Purists

Since the referendum in July 2016, the issue of Brexit hasn’t really left the news. Some people who voted for Brexit did so in response to the so-called “immigration crisis” of the 21st century, fearing the impacts of foreign influences on the “British” way of life. But this isn’t the first time that Britain has tried to protect its culture from foreign influence…

In another blog post we discuss the arrival of English in the British Isles and the waves of conquest and migration that subsequently shaped it, ultimately leading to the emergence of the language that we speak today, Modern English. This language is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Norman and Latin influences, and words of other origin have been added to the mix as English has spread throughout the globe. Basically, for as long as English has existed, it has engaged in somewhat promiscuous behaviour with the languages of the world, giving us the rich, varied vocabulary and grammar that lovers of the English language enjoy today.

However, as far back as in the Middle English period (ca. 1150-1500), some authors were trying to resist this mixing, writing in an English that purported to strip what had become a hybridised language of its Norman trappings. One example of this is the Brut written by the priest Layamon in the early 13th century, which predominantly used archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that was already considered quaint in its time. Similarly, the Ayenbite of Inwyt, literally the “again-biting of inner wit” (or Remorse (Prick) of Conscience), rendered a French text in English for an audience comprising “lewede men”, that is, people unable to read French or Latin, using English compounds (e.g. “ayenbite”) instead of borrowing French or Latin technical terms. Both authors were trying to write texts in the vernacular for uneducated audiences, reflecting the separation between the Anglo-Saxon English of the people and the Anglo-Norman of the courts at the time.

As knowledge of the world expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries, new words entered the English language en masse, and similar attempts at linguistic purism cropped up in response to Latin and Greek “inkhorn terms”, foreign borrowings that were considered by their opponents to be unnecessary and pretentious. English classical scholar John Cheke, for example, wrote: “our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borowing of other tunges... For then doth our tung naturallie and praisablie vtter her meaning.” To fill in the gaps, some purists tried to resurrect Germanic words such as “gleeman” for “musician” and “yblent” for “confused”, or to create new words of Germanic origin, such as “endsay” instead of “conclusion”, “yeartide” instead of “anniversary” and “foresayer” instead of prophet, very few of which are still used today.

A comparable explosion of knowledge, science and therefore neologisms in the 19th century once again led to backlash. One of the most vocal proponents of linguistic purism at this time was William Barnes, who lambasted the “needless inbringing” of foreign words, suggesting Germanic neologisms such as “bendsome” for “flexible”, “folkswain” for “omnibus”, “birdlore” for “ornithology” and “speechcraft” for “grammar”. In the 20th century, Australian composer Percy Grainger likewise advocated the use of what he called “blue-eyed English”, turning “composer” into “tonesmith” and replacing Italian performance markings such as “molto crescendo” with alternatives like “louden lots”.

Contemporary attempts at Germanic linguistic purism in English have been carried out more hypothetically or humorously, providing a potential answer to what English might have been like if Harold Godwinson had won the Battle of Hastings instead of William the Conqueror. For example, in “1066 and All Saxon”, Paul Jennings recounts just such a fictional course of historical events in the made-up language “Anglish”:

  • Ful many folk unwitten what had been the tale of this our land if eke our maiden strand had been breached by some mighty, wel-found and strongly furbished ingang of lustry outlanders, such as might not be offstricken and worsted by our stout yeomen forebears together-standing in a hardy wappenshaw, for all their derring-do. And such, I ween, was never so like to broach and overwhelm us as the ungoodendlich ingang of William the Conquered.

Confused? It gets worse! Going one step further, in his 1989 text Uncleftish Beholding, the science fiction author Poul Anderson recounts the basic tenets of atomic theory – “uncleftish beholding” – but also in Anglish, the language that might have been, as in this excerpt:

  • The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

And for those that are interested, a group of committed fans is still churning out Anglish renderings of English texts, and have even produced an Anglish “Wordbook” (http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/Main_leaf). In light of the status of English as a global lingua franca, it’s safe to say that Anglish is unlikely to gain serious traction any time soon. But, whether you yearn for Anglish beholding or prefer to expound sophisticated theory, it certainly provides food for thought!

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