How the English Language Became the World's Language

by Robert McCrum

16 August 2010

Artist unknown 

A Cowherd Who Could Not Sing

With the word of God came the building of churches and monasteries, the pillars of Anglo-Saxon culture. Bede, at his monastery in Jarrow, writes that not only were the great monk-teachers learned in ‘sacred and profane literature’, they taught poetry, astronomy and arithmetic. The new monasteries also encouraged vernacular writing, and some astonishing work in stone and glass, rich embroidery and magnificent illuminated manuscripts.

The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought. Before St Augustine it was easy enough to express the common experience of everyday life – sun and moon, hand and heart, heat and cold, sea and land – in Old English, but much harder to convey subtle ideas without the use of cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus like frumwoerc (= creation), from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work.

In the seventh century AD… the interplay of creativity and the word of God seemed so rare and miraculous that Bede (author of History of the English Church and People) actually cites a singular example of divine inspiration, the case of an illiterate Yorkshire poet, and the author of the earliest surviving poem in English, known as ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’.

In the long run, the role of the English Church would be as much cultural as religious. Souls might be saved but sentences would be transformed. The language of the King James Bible (and The Book of Common Prayer), braided into English, echoes through the poetry of George Herbert and William Blake, the novels of Dickens, the rhetorical cadences of Martin Luther King Jr., and lately, Barack Obama. Listen, for instance to Obama’s account of his origins in his bestselling memoir, Dreams from My Father:

First there was Miriwu. It’s not known who came before. Miriwu sired Sigoma, Sigoma sired Owiny, Owiny sired Kisodhi, Kisodhi sired Ogelo, Ogelo sired Otondi, Otondi sired Obongo, Obongo sired Okoth, and Okoth sired Opiquo. The women who bore them, their names are forgotten, for that was the way of our people.

Next to Shakespeare, there is no more influential text in the English tradition than the Bible. In the seventh century AD, however, the interplay of creativity and the word of God seemed so rare and miraculous that Bede actually cites a singular example of divine inspiration, the case of an illiterate Yorkshire poet, and the author of the earliest surviving poem in English, known as ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’.

This nine-line fragment of Old English vernacular was not the work of a monk or a scholar. Caedmon was a cowherd who could not sing. When, around the fireside, the harp was passed among the other herdsmen, Caedmon would make his excuses and depart, embarrassed by his tin ear. He remained aloof from the festive hearth until one evening, Bede reports, an angel came to him in a dream. ‘Caedmon,’ called the Angel, ‘Sing something.’ ‘I cannot,’ replied the cowherd, ‘for I do not know how to sing, and for that reason I left the gathering.’ ‘Still,’ persisted the angel, ‘you can sing.’ ‘What shall I sing about?’ asked Caedmon. ‘Sing about the creation of the world,’ instructed the angel. And so Caedmon was inspired, and made his song. These beginnings of English poetry seem fanciful, but they echo the making of Ireland’s Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. When he was growing up, a farmer’s son in Co. Derry, the closest Heaney came to poetry was through traditional festival recitations. He found his vocation through a poetry-reading circle in Belfast and then, in a burst of inspiration, completed the poems like ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘Tollund Man’ (a poem about Moorleichen), that announced the arrival of an important new poetic voice. Heaney says he harks back to the Anglo-Saxons, a society whose culture haunts the work of poets through the ages, from Milton to the present. W. H. Auden, indeed, once declared himself ‘spellbound’ by Old English poetry.

In the end, the Anglo-Saxon settlement proved as vulnerable as the Roman, and its obsession with the transitoriness of life came into its own. In the eighth century as much as the fifth, an island with the promise of minerals would always be attractive to invaders. For the next three hundred years the English experienced another foreign occupation in which their culture would be forced to adapt or face annihilation. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Mixture is a secret of the English island.’ This time, the enemy from the sea was symbolic of a wider European phenomenon.

The mass movement of the Scandinavian peoples between the years 750 and 1050, one of the great migrations of European history, began as seasonal plunder-raids and ended as conquest and settlement. Collectively these people are known as the Vikings, a name thought to come either from the Norse vik (‘a bay’), indicating ‘one who frequents inlets of the sea’, or from the Old English wic, a camp – the formation of temporary encampments was a prominent feature of Viking raids. Unlike the ethnic cleansing by the Anglo-Saxons, which obliterated virtually everything Celtic in English culture, the Viking settlers had a profound influence on the making of England. There was consanguinity between these Nordic peoples; it was often difficult to distinguish between invading Norseman and resident Saxon. At the time, however, the Vikings were notoriously destructive. In 793 the monasteries of Jarrow and Lindisfarne were sacked in successive seasons and plundered of gold and silver. By the middle of the ninth century almost half the country was in Viking hands. Now the Norsemen, or ‘Danes’, turned their forces against the jewel in the crown: the kingdom of Wessex.

Wars make leaders. The king of Wessex was a young man named Alfred. In the early history of Britain, where Arthur is a myth, Alfred is a historical hero, ‘Angelonde’s deorling’, according to the twelfth-century priest Layamon. Arthur’s historical existence is at best shadowy, Alfred’s is well documented. But they have one thing in common: both Arthur and Alfred are remembered by apocryphal stories. In the making of English, fact and fantasy are sometimes inseparable. Alfred, of course, is the king who burned the cakes. This, as the historian David Horspool notes, is ‘a moment in history that probably never happened’. As the story goes – the desperate king taking refuge in a cowherd’s hovel, alone, almost destitute, and reduced to the condition of a common traveller – Alfred was sitting by the fireside, brooding on his fate, when the woman of the house asked him to mind some cakes she was baking over the embers. Then, as Charles Dickens narrates it in A Child’s History of England, ‘thinking deeply of his poor unhappy subjects whom the Danes had chased through the land, his noble mind forgot the cakes, and they were burnt. “What!” said the cowherd’s wife… you will be ready enough to eat them by-and-by, and yet you cannot watch them, idle dog?” A fugitive king, lost among his own people, is a universal tale that recurs in the Old Testament (King David in the Book of Samuel) and in the Ramayana (where Lord Rama goes into forest exile). But the legend of Alfred’s travails has a special significance: it symbolizes the moment at which it was suddenly possible that England and Englishness might be wiped out altogether. With no English-speaking kingdoms left, the country would gradually speak Norse.

Instead, the turning point came later that same year, 878. Alfred raised a fresh army from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and overwhelmed the Danes at the battle of Edington, a victory commemorated by a white horse carved on the hillside overlooking the battlefield.

Alfred’s story benefits from the fusion of three powerful elements. First, Alfred has the luck of good spin, historically speaking. As well as a near-contemporary biography written by Asser, one of his bishops, there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a unique document of current events commissioned by the king, together with the bounty of many other records: Alfred’s will, a peace treaty, several royal charters and one or two letters. Secondly, thanks to Bishop Asser’s biography, Alfred comes down to us as a great man but also a complex one, subtle, wise and all too human (apparently he was a martyr to piles). The third and clinching element of his greatness lies in one, indisputable quality: he was not merely victorious at the crucial battle of Edington, he also brought the Danes to heel at the peace treaty of Wedmore and set about Anglicizing his kingdom.

Alfred understood that his power-base in the south was insufficient to guarantee that peace with the Danes would hold, or that Englishmen living outside Wessex in, for example, Mercia (roughly, the -present-day Midlands) would not be gradually drawn back into the Danish empire. As king of Wessex, Alfred ruled only over people who lived in the counties of the south-west, around the ancient capital city of Winchester. He had no power over people who lived further afield, in Oxfordshire for example. Yet his survival against the Vikings depended on men and money from the kingdoms outside Wessex. He had to retain political control of territory that was not his by appealing to a shared sense of Englishness, expressed in the language. Alfred consciously used the ‘soft power’ of English to create a sense of national identity.

Without Alfred, the history of England would have been quite different, and certainly less nationalistic. Decisively for the progress of the vernacular, it was his inspiration to use English, not Latin, as the basis for the education of his people. At the age of nearly forty, amid what he called the ‘various and manifold cares of his kingdom’, he learned Latin so that he could oversee the translation of various key texts, notably Bede’s History of the English Church and People. Alfred described this campaign to win minds and hearts through cultural propaganda in his famous preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care. ‘South of the Thames’, he writes, there is literally no one who can translate ‘a letter from Latin into English’. He goes on to argue the urgent need to ‘translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know, into the language that we can all understand’, so that, as he puts it, ‘all the youth of free men now among the English people… are able to read English writing as well’. The champion of the English language, he was also the founder of English historical prose, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

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