How old is English?

The other day I came across an interesting site about the history of the English language. It argues that English has been spoken in Britain for a lot longer than is conventionally assumed, and that there wasn’t sufficient time for the native population to adopt English after the Anglo-Saxons starting settling in the 5th century. The site cites examples for various parts of the world of how long it takes for one language to completely replace another, and concludes that it’s unlikely that the relatively small numbers of Anglo-Saxons could have imposed their language in a few centuries.

The conventional story is that before the Roman invasion the Britons all spoke Celtic languages, and that the Anglo-Saxons brought the languages that would develop into English to Britain during the 5th century when they started settling in the eastern parts of the country. They eventually took over most of what is now England and parts of southern Scotland and the existing population adopted Anglo-Saxon customs and language, abandoning their Celtic languages. At the same time, part of the population fled westward to Wales, Cornwall, Strathclyde and Cumbria, where they continued to speak their Celtic languages.

An alternative history proposed by this site is that Germanic languages of some form or another have been spoken in eastern parts of Britain for around 10,000 years, and that Celtic languages have been spoken in western parts of Britain for a similar length of time. Evidence from place names in eastern Britain suggests, according to the site, that most places have had Germanic names for a long time, and that the conventional Celtic-based etymologies are mistaken.

I find speculations like this that challenge conventional wisdom interesting. I don’t know whether to take them seriously though. What do you think?

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This entry was posted in English, Language.

21 Responses to How old is English?

  1. prase says:

    I would suggest not to take this much seriously. I have checked only one sub-site of that (“language – how easy to change”) and found the arguments there to be suspicious. Namely:
    1. The site claims, that English was imposed in Ireland for 800 years and still 1.6 mil. Irish speak Gaelic. It is at least misleading. Systematic anglicisation of Ireland began after Cromwellian conquest and lasted until early 20th c., i.e. 350 years, and Irish was almost completely wiped out. 1.6 million do have some knowledge of Irish because of compulsory education and thanks to the language revival movement – without that, Irish would be dead now.
    2. Similarly, the site says in Alsace German resisted 400 years of pressure, but the fact is that until French revolution there were minimal efforts to impose French as a national language, especially in rural areas. Between 1871 and 1918, Alsace was German, so the pressure lasted interrupted 200 years. And even so the example is somewhat invalid, because it is much easier to maintain a minority language if you have other state where the language is in majority. Alsatians could receive their education in German language on universities in Germany, for example. This holds also for Dutch/Flemish.
    3. The site claims, that Coptic was spoken by 10% of Egyptians in 19th c. This is simply wrong – Coptic was dead no later than in 17th c., and 10% is the overall number of christians in Egypt.
    4. The existence of Basque is considered as an argument against language imposition or aquisition. Common sense tells the contrary – 99% of Europe was indoeuropeanised, the last 1% of mountainous region in northern Iberian peninsula is an exception, not a rule. Note also the strange terminology, when they say Basque is not a “Proto-Indo-European” language.
    5. The claim that Latin was accepted in Gaul and not enforced is strange, especially when it is backed by the assumption, that the aristocracy organised education in Latin. All language imposition goes in the way that the elite adopts a language with a higher social status, this happened in Ireland with English as well as in mediaeval England with French and no doubt this was the same mechanism with Latin in Gaul – but this never means that the new language is not enforced. As far as I know, there is not much information available about the process, so this even looks more like a speculation.
    6. The site says that Gaulish and Latin merged into French. In fact, if Latin merged with anything, it was Frankish rather than Gaulish. The Celtic traces in French are not numerous.

    I expect such problematic statements to “live” on the other parts of the site as well, even if I have not had time to check out.

  2. Tolkien_Freak says:

    After having read through several parts, I am far from sure that it was even written by a native English speaker. It may just be a bad typist, but here:

    ‘Typical for any people in the world, is that it believes to be the very centre of the world.’ (possibly just awkward wording)
    ‘…the Alsace is French for only 400 years.’
    ‘”a man without nobel background”.’
    ‘…that ‘the British’ went…’
    ‘…drained the Honorius’ finances.’
    If you read through, you’ll find a few more.

    Again, there’s also credibility (like you said, prase, ‘non-Proto-Indo-European’) as an issue. It does not seem like it should be taken seriously.

  3. TJ says:

    I believe, some of these claims can be true but some of the others are … let’s say far away from reality.

    “…An alternative history proposed by this site is that Germanic languages of some form or another have been spoken in eastern parts of Britain for around 10,000 years, and that Celtic languages have been spoken in western parts of Britain for a similar length of time…”

    This claim, I see as totally invalid. 10,000 years would get us back to … Ice age or something? … At the time I don’t think languages had really formed in a way that we can group them into groups of Germanic or Celtic ……. I believe back at that time it was something like a smooth spectrum of languages with no “sharp” cut in between the languages. This dating should be also compared with other facts or theories that relate to the indo-european proposed immigration and its timing, and do they really coincide.

    But after all, some studies and theories can be true … but providing that it shouldn’t crush into logic heavily, specially if no clues are found, but merely loose connection between loose ends!

  4. Paula says:

    Hello!

    I would suggest a book to go with your exploitations of the history of English – The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language, by Melvyn Bragg. It is quite fascinating and a non-stop reading type of book.

  5. Good point, Tolkien_Freak! Makes one think that perhaps the author is a native German speaker. I am one myself, even though born and raised in Brasil (we spoke German at home when I was a kid), so I think I can detect some Deutsch undercurrent there. Haven’t visited the site yet – just surmising from T_F’s post.

  6. On second thought… Is the author’s name Michael Goormachtigh? Is that a Gaelic name? Or do I detect a German “-mächtig”? Must delve deeper into this. 8^)

  7. Declan says:

    It just doesn’t really add up. I only read the first page that is linked to, but I still think it is wishful thinking at best. Also, it seemed to claim that the accepted history was that Welsh was spoken everywhere, I was under the impression that Ancient British, not Welsh, was spoken. That would be related but not the same as Welsh.

  8. Stuart says:

    This theory has been doing the rounds on the internet for some time now and has been ridiculed somewhat by most people, principally because it ignores primary sources and also largely ignores the actual diachronic linguistic evidence even though it’s a theory about languages over time! To suggest that English has been here 10,000 years is so counter to the written evidence of the Germanic languages and the way that they have changed over time.

    A book has been written on this theory, “The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth About the English Language” by Michael Harper which I have read, and there are a number of times where I really had to push myself to carry on reading and not throw the damned thing through the window, due to the pathetically-argued premises put forward by the author. Behind the book runs the theory that “what is is what was, unless you have clear evidence to the contrary”. What the author was saying that because there is no clear evidence that English came to these shores in the 4th and 5th centuries then the language has always been here since before the Romans were here… He also postulated that English was in the east of Ireland for that long too. The word “nutcase” came to my mind!

  9. Declan says:

    The idea that English was in Ireland is totally false. The Normans that came to Ireland in 1169 lived in the east and spoke Irish that they learned in, surprise surprise, Ireland. As a matter of fact, those same Norman lords wrote some of the best Irish poetry.

  10. I’ve also read “The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth About the English Language” by Michael Harper and actually found it a very interesting and challenging read. I’m not sure the author was totally serious about the whole argument but he did raise a lot of important points which I as a Welshman and Welsh-speaker had thought of before reading it.

    I assumed that at the time of the Romans leaving Britain that Brythoneg/ancient Welsh was spoken everywhere south of Edinburgh. I’d imagined that in maybe the larger Roman settlements e.g. London, that Latin, and a Brythonic-vulgar Latin was spoken with high levels of bilingualism and diglossia. My assumption was that had the Anglo-Saxons not invaded England then the whole of present day England would be speaking Welsh today, with the exception of the south-east which may have developed to speak a vulgar Latin, Romance language highly influenced by a Brythonic substratum. That was my assumption, and I still, more or less believe that to be the case.

    However, the DNA samples from Eastern England show virtually no Welsh/Brythonic/Celtic traces. This means there was ethnic cleansing on a massive scale without Brythons/Welsh even taken as slaves. But to my knowledge there are no mass graves. The other side of ethnic cleansing is that the Brythnos/Welsh migrated westwards or/and a calamity befell the indigenous Brythnos/Welsh – there’s talk in Welsh MSS of a ‘yellow plague’ if I’m right and that the Welsh hatred of the A-S was such that they made no contact with them and so didn’t infect the A-S. Maybe with the withrawal of Roman support there was a massive breakdown of authority and a decrease in population creating a vatuum for some generations which may have been enough for the A-S to settle.

    I’m not sure of the answer. In Welsh mythology, Gwyrtheyrn (Vortigen) sold the Isle of Thanet (Ynys Tanad in Welsh) in Kent to Hengist and Horsa and so let in the A-S. Maybe this happened before the romans left and so at the time of the fall of Rome, a large part of SE England had been Anglo-Saxonised (or in Harper’s theory, the English were there already and the Anglo-Saxon, another related but not identical Germanic people, came to Kent).

    I’m not sure what happened. But it is amazing how quickly Romano-Brythonic East England was Anglo-Saxonised. It’s also amazing how quickly -Anglo-Saxon’ became English. Welsh was also influenced by Latin (from the Roman period) and to a far lesser degree by Norman French. But the changes to Anglo-Saxon are massive and all happened in a matter of six or seven generations. Even, taking into account the behedding of Anglo-Saxon intellegencia and ruling caste, would a language which had such high status change so much in so short a time?

    I’d welcome a debate on this rather than nit-picking on minor typos or the genealogy of the author.

  11. prase says:

    Sion, I think the problems of the theory are not minor typos. If you say English existed for 10000 years in England, you are in serious problems with all dating of Indo-European languages’ evolution. Also if somebody uses invalid arguments to support an idea it obviously does not mean that the idea itself is false, but it is a strong evidence that its supporter cannot be much trusted.

    About the DNA analysis: If you suppose that Britain was Celtic speaking country in the 5th century, it obviously does not mean that it was genetically homogeneous. Obviously, when people accept that Anglo-Saxon language was imposed to the previously Brythonic speaking people, they must be ready to accept the possibility that sooner the Celts imposed their language on other nations. Language and genetics are not much correlated, look for example at Finno-Ugric or Turkic languages (Uyghurs are easily visually distinguishable from Turks for instance).

    I willingly accept the possibility that western England was inhabited by Germanic people since e.g. 3th century (or by other unknown nation) if there is no clear evidence of Celtic presence there in the time (which I am unaware of). But all the stuff about 10000 years is a nonsense.

    You say it is amazing how quick was the Anglo-Saxonisation of south-eastern England. Well, it could take 300-500 years, there are not much detailed records about how much people spoke what languages. If there were small pockets of Brythonic speakers until 11th century we need not to know about them today. I think 300 years is enough time – see how quickly English became the dominant language of Ireland.

  12. prase says:

    A little technical question: what does it mean when the text “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” appears after submitting a comment?

  13. Simon says:

    prase – comments are held for moderation if they contain particular ‘spam’ words. This is designed to catch spam comments, but occasionally gets legitimate comments as well.

  14. prase says:

    Thanks for information. Is it possible to know, what these words are, or it is necessary for security reasons to keep them in secret?

  15. Simon says:

    It’s probably best to keep the words secret – there are hundreds of them, and I add new ones regularly.

  16. prase

    yes, I agree with you about the 10,000 years bit and there are other inconsistancies in the book and website. But i still believe it asks some big questions – and I say this as a Welshman and a Welsh-speaker who may have a ‘vested interest’ in saying that A-S or English is a language forced on Britian.

    The book and website come some way to suggesting answers which i have pondered over for years. How did a high status community Romano-British come to be so thoroughly wiped out in the 6th century, why are there no Brythonic words in English, why are there virtually no DNA traces etc.

    About A-S, then the changes which (Norman French) supposedly caused on it changed the language more in 200 years (pre 1066 – Chaucers death in 1399) than English has ‘inflicted’ on Welsh, even though English is stronger than Norman French was and all Welsh speakers have been bilingual for over a century. I mean, the difference between A-S and Chaucer’s English are substantial and it all happpened in 200 years? Welsh had no status is Wales and didn’t change that much in 700 years.

    I don’t know the answers, but I’d be interested to hear if any one knows of references (say by Cesar) to the language spoken in Britain at the time of his conquest or any other source. I’m not finding any answers to the questions this book and website is asking.

  17. BG says:

    Caesar refers to the Britons as using woad and other practices similar to mainland Celts and associates them with the Gauls, so I think they would be Celtic. There have also been inscriptions found in England both before and after the Roman invasion in Celtic languages and sometimes alphabet (Ogham). I am not sure if he actually said anything about the language.

  18. Stephen says:

    Languages can spring up quite quickly. Romanian supposedly developed within a 100-200 year timeframe — the Romans weren’t in Dacia for that long. And in any case, the language spread far beyond their original control, and quite quickly. It’s highly unlikely that the Romanians spoke anything even close to a Latin language before the Roman invasion of Dacia (most linguists think it was closer to Thracian, and would have been from the same lineage as modern day Albanian). Hebrew was non-existent as an every-day language until its revival relatively recently. It went from a dead language (like Latin) to a very healthy and in-no-way-endangered language in only a matter of decades. Granted, we’re in a different era, but still…it doesn’t seem to be to be unrealistic that the inhabitants of the British Isles would have developed English from the Anglo-Saxons.

  19. Many thanks for this very interesting remarks. Some are indeed correct. I’ll start to adapt the text on the website. However the basic idea will be maintained.
    Comment: ‘English’ doesn’t exist since 10 000 years. English exists since the late Middle Ages. What was spoken 10 000 years ago (could be 9000, it’s an estimation) is the precursor of English. I’m convinced that it was Germanic. I’ll make myself more clear on the website.

    To Stephen: you remark is correct, but such a swift rebirth of the Jewish language was impossible without a modern education system. All new arrivals were put in a classroom.

    Goormachtigh: Goor: first name derived from Gotthard (hard as god), later Goder, then Go-or. macht = related to Scottish ‘Mac’ , Gothic ‘mago’ means ‘son’, ‘offspring’, ‘family’(mac). ‘-ig’ similar ‘-ing’ means ‘related to’ or ‘family’ ; also found in the word ‘king’ = ‘cunne’+'ing’ (cunne, conan = ‘son’, ‘heir’) = heir of the (royal) family (possessions, office).

  20. Tim says:

    Read the Francis Prior book : Britian AD, he’s convinced by archaeological evidence from 30 years of digs there never was an “Anglo -Saxon invasion” in East Anglia , just continuity of occupation before , during and after the Roman period.

  21. Hello:

    How many romans were live in Britain during the period 43 AC to 450 AC?

    The most probable was what all of them only speak “latin” and then… How is it possibly the linguistic change?

    It´s 400 years !!

    This time is similar to the time what there is to 1492 (search America) to our days !!

    There is more information in the blog:

    http://englishistory.blogspot.com