OPPENHEIMER on LANGUAGE

"There is no art to find the mind's construction in the face." W.Shakespeare, Macbeth I iv 11

Late in the day we have been introduced to Stephen Oppenheimer's interesting book, The Origins of the British: a genetic detective story, 2006. Genetics can't have a great deal to do with linguistics, of course. Consider the millions of peoples who speak only English, the linguistic origins of which have not concerned them in the slightest, and for whom the language they speak has no link with their genetic inheritance. Languages leapfrog genes. The only link is political: ie who dominates who, and who dictates the language.

To be frank, and with respect, Oppenheimer's substantial tome confuses me. This may be my fault. I find it crammed with erudition, but muddled. It asks many questions, but offers few answers. Its organisation could be more reader-friendly, in the parlance of our times. My apologies to Stephen Oppenheimer.

Taking my text from the previous page (see also below --- "Didn't the Angles come from Scandinavia ?"), I'll stumble my way through a selection of Stephen's chapter headings. These are from Part 3, Men from the North: Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Few of these were from North of York, in point of actual fact:

7. What languages were spoken in England before the "Anglo-Saxon invasions" ?

8. Was the first English nearer Norse or Low Saxon ?

9. Were there Saxons in England before the Romans left ?

10. Old English perceptions of ethnicity: Scandinavian or Low Saxon ?

Unfortunately, besides not answering these questions, this work, in my unwanted opinion, is already up the creek in its dogged use of the term "Old English". I've already contended that "Old Scandinavian" would be a much more useful designation. The language started as Old Scandinavian before the Romans left Britain, and then transformed itself slowly into Anglo-Saxon during the centuries prior to 1066 AD. A language recognisable as English didn't arrive until Chaucer, c. 1343 - 1400, and the Gawain poet. Acknowledgement of this simple truth would avoid the garbled question: Old English perceptions of ethnicity: Scandinavian or Low Saxon ? Huh ? Old English perceptions ? Huh ? Are we now talking about Old Englishmen, the successors to Ancient Britons ? "Low Saxon" is neither here nor there. And why does "Norse" feature at all in this discussion ? "Old Norse was a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during about the 9th to 13th centuries." Wikipedia. "The Proto-Norse language developed into Old Norse by the 8th century." We're supposed to be talking here about language in Britain pre-410 AD. That's what I want to talk about, anyway. Proto-Norse might be a barely acceptable alternative to Old Scandinavian, if it didn't suggest a connection with Norwegian --- a totally modern, post-Viking tongue.

Frankly, reading The Origins of the British makes me dizzy; a feeling similar to what I experienced when reading Renfrew, Mallory and Cavalli-Sforza. See below.

An article entitled The Continental Homelands of the Anglo-Saxons, appeared in the Contemporary Review of December 2002, Vol 281, No 1643. Its author was a Mr David Burns. Burns notes that "historians appear to dismiss, or not wish to pursue" the connection between Swedish and Anglo-Saxon. Mr Burns concludes his essay by remarking of Beowulf that "the language of the poem itself, even at its late stage of writing, contains words still more recognizable in modern Swedish, than in modern English".

Language Trees
a recapitulation from here

Notwithstanding the eminence and prestige of the authors who instance them, the trees depicted below (scroll down) seem to bear only a faint resemblance to actuality. It must be asked whether they could possibly have been drawn up by anyone with genuine oral fluency in, say, three or four of these languages.

The main defect of the charts is that they promote the illusion that languages relate to each other genealogically. The analogy does not hold, since language kinship, unlike that of humanity, is fluid. There is constant cross-fertilization from one language to another, especially between those already closely linked, as here.

These linguistic "trees of descent" are extremely misleading. The net result is a babelonian muddle.


 

 


Engelholm ?         Oresund ?

One of the major communities of the Angles who entered Britain must have been what is now called Ängelholm, formerly spelled Engelholm. "Holm", as in eg "Stockholm", means a little island, possibly a knoll. It does not mean "sea" under any circumstances. "Sund" is cognate with "sunder", meaning "to tear apart". It is an area where the land has been torn asunder, to let in the sea. The word has absolutely nothing to do with "swimming". "Öresund" is the stretch of water between Hamlet's Elsinore and Helsingborg.

Recent makers of Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, especially The [!] Old English Dictionary, strongly resemble people setting out to fill in crossword puzzles without reading the clues. It can be done, but makes very little sense.

The Rev. Joseph Bosworth, Dr. Phil. of Leyden, etc, on the other hand, knew what he was doing and talking about.


 

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© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2015
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My fellow man I do not care for
I often ask me what he's there for
The only answer I can find
Is reproduction of his kind
 
Ogden Nash