Thu 18 Apr 2013
David Cowley’s book is an enjoyable thought experiment – a beginners guide not to Old English, but to how modern English might have looked had the English won at Hastings.
How would we talk if the English had won at Hastings? The giant question hinted at on the cover of David Cowley’s interesting book is front and centre throughout. As Cowley himself admits (in updated Old English), “Swith hard to tell!” Indeed it is. Counterfactuals tend to make historians like myself a bit uneasy, and this one is a doozy. Nearly a thousand years have passed since William bested Harold. That’s a lot of time. If the outcome of the battle were changed, it is impossible to know where we’d be today.
One can say with certainty, though, that a lot besides our language would be different. The Norman invasion took England out of a Scandinavian orbit including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway and brought it into a different one focused on the relationship with France and Western Europe. It ended slavery in England (over 10% of the English were recorded as slaves in the Domesday book of 1086) and replaced it with feudalism – hardly an improvement since slaves, unlike serfs, could at least in some cases buy their freedom. And it perhaps made England a more secure country through the Normans’ devotion to castle building. It is worth bearing in mind that before William and his followers conquered England, it had already fallen to the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, and only fifty years previously, the Danes. Would England have remained unconquered if Harold had won? Maybe not.
All of these uncertainties mean that it is impossible to know how the English language might have evolved had Harold won. Before William, the language of the Britons had already been pushed to the fringes of the island, living on only in Wales. It left only a few traces in Old English. And in Harold’s time, the Danish presence in England was making its presence felt on the language, producing words like “earl”, “berserk”, “lad”, and even “egg”. It was the rubbing together of Old English and Old Norse that had begun to remove the case endings from Old English. Had Harold driven out both the Danes and the Normans, might English have remained a case language, like German? Had the Danes invaded again, might it look more like Danish? Or might it have evolved more like Cowley suggests when he presents a list of words “based on a knowledge of how current words which are from Old English have changed since that time”? Any or none of these is possible.
Setting aside, then, the impossible question of how we might speak had Harold won, Cowley’s book is great fun, and a real treasure for authors and re-enactors seeking to write or speak in a form of English that is both intelligible to modern readers and at the same time closer to the language of our Saxon ancestors. For readers who read Old English, scanning his list of updated words is a fun game of linguistic what-if. Personally, I have found his book something of a godsend as I seek to create more authentic dialogue for the Saxon characters in my books.
While Cowley attempts to impart some of the basics of Old English grammar with a few interesting lessons, for the most part his book is simply a really big list of updated Old English words. Because the words are updated, he is in effect presenting a different version of modern English, a version stripped of Latin and French additions and enriched by some lost words from the past, some of which are immediately understandable and some of which are not. Among the former some of my favourites include “bonebreach” (bone fracture), “eldfather” (grandfather), “goldhoard” (treasure), “hungerbitten” (famished), “oathbreach” (perjury), and “searim” (shore). These words have an otherworldly yet familiar feel that takes the reader back immediately to “days gone by” (to borrow another phrases suggested by Cowley). Amongst the less obvious words, are such treats as “smicker” (which means “elegant” but sounds, to my ear, anything but), “swike” (deceit), “tharfer” (pauper), and “werekin” (the human race… as opposed to, say, werewolves).
All told, the book has more than enough interesting and fun words to entertain even the casual reader. But is there enough here to justify Cowley’s contention that our language might be better off if the English had won at Hastings? Of this, I am less certain. Cowley argues that class differences would be less sharply drawn had there been no linguistic split between French speaking nobles and English speaking commoners. Perhaps. Looking across the Channel, however, we see no such split in France, and yet the French managed to develop some pretty stark class differences. And we must remember that pre-Conquest England – a land of ealdorman, thegns, ceorls, thralls, and slaves – was not exactly egalitarian.
As for the fate of the English language, it is true that we are missing some words from our past, but we have gained many, many more. For Cowley, this is a potential problem. He points to “sight” and “vision” as the sort of unnecessary duplication that Hastings wrought. But to my mind, the wealth of words we have to choose from is part of what makes English such a rich language. For “sight” and “vision” are not exact equivalents. Calling someone a man of great vision does not mean the same as calling him a man of great sight. And a woman can have foresight or second sight while forevision and second vision sound like medical conditions. Combining Old English and Old French has given us a wealth of words with subtly differing connotations. It has given us the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, Austen, and Eliot. That, in my opinion, is worth a little confusion.