Inventing (the) English: Racism, Multilingualism and Medieval Studies
This article was originally published on the Meny Snoweballes blog by Rachel E. Moss
On Friday I noticed a tweet from the Leave.EU official twitter account that was criticising Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for accepting that Britain is multilingual. I retweeted it with the additional comment that the British Isles have always been multilingual. As I don’t tend to tweet much at the weekend (I prefer to use that twitter account in relation to my work, and so give it, as well as my research, a bit of a break!) and so was rather startled to see it get 682 retweets and 1,500 likes. I had just been making what seemed to me a rather obvious point, and not in a particularly innovative way.
Nonetheless it seemed to strike a chord, perhaps because we have within the medieval twitterverse been having a lot of conversations about the misappropriation of our medieval past by racists intent on perceiving British history as white and monolingual, and because the recent terror attacks on my beloved Manchester and London have given fertile ground for racist nostalgia about that imagined past.
See for instance this tweet by the white supremacist Richard Spencer:
It is not entirely clear which invasion of the British Isles represents a victory in Spencer’s mind, though I assume he is thinking about Viking or Anglo-Saxon settlement within England. Vikings are the particular favourite of the neo-Nazi crowd, who would be disappointed if confronted with the reality of a Viking culture that, yes, did its share of raping and pillaging but that also engaged in economic exchange, trade, intermarriage and political affiliation with people across Europe and Africa.
Medievalists can too easily dismiss the views of the world’s Richard Spencers, seeing them as crackpots, imagining them as disaffected teenagers hunched over their laptops reading Reddit and masturbating over fantasies of a white Europe – ignoring the reality of the real thirtysomething Richard Spencer with 62.5k twitter followers and given a “dapper” profile by a fascinated media, or the terrorist Jeremy Christian who gushed “Hail Vinland!!!” days before murdering two men on Portland public transport. The medieval past is being weaponised by a group of people who would be disgusted by the reality of the racial past they so fondly imagine. As David Perry points out:
“The Vikings, or rather the conglomeration of Scandinavian peoples we’ve come to call Vikings, conquered and colonized where they found weak powers in the disorganized west of Europe. To the east, they also tapped into rich multicultural trading networks — fighting when useful, but delighted to engage in economic and cultural exchange with great powers of Eurasia. That included the Jews of Khazaria, Christians dedicated to both Rome and Constantinople and Muslims of every sect and ethnicity. Islamic coins, in fact, have been found buried across the Viking world, a testimony to the richness of this exchange.”
But let’s return to the idea of multilingualism. Many of the replies to my tweet were people proudly asserting the use of their non-English indigenous language – we would all think of Welsh, I hope, but perhaps less obvious homegrown languages include British Sign Language, which has 125,000 speakers today. I got a couple of sneering comments that surely I couldn’t know the British Isles had ALWAYS been multilingual, but I am entirely confident in asserting that for all the history for which we have written sources these islands were home to multiple languages, and pretty confident that this was the case before that, too, given archaeological evidence for the migration of people across Europe, including into and out of the British Isles, during the Iron Age.
None of these fascinating areas form my area of expertise, but I thought a useful way I might address the vexed question of multilingualism (which in racist discourse always becomes tied to multiculturalism, which racists fear means the dilution of whiteness) is to point out the ways in which English is not one language but many. “World Englishes” is a potentially useful term for understanding localised or indigenized forms of the English language, which pushes back against the idea that there is a World English, i.e. a single lingua franca that is now the world’s dominant tongue. As a medievalist, my contribution to this discussion can be pointing out that the English language – in the fondly imagined white medieval past – developed, many scholars now argue, as a language with multiple forms, or even as multiple languages.
Theo Venneman argues that the transition from Old English to Middle English is marked by an assimilation of Celtic languages that went alongside Anglo-Saxon settlement of these islands: they colonised the land, but their language was rapidly colonised by native tongues:
“Written Old English is a pure West Germanic language… it was nearly identical to Continental Old Saxon… Modern English deviates in significant ways… the ways in which it deviates make it, generally speaking, more similar to Insular Celtic, the historical celtic languages, past and present, of the British Isles.”
“On the Rise of ‘Celtic’ Syntax in Middle English”, Theo Vennemann, in Middle English From Tongue to Text, ed. Peter J. Lucas, Angela M. Lucas (Peter Lang, Frankfurt, 2002), pp. 203-34.
As Angus MacIntosh points out, it can be dangerous to seek out a “perfect form” of a language, to work out where (Middle) English begins – because we are talking not about a language that exists in some hermetically sealed box of the past, but was a real, lived form of communication between multiple kinds of people in contact with one another:
“This clinging to the notion of a language, this tendency that we always seem to have to try, by fostering it, to make things neat and tidy, this runs relentlessly through many deliberations about the interaction of codes and cultures… Fundamentally, what we mean by “languages in contact” is “users of language in contact” and to insist upon this is much more than a mere terminological quibble and has far from trivial consequences.”
“Codes and Cultures”, Angus McIntosh, in Speaking in Our Tongues: Medieval Dialectology and Related Disciplines, ed. Margaret Laing & Kenneth Williamson (D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1994), pp. 135-147.
By the mid-thirteenth century, meanwhile, the English language(s) spoken here were palpably different from that used at the point of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. But the impact of the Conquest was not just the laying of a “Gallic veneer on an Anglo-Saxon base”, as Seth Lerer put it in 2007 (Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language). It involved social and political relationships between speakers of English, French and Latin. By this point England’s linguistic face was what Luis Iglesias-Rabade somewhat intimidatingly termed “social subordinate bilingualism of a diglossic character” (Handbook of Middle English: Grammar and Texts, 2003), but which means that English and French, as everyday languages, were social in that they were widely used by the population, not by elites, that one or other language would probably be subordinate in each speaker’s speech profile because not many people would speak both languages with equal fluency, and diglossic meaning that speakers would switch between languages based on the situation in which they found themselves.
For most of its history, English was primarily a local language or languages, with sometimes extreme dialectical variants between regions. As Jeremy Smith writes ruefully, in a sense, every Middle English text has its own grammar (Essentials of Early English, 1999). Meanwhile, John Trevisa noted grumpily in his 1387 translation of the Polychronicon:
“Hyt semeþ a gret wondur hou3 Englysch, þat is þe burþ-tongue of Englyschmen and here oune longage and tonge, ys so dyvers of soun in þis ylond … Al the longage of the Norþhumbres, and specialych at 3ork, ys so scharp, slyttyng and frotyng, and unschape, þat we Southeron men may þat longage unneþe undurstonde. Y trowe þat þat ys bycause þat a buþ ny3 to strange men and aliens þat spekeþ strangelych, and also bycause þat þe kynges of Engelond woneþ alwey fer fram þat countray.”
At least one thing never changes in the history of English speaking: Southerners claiming they can’t understand the undisciplined language of Northern folk.
FURTHER READING ON THE WHITENESS OF MEDIEVAL STUDIES
Dorothy Kim, The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies
Jonathan Hsy, Racial Dynamics in the Medieval Literature Classroom