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.  



Posted by: lcm | August 1, 2011

Webster’s Third is 50, but…

Webster’s Third is turning 50 this year.

But that’s not what this post is about. After a satisfying half hour looking up swear words in my copy of the nearly 14-pound delight that is the original 1961 edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, my plan was to write about its publication, the controversy that immediately followed, and the awesomeness of the many delightful swear words included in it. I even made a sweet collage of some of the headlines its release generated:

But then I started thinking about Noah Webster and what he might have thought of W3, as the cool kids call it (because you can’t get the cool kids to shut up about lexicography), and especially what he might have thought about the over-the-top reactions of many reviewers. And before I knew it, I found myself sidetracked once again (yes, this happens to me a lot) by his Dissertations on the English Language (1789).

(If you really want to read about Webster’s Third, I refer you to David Skinner’s excellent and enjoyable article on the topic.)

I have spent a lot of time with Noah Webster over the past year, or I guess I should say I have spent a lot of time with Dissertations. I’ve been working on a research project on the topic of American English and its development, specifically in the context of concurrently developing ideologies about standardness and about American identity. The project involves analysis of literary texts and the ways that they represent spoken American English and analysis of metalinguistic commentary (i.e. talking about talking) circulating in the late eighteenth century in relation to the topic of American independence. I was thinking to take a break from all that for this post, but as you’ll see, I’ve utterly failed to do so. So here we go.

A newspaper editor, teacher, author of educational books, and lexicographer by profession, Noah Webster (1758-1843) was not a politician, but he came of age amidst revolution and actively supported the movement toward American independence through the publication of political pamphlets, essays, and editorials. And like several of his contemporaries, he believed that the establishment of a distinctly American English was a necessary act of American self-determination and national identity and therefore a critical step towards establishing an independent, unified nation. (Note to students: See? Everything really is about linguistics.)

In Dissertations on the English Language, Webster argues that an original cultural identity – including an original linguistic identity – had to be part of what would constitute independence for the new republic. “As an independent nation,” he maintains, “our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government” (20).

Later in the book, he makes the case that a “national language is a band of national union” (Webster’s italics), an “engine [that] should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character” (397-8).

He concludes (again italicizing): “Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language, as well as a national government” (406).

But there was a bit of a problem with this plan. You can probably see what it was. The native language of Webster and his fellow patriots, and therefore the best option for the “national language” they advocated, was of course none other than taxation-without-representation, red-coated English itself, the language of their former overlords. That was of course terribly inconvenient.

But these guys were nothing if not pragmatic. And so what turned out to be the most expedient route to a national language was to find ways to distinguish American English from its British antecedents. Webster’s attempts to distinguish American English included spelling reform (although his approach was pretty conservative compared to some other proposals that have been tossed around over the centuries) and exhortations that Americans consider adopting a uniform standard for American English because of “the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments”:

[T]here are . . . important reasons, why the language of this country should be reduced to such fixed principles, as may give its pronunciation and construction all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving. . . . The body of the people, governed by habit, will still retain their respective peculiarities of speaking; and for want of schools and proper books, fall into many inaccuracies, which, incorporating with the language of the state where they live, may imperceptibly corrupt the national language. Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books, can annihilate differences in speaking and preserve the purity of the American tongue. (18-19)

Of course, any such deliberate action was completely unnecessary. (I am choosing to ignore the adorable idea that there has ever been any “purity” to preserve in any version of English, or in any other language, for that matter.) The views and advocacy of Webster and others were unlikely to have had any real impact on the ways that early Americans – and, consequently, their descendants – actually spoke. American divergence from British English was inevitable for other reasons, namely geographic. You put that many miles between speakers of a common language, and differential language change is what you get. But those Revolutionary guys apparently didn’t know then that that’s how it works. (This guy helped put American English on the map — literally — but that wasn’t until the 20th century.)

But the institutionalization of a prestige variety or preferred standard for English in the U.S. is another story, in that its development was anything but natural. It was, rather, the result of cultural discourses that privileged the language varieties of powerful speakers. In other words, it was not a linguistic process but an ideological one. You can see some of the early inklings of that process in Webster’s Dissertations, including in the excerpts above. The developing language ideologies given voice in his writings, along with those of other independence activists who engaged the topic of language, were very much in play in the move toward standardization in American English. But that’s a topic for another day.


As always, 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.

The photo of Noah Webster is in the public domain, although I colorized it because Noah needed some zazz.

The collage of headlines is my original work and may be used only by permission.

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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