How old is English?




1 very critical email:


This is a copy of a discussion upon , (

My comments are in a different colour in between the lines. This man is good. He gives arguments which I received from others too.


English is a germanic language, and since the people that became "English" came from the area around Denmark in the first place, the basis of the language shared its origins with that of Norwegian. Add to that later waves of invasion and settlement by the Vikings (who all spoke "donsk", ie, Danish, but with regional variations) and that the Normans were also of scandinavian origin originally, before settling in France and it's not hard to see why some English, particularly in the north (and not just the Orkneys, Cumbria, Man and Northumbria are all have lots of Viking words too, because they were Scandinavian controlled areas), where the Danes were most influential, resembles a scandinavian tongue.

What is interesting is that Britain, of all the Roman provinces conquerred by Germanic tribes in the years following the fall of the western Roman empire, is the only one where a Germanic tongue becaame spoken. The Lombards, Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians - all adopted Latin tongues and Latin law. The English kept speaking Anglo-Saxon and used their own laws that were not based upon the Roman ones.
Yes, that is the question: why this language change?

(An other correspondent writes: You should read…different opinion etc…)

! I'll have to read the paper, but off the top of my head, I'd have to say that there is absolutely no evidence for any English place names in Britain before the 5th century. As evidence I would cite the fact that Roman names for places were based on the native names, basically translations of them into Latin. All Roman names are based on Celtic or pre-Celtic originals. Also, the names of the inhabitants that are recorded, Even in the area that was to become Northumbria (the only place this "proto-English" could have been spoken) and are Celtic. Also, another arguemtn springs to mind in that the English called the British "Wealah", foreigners, and that became "welsh". It was also used virtually interchangeably to mean "slave". Add to that there are hardly any British words borrowed into English and you do not have a picture of a language that was being spoken for hundreds of years before the Germanic invaders arrive in Britain in the 5th century. The only germanic names that are in evidence in Britain before this date are from troops that have come from the continent originally.

“Wealah” has indeed the connotation of ‘stranger’ even ‘slave’. ‘Stranger’ because the language is completely different. The main meaning was : ‘inhabitant of the Welsh (or Gaul) countries’.  The connotation ‘stranger’ came later, by extension. In Belgium, the word ‘Waal’ clearly meant: Frenchman or French speaking man. Not ‘stranger’ although it’s implied. English has this more specific word: foreign. Foreign is derived from fore- in the sense of before, far away, earlier and is related to Latin prae-. In foreigner, the meaning of far away prevails.
The question which remains is: how came the word 'Weal' associated with all Brythonic speakers? The answer is: the Romans did so .

I'll read the article, but it sounds like a crackpot to me.

... So far I've only had time to glance at it. The 5th and 6th centuries, the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain is my area of expertise. I've researched the area for 20 years.

Did you see that "Blood of the vikings" on TV? In the "English" part of Britain it was impossible to see any Viking influence simply because the same genetic marker they were looking at showed up all the teutonic stock. The marker was in both English and Vking stock (like I said above - the English and the Danes came from the same place) so invisible. Yet in the Viking influenced areas that were in British (or Irish) parts, it was easy to pick up. From this it should be easy enough to deduce that there certainly WAS a significant genetic contribution by the English, and thus falsifies one of the key assertions of this hypothesis.
This is clearly contradicted by the genetic study of Dr. Oppenheimer....
Like I say, I'll give it a look, but I'm very skeptical. I've got a couple of days off so I might get the chance this week to pick it apart.

I'm giving this serious contemplation. After all, I don't want to act like a christian. If I say to someone that there is no evidence ofr Jesus ever existing, they say "Of course there is". I'm not just going to take that attitude.

There are certain things I definitely take issue with - half-truths and overly simplistic explanations. For example, "Welsh" doesn't come from the german root "folc" (folk, people) directly. It comes from "wealah" - foreigner.
"Welsh" is most probably devived from 'Volkae', a tribe in Occitania (South France). "Welsh" = "Gaul". Its origin is Roman.

Not the same thing at all. And while it is true that germanic troops were used by Roman emperors as personal guard regiments (because the praetorians couldn't be trusted, likely to murder the emperor and sell the throne to the highest bidder) by the 5th century the situation was somewhat different. Germanic tribes were being used as "foederati" (roughly translated as "federals") as buffers between Rome and yet more hairy-arsed barbarians. Often it was simply easier to pay them than fight them - and this is more liekly to be the situation in Britain. But large numbers of germanic warriors - part of the roman war machine - were in Britain from the 3rd century onwards. Archaeology picks out their distinctive wargear.
Correct! But those were Germano-Romans = Roman citizens. Not 'real' German from the east side of the Rhine, but Germans who lived within the Empire. At the end of the Empire, the Romans became much more aware of the different populations they ruled.
And what about Pictish? I haven't seen it mentioned once yet. If the argument is that languages don't change much and aren't wiped out often or easilly by culture changes, how does he explain why pictish vanished when the Scots married into and then took over their culture?
Pictish is a supposition. Welsh and Irish too were greatly suppressed later. Small languages are often gradually replaced by their more powerful neighbours. But even this needs time, a lot of time. Pictish was probably spoken by no more than 30 000 people.
The names of the tribes of pre-roman Britain, the kings and the places - can be seen to have British, Celtic roots. And Vercingetorix in Gaul, is Celtic. Ver is "Fawr" (also mawr, from a phonetic shift) meaning "great" (over, high, superior etc), "cingeto" which means warrior (whereas mil is Latin for soldier, and it would be something different again) and rix is "ric" or rig, but this is not diagnostic though, as Irish has Ri, king, for example, but German is the same (ie, Reich) from a common indo-european root. In Caesar's time there was a king in Britain called Cingetorix. Same word, same language - and not english.
I explained that those were imported titles, like 'general' or 'colonel'.
Vercingetorix: gwur = 'over, greater, upper' + cunne(g) = 'heir' + to = 'to', 'in' + ric = 'ruler', 'ruled land' (ric, rix, rex is probably of Germanic origin and related to 'right', 'rule', 'straight', so : 'law'). gwur is the same as vor in Vortigern. cunne(g), conan(g) meant initially 'son'. This word is probably Brythonic in origin, and was later exported to the Germanic languages. Land was normally split amongst the sons when the father died. However, when this land was too small, it was common sense not to split it further. So the oldest cunne inherited all the land. The younger sons had the choice to continue to work, this time for their eldest brother, or to leave. This system was later expanded: big farms generated more means and money and could expand further because of the scale advantages. There, life for the ruling family was far more easy. The heritage could not been split on voluntary bases, allowing the owning family to acquire even more power. So, the eldest son inherited mainly his father's function. The land remained undivided in the hands of the family. Therefore: cunne = most powerful son in office. Cunne evolved in the Germanic world into cuninge, (-ing = Germanic for family), so : king = 'most important heir in the family'.

Vercingetorix is more a phrase than a word : "overlord of the powerful (land)rulers in the realm or ruled land". The idea not to split the heritage further must have been a part of the Celtic culture. The derived Celtic titles were exported to the Germanic world where they obtained a more narrow meaning (the meaning 'ruler' prevailed).

Moreover, the Dutch and Frisians were the original occupants of the area that became Danish (in fact, Danish expansion into the area is a serious possibility of a cause for the movement of the Angles, Jutes and some Saxons and Frisians to come to England). While Danish originally might have been close to the language spoken in these areas (the Danes actually came from Sweden, not Denmark) it shifted in lines with other Scandinavian languages due to the main contacts (whereas Frisians, for example maintained constant trade links with the English). A Dane and an Icelander would be able to understand each other quite readily. In fact, if you examine Saxo's history, you see the names of the people mentioned in the early part - with Angle form spellings - not Scandinavian.
Let's say that a divided Denmark was ruled at a certain moment by it's more powerful Swedish neighbours. Later, the opposite would happen. Drawing the conclusion of yet an other massive migration is too far fetched. There is no proof whatsoever that the Dutch and Frisians (as if Frisians were almost identical to the Dutch!) were the original inhabitants. In fact, genetic studies prove a significant distance between Dutch and Scandinavians. The statement "The Danes came from Sweden" is misleading. At best, the name 'Dane' came from Sweden.

Hengest, according to Beowulf and another fragment of an OE poem - was part of the forces of a Danish king who visited his sister, who was married to Finn, king of the Frisians. All happily interract (until they start killing each other) and speak the same language, and are part of the same culture (basically it can be thought of as pre-viking).

And what is this guy on? How can he compare Chaucer to Beowulf? Beowulf is old english - as are many other surviving works - Chaucer is a much more modern langauge - he died 1400AD. Beowulf, proper OE - was composed maybe 700 years earlier, though the surviving MS dates to just after 1000AD. What about "The Battle of Maldon" or the language found in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles, not to mention other OE poetry? Seruously, that is not a serious argument at all.
700 years is nothing for a language. The proof is the language of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Decoding them started by understanding and the ability to read (even: speak) the language dating from the Ptolemaic period. Egyptologist were then able to go back for more than 2000 years. Of course, an evolution in the language was attested. But using a stepping stone system, egyptologists could go back in the past without insurmountable problems. They also discovered the presence of local dialects wich occasionally were used as official languages.
Chaucer English and modern English are much closer than Chaucer and Beowulf. Compare late Latin and medieval Italian! The difference is not fantastic. Fact is that medieval Italian is a direct descendent from the local Occitan-Romance language. Chaucer English and Beowulf English have no direct link with each other. Both were basically local dialects. The difference is that Chaucer English would eventually become standard English. The reason is the capital of the kingdom: London. Beowulf English faded out.

The argument that the pre-roman tribal unit of the Brigantes became Northumbria and was always English cannot be argued because a) large areas of what was the kingdom of the Brigantes became Rheged - a British kingdom - that made war on the Northumbrians. Northumbria only took over parts of this region later. And in any case, for most of the time after the Romans left Northumbria was TWO seperate kindoms - Deur (Deira) and Bryneich (Bernica). Various places in that region had their names changed when the English took control. Lindisfarne was, in British, Metcaud, for example.
Feeble argument. Who said the Brigantes were united?
Catterick - in that kingdom - was in Roman Cataractonium, which was thought to be of Latin origin - "Waterfall-place". But of course there aren't any waterfalls. Recently the etymology has been explained as Battle-walls (ie, a fortified encampment) from a Celtic root (Cat = battle). Hence it was called "Catraeth" in Y Gododdin.
OK. 'Cat' could be 'cot', 'cottage' = house, dwelling and 'raeth' means council (German: 'Rat', Dutch: 'raad'). So Catraeth = 'main house for counseling'. The Roman must indeed have understood 'cataract' = waterfall.

Welsh poetry calls England "the lost lands". How could they be lost if they were never British to start with? Not to mention the documentary evidence of the ASC, Bede and the Historia Brittonum which detail the conquest of Britain by the English.
Proto-Wales once included the whole valley of the Severn, in the north up to Lancaster. This part was gradually conquered between the 6th and the 9th century by the Anglo-Saxons (in fact, the British lords of the Midlands). The same happened in Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset. Cumbria and Lancashire became a part of Northumbria. The most fertile half of all Welsh land was lost.
About the qualification 'British' :
Before the Roman conquest, Briton meant : inhabitant of the east (and Germanic or proto-English speaker). During the Empire, the Romans called all inhabitants of Britain 'Britanni'. Gildas estimated that only the west and pro-Roman part of Britain was still worth to be named British. The east had according to him, lost this privilege since they had turned to those bloody 'Saxons' in order to organize a new way of ruling their land.

The argument for Thames - "blah blah The word is probably also related to the PIE word 'A' meaning water." If it has a PIE root then it invalidates the argument for it being English or proto-English. Celtic languages evolved from a PIE base as well.
Proto-English is a PIE-language. Does this invalidates something?

London - there's no English explanation for Londin but if you are going to shift it to Landen then why not Llandin - Llan - translated as "fields" when using the Vindolanda argument but in reality usually meaning church, sacred - from an enclosed sacred place - and din - a hill, or hill fort. If there was a pre-Roman settlement that the Romans took the name Londinium from then it would have to be on the (slightly) higher ground. There are later legends about Bran's Head being buried at the White Hill in London to protect the country from invasion.
'Land' is a German substrate word.. which was imported into Welsh. Llan means 'church' or 'land around (owned by) a church'. Its Christian meaning is a clear indication of a late import loanword.
Bath is the most interesting example because it has given people headaches for years. But - firstly, there's no reason why we shouldn't suppose the British name Badon, or Vadon, doesn't have an unknown British root. It was thought up until recently that all the Badbury castles (there are several) were name after an eponymous Badda ("Badda's fort") but this has been discounted. The only explanation then is that there is a Celtic root.
Ah, finally. 'to Bathe' meant: 'keeping warm', and maybe also 'keeping safe'. The 'bad' in Badbury could be the same as in 'Bataves' and 'Atrebates', both Germanic tribes. I read that 'bat' means 'dwelling', 'house', but no explanation was given. So, as there are many 'Badbury', then the place-name 'Badbury' could be a translation of the original Welsh name for 'safe house'. The Romans did translate some place-names, when this was easy ('Venta' = 'market') and so did the Anglo-Saxons. The addition '-bury' is the indication. So 'Badbury' could be generic name.
Alternatively, the thought occurs that since, as I mentioned, Germanic troops are seen in the archaeology by at least the 3rd century, the name "The Baths" might have passed into use before the end of the Roman era. I'd have to check the regions where Germanic type buckles and enamelwork of that age had been found.
Forget that German speaking legionnaires changed any place-name....
His arguments for the number of available warriors being too small to take over the country are wrong, too. The Notitia Digitanum, a list of roman units, shows that even before several rogue generals took the troops to the continent there was less than the equivalent of two 1st century legions in the entirety of Britain! Units in the roman world had become very much smaller in general and looking at the laws of the Welsh a couple of hundred years later, a warband is just a couple of dozen men. Armed bands the size of 2 rugby teams could and did make attempts to take over kingdoms.
Those late-Roman troops had nothing to conquer. Britain was invaded by emperor Claudius who used some 45000 troops to do the job!

It's difficult to prove what language was spoken somewhere before you have written records - which is what this whole idea is based on, it sems to me. The arguments are, in my oppinion, mostly weak, some seem plain false, and none are convincing.

I'll keep reading, but so far I'm not impressed.

And another couple of things. He says "pre-Celtic, whatever that means". It means just that - something left over from before the Celtic people arrived. Basque is pre-Celtic. So, presumably, is Pictish (which as I say, he never mentions at all). Indo-European means just that. How could people be speaking PIE before it had travelled from where it originated to Britain? He himself says that the island wasn't empty before the Celts arrived.
Basque is NOT pre-Celtic. Basque is PRE-AGRICULTURAL. I think that Brythonic was imported together with agriculture, like all PIE languages. There were no 'Celts'. Only a Celtic culture.
And as for the idea Germanic people arrived there hundreds of years BC, even right after the ice age - how? The emergence of the longship, evolving from what was basically a war canoe - suitable only for riverine or coastal use - happened only between about 350 until 700. The ships the early Anglo-Saxons had wouldn't have even had sails, only oars (a recent innovation for them, replacing paddles). Even so, the Saxon-Shore fortifications and the fact that the Count of the Saxon Shore had the most powerful command in Roman Britain means they must have been a serious threat, even in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

We know of German long-ships in 34 AD because Strabo described them. They resembled the much later Viking ships: shallow, wide, high bow and stern and sail. The kingdom of Egypt had similar boats in 2000 BC. In fact those Germanic people came on foot, before the land bridge between Dover en Calais crumbled (before around 6500 BC).

But at the end of the ice age - war cannoes. The polynesians might have crossed the pacific in them, but did the Saxons cross the North sea?

As a last thought tonight - the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fits with the emergence of Anglo-Saxon culture, as seen from burials. If these places were already "English", why is this the case? Obviously if continental Anglo-Saxon fashions, pottery, building and law are being adopted by the population - why not language? Don't tell me that you'll learn Chinese because you bought some Chinese shirts.

Those kings were of Germanic descent and wanted to be buried like so. But the question you raise is important: where are the other graves? The graves of the local, native proto-English lords who incidentally called themselves also 'Anglo-Saxon'?

As well as that, he poo-poos Scandinavian influence - yet archaeology shows that the early Anglo-Saxons, such as Raedwald's burial - most closely resemble that of Scandinavia.
I've thought of another argument, that of continuity of settlement: ie, there isn't any. In the Celtic area of Britain, sub-Roman occupation continues in the cities for some time, and some places even have substantial rebuilding and occupation after the Roman period (eg, Viroconium). Yet in the areas of Anglo-Saxon settlement, not only is the late villa type settlement abandoned, so are the cities, although a British group stayed in London, surrounded by the English, for some time. The English conspicuously avoided Roman villas, towns and cities. Instead, they settled in new areas, using building techniques brought from their homelands. If it was the same people, same language, and just a small number of Germanic "bodyguards", then why do we see this archaeological picture?
In fact, recently has been discovered that eastern cities (like London) were gradually abandoned since the 3th century. Much earlier than previously thought. And way before Saxon 'invasions'.

And there is another section of non-argument in the website. Firstly, Lancelot, whatever the etymology of the name, is not an argument for an English-speaking population in Britain before the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Lancelot doesn't appear until Chretien de Troyes in the late 12th century, whereas the earliest mention of Arthur dates probably to the poem Y Gododdin, composed (based on linguistic evidence) in the 7th century, a few people named after him in the 6th century (based on genealogies written down later) and certainly by the 9th century where he appears in the Historia Brittonum. Lancelot is not in any of the Welsh tales of Arthur (and thus doesn't appear in Geofrey). Thus, it cannot be used to support the idea that the name Lancelot, as the mention would have to be shown to be early and it obviously isn't. Lancelot, like other aspects of the popular Arthurian legend, has been borrowed in from continental sources and the etymology of the name is irrelevant.
Yes, indeed, but 'Arthur' is entirely not relevant here.
Also, the etymology of "Arthur" may mean "Bear" but that would be from a CELTIC root word, "Arth" meaning bear. Alternatively it may be a British version of a Roman name (as were many names of the period) in which case it is simply the way Artorius is rendered into British, or Brito-Welsh. The third possibility is it is derived from (IIRC) "hammer", and this explanation is used in glosses of certain MSS. The last possibility that I am aware of is that it may be an unknown British name based on the compound "Art". Art and derivations are seen in Ireland, but until the discovery a few years ago at Tintagel (a very important post-Roman British site, probabl the richest stronghold in the country) of the name "ARTOGNOV" inscribed in 5th century lettering on a slate (a dedication to the man who erected a building, but later re-used as a drain cover). This shows that "Art" names must have existed in mainland Britain as well as Ireland, and Arthur might derive from this.

And in any case, trying to suggest that Arthur of the Britons is identical to Beowulf (and thus also Bodvar Bjarki) is very disingenuous, as Arthur has nothing at all to do with Beowulf. The stories have no points of comparison. Arthur is NOT another version of some English "bear hero" and to imply that he is in such a way simply because Arthur might mean "the Bear" is … well, it's offensive, to be honest. It's not a scholarly argument a all.

I never suggested 'is identical'. I simply pointed toward a similarity: Arthur means 'bear' just like Beowulf means 'bear'.