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Saturday, 27 August 2011

Language in post-imperial Britain: reflections

Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts and comments to the strand on the 'help required' post.  This was indeed very interesting although I'm not sure that we really got very far in specific response to the question posed!  I thought, since my own thoughts were probably too long for a 'comment', that I'd put them up as a post instead, organised under several headings.

1: The powerful border kingdoms
The band along the border between the villa zone and the uplands is the zone of the greatest scio-economic prosperity in late Roman Britain.  It's where the big villas are, the mosaic industries, the better traces of meaningful continuity into the fifth century, etc.  It's also where the most powerful AS kingdoms are located: Wessex, Mercia, Deira.  'Anglo-Saxon' furnished inhumation cemeteries are fewer and less well furnished (indeed absent from some areas), which ought to be a sign of greater relative stability.  The first thing we know about the south-east is that Aethelbert, first described by his contemporary Gregory of Tours only as 'a man in Kent' shakes off the overlordship of Cewalin of the Gewissae.  This might well be a significant moment in the fracturing of a larger less intenseive overlordship based further west.  The idea that Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria are best because they have room to expand against the Welsh, which is the version I was taught, really begs an awful lot of questions and seems to me to be quite implausible.  The idea of an earlier large realm might make sense of the name of Mercia itself, and of the interesting stability of the southumbrian political unit between 600 and 800, within which overlordship is sought, but not (before Offa anyway) conquest and integration.  At some point I want to organise some sort of project about this.  I hereby baggsy it!

2: Saint Jerome and the Treveri
The acceptance of this testimony as a technical description of actual linguistic similarities seems more than a little naive to me.  It seems to me inadmissible as evidence for the speaking of a Celtic language in the lower Moselle valley in the fourth century, for the reasons I and Mark Handley have already suggested.  Principally we have no idea what Jerome meant by this sentence, if he meant anything at all, beyond the knowledge that a classically trained writer would have that the Gauls and the Galatians were historically related, especially if Greek writers habitually referred to Gaul as Galatia anyway.  That Jerome was bilingual in Latin in Greek - the two principal official languages of the Empire - is not that surprising.  That he later learnt Hebrew and Aramaic is not relevant either as these (with Latin and Greek) are sacred languages, necessary to Jerome's theological practice.  One simply cannot extrapolate from that that he would have learnt the language of the Treveri (if, by 'language', in any case he meant more than some sort of demotic dialect infused with old words; sermo has a range of meanings) - not a sacred language and not a language of government.  Further, learning written languages like Hebrew and Aramaic is a rather different process from learning a local spoken dialect.  No.  This won't do.  Besides which, the fact that Trier was still Romance-speaking at the end of the first millennium and - indeed - that French itself is Romance rather than Celtic seem pretty telling to me.

3: Britons migrating
Ultimately the point must be that we don't have the faintest idea where these emigres came from.  That at least some came from the villa zone, however, seems reasonable.  However, ultimately I am about as sceptical about philological arguments about linguistic chronology/change/etc for periods where we have no written records of the language as I am about the use of modern DNA ...

4: DNA
And on that note, I think Oppenheimer's argument for a pre-migration period 'Germanic' language is utterly untenable.  What I do find interesting and significant is the fact that he has the date of genetic linkage between lowland Britain and the areas of modern Germany etc. centuries earlier than Thomas et al. have it on the basis of fundamentally the same data...

5: Latin loan-words in Old English
Again, I am sceptical about how you could date a loan-word to before or after 600, especially when Old English itself doesn't get written down in any quantities until rather later.  But here I am also sceptical because of many of the preconceptions that ultimately the traditional argument is based on - that Latin must be post-600 because of Augustine's mission, and thus because before that there was no exposure to Latin (why?); and that it must be post-Augustine because many of the loan-words are to do with the Church (this assumes that there was no British church or Christians in the AS kingdoms before Augustine, which seems very questionable to me).  On the whole, many of the arguments  have heard about linguistic developments, chronologies etc in this period, largely pre-dating any significant quantity of evidence at all would raise a lot of eyebrows amongst socio-linguists of later periods with large amounts of actual data. 

I suppose what I was initially looking for was theory about linguistic change/calques/pidgins/creoles in general.