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
Cord Whitaker, Pale Like Me: Resistance, Assimilation, and ‘Pale Faces’ Sixteen Years On
Paul Sturtevant, Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the ‘Whites Only’ Medieval World
Dorothy Kim, The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies
Jonathan Hsy, Racial Dynamics in the Medieval Literature Classroom
Spenser is not a particularly Germanic name, tho’ Is he claiming England needs more French people?
Assumed the fool Spencer had Norman Despensers in mind.
I thought the Norman Conquest seemed like a logical point, but I also know that Nazi types are not generally super-keen on the French, so I thought Vikings or Saxons might be more likely…
I recently heard that the Normans (though clearly from Normandy), were not so much French as a distinct group of Scandinavian descent which has settled there – hence “Nor”-mans (Norse-men). Though I don’t know much about that.
Reblogged this on Medievalizations and commented:
” 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.”
Reblogged this on Wenn der Wind der Veränderung weht ….
Regarding the tweet by Leave.EU: we newcomers actually speak English well but they still have problem with us anyway.
At my school we had subscription to a magazine called Friendship, which was aimed at pupils learning English. I remember this infographic in one issue – it was a river of English language and there were these little streams which represented the languages that influenced English; Celtic languages, Latin, French, Saxon etc. I found it really interesting, that’s why I still remember it 20 years later!
Slay 🙂 Loved the post!
Brilliant piece, Rachel!
Reblogged this on My Bright Spark.
Interesting reading. I am quite familiar with much of the history you have shared here. It always best to provide an accurate history for proper context, something that is often wanting in today’s discourse.
I would care to qualify some of the implications in your piece. Those of a white supremacist mindset are hardly the only parties guilty of a misappropriation of history. I do not offer this in defense of those who espouse such ignorance, I am merely pointing out that misuse or alteration of the record to bolster one’s argument has become rather widespread.
Mr. Spencer would seem to be an example in extremis. The likes of him and his followers serve as useful idiots for both sides of this divide.
I am disturbed by the growing tendency to brand any who speak out against multiculturalism as being in the same company as Spencer, et al.
To me Britain has always stood as a shining example of a society which has assimilated peoples from many cultures. It is one of the legacies of the British Empire and the Commonwealth. The key here, however, is assimilation. What many people object to in the diversity for the sake of diversity mentality is not born out of racism. This has become a far too convenient tag used to silence dissenting opinion. One of the reasons why Britain has achieved such a mosaic of cultures has been the ability to absorb these into their own.
I believe what many people are concerned with and often struggle to express with clarity is the tone that they must somehow be ashamed of their “whiteness” or their cultural heritage to accomodate this multiculturalism. No child is destined to pay for the sins of their father.
Speaking and acting to calm irrational fears is necessary, but the blanket characterization of those who express their concerns
I’m interested as to what you think “assimilation” really means. You talk about Britain absorbing people into its culture. What culture, exactly, does Britain have without immigrants? If you are indeed familiar with medieval history, you’ll be aware that these islands have been settled by multiple peoples, all of whom have left their trace not only on our culture but also on the languages spoken here. British culture has always been multicultural! But the way you talk of assimilation it seems like you want people to subsume their natal cultures beneath a monolithic British culture (that I would argue doesn’t exist), rather than seeing assimilation as a place of cultural exchange.
I don’t in any way dispute what you are saying about the many cultural components which throughout history have contributed to making Britain what it is today. You state that each of these have left their trace on the culture and this is indeed true. I don’t suggest that there was an existing monolithic culture to which each of these were adapted. The culture is indisputably the product of many influences over time. It is the result of the assimilation of these ingredients into a finished product. In America, a country of immigrants if ever there was one, this has been referred to as the melting pot. I tend to think of this not in metallurgical terms, rather in a culinary sense, as one would make a stew.
In making a stew it is understood that it is to be comprised of multiple ingredients. The finished product is not named as carrot-onion-potato-green bean-pea-tomato-corn-salt-pepper-garlic-bay leaf- cubed beef and beef stock stew. It is referred to as beef and vegetable stew, or some other colloquial label. This does not alter what goes into it and certain of these ingredients may be omitted or substituted without changing the label. This is because there is a common thread or medium, the stock. If the entire pot is five quarts and you add two tablespoons of sausage it may lend a certain added nuance to the flavor profile, but that doesn’t change what it is as a whole. For right or wrong it is still beef-vegetable stew.
Yes, British culture is the product of many different ingredients, but there is a British culture as a result of these many ingredients being cooked in a common stock. In order for the “stew” to remain what it is it can certainly take on new ingredients, but they need to be ingredients which can mix with the same stock. If one is the proprietor of the establishment serving this stew and more than half of the patrons object when, say, cat hair, oranges and avocado peels are introduced then the proprietor is faced with two options. One is not to add those ingredients, the other is to continue serving it in such a fashion and tell the patrons to shut up and eat it anyway. If the latter course is chosen and persists most patrons are likely to leave or raise louder objections. The proprietor who fails to respond to this will soon find a need to close shop.
Living is a cultural exchange. If one does not bring something to that exchange that others wish to share, or at least try, then it becomes something less than living. Hope that clarified it for you 🙂
….as simply coming from some racist xenophobia does little to accomplish this. Instead this only serves to deepen the divide. As free citizens in a democratic republic we all have the right, indeed the duty, to identify what are legitimate concerns about the state if the society we live in. We can not allow for a state to exist where, as in France for example, those from an Islamic culture have been permitted to flood into the country and form socially isolated enclaves to exist and grow over generations within their borders. This isnt about skin color or language. It is about leaving these unintegrated communities to fester like a boil on society. It is not to suggest that all who reside there mean us harm. It is the simple recognition that permitting this affords those who do an opportunity to hide in plain sight.
It is foolish to condemn our own culture and history for it’s past errors of thought or deed in order to excuse or deny those of other cultures. This may not be the intent behind such thinking, but it is a result which can not be accepted.
A little harsh but not without merit
Harsh? What was harsh about it? We live in an age where honesty is harsh? No wonder the zealots want to kill us.
I love your thinking. Your thoughts are refreshing and innovative.looking forward yo more blogs
The past is often bent in order to suit someone’s purpose well done
A little harsh but not without merit
Cant the human race live in harmony and leave racist remarks people that have racist issues need to seek help as they are either jealous of what others have accomplished through tough times look up to God and pray and believe and all will be well in our country God doenst want people to be enemys He wants us all to live in harmony and be proud of our lovely country that was placed in our hands to cherrish and enjoy …
Having lived for a number of years in Scandinavia, I experienced first hand the deep ignorance surrounding viking history. The notions circulating about Scandinavia’s viking past are almost mythical and often grounded more on popular beliefs than on actual reality. Everyone knows who the vikings are from fiction and word of mouth that took origin in romanticized fables fabricated in the XIX and XX century with dubious purpose and dubious foundations. Not many ever bothered reading about them from reliable sources, or took time to read about their (unfortunately small) written and oral tradition.
As an Italian I am always asked how I can be fascinated by the viking world when I come from the “much superior” Roman tradition. True, the Romans built in bricks and wrote stuff down, but that doesn’t make those who did not unworthy of attention, or were less important in the history of our continent. And keeping at it, “well the Romans were championing arts and culture while the vikings were just raping, pillaging and plundering”. As if the Romans conquered half of the then known world by only singing poems and playing flutes.
Outstanding work I must say.
I dont get your post.multilingualism refers to different languages,not dialects within a language.
Dialectical variation in Middle English could be quite extreme, to the point that some scholars go so far as to say that Middle English is ‘not … a language at all but rather something of a scholarly fiction, an amalgam of forms and sounds, writers and manuscripts, famous works and little-known ephemera that we can roughly date, locate, and classify.’ (Seth Lerer) Before English was standardised, both how it was written and spoken meant that many people would have found each other’s use of the language incomprehensible. At the same time, as I pointed out, late into the middle ages a broad cross-section of the population would be fluent in both English and French, as well as having some facility with Latin.
I enjoyed your writing that is undoubtedly true; however, Spencer’s statement is just part of a childish battle among Europe and England, isn’t it. Since Europe is up to omit English language from its Union, maybe England is also up to omit other languages. Haha
In addition, there is the new racist reaction against the terrorist mishaps.
Live and let them live 🙂 loved the post
We have always been a group of multilingual islands, note various Gaelic languages.In Scotland they have taken to giving Gaelic versions of railway stations alongside the English one. Fine if you are on the west highland lines but on the eastern and southern ones.Possibly questionable as these area spoke a version of Welsh Gaelic, some even spoke English, perhaps Anglo Norman French. Even Latin too.
Many of the Viking settlers in my area were little more than farmers in boats.
I love the discipline of early medieval history.
Great post, thanks ! I loved this : “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 “
Some great points and an enjoyable read, thanks for sharing. 🙂
In the race to be politically correct folks around the world are trying to place today’s ideas on chapters from history. Destroying cultural landmarks because they do not confirm with today’s ideas and concepts is silly to say the least. Think of how five hundred years from now humanity ( if we survive) will judge us. The ideas we think as acceptable today may be outdated in the future. That is what human evolution is all about. Remember how the ISIS guys blasted the massive Buddhist statues in Bamiyan because they were not Islamic ? Going by the same logic we should destroy the pyramids and wipe out the Monalisa because after all she is a white woman ! Accept the change and move ahead. Do not glorify or hate the past but learn from it and move on.