‘If you love history, on your holidays you can visit museums and castles. If you love plants, you can visit botanical gardens. But if you love language, what do you visit?’
In the summer of 2012, supreme language-lovers David and Hilary Crystal set off on a tour round Britain, visiting 57 sites associated with key developments in the English language. They documented their journey in their new book Wordsmiths and Warriors.
Hitch a ride with them to a small selection of the places they visited: click on the images on the map below to explore the English language through the places in Britain that shaped it…
Robert Burns’s epic poem, ‘Tom o’Shanter’, is partly set in Alloway, the poet’s birthplace. The amount of distinctive Scots lexicon and pronunciation varies throughout the poem. Some lines are entirely standard English; some are heavily regional. People responded to Burns’s writing because they we able to identify with it, and appreciated its pride in a variety of English that had for centuries been obscured by the literary standards of the south. Burns’s poetry was at the heart of a resurgence of regional literature that conferred a fresh level of national prestige upon the Scottish variety of English.
The father of British history, Bede (c. 672 – 735) spent his whole life from the age of seven in the monastery at Jarrow, where his ‘chief delight was always to learn or to teach or to write.’ His famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People is the earliest literary source we have for the linguistic events which shaped the nation. In his opening chapter he tells us: ‘This island at present… contains five nations, the English, Britons, Scots, Picts, and Latins, each with its own particular dialect.’ So it is clear that Britain was multi-ethnic and multilingual from the outset.
When Salts Mill in Saltaire, near Bradford, was built in 1853, it was the world’s largest cotton mill. Its claim to linguistic fame lies in the extraordinary story of Joseph Wright: an illiterate quarry-boy and mill-worker who through determined self-education eventually became a professor of comparative philology at Oxford University. His masterwork was the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary ‘so far as is possible, the complete vocabulary of all dialect words [used] during the last 200 years in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales’.
Manorbier Castle on the Pembrokeshire/Carmarthenshire border is in an area known as ‘Little England beyond Wales’. In 1607 William Camden explained that ‘the tract was inhabited by Flemings out of the Low-countries, who by permission of King Henry the First were planted here (when their own lands were flooded). These are distinctly known still from the Welsh, both by their speech and manners, and are so joined they are in society of the same language with Englishmen, who come nighest of any nation to the low Dutch tongue.’
The Tyndale monument in North Nibley, Gloucestershire, marks the birthplace of the great William Tyndale who wanted to translate the Bible from Latin into English so that even ‘the boy who plows the field’ could understand. His unauthorized translation was published in Europe, smuggled into England, seized by the authorities and burned: Tyndale himself was executed for his work in 1536. The translation’s legacy is seen in the later King James Bible, and in wonderful phrases. When we say the powers that be, suffer fools gladly, my brother’s keeper, a stumbling block, or the signs of the times, we are remembering Tyndale.
Track down Lewis Carroll at Alice’s Shop in Oxford. The shop is, in a roundabout way, the birthplace of Carroll’s wonderful character Humpty Dumpty, whose observations about words and meanings, his word creations (un-birthday), and idiosyncratic definitions (impenetrability), and his explanation of the coinages in ‘Jabberwocky’ (brillig,slithy, toves…) have endeared him to linguists ever since.
In the 1980s, at Undley Common in Suffolk, a small gold disk or ‘bracteate’ was unearthed, bearing a picture of a wolf and a three-word runic inscription in the Anglo-Frisian alphabet: Gaegogae maegae medu. Dated to the period AD 450 – 80, it is the earliest written sentence to have been found in Britain. Medu is the origin of meed (‘reward’). Maegae is ‘relative’ or ‘kinsman, and the word-ending suggests the interpretation ‘to a kinsman’. ‘Gaegogae’ is possibly related to ‘howl’ or ‘groan’. Piecing this together with the animal image, the implied meaning would be ‘this howling she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman.’
Aelfric, a teacher at the abbey in Cerne Abbas, around the year 1000, was undoubtedly the greatest vernacular prose writer of his time. He wrote his famous Colloquy, or dialogue, as an instructional technique for students in monastic schools to learn conversational Latin. With its translation into English, it presents a lively and realistic exchange between pupil and teacher – the first recorded conversation in English.
Almost nothing remains of Hyde Abbey in Winchester. But its famous scriptorium (writing room for monks) deeply influenced the character of English in later Anglo-Saxon times. It was renowned for the quality of its output, with its distinctive ‘Winchester style’ of production. And the monks’ work began to influence the way scribes wrote elsewhere, with the result that most of the manuscripts surviving today from the late 10th century are written with the Winchester ‘West Saxon’ style of spellings, words, and grammatical construction.
At East India Dock in London, you will discover the origins of the East India Company, founded in 1600 to organize transport of goods from India and south-east Asia. This was the start of the long relationship – commercial, political, and linguistic – between India and Britain. Today, English is one of the official languages of India, spoken in several local varieties by several hundred million people. And the vocabulary of English was considerably enhanced by the Indian trade. Here are some of the words of textiles in the cargo manifest of a fleet of ships that travelled to England in 1724: alliballies, baftaes, ginghams, humhums, mulmuls, and taffeties.
1066. The Battle of Hastings. From a linguistic point of view, Duke William of Normandy’s victory led to a seismic shift in the character of English. Around 30,000 words entered English from French during the early Middle Ages. French scribes made fundamental changes to the way English was spelled. New styles of writing appeared in law, architecture, and literature, reflecting a French cultural vision. Today only some 20 per cent of English vocabulary retains its original Germanic character.