How old is English?


Ancient texts

During ages, and until the invention of the press, all texts had to be copied by hand. This method was very expensive, so any text had to be written with the greatest care. Each word was important and each redundancy excluded. Repeating oneself could be punished by the risk that the copier would leave out that part or sentence. Good use of language was also very important, or else the copier would correct some words, according to his knowledge and self-esteem. Gildas knew that all. So his Latin was nearly perfect and the details he gave us were carefully thought over. Gildas wrote a religious and political text, not history.

[1] Thanet: the Ramsgate region, the most eastern part of the estuary of the Thames. At the time it was some sort of isle, separated from the mainland by the estuary of the Wantsum river. This was fordable only at two places at low tide.

[2] Compare with the war of secession in America. When was spoken about 'the South', then all confederated states were meant. Not a specific place.




Note on Gildas

About coracles and keels

Gildas was the first writer to tell the story of Vortigern and the early Anglo-Saxon times. Gildas was a Welsh bishop who wrote in Latin, the universal written language of the time. He knew that even Rome would eventually read his text. So, using local words had to be avoided. The risk was that foreigners would not understand the words.
He wrote that the Irish and Picts came in coracles (curucus) and that the Anglo-Saxons came in keels (cyulis). Both are boat types.
A cyulus was made entirely out of wood. Gildas wrote: cyulus in their language, in our language (Latin!) the word means long ship. It's clearly a proto-German word.
A curucus had a wooden frame which was covered by greased hide. The word is typical Welsh. Gildas wrote: "in which they sailed across the sea-valley".
No our language this time? There was no need to mention that: Gildas' public knew the word. Curucus is a local Welsh word, not typical Irish. Similar : cyulus was also a local word, not an imported one. It's just that the word wasn't Welsh. Clearly, for the reader in Rome both words were barbaric.

However, the Irish must have known the technique how to make wooden long ships too. I doubt that the Irish raided Britain exclusively in coracles. Long ships were bigger, could carry more persons (looters!), lasted longer, offered more storage space (booty), had more stability. The Greek geographer Strabo described in 37 AD the northern long ships. They resembled the later Viking ships.
Caesar wrote earlier of the Gallic ships: "They have flat bottoms, which enables them to sail in shallow coastal water. Their high bows and sterns protect them from heavy seas and violent storms, as do their strong hulls made entirely from oak. The cross-timbers - beams a foot wide - are secured with iron nails as thick as a man's thumb. Their anchors are secured with chains not ropes, while their sails are made of raw hide or thin leather, so as to stand up to the violent Atlantic winds." Again, the Vikings just perfected ships which were designed centuries before.
Gildas suggests in his text that the Irish used mainly coracles. In reality, the Irish used coracles just occasionally, but those leather ships were conspicuous, say special.

The use of 2 native words is not a coincidence. Gildas knew that his text would be carefully analyzed . He refers here to something specific and above all, local. Gildas gave here a wink to his readers. Neither the proto-Welsh, nor the proto-English used Latin in daily life. Unlike the Gauls for instance. Gildas suggests the fact that east and west spoke a different language, illustrating this with the names of their respective typical ships. He also suggests a false impression of some technical superiority of the Anglo-Saxons, giving the 'real' Britons the role of the underdog.

Modern historians believe that cyul(us) is a word that was imported by the Anglo-Saxons. One of the very first English words. But, there is no proof for that. East and west Britain certainly had similar boats, shared the same technology. Both sides had long ships. Both sides also had coracles, or knew what they looked like. Each side certainly had words for both ship types. Strabo's text is sufficient proof that the northern long ships were known for 400 years when the Anglo-Saxons arrived..

Ancient wooden (long) ships were found in the estuary of the Humber and date from the bronze age (4000 year old). More than enough time to name them, in proto-Welsh and in proto-English. In other words: if the east indeed spoke Brythonic, Gildas would have used common Latin words for both ship types. No need to use local, indigenous words. He even wouldn't have mentioned the very existence of the 2 ship types. Gildas clearly hated the Anglo-Saxons. Using one of their words would do them honour, and it's unlikely that Gildas would do so. Besides, long ships were nothing exceptional, they were the most used ships in the North Sea. It's not that the Anglo-Saxons had some sort of exclusivity here.

So, it's about specific native words. 'Cyulus' was a proto-English word, just like 'curucus' was a proto-Welsh word. Both terms reflect the local language, implying a dissimilar mentality. Gildas needn't to mention the fact that the east-Britons spoke an other language. His readers already knew that. So, cyulus and curucus were used to underline the different ethnicity, a different economy. We think that the Anglo-Saxons came with their own (or north-German) ships. But they could as well have sailed with east-British ships. After all, it were the east-British lords who had invited them. They could have provided transport too.

"The eastern side"

Gildas wrote: "primum in orientali parte insulae iubente infausto tyranno terribiles infixit ungues" - "the (Anglo-)Saxons received initially the order from the unlucky tyrant to settle (plant their terrible heels) on the eastern part of the island".

Much have been debated about exactly where in Britain Gildas meant with this eastern part. Could it be Kent, east Anglia or Northumbria? Our theory can however provide a new and different interpretation of Gildas’ text. Gildas was a well educated man and as he mentioned in other parts of his text precise place-names, it's unlikely that he was unaware of the regions in the east. So he could easily have mentioned a specific region like Kent.

Why were those people not settled in the west? Proximity of the East with North-Germany is not a good explanation. Vikings would much later conquer an important part of Ireland. Distance was secondary to safety and opportunity. For some historians the answer is simple: the east means the isle of Thanet [1]. Nennius tells us that the Saxons were given Thanet. But the region of Thanet itself could at best feed some 100 Saxons. So, we must suppose that this alleged main Saxons army had to be paid by taxes collected in the whole east, if not the whole of the British mainland (except Scotland). Food and other merchandises had to be shipped to this place. Thanet suggests that most supplies came from the valley of the Thames. All that supposes a well administrated and hierarchical Britain. But the texts suggest something completely opposite: a chaotic and anarchistic Britain.

The simple fact is that Gildas didn't point towards a specific place. So he meant exactly the (whole) eastern part, spread, for the (Anglo-)Saxons were not confined within a specific region. The words in Latin are "in orientali parte insulae" - "in the eastern part of the isle". Some authors translate this as 'side'. There is however an important difference between 'side' and 'part'. A side doesn't imply a division, a part does. Britain was divided in two distinct parts [2].

The raids occurred on the northwest coasts of Britain, perpetuated by the Irish, in the north, by the Picts and in the southeast, by Vikings (called Saxons). All those regions were under threat. The early (Anglo-)Saxons were not posted, for instance, on the northwest coasts. Why? Simply because “the eastern part ” had a language similar to the language of the Saxons. And because mainly the eastern lords wanted them. So the Saxons could acclimatize, learn the local variant of German, settle. Sending them to the western part, the Welsh side, meant that they had to live within a language environment that they couldn’t easily pick up. It was about commanding them. So at least, some Britons could communicate with them, exactly what was needed. Gildas couldn't have been more precise.

The southwest part of Britain was much less under threat.

Remains the question why Gildas wrote this information. At the time, every sentence was carefully thought over. So, this sentence is no a free addition. The information about the settlement in Thanet comes from 'Nennius' who wrote some 200 years after Gildas. Gildas didn't mention Thanet. This omission can be important. Gildas was not interested in details. He must have known that 'Thanet' was of little importance. Were the opposite to be true, then he could have written something like "they first seized Thanet, and from there began to devastate the mainland". But Gildas didn't, although this could have been a serious argument to prove the malicious intentions of the Saxons from the beginning.

Battles that were not mentioned

What Gildas did not mention is almost as interesting as what he did mention. Gildas didn't mention battles at the moment of the rebellion (around 441). He must have known that the rebels were common looters, bandits, vulgar robbers. Hardly a reference, and certainly not an official act of resistance. Only Ambrosius Aurelianus, a successful commander and of course, nobleman was worth mentioning. Ambrosius led a Southwestern Alliance regiment at Bath to victory against a small Anglo-Saxon corps and their fyrd (trained militia). This happened much later, around AD 500. Clearly, for Gildas this was not a detail.