Twists of the tongue

When competing languages collide, demography eventually supersedes prestige


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Long Journey of English: A Geographical History of the Language, Peter Trudgill (Cambridge, £18.99)

Writing of our planet, Rose Macaulay observed, “into every penetrable corner of it and into most of the impenetrable corners, the English will penetrate”. Rigorous in his survey of the previously pink parts of the world map, dialectologist Peter Trudgill covers the remotest, native, English-speaking community (Tristan da Cunha, 1,505 nautical miles from the South African coast), as well as the most northern (Barrow, Alaska at 71 degrees) and most southern (Stanley, East Falkland at 51 degrees). Penetrating indeed.

Where did the journey begin, and when? English is descended from Proto-Germanic (PG), spoken 3,000 years ago in an area spanning what is now Copenhagen, Malmö and Ystad. This branch of the Proto-Indo–European (PIE) family had broken away following the move from the Urheimat (or homeland) around Caucasia, perhaps 4,000 years ago. The subsequent dispersal had gone west across the undulating grasslands of the Steppe, then north. PG differed from PIE in terms of syllable stress: the latter had randomly-placed accents, whereas the former had initial, trochaic stress in two-syllable words. This became a characteristic of English pronunciation, e.g. hárvest, séven, wínter.

Over time the PG homeland split, one part migrating south-west to the current Dutch-German border, the other remaining on the western Baltic shore. These stay-at-home Scandinavians later became fearless seafarers who peopled Shetland, the Orkneys, Faroes, Iceland and northern France, created the Danelaw and briefly inhabited Newfoundland. Others headed east to lands that would become Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

Germanic expansion in the 1st century BC led to the long decline of another branch of the PIE, Proto-Celtic, then found in the British Isles, Balkans, Northern Italy, Germany and Iberia. The first Germanic people on our shores may have been Roman mercenaries fighting the Iceni, Picts and other troublesome, Brittonic-speaking tribes. Following the Roman withdrawal in 410, waves of Angles, Frisians, Jutes, Saxons and others settled in East Anglia, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Place names are their surviving calling cards — Swaffham, for example, means “home of the Swabians”.

Thus Old English (OE) was born. By the mid-9th century it was spoken throughout the land, except in the peripheries where Cornish, Cumbric and Manx clung on. Meanwhile the Vikings introduced Norse to the north and east, of which a thousand or so words are still current (“get”, “skin”, “weak”).

How did the new language spread? Primarily by two modes: demic (immigrants introducing the language) and transcultural (native people adopting a new language whilst abandoning their own). In learning the new tongue, mistakes were made, repeated, and newer forms became accepted. This complex process was catalysed via the spread of Christianity by continental, Latin-speaking missionaries.

The Norman Conquest had little long-term effect on the evolution of English. When competing languages collide, demography eventually supersedes prestige. By 1400 Norman French had seen its day in England and Ireland; only a few fossilised forms survive, such as “court martial”. The same phenomenon led the Norman invaders’ ancestors to abandon Norse for French after occupying Normandy in the 8th century.

Language can lead us to travel, settle, intermarry and set off again

Languages, whether in isolation or in contact with others, evolve at different rates, even when closely related. “Summer has come” in Middle English was “sumer is icumen”; the modern, standard German equivalent (800 years later) is “Sommer ist gekommen”.

Modern English is approached through the prism of the colonial era. Change engendered in other languages is considered, as well as adaption to the many very foreign tongues that anglophone speakers encountered. Settlers in the New World needed new words, anglicised versions of native flora and fauna: “persimmon”, “racoon” and “terrapin” all come from Virginian Algonquian. Pidgin languages took root to facilitate trade. Yet, as a consequence, dispossessed North American cultures were killed off, “sometimes deliberately, sometimes through carelessness and indifference”.

Although not as appetisingly conjectural as neurolinguistics, nor as mind-bogglingly de pointe as machine translation or deep learning, historical linguistics can narrate something of great importance. It tells us how men and women take their language abroad, and how language can lead them to travel, settle, intermarry and set off again.

In The Long Journey of English, Trudgill has crafted a well-grounded exposition of language development, accompanied by insights from archaeology and anthropology. The epochs and threads and strands of language evolution, as well as its geography, are deftly navigated. To return briefly to our opening quotation, the English “are like that; born invaders. They cannot stay at home”.

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