Speaking English and Being British    
    Colin Vernon believes we should take more care of our precious language    

Brittene igland is ehta hund mila lang.
& twa hund brad. & her sind on þis
iglande fif geþeode. englisc. & brittisc.
& wilsc. & scyttisc. & pyhtisc. & boc leden.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

In fact the chronicler lists not five but six languages (geþeode), although British and Welsh may be considered to be one and the same; and the last mentioned, book Latin, would be, as implied, used by the clergy in manuscripts rather than spoken. Substituting th for þ, (the symbol known as 'thorn') aids comprehension, and to avoid distress to our printer [and web editor!] we have used the ampersand & as a replacement for the strange, blunt-looking semi-submerged "7" found in the original.

Following on Eddy Morrison's deft survey of our origins, I thought that we might take a glance at the tongue (englisc) which has served us well for some one and a half thousand years. One reason for doing this is that we are now in great danger of losing it. In case you have forgotten, a hip is the fruit of the rose tree, a hop is used to flavour beer, a rap is something you may get across the knuckles and cool is descriptive of temperature. Just why we have allowed the 'cultures' of South Bronx, NY, Jamaica and God knows where else, to invade our language is difficult to determine. But many of us have had enough of a bad thing. And if you couple this with the monstrous misuse of the word gay as an euphemism for those practising sodomy, then good old English is certainly overdue for a spring-clean.

Sometimes it's word for word...

There are thousands of OE words identical with, or similar to, those which we still use, such as: wœter (water), dogga (dog), sceap (sheep), œx (axe), sweord (sword), tellan (to tell), geong (young,) sendan (to send), gift (gift), bringan (to bring), stelan (to steal) and tœgl (tail). Even modern English irregular plurals, such as foot/feet and mouse/mice are to be seen in fot/fet and mus/mys. Moreover, as might be expected, several words are close to modern German, e.g. mid (mit) and rice (reich). Additionally, almost every time we open a road map we are confronted with the language of our ancestors. For example stede = place, so that, amongst many examples, we have Maplestead or West Grinstead. As it happens, we ourselves live some 50 yards from Hurst (Hyrst) Farm Road, which suggests that a copse or wood was there at some past time. Knowing that wic = village, tells us that Greenwich, Norwich, Sandwich, etc., were once very small, while ham = home or dwelling, is a suffix which can be seen nationwide.

... but not always so easy

Very few of us – and this writer is no exception – can scamper through Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English without turning, often frequently, to a thoughtfully provided glossary, and even The Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode presents its occasional problems. This interrupts the flow of our reading and undoubtedly detracts from the enjoyment of the verse. Understandably, even fewer of us will have the time and patience to delve deeper into the fascinating subject of our ancient tongue. In the end, all acquisition of knowledge is a personal affair. In my book there are two, albeit overlapping, types of education. The first is 'learning from necessity', the acquisition of facts, figures and words whereby you can hold down a job, read the label on a soup can and, if so minded, propose to your girlfriend. The second type is 'learning for enjoyment', the pursuit of knowledge for the sheer fun of it, or maybe the devil of it. After all, serious students of OE could conceivably turn their knowledge to advantage. If questioned by Tony's thought police they could give their tormentors a run for their money by responding, as I am sure they would be entitled to respond, in the language of their noble predecessors.

Our schools are a scandal

Today there is perhaps a third reason why adults should switch off their junk programmes, pick up a book or an informative CD-ROM, and find things out for themselves. Within twenty years, if not sooner, our children's knowledge of the past will comprise not much more than the 'Holocaust', the slave trade and just possibly the oft-quoted tale of how Cromwell put down the rebellious Irish. In short, they will know absolutely nothing about their own origins and those ancient folk who truly were "masters of the earth and captains of the sea." While only academics have the time and the resources for an in-depth study of OE, we have no excuse, as long as we have public libraries, for not knowing our British history. The Reverend James Ingram, translator of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, noted that:-

'Philosophically considered, this ancient record is the second great phenomenon in the history of mankind. For, if we except the sacred annals of the Jews, contained in the several books of the Old Testament, there is no other work, ancient or modern, which exhibits at one view a regular and chronological panorama of a people, described in rapid succession by different writers, through so many ages, in their own vernacular language.'

Find me a schoolteacher today who would come out with anything as 'controversial' (BBC jargon for misguided) as this.

It's either self-help or extinction

We are suffering in a society where someone pours paint all over the place, and someone else calls it art; where many school reading books (and I have seen them) have clearly been written by illiterates; where the office of prime minister is considered to be the gift of the incumbent; where our British laws are made in a foreign land; and where we are no longer safe, even in our leafy country lanes. Because of our 'first-past-the-post' political system we cannot change this overnight. What we can do is proclaim to all concerned that we are an identifiable race, a race which will never be subdued. Recent events show just how scared stiff they are. Looking at our origins, maybe they should be!

Where to look

Complimentary to the Chronicle, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (circa 731) translated from the Latin, offers a fascinating insight into Britain's formative years, although, as a good monk should, he does plug his own faith! It is eminently readable. How many of today's school-leavers do you suppose have even heard of this masterpiece? Appended below is a short bibliography. Importantly, this includes books dealing with the history and myths of our Celtic as well as our Germanic ancestors. As Eddy has rightly explained, we are still all one nation, whatever Blair or Brussels may say.

Suggested reading

History of the Anglo-Saxons, Sir Francis Palgrave. (Down to earth, as might be expected, and brilliant.)

Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, H. R. Loyn. (A thoughtful social history; mostly Saxon, as The Conqueror does not come in until page 315.)

Celtic Britain, John Rhys. (All you need to know in 300 pages.)

Myths and Legends of the British Isles, Richard Barber. (This, fairly recent, blockbuster takes in Hengist and Horsa, Arthur, Beowulf, Hereward the Wake, Robin Hood, Macbeth, Lady Godiva and dozens more. Invaluable for helping the kids.)

The Norsemen, H. A. Guerber. (Takes you from Odin to the story of Frithiof in just over 300 blood-drenched pages. Marvellous!)

Those who are really keen can download a 12-page free handbook from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_English_Language

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