HERITAGE - 7: WHAT IS ENGLAND - or even ENGLISH?
Known best to many as the 'local', George & Dragon' (nice ales, shame about the landlord's doorsteps)
The early kingdoms
England and English, the new kingdoms emerge
Many hundreds of years ago, after the Romans abandoned the Britons to their fate there was an interregnum, a period when Roman law was a memory and the only rule was that the strongest won out. Word was sent across the North Sea that a strong pair of hands was needed to keep the warring tribes from one anothers' throats.
Some of these tribes, such as the Brigantes and the Iceni had only grudgingly acknowledged Roman law in the first place or flatly denied their following to Rome. Now a new wave of outsiders was to over-run them. However, unlike the previous claimants to mastery the 'new boys' carried different weaponry and their way of warfaring tended to be fast and ferocious. Similarities were many, their gods were warlike as were those of the Romans, they were disciplined and their outlook on the surrounding peoples ruled out power-sharing - although the kingdom of Deira (southern half of Northumbria, when disagreements divided the Northumbrians) tolerated the presence of a Celtic kingdom of Elmete, marked nowadays by the names of Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet to the north-east of Barnsley.
Legend has it that a 'Vortigern' invited these outsiders as a force to police the neighbourhood. In truth 'Vortigern' was a collective of British tribal elders from the south-east. The 'police force' were Jutes. At that time Denmark was still way in the future, and each of its component parts was a self-ruling region. Jutland was the least hospitable of the future Danish regions, marsh, thick forest, desolate moorland. Its people made a living predominantly from fishing - or piracy. The Jutish leaders who answered the summons from 'Vortigern' were brothers, Hengist and Horsa. They brought with them six ships of men. Not many you think, when a ship only carried about forty or fifty men. They were rowing ships, too, that followed the coast line from western Jutland down across the Bight. They probably rested frequently on eyots near the mouths of the Elbe, Scheldt and Rhine before crossing to the shore opposite the mouth of the Meuse, so as not to be taken unawares by curious locals.
The 'honeymoon' was brief. The agreement was that these Jutes would have been rewarded with land and silver, but whatever was promised could not be delivered for one reason or another. This was viewed dimly by men who put great value on keeping your word. A man's word was his bond, was it not? Fighting broke out between the Britons and Jutes, more men were shipped in by the brothers and deaths would have numbered in their hundreds on the part of the Britons. Horsa fell in one engagement and it fell to Hengist to prosecute the Jutes' case. The incomers were better armed, battle hardened and disciplined - some may have been with the Romans' foederati, men paid by Rome to control other Barbarians. Their ethos was different to that of the Britons, many of whom had been Chritianised. Their gods rewarded heroes - winners - with a place at the high table in Valhol. .
According to Bede... J D Penrose painting of him in his dotage, dictating
After the Jutes in the south and south-east came the Saxons
Fearful for the safety of their families, and thinking the Britons would harm them, they pushed them westward, giving them the name 'Wealsc' (Welsh, meaning 'Foreigner'). They also ousted the Jutes from Wight. Cerdic, the West Saxon war leader and founder of the Wessex dynasty consolidated his hold on the territories of Wessex now known as the counties of Devon (Defna scir), Dorset (Dorn- or Thornsaetan), Somerset (Sumorsaetan), Gloucestershire (Gleaweceaster scir) , Hampshire (Hamtun scir), Wiltshire (Wiltun scir) and Berkshire (Bearruc scir).
The Angles, on the other hand did not push the Britons out, although many left on their own accord. Many stayed, such as in Northumbria there was - still is, reflected in some of the area's names - the Kingdom of Elmet. Amongst the high-born of Northumbria were Briton first names, such as Maccus at the time of Eirik Haraldsson's death in AD 954 and Gospatric appointed by William of Gospatric as earl of Northumbria at Bamburgh as late as AD1069. In East Anglia under Raedwald the Angles' burghs and hamlets were ringed by British settlements. Penda the pagan king of Mercia allied himself with Cadwallon ap Cadfan the prince of Gwynedd in attacking Northumbria, defeating Oswald at Maserfield (Maes Cogwy) near Oswestry in AD 641. His greed got the better of him though, when in AD 655 his men were routed at Winwaed (near modern-day Leeds) when trying to ford the River Went, he refused to abandon the treasures given by King Eadwy at Bamburgh to stave off Penda's attack. The Mercians had been abandoned by their Welsh allies - who left in good time - and could not cross the river in flood. Many drowned who were not cut down by the avenging Northumbrians. There were others who had already crossed at the time Eadwy caught up with Penda. They were pursued through Mercia and buried or lost some of the treasure on land near the old Mercian capital Tamworth (West Midlands, near Stafford). This has to be the treasure found in July, 2009 by Terry Herbert on farm land owned by Fred Johnson at Hammerwich near Lichfield (see also the Northumbria series here for details).
What is unique about the West Midlands is that there is very little evidence of Danish colonisation from the 9th Century aside from, say, Knutsford in Cheshire. Place names are very much Aenglish (English) by origin, as opposed to the East Midlands, where an over-riding Danish presence is evidenced by the place names ending on -thorpe, -by, -holm and -toft. This is covered elsewhere, so I shouldn't labour it here.
The Aenglisc (English) taught here is not that spoken by the common folk, who had their own dialects from when they migrated here. This is the Aenglisc (High Old English) of the Upper Classes: Church, kings and nobility. When communicating with their underlings a knowledge of dialect was needed if interpreters were unavailable.
Teach Yourself Old English
Part of the Staffordshire Hoard
Subsequently, around the late 8th Century things began to change
Norsemen had been coming as traders to these shores from both Scandinavia and their holdings in Ireland. They began raiding in far-flung outposts such as Lindisfarne and iona in AD 793 and AD 795 respectively, but these were no threat to the stability of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms themselves until...
In the mid-9th Century suddenly things began to move faster. Ragnar Lothbrok had been raiding in Northumbria and was caught by King Aella's men when his ship was wrecked off the coast near Bamburgh (Baebbanburh) in Bernicia, northern Northumbria. His sons, Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless nd Ubbi heard of his fate in Aella's snake pit and hastened to chide the wayward king. He and Osbert the king of neighbouring Deira together tried to fight off the Danes, leading to Osbert's death in battle and Aella being executed in a grim manner for the way he dealt with their father. They appointed Aella's son Eadwin as puppet king and went on to take Mercia in the same way. At about the same time another Danish war leader, Guthrum came to East Anglia and set himself up as king. He was ambitious and before too long hungered after Wessex, attacking in mid-winter when Aelfred and his court were celebrating Epiphany at Chippenham (Cipanham) in Wiltshire. Aelfred and a few of his court were driven to seek asylum on Aethelney in northern Somerset. A series of reverses and victories brought Aelfred back from the brink but he was still unable to oust the Danes. Instead he struck an agreement with Guthrum, in that the Danes would keep all their holdings east of Watling Street. Guthrum was pleased. He had no rivals, as Ragnar's sons had either been killed, settled in Ireland or settled at Jorvik (Viking York). He had the whole of Eastern Mercia and East Anglia. The only concession he had to make was in taking Christianity and adopting the baptismal name of Aethelstan (not to be confused with Aelfred's grandson by the same name). Aelfred was easily satisfied, and Guthrum was free to rule as he pleased. The Danelaw was created. Much of eastern England, up as far as the River Tees, was settled by Danes. They largely occupied the lower-lying areas, whilst the Angles were left in or around the higher ground. The names of small towns or settlements ending in -thorpe, -by, -thwaite or -toft were originally established by the Danes; some in higher areas toward the Pennines are probably those of Norse migrants from the north-west (Lake District) or displaced Hiberno-Norse from when Brian Boru expelled them from Leinster in the 10th Century.
Next we have a double-dose of Norsemen, this time with a Frankish veneer. In 1066 as we all know Duke William came from Normandy (Northmandige, pronounced Nor'mandiye). William's bloodline came down from Hrolf 'the Ganger' (Goengu-Hrolf), but many of his barons' bloodlines were Danish because the Norsemen Hrolf took with him (from Norway) were uninterested in colonising, they mainly just wished for their valuables. The Danes seem to have been far-sighted in this respect. For a long time they sent their sons back to Denmark to learn their war skills, but then in the late-10th Century a change came and suddenly they began to wage war in the manner of their Frankish overlords, i.e, cavalry, catapults and crossbows became the order of the day. With this new technology they were able not only to conquer England, but also Wales and Ireland in Britain (and took Apulia, Calabria and Sicily from the Byzantine empire in the Mediterranean).
Soon enough the mix of Anglo-Saxon, Briton, Norse and Norman brought about an almost total fusion of blood-lines. The language changed only at a higher level, and even then not for much more than a couple of centuries before a different form of the English language emerged in Chaucer's time (mid-to-end 14th Century). However, that was just in polite society, and there was by no means a standardised form of English. Everyone had their own way of speaking, from the Fens in East Anglia to the Somerset Levels or South Devon, or from the South Downs to the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. There were differences in dialects even within the same county, as in Yorkshire there were similarities between East and West Ridings that couln't be found in the North Riding, and vice versa both ways around. The man in the street did not go further than the local market town. In the London area a man from, say, Stepney would not have understood a man from Kent or Surrey. He might just about have understood someone from Great Dunmow in Essex. Standardised English was a hybrid of different areas, but mainly it was the adoption of a particular way of talking in the Cambridge area. King's English has little to do with the monarch of the day, but with one monarch, Henry VI in 1441 who established King's College in Cambridge. But the general adoption of this East Anglian speech pattern didn't come about until much later. Published by the Fowler brothers in 1906. 'King's English' was more induction than it was instruction, an insight into the do's and don'ts of polite speech.
Learn the Englishe of Chaucer's time, Edward III and the 'Black Prince', when the English court began to abandon French. There are still many French-derived words, Anglicised with 'ing' and other English word endings. Shakespeare might have been able to read and speak it, You can learn it here, as you would a foreign language
Loanwords have become 'staples' in English
After the Conquest new words came into use. Norman nobles ate more frugally than their Anglo-Danish-Saxon neighbours, but they had different words for what they ate. Where we talked about cows, sheep and pigs, the meat we got from them was beef, mutton and pork. There was now cider from apples, and wine was drunk by the new Norman lords more often than the nobility quaffed before.
Although the Normans were Norsemen once removed, they no longer spoke like their northern cousins. Over the years, though, the lower orders mixed more freely, the nobles entrusted their Anglo-Saxon servants with the welfare of their offspring and words were exchanged both ways - not always in friendship, no doubt! Building technology changed, too. Eventually Norman builders entrusted English craftsmen with the construction of their castles and cathrdrals, then manor houses replaced some castles. Monastic orders came from everywhere in the Frankish area to put down roots in quiet backwaters such as Jervaulx and Rievaulx in North Yorkshire, and they brought with them skills in cheese-making, brewing and other culinary sidelines. The monasteries and abbeys were hives of industry, cities almost. Villages sprouted around castles where there had been no settlements before, such as at Richmond in Yorkshire, Barnard Castle in County Durham, and Castle Rising in Essex.
Yet the Normans were not the first to introduce foreign words to the English, the Danes had already done that in Lincolnshire, in Yorkshire and East Anglia. Aside from the place names, words such as 'Freehold', 'Law', 'Leasehold' and 'Riding' in English began as 'Frihold', 'Log' (the 'g' is swallowed in a light gargle), 'Lejehold', and 'Thrijung' (or 'Thirding'). Scan a Danish dictionary and, allowing for the spelling, many words come over as familiar, as in 'Goddag', comes out the way Australians say 'G'day', or in the north they'd understand 'Good on yer' as 'Good of you' would be to southerners.
Listen and learn.
See also: DIRECT LINE to our distant past - What makes us what we are now (Reading list)
More recognisable now, although the English spoken in Shakespeare's time is another intermediate stage. The written version had rules, but only the educated could read it. His plays were performed in the London vernacular, as even then his Warwickshire dialect would have been like a foreign language - as would even Kentish dialect, across the river Thames and away from Southwark..
By Shakespeare's time English had moved on...
We can understand Shakespeare's English better than Chaucer's. Around 200 years had elapsed in the meantime. Even by the later 17th Century the language hadn't developed significantly since the Bard laid down his plays and sonnets (there is debate about this as well, Christopher Marlow being mooted as the real author - remember, this was before the days of copyright).
By the 18th Century a shift away from Shakespeare's English was more easily recognised. Modern English began to surface around this time, and moves toward standardised English spelling were taken after the time of the American Revolution. This would explain differences in spelling and expression on either side of the 'Pond', 'harbor' 'theater' and 'behavior' being cases in point, the English versions of these being 'harbour', 'theatre' and 'behaviour'.
Dr Samuel Johnson started the ball rolling with his dictionary of the English language. By the time he died in 1784 the American Colonies were a thing of the past, and the juggernaut of English had been set in its tracks towards Dickens' time. The American understanding of English was not so different that the likes of Dickens and later writers could not be understood. Even by the time of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes,and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein book writing could be appreciated on either side of the Atlantic. We got Mark Twain and M R James in exchange.
That's no mean swap. Welcome to Modern English. .
See also HERITAGE 31: Why Do We Call England England?
This is the 'gold standard', Oxford English Dictionary with added 'colour' (some more modern slang words accepted as 'argot').
The OED - Oxford English Dictionary
Depending on which side of 'the Pond' you are...
You'd either use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) - and there is a clutch of associated books, such as the Oxford Concise Thesaurus, The Oxford Guide to English Usage and the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar - or the Merriam Webster Dictionary (below).
Whichever one you use, you'll see differences in spelling. This is more to do with the 'cut-off' date, the end of British rule in the North American colony, than a deliberate wrench. Until the time Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 we all had the same spellings. Britain had another shift in the language later in the century. The population then was a largely Anglo-Irish-Scottish mix, later expanded to Hispano-American in the south-west and west up to Oregon, and Franco-American in Louisiana and Florida (originally Spanish).
More familiar? Used from Hawaii to Alaska and across to American embassies worldwide, like a colonising power of the word. It's probably even sold in the Big Apple.
Was this page of interest/useful?
Did this page help your understanding of the development of the English language?See results without voting
More by this Author
You can go a long way to find a good museum. Popularity can be measured by numbers of visitors or by preferences. Here are local museums with wide-ranging exhibits and internallionally famed museums.
- 4NORTHUMBRIA - 5: NEW DAWN - With A New King On The Throne, A New Life For An Old Kingdom As An Earldom?
Its days gone as a kingdom in its own right, Northumbria saw a new role as an earldom under Knut. With an heir of Uhtred of Bamburgh north of the Tees, Norseman Eirik was appointed to hold Yorkshire
Count Alan 'Rufus' came to these shores with Duke William fitzRobert. For his part in the fighting on Caldbec Hill against Harold he was awarded with land overlooking the River Swale in Yorkshire...