Monday, August 8, 2011

Cutting a language core through the bedrock of English

I posted this yesterday on my other blog. Most of you, I'm sure, don't read that. So:


One of the big mysteries to me as a novelist (as opposed to professional historian) is the lack of a convincing explanation for the apparent obliteration of Brythonic (the native Celtic language of Britain before the Romans came and muddled everything up) and substitution of Old English, a Germanic language. (My terminology is imprecise; I'm not an academic.)

Over at Historian on the Edge, Guy Halsall discusses Steve Brohan's theory of Old English as a lingua franca between the "language of lowland Britain...a Romance low Latin" and "a late Brythonic/proto-Welsh" of the highlands in post-imperialist Britain (think roughly 400 - 600 CE):

Pre-Anglo-Saxon British highlanders would know some Latin but not much - enough to be able to make transactions with lowland villa-owners etc, especially to pay taxes and so on. The villa owners, by contrast, would know no British. When an Anglo-Saxon military elite came to power, however, both would need to learn Old English to communicate with these warrior aristocrats, and knowing this language would enable them to communicate with each other in the new set up.

This makes perfect sense to me. Apart from anything else, it's a survival tactic to learn the language of those who carry the weapons. Misunderstandings could be fatal.

What also makes sense to me: the survival of the native syntax. You can hear this in periphrastic phrasing of local dialect. (I grew up in Yorkshire. My mother's family was from Ireland, my father's from London. When either of them got tired, I could hear entirely different syntactical bones shining through their vocabulary skin.)

All making perfect sense. And yet, and yet... Food for thought.

I just wish, growing up, that I'd known there was such a thing as philology. I might have done a better job of my 2004 memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer's early life:

Yorkshire's history is stamped on its landscape, literally and figuratively, and it moulded the language that I absorbed with my mother's milk (and grandmother's whisky). A quick survey of Yorkshire place names (from natural features, to street names, to towns, to pubs) is like cutting a language core: in the sturdy bedrock of Anglo-Saxon there is the occasional gleam of Brythonic Celt heaved up from an earlier age, the pale glint of Norse, even strangely evolved fossils of Latin and Norman French. This hybrid and textured language is largely responsible for who I am. To explain, let me give you a few broad strokes of West Yorkshire history.
In the Iron Age, the place that was to be Leeds was an agriculturally various land enjoyed by the Brigantes, Brythonic Celts. In the first century the Romans arrived, and started building forts which became cities. Then they laid nature-defying roads across hill and dale between those cities, followed by armed camps to guard those roads. The Romans abandoned the region after about three hundred years and left the native Britons in charge again. Around this time, Angles, Saxons and other Germanic peoples started visiting Britain and staying, forming kingdoms and acquiring territory. A couple of hundred years later the Norse--Danes, mainly--arrived and the region lived under the Danelaw, with its own language and coinage and culture. Gradually, after battles and negotiations and marriages and so forth, the Danelaw melded with England. And then the Normans came.
By the time I showed up, 894 years after the Battle of Hastings, layer after layer of language was stamped on the place names of Yorkshire. The first street I remember living on was hilly street called Balbec Avenue. Bal is from a Celtic word for hill. Our family would drive for day trips to Otley Chevin, a big rocky outcropping overlooking an ancient market town (Otley bears the distinction of having the most pubs per capita in the British Isles). "Chevin," it turns out, descends from a word very similar to the Welsh (also a Brythonic language) cefn which means "hill." On the way to the coast for a holiday, we'd drive through Wetherby, a name that comes from wedrebi, a combination of wether, that is, neutered sheep, and -by, a Norse word for settlement. The hills were called the fells, from fjell, a Norse word for hill. York (I could write two pages on the evolution of that name) was built on the river Ouse, a name that comes from a Celtic root word, -udso, meaning water (water, in Irish--a Goedelic Celtic language--is uisc, which is the root of "whiskey"). The name of the River Esk, which bisects Whitby (a town on the North Yorkshire coast), also comes from that Celtic root word for water. The River Aire, which flows through Leeds, empties into the Ouse at Airmyn, "myn" being an Anglo-Saxon word for rivermouth. Esk, Ouse, Airmyn... I had a childish vision of waves of invaders, marching along with their Roman shields or Anglo-Saxon leaf-bladed spears or beautiful long Norse swords, coming to a river and saying arrogantly to a local fishing along the bank, "You there, what do you people call this?" and the local scratching her head and saying, "This, your honour? We call this 'water'."
I imagined the officer nodding self-importantly and reporting to his commander, later, "...and so we forded the river, which locals hereabouts call the River Water..." And, just like that, history to me was no longer what you found in history books, but was thronged with real people. Words assumed hidden power; I began to understand them as keys to the puzzle of the universe.
Words are like icebergs; nine tenths below the waterline. We don't see the entire meaning immediately but it has mass and momentum; it matters. To me there is all the difference in the world between "muscle" and "flesh," or "red" and "scarlet." Rhythm and grammar matter, too. Yorkshire syntax, more than many regions of England, shows its Celtic roots, its periphrastic, roundabout manner of speaking: "Dyuh fancy going down t'pub, then?"
I'm the product of two thousand years of history. It shows in my work.

Speaking of which, the second draft of Hild is cruising along. I'm a smidge over four-fifths of the way through. It is most definitely not a Romance...

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