Sunday, 24 February 2013

The History Of English - Part 1

Il y avait une fois...
(once upon a time...)

The Britain that the Romans came, saw and conquered (43-410 CE) was inhabited by scattered tribes of Celtic-speakers who had probably crossed the channel from France and Belgium. (Which means, I suppose, that some of my ancestors were, possibly, French, although of course France, as a country, did not exist that long ago, and my mother always insisted that she was descended from the Vikings which is why I have blue eyes, fair hair and a love of snow and forests. I digress.)

Moving on, the Roman invaders brought with them Latin, naturalemente, and this would have been the official language of trade, commerce and government, although the majority of the Celts, especially those living in rural locations, would have continued to speak their own dialects.

Now, Britain may be an island but as early as the first century it was a cosmopolitan kind of place with travelers landing on our shores from as far afield as Africa and the Middle East. The air would have been full of foreign accents and this would have added to the linguistic flexibility of the native population, a state of affairs that would, over the next few centuries, be extended as English adopted wanderers, ways and words from across Europe and beyond.

(Note to the 'purists', sorry guys, English has never been a 'pure' language and it's way too late to try to make it so now)

Where were we?
So, the Roman Empire was good for Britain. For over three hundred years it provided stability and growth, good government, as well as hot baths, chilled wine and straight roads.
However all good things must come to an end and the Roman Empire was no exception. By the fourth century Italy itself was increasingly under attack, both by barbarian invaders from eastern and northern Europe as well as the bugs and diseases that wiped out whole communities. The Roman Empire needed to withdraw and re-group in order to survive.

As the Roman garrisons began to depart from the outposts of the empire the earlier-displaced Celtic tribes seized the opportunity to indulge in a little Pay Back and started to attack the soft-living southerners from their lands in the north and east...

It was time to call in the cavalry.

"the Angles or Saxons came to Britain at the invitation of King Vortigern in three longships, and were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on condition that they protected the country; nevertheless their real intention was to subdue it. They engaged the enemy advancing from the north, or having defeated them, sent back news of their success to their homeland, adding that the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly. Whereupon a larger fleet quickly came over with a great body of warriors, which, when joined to the original forces, constituted an invincible army. ... These newcomers were from the three most formidable races in Germany, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes...

It was not long before such hoards of those alien peoples vied together to crowd into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror
(Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede)

This is one version of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. There are others that tell heroic tales of derring-do by brave warriors who valiantly fought the invaders for many years, it was not necessarily the rout that history would have us believe.

But, as history relates, the Anglo-Saxons also came, they also saw and they also conquered.

And Britain entered a period of documentary dearth from which few records survive, emerging some 200 years later speaking an identifiable language variety that had evolved from the Germanic tongue of the invaders into that which we call Old English.

So, here's how Old English looked, if you had been living in Britain in the first few hundred years this is the writing that you would have seen on road signs, advertising hoardings and on the front page of your favourite newspaper, well, if there had been such things back then which, of course, there weren't...

The Anglo-Saxon futhorc, so-called because the first few letters are f-u-th-o-r-c, (think alphabet, you know, alpha, beta...)

The origins of the futhorc are obscure. It may have come from Frisia, around the south eastern coast of the North Sea, that land whose tongue most closely resembles Old English, or perhaps it traveled to British shores from Scandinavia with my mother's ancestors, who knows?

Suffice to say that the first words of Old English were written using this runic script. Which must have made carving your name on a rock with a simple blade an awful lot easier...

Beowulf woz here

The picture is of the Franks Casket, carved in whalebone in Northumbria around the 8th century. The inscription was intended to be read in a circle so the writing on the lower edge is upside down. Early English writing was not always left to right, top to bottom, but often followed the shape of the medium on which it was inscribed. Notice also the absence of spaces, punctuation and capital letters...

Why are runic inscriptions interesting?

Well, firstly they show the futhorc at that time in it's development. The Old English futhorc had between 24 and 31 letters some of which have no modern-day equivalent.

The letters are angular and indicative of the tools with which they were 'written', ie chisels and knives that scratched on hard surfaces like wood and stone.

The inscriptions provide a clue to the sounds of Old English and the manner in which it was evolving. For instance, at some time the pronunciation of the original Old English k changed and a new rune was created to accommodate this new sound.

So, that's Chapter One in the History of English in which our hero, the fledgling English language, finds himself unexpectedly on the shores of a new land but, undaunted, starts to evolve and grow in size and strength as he feeds on new words from the mouths of others...

Here's a Timeline for Old English, we leave the story slap-bang in the middle of Early Old English, just before the Vikings appear on the horizon, on a cliffhanger? or a pause so that this blogger can go and do things domestic around the house.

1. Pre-English period (? to AD 450)
The local language of Britain was Celtic.
The Roman invasion of circa 55 CE brought Latin which became the dominant language of government, culture and commerce. Many Britons became bilingual Celtic-Latin speakers

2. Early Old English (450 - 850 CE)
The Anglo-Saxon invasion circa 499 CE.
The invaders who settled brought a selection of Germanic dialects from western Europe. The first Old English writings appeared. During the seventh century Old English adopted many Latin words from the increasingly powerful Christian church.

3. Late Old English (850-1100)
The vikings repeatedly invaded and many settled in the north and eastern parts of Britain. These latest invasions heavily influenced the dialects spoken in those areas of the country.
King Alfred ordered the translation of many Latin texts into English

Friday, 15 February 2013

Ploumanac'h, The Pink Granite Coast, Brittany

The Côte de granit rose or Pink Granite Coast is a thirty kilometre stretch of coastline in the Côtes d'Armor departement of northern Brittany. It is a popular destination for tourists, and for photographers.
That's the tourist info.

 For me the pink granite coast is the perfect location for a day out. It has glowing rose-coloured rocks along the shoreline, little rocky islands in a Breton-blue sea, white-sailed boats and white-feathered gulls, the smell of seaweed and of salt. It's a place for exploring and for adventures and it reminds me of the seaside holidays in Cornwall that my family enjoyed when I was a feisty little kid, except that it's painted pink and has that certain French flair.

It's also one of the places that's sure to make me teary-eyed with homesickness when I'm sitting in the office trying to unravel some complex computer code.        

Yesterday at work, taking a lunchtime break from thwarting Russian spammers, I began planning a day out in Brittany. Which led me back to pictures of the pink granite coast and to memories of a day spent there almost five years ago.The 'new love-interest' referred to was my current employer who was then in the process of luring me back across the channel to embark on a new career in internet security, I was unsure, the job sounded fascinating but Brittany was my home...

July 23rd 2008
Yesterday was my birthday so I laid aside my books and studies, and my swotting up on the dance steps for my new love-interest, and a friend and I set out for a day of sight-seeing at Ploumanac'h up on the pink granite coast..

Our first stop was a park full of statues that we happened upon by pure chance

This female figure was beautiful in her curvaceous and seductive pose....

and this one in grey granite that represents a modern-day menhir...
A nice thought, modern menhirs to reach out to the future I wonder what I would inscribe on mine... Snowflakes and flowers, scallop shells and leaves, and a reindeer would be fitting.

The nearby port where boats bobbed in the fresh wind and the sound of rigging striking wood was as musical as wind-chimes.

The sun was hot, the air was thick with the scent of seaweed and iodine and salt. Inspired, we decided to find a seafood feast....

After a long, lazy, languid lunch of languostines and lobster, creme brulée and coffee, we walked along the wide, sandy beach at Trestraou. On the hill behind us there were large and expensive houses We indulged in a game "What If We Won The Lottery" and this was my choice of a holiday home over-looking the beach. It is a little large for a holiday home, I expect that, like many of the beautiful houses on the Brittany coast, it's owned by a Parisian,  maintained by a skeleton staff and a dedicated old man who lovingly tends the garden.

Walking along a short section of the sentier des dounaiers,  the customs trail, and admiring the famous pink granite rock formations. Some are obvious, such as the turtle, and a bottle, others, well, I think that we see them differently through our own eyes. I saw a finely-chiselled face gazing sternly out to sea, my friend saw a whale below it...

A collection of phalluses, like those of the chubby cherubs in Renaissance art...

The day was very hot, the sky was Breton-blue and the sea... I have never seen such a deep-blue sea. After walking for an hour my nose turned pink and freckled, my feet ached and my throat was dry. We paused to sit in the shade, drink some water and to admire the view.

As we sat in silence I pondered.
I had a big decision to make...
To leave, or to stay?
And to go, which way?

I chose to return to England and to walk back into the corporate cage. It's been a long journey and, at times, a very difficult one.  Happily I still have my house in Brittany, Fate has decreed that it remains mine, perhaps Fate knows what's best for me?