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An astonishing article on the origin of the English

Discussion in 'World History' started by Pangur Bán, Oct 18, 2018.

  1. Pangur Bán

    Pangur Bán Deconstructed

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    Not often that I post articles on the history forum these days, but recently I came across an article about the origins of the English that is stunning because 1) it's argument is at least plausible if not compelling (it is based on an oral presentation and probably needs go be developed further) and 2) its picture of sub-Roman Britain and the ethnogenesis of the English is so different from the standard account but so in sync with what we know about the Late Antique West. I post about it here because it was published in a relatively obscure Cambridge University journal that few will probably read.

    The basic thesis is that until about the reign of Justinian, eastern Britain was part of the sphere of the Ostrogoths, or at least open to the hegemony of their rulers. He has spotted the fact that some key ancestors of early English rulers who lived at this time have Gothic names, and suggests certain English kingship originated in Gothic appointees. Then, basically, Slav invasions and the contraction of the Germanic speaking world in this period, and the rise of Merovingian Frankish power split the Germanic world into two competing cultural zones, a Frankish zone and a Danish zone. This coincided with the appearance of the culture of halls in the Germanic world--the familiar culture of Beowulf (and modern fantasy like Skyrim). The Germanic speakers of Britain, of no particular Germanic origin themselves despite later mythology, began to become English with the formation of hall culture and identify themselves with the Danish zone and hence why, in stories like Beowulf, there is a love of a Scandinavian setting (rather that, say, a British setting or the Rhine setting of Frankish-derived tales).

    Among the other fascinating observations, he noticed that Hengest, alleged progenitor of the Kentmen and English in later tales, appears to originate as a Germanic translation of cantarius, which he suggests was understood as a pun. Although it meant 'gelding', it sounded like an eponym of the subroman Cantware, Kent people.

    It's called "Imagining English origins", by A. D. Woolf of St Andrews. Quaestio Insularis: Selected Proceedings of the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. Vol. 18 Cambridge, 2018. p. 1-20.

    I hesitate to post it here, but it is readable on academia.edu if you have an account.
     
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2018
  2. Lexicus

    Lexicus Deity

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    Can someone explain how this differs so greatly from the "standard account"?

    Also I would appreciate your posting of the actual paper, if possible, I do not have an academia.edu account.
     
  3. Ajidica

    Ajidica High Quality Person

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    Without being able to read the actual paper, this sounds a little far-fetched. We know very little of the Gothic language, and what we do have is heavily influenced by Latin. (Not surprising at it was presumably Latin speakers translating Bibles for Goths who were living in Latin speaking areas.) Saying that because some names were shared around Northern European/Germanic/Gothic languages the Anglo-Saxons were under Gothic influence seems strange. Names can often travel across linguistic barriers - look at all the Alexs (Greek), Sarahs (Hebrew), and Patricks (Gaelic) running around in English speaking countries!
    Plus, archaeological evidence indicates there was a sustained movement of population from coastal northern Germany/Low Countries into England in the 5th and 6th centuries. Last I checked what they were doing there is a bit up in the air, but we have a pretty good idea of where they came from.
    Further, written records and coinage indicates that Theoderic and Clovis were trying to set themselves up as a Roman augustus but never really got around to pushing those claims. If any of the British kingdoms were to end up in someone else's sphere of influence, simple geographic proximity would suggest they would fall under Clovis' claims rather than Theoderic's.
     
  4. Pangur Bán

    Pangur Bán Deconstructed

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    Yes, Ajidica, you need to read the paper to critique it. I did not use the word astonishing lightly. It's on academia.edu, just do a google search. His observation is not that Anglo-Saxons shared names with Goths, which would be fatuous and wouldn't tell you anything since they were both Germanic peoples, its that the leadership of several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had the names used by prominent Gothic leaders at the time those Gothic leaders were around. He's not arguing that Germanic speakers were new to England in that era, or that the English were of Gothic origin, but that roughly speaking that parts of Britain were still part of a Germanic political system based on the structures of the old Western Empire but one, at that time, in which the leadership of the Goths exercised some hegemony--enough perhaps to give Goths positions in Britain or at least to influence the naming patterns of English elites. He does address the Clovis point. Again, I can't really do justice to it, the paper needs to be read directly.

    @Lexicus The standard account, hard to summarize, but basically Britain is lost to Rome c. 410, the east of the island province is taken over by migrants from distinct Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes, from whom, in isolation, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms arise in the next few centuries. I should say that much of this has been abandoned by a large number of scholars, many of whom see Germanic Britain as partly a legacy of the Roman army or see those tribal origin groups as elite fictions designed to legitimise the new kingdoms.
     
  5. Owen Glyndwr

    Owen Glyndwr La Femme Moderne

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    Does he address where English came from then? My understanding was that was a major sticking point for deconstructions of the traditional Bede narrative.

    Also does he offer any explanations for why we don’t really see much in the way of Gothic traces in English?
     
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2018
  6. HoloDoc

    HoloDoc Emperor

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  7. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    I have an extremely high reputation of Alex Woolf and his scholarship and as soon as I can con somebody with an academia.edu account into letting me take a look at this I will devour it. He's been working on the linguistic origins of the English for a long time. He and a few other late antiquarians/early medievalists had a lovely conversation going in the comments of an article on a now-defunct blog that I genuinely wish I could review for this.
    Honestly, the traditional Bede narrative doesn't work for where English came from either.
     
  8. Pangur Bán

    Pangur Bán Deconstructed

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    It works without signing up, at least if you go there on an ipad it does. You could try following this like:
    https://www.academia.edu/Documents/in/Vendel_period

    You could try this later and maybe it will work (doesn't just now):
    https://anthrogenica.com/showthread.php?15658-Imagining-English-Origins

    But obviously I cannot post the article here as I am just a humble reader and I am not going to potentially infringe the author's rights, and the moderators would have to delete it anyway (not that anyone would litigate, but you know how it is).
     
    Dachs likes this.
  9. HoloDoc

    HoloDoc Emperor

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    You can always just ask him if you can post it, you know. Most of us are just happy to have our work acknowledged. If anything I had ever written had even the slightest thing to do with this topic, I'd post it here.
     

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