How the English Language Became the World's Language

by Robert McCrum

16 August 2010

Artist unknown 

Globish In Embryo

This remarkable document is the key to Alfred’s afterlife as ‘The Great’. Possibly it was in Winston Churchill’s mind when he set out to write his own history of the Second World War. (‘Remember,’ he teased Stalin during a dispute about their mutual interpretation of the recent past, ‘if I live long enough I may be one of the historians.’) In fact, when Alfred died at the age of fifty in 899, not even the Chronicle, the house journal of his short reign, identified him as the figure he would become. Over the succeeding centuries his ‘greatness’ grew and flourished as subsequent generations found different kinds of inspiration in his story. By the eighteenth century Alfred had become the hero-king of conservative fantasy: Sir Richard Blackmore’s 12-volume verse epic Alfred (1723). Most influential of all is Alfred: A Masque (1740) by James Thomson and David Mallet, written and performed for Frederick, Prince of Wales, the son of George II. This pageant celebrates Britain’s imperial destiny, and closes with a chorus (‘Rule, Britannia!’) that quickly became an unofficial national anthem. To men of the late eighteenth century, Alfred was not just a proto-imperialist, he was even understood by some American revolutionaries to be a symbol of liberty, a man fighting tyranny on behalf of his people, and winning against the odds. One of the newly founded US Navy’s first battleships, seized from the British, was renamed Alfred, became the flagship and was commanded by John Paul Jones. Later, to the Victorians Alfred was an almost devotional figure. The radical Chartists liked to equate ‘the Code of Alfred’ with the freedoms promised in the People’s Charter. The publication in 1852 of The Whole Works of King Alfred was part of a revival that included G. F. Watts’s massive oil painting, Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes by Encountering them at Sea, and culminated in 1901 (wrongly thought to be the millennial anniversary of his death) with a bizarre ceremony at Winchester. Thereafter, the Alfred who burned the cakes had become part of England’s national myth. In a popular television poll conducted by the BBC in 2001, he was ineradicably a ‘great Briton’.

From the middle of the tenth century a steady flow of charters, diplomas and writs, expressed not in Latin but in the common tongue, made Old English the premier vernacular of the western world, the precociously advanced medium of an independent-minded society isolated from, but trading with, the wider world: Globish in embryo.

Alfred’s role in fostering national consciousness was vital, but history is not written by kings alone. For most people, there was the everyday business of raising families and putting food on the table. On the ground, Anglo-Saxon and Dane lived peacefully alongside each other for several generations. The similarity of Norse and Old English meant that both sides could communicate, in a rough-and-ready fashion that accelerated a linguistic merger: the word endings of an inflected language like Old English were slowly eliminated; Norse words like skirt, skin and sky were borrowed, adding another dimension, more light and shade, to the variety of the language. By AD 900 English had developed many of the characteristics for which it is known today. In the traffic between Dane and Saxon, it had become simplified. It was practical, direct and rich in synonyms: you can rear (English) or raise (Norse) a child. Soon it would develop the flexibility in which verbs could become nouns, and new foreign words became co-opted into everyday usage.

The fusion of Saxon and Norse traditions is epitomized in Beowulf, the undisputed masterpiece of Old English literature, and recently reimagined as a popular animation. This 3,000-line poem, a tale of the Geatish hero who fights dragons and monsters from the sea, was the first to be written down in a European vernacular language. Beowulf reveals a reflective mind, obsessed with the transience of life, and with the keeping of dignity in the face of defeat. Darker still is the predicament of Beowulf’s famous monster. Grendel never speaks. Deprived of language, he can only utter desperate cries of inarticulate rage. He becomes the personification of darkness. Like some kind of evil figure from The Lord of the Rings, he is described as a ‘hellish fiend’ and a ‘grim spirit’. And so, from Beowulf comes the first expression of a creative dialogue within the English literary tradition.

J. R. R. Tolkien, whose works also helped to inspire a new generation of make-believe in the Harry Potter series, first visited -Middle-earth in the aftermath of military service during the Great War. Demobilized and unemployed, he was given a job working on the definition of ‘W’ words like waggle, wake-wort and wampum for the still unfinished Oxford English Dictionary. Something in Old English spoke to Tolkien. He once described the consequences of his encounter with a single word – Earendel – as ‘a curious thrill… as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond Ancient English.’ Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a nostalgic fantasy, but it derives some of its inspiration from the historical reality of ninth- and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England. After centuries of fighting this had evolved into sophisticated society. The ‘shires’, idealized by Tolkien in The Hobbit, were further subdivided into ‘hundreds’, with their own courts of justice. The government of the regions and a still-primitive central government were linked by the shire-reeve, or sherriff. This, as virtually every historian has noted, was the most thoroughly organized and administered government in early medieval Europe. It had a vigorous economy, a strong coinage, a sophisticated culture, and a prose dedicated to law and administration. From the middle of the tenth century a steady flow of charters, diplomas and writs, expressed not in Latin but in the common tongue, made Old English the premier vernacular of the western world, the precociously advanced medium of an independent-minded society isolated from, but trading with, the wider world: Globish in embryo.

The stability achieved by Alfred was short-lived. By the end of the first millennium England’s population was settled but still vulnerable. In 994 the Danes renewed their attacks and, led by King Cnut (the wave-resistant Canute of legend), transformed England into a Danish colony. Cnut reigned for nineteen years, but in 1042 the witan that chose a new king, Edward the Confessor, was dominated by fiercely independent Anglo-Saxons, led by Godwin, earl of Wessex. So Edward was never his own man. Within seven years the court was divided between the English (led by Earl Godwin) and the French (led by the bishop of London). Edward strengthened his ties with Normandy, and possibly promised his throne to the duke in a secret arrangement. He struggled on for a further eleven years, but died on 5 January 1066. Harold Godwinson, who had been Edward’s right-hand man, was crowned king the next day. In April 1066 came a terrifying omen: Halley’s comet, a celestial portent with a fiery tail, appeared in the heavens, presaging catastrophe. Perhaps news of Norman retribution had already filtered back to the court. Across the Channel, William of Normandy was preparing to invade. As spring moved into summer, William began to assemble the largest invasion force since the emperor Claudius in AD 43. The history-minded English people might place this threat in the context of a thousand years of foreign assault and enemy occupation, but they would have been wrong. This was not just another invasion, or even a new cultural revolution, though it would be both those things. In the pre-history of the world’s English, this was ‘The Conquest’. Ten sixty-six was a unique European event, different from all previous invasions. In the first place, this cross-Channel assault was a bold military challenge to a mature and vigorous rival, an independent society that was quite the equal of Norman France. In consequence, secondly, the stakes were much higher. Duke William, marshalling his army at the mouth of the Somme, was risking total victory, or utter annihilation. It was a huge gamble, finally, whose outcome would inspire centuries of complex Anglo-French relations, and many competing stories in prose and poetry, from Henry V and the archers of Agincourt to the siege of Orléans and the martyrdom of Jeanne d’Arc. That was in the future. As it turned out, the Norman Conquest was a close-run thing, and Harold might even have won.

The last English king marched into Kent to confront the invader on 14 October 1066. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harold ‘came against him [William] at the hoary apple tree’ which stood at the junction of the roads leading out of Hastings towards London. Fighting on the field of Senlac, the English had the home advantage. The Saxon shield-wall was dug in at the top of a ridge, and the French had to attack uphill. As the Bayeux Tapestry indicates, it was a brutal battle, one of the longest in medieval history. The fortunes of war swayed backwards and forwards, as each side struggled for the decisive breakthrough. Finally, after hours of bloody attrition, Harold was killed, together with both his brothers, ‘and many good men’. Darkness fell, and, in the sombre words of the Chronicle, ‘the French remained masters of the field’.

In the tradition of previous invasions, the surviving Saxon earls, and the archbishop of Canterbury, immediately proclaimed a new English king – Edgar the Atheling – on the assumption that this latest upset would follow time-honoured custom: the triumphant Normans would simply take over the machinery of government, rule through Anglo-Saxon surrogates, and go home. Under that scenario, the influence of France would have been confined to some diplomatic niceties and a few French feasts. But William could not go along with this tradition, even if he had wanted to. The raison d’être of his army was that, if it were victorious, his commanders and their followers should enjoy the spoils of war – treasure, estates and titles of nobility. No sooner was the battle of Hastings won, than the Normans marched through the heartlands of Anglo-Saxon England, terrorizing its people into submission. It was the end of Englaland; and it should have been the end of Englisc. Certainly, the omens were not good.

On Christmas Day 1066 William I was crowned at Westminster, in a chaotic ceremony that mixed Saxon and Norman rites. This gave legitimacy to the new regime, but it did not guarantee its future tranquillity. William the Conqueror understood this only too well. After Christmas he gave orders for the construction of the castle that would become the Tower of London to begin. An imposing chain of Norman forts became the enduring symbol of William’s conquest. Saxon architecture, based on timber, brick and straw, always suggested a harmonious community among all classes. Norman stone was much more imposing, designed to convey the power of the state and the inflexible will of its alien king, as the new Norman lexicon of fortress, siege, assault and prison suggests. From now on the governors and the governed would live in separate worlds. And English became the mother tongue of an oppressed people, their sole means of self-expression.

The current associate editor and former literary editor of The Observer, Robert McCrum is the author of Wodehouse: A Life (2004) and My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke (1998). Formerly the editor-in-chief of the British publisher Faber & Faber, he lives in London with his wife, Sarah Lyall. Globish has grown out of half a lifetime spent watching English in motion in various international media—and two decades of new research and reflection since his work as writer of the 1986 Emmy Award–winning BBC/PBS television series The Story of English and its tie-in book of the same title.

© 2010 Robert McCrum

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