason that so many among us, students as well as the general population, are beguiled into believing that English is a Romance language, like Italian or French or Spanish or Portuguese, only (while we’re on the subject of language ideologies) not as beautiful as any of those. But vocabulary is not everything, word-borrowing is not language descendancy, and English is not a Romance language. Have I mentioned that English is a Germanic language? Good. It still is.

At the end of the semester, I usually include an extra-credit question on the final exam that asks students what they consider to be the most important thing they have learned about the English language in English 3720. A common response — possibly the most common response (although I haven’t counted) — is that English is a Germanic language and not descended from Latin as they had previously thought. The students who answer thusly (bless them) often add that they found this information surprising, having always believed that English is descended from Latin. Which it isn’t.

My problem with even the very small number of students who leave English 3720 with the same (mis)understanding of the origins of English as they had when they arrived might be that I am uneasy with the possibility that this one fairly staggering fact — one that I like to imagine that my mostly English-major students will remember after the semester is over, perhaps the only thing that some of them will remember at all from 3720 as they leave their one required course in linguistics behind and get on with the business of literature and creative writing and whatnot — risks being muddied by the inconvenient facts of the Roman occupation of Britain. Yes, there were Romans in Britain for a while. No, English is not descended from Latin.

As I have mentioned, the other part of my reluctance to discuss the British part of the Roman empire has to do with my annoyance with respect to the valorization of Latin during the Early Modern (EMod) period of the history of the English language. The end of the Roman occupation of Britain predates EMod by a good thousand years, of course, and so one really has nothing to do with the other. But still, it’s irritating because of the incredibly misguided things that influential people have done in the name of trying to improve what they saw as our lowly Germanic bastard of a language by making it more like Latin, which they fetishized as the language closest to what they imagined to be their creator’s Divine Linguistic Intent, and from which — and I don’t remember if I have gotten around to this point yet — it is of course not descended and therefore it made no sense to impose linguistically indefensible rules on it to try to make it more like Latin, rules that a lot of people (some of them well-meaning and some of them arrogant, ill-informed pedants) still enforce today, usually without any clue as to why they exist in the first place and how ridiculous and arbitrary they are.

So, let’s just say I would prefer not to breathe any more life into the peculiar (but sadly persistent) EMod idea that a language in which hardly anyone at the time had access to literacy (which was kind of the point, making it even more annoying) ought to be privileged to the point where its rules are used where they have no business: to govern a completely different language. That just hurts my feelings.

But the Roman Empire did extend to Britain for a while, a few hundred years, even. In 55 and 54 BC, Julius Caesar attempted consecutive invasions. While the first was a complete failure, he didn’t really do a whole lot better the second time, when he landed successfully but was unable to secure any turf. However, about a century later, Emperor Claudius enjoyed considerably greater success when he and an army of about 40,000 invaded and managed to establish a Roman occupation in 43 AD. This occupation lasted nearly 400 years, although the Romans were obliged to spend the first 40 or so years of it fighting off insurgencies mounted by resentful locals, including particularly fierce resistance led by the mother of all bad-asses, Boudica, Queen of the Iceni. (That’s Boudica in the picture at the top of this post.)

This next part is really hard for me, but here goes:

During the occupation, Latin became the Official Language of Britain, and it persisted as such for over 300 years. HOWEVER (and it’s a big ‘however,’ as you might have guessed from my use of all-caps), Latin was never in widespread use among the native population and lower classes (i.e. pretty much everybody), which explains why it did not survive, as the native Celtic languages did, the Germanic invasions of Britain that began in the 5th century. (The Germanic invasions will be discussed in a future post, but here’s a spoiler alert: They have something to do with how English developed as a Germanic language, which, as I may have mentioned, it is.)

England — Brittania — was the westernmost turf of the empire, and in the almost-400 years of their occupation, the Romans built sophisticated systems for water deliveryhouses with central heating, and a network of elaborately engineered roads.

But for another view of the Romans in Britain, check out Britain BC, a terrific documentary series in which the archaeologist Francis Pryor challenges popular assumptions about Roman contributions to British culture, infrastructure, and (bless his heart) language. Here’s the first episode:

The Romans pulled out of England in 410 AD. One inconvenient thing about empires is that they require a lot of maintenance, much of it violent and requiring lots of personnel. Between hostile incursions on various fronts by enemies they considered “barbarians” and clashes between rival would-be emperors, the Romans found it very costly to have to fight to maintain the empire. Indigenous Scots and Picts were troublesome to the Romans in Britain, who also had to contend with attacks by Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons. Such incursions were an even bigger problem on the Continent, resulting in a shifting of Roman attention, military personnel, and resources away from Britain, with the consequence of economic collapse there as well as increasing vulnerability to attacks by the Germanic tribes. In 410, the Visigoths attacked Rome, which was the beginning of the end for the Roman empire, the end of Roman Britain, and the opening of a big, nasty power vacuum in its place. But that’s a story for another day.


The usual disclaimer applies: 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.  




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