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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Three, the Romans Move Out

The last legionnaire had scarcely packed his suitcase
when here come a bunch of crazy Picts out of Scotland
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

The Romans ran things in Britain from about the year 43 until 400, and the Romanized Celts got used to the way things were and built mines and cities and bathhouses and all sorts of modern appurtenances, and meanwhile any crazy Scots or Saxons who wanted to pick a fight, had to deal with the Roman legions first.  It's easy to be a Monday-Morning Emperor and say it was inevitable they'd have to pull out sooner or later, but again, I'll point out the Roman occupation lasted 400 years.  The Fifth Century was a busy one for Rome.  Alaric was leading Visigoths as far down as Sicily, Attila was raising hell with his Huns, and every time it seemed like there might be a breather, someone came down with the plague.  That's how it is for your really big empires, just one thing after another.  So long story short, the Romans left Britain and turned over management to the locals.  We're trying the same thing in the Middle East right now, and if the Roman experience is any indication, things might not go smoothly.

Having the Romans around was like having your big brother beat up anyone who picks on you.  It's all well and dandy until your brother goes off to college, and then what do you do?  The last legionnaire hadn't finished packing his suitcase, when Picts - which were some of the crazy Scots that the Romans never got around to subduing - poured down into the south like ants to a picnic.  The next part is probably historical hogwash, but it's such a cool legend, I can't help repeating it.  The British King Vortigen invited two brothers - Hengist and Horsa (their names both mean "horse") to bring over some Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to help repel the invasion.  If this is true, it's like inviting Tony Soprano to help you deal with Don Corleone.  Hengist and Horsa were only too happy to help.  They helped themselves to Wessex, Sussex, and Essex for starters.  Although they weren't called that until the Saxons got there: the -sex suffix has nothing to do with the hibbidy-bibbidy; it's derived from "Saxon," ie West Saxony, South Saxony, and East Saxony.

The Angles, who comprised most of the invaders, came from a little place no one had paid much attention to before, a place called Angeln, so named because it was shaped like an angle, a little fishhook-looking peninsula.  Luckily, it wasn't called Fishhook, otherwise we'd all be speaking Fishhookish.

Now I'm not saying there was, but if there was a King Arthur, this is when he would've lived: a Romanized Celtic King fighting against Saxon invaders.  Hence his Latin name, Artorius, and the Latin name of his sword, Excalibur, "without equal."

The original story, as far as I can make out is that Arthur was doing pretty well repelling the Saxons, when some Romans come back demanding tribute, and Arthur's like, "F-- that," only he says it in Welsh.  And he takes his best knights to go teach the Romans a lesson, leaving his nephew Mordred behind with Guinevere, the queen.

Well, Arthur doesn't return, and doesn't return, and Mordred gets antsy, and says, "Look, Gwen, it's pretty clear what's happened.  Your husband's had a good run of it of to now, but he's finally met his match.  His head's probably on the end of a Roman pike, and they're heading this way at a quick march.  If they get here and find no one's in charge, there'll be hell to pay.  So if you know what's good for you - and what's left of Britain - you'll marry me, so I can be king and when the Romans get here, I can pay them their tribute and we can get back to halfway normal."  So Guinevere does it, and then who comes over the hill, but Arthur himself.  Surprise, surprise, he licked the Romans after all.

At this point, since we're firmly in the region of legend anyway, I'll leave behind Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, which might be a little bit historical, and go with Mallory, who's not historical at all, but way cooler.  According to Mallory then, Arthur and Mordred - neither of whom is very happy about the situation - decide to make the best of it.  Guinevere is packed off to a nunnery outside Lud's Town (London) and Mordred and Arthur work out a treaty whereby Mordred gets to rule a patch up near Lothian and Arthur gets everything else until Arthur's death, when Mordred gets the whole ball of wax.

So these two have a little table set up in a field near the Camlann River, and they don't trust each other further than they can spit, so they've each got their soldiers lined up behind them, armed to the teeth, but with strict instructions not to start any trouble.  Not, that is, unless the other side starts trouble.  Well, Arthur and Mordred sit down to put their names on the dotted line, and wouldn't you know, someone sees a snake.  He draws a sword to kill it, and it's on!  (In Monmouth's version, the site has the onomatopoetic name, "Camblam.")  Arthur and Mordred, who had the poor judgment to be sitting smack in the middle of the field, are the first to go, and after that, it's pretty much an Anglo-Saxon hootenanny in Britain.

Historians don't like that sort of stuff, because they don't like history turning on an unlucky coincidence or a misunderstanding.  They're all about economic forces and socio-cultural whatchamacallit.  But I believe history turns on a dime all the time - a guy sneaks into Russia on a rail car, there's a lucky spear throw, a rat in Asia Minor gets on a ship bound for Portugal - and everything turns out differently than it would have.

Partly because the Angles largely did to the Celts what Western Europeans later did to the American Indian, very few Latin words from the Roman occupation were transmitted into English, most of them had to do with naming things of strategic interest to Romans, like port (porta) mountain (mons) and tower (turris).

Next, we'll look at the Anglo-Saxons, which is when English proper really begins.

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