What Made the Anglo-Saxons Capable of Conquering the Britons?

Nov 2008
1,352
England
We have discussed a number of points, but we have not, it seems, discussed the language issue. The Anglo-Saxons (English) took over a modest number of place-names, and this increased the further west and north-west as their dominance progressed, but it was not a vast number. Furthermore, they borrowed very little ordinary vocabulary. Richard Coates, the linguistic scholar, accepts just 14 words. With grim humour he says it conjures up the impression that the typical Angle or Saxon warrior on arrival would ask a local the name of a place, and then when an acceptable answer was give, would bury his sword in the source of the information.
 
Likes: authun

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,179
Language is one of the observed data which is problematic for acculturation models. Whatever model we create, acculturation, elite domination, mass migration, genocide or ethnic cleansing, when we test it against the observed data, it never quite fits and sometimes an observation suggests the model is entirely wrong. In order to further examine acculturation models, faced with the language problem, researchers have attempted to look for clues in english, the linguistic equivalent of hominid fossils like the mandible of Graecopithecus, in an attempt to reconstruct the story of evolution of mankind. Coates is one of those who keeps pointing out that a desire to make the data fit a particular model does not mean it actually does.

One of the models for language replacement in post roman britain requires british mothers talking an imperfect old english to their children at home. The suggestion is that speaking the language of the new elite will give the children a better chance in adulthood. However, how does one test this theory? The Celtic Englishes project is about looking for a celtic substrate in english but, we can only test this by looking at middle english and modern dialects. Coates points out that there are no proven examples in Old English which was, in effect, a written elite language. That cuts both ways however. We wouldn't expect written old english to have examples of how children of british mothers spoke so, it doesn't rule it out but it cannot prove the theory either. Pyatt points out that even if a few exist, why aren't there more? It is surprisingly low even if one accepts they exist. English ought to be full of celticisms if they lived side by side.

An interesting set of data however is in the survival of celtic river names. The large number of english village names might mislead because villages develop when people were speaking english and we only have a few celtic names alluded to in roman sources. Celtic river names seem to have survived however and the anglo saxons used them, so where did they learn the names? This is a map based on Jackson's work. In the east, they are mainly english but still with some celtic names, the relative proportion varies according to region.

 
Likes: Isleifson
Mar 2015
1,402
Yorkshire
I have seen this map, usually accompanied with another showing the expansion of A-S areas from starting AD450 - 500, mostly East Yorkshire, Fenland, East Anglia and Kent - all almost blank on your map - etc East to West. Do you have a map of A-S river names? If so, it would be nice to compare the two. I assume the "blank areas" area filled with A-S names, eg of the seven main rivers that debouch into the Vale of York, only one, the Swale, is germanic and seems to be missing from your map.
 
Jan 2014
2,518
Westmorland
With grim humour he says it conjures up the impression that the typical Angle or Saxon warrior on arrival would ask a local the name of a place, and then when an acceptable answer was give, would bury his sword in the source of the information.
This is, of course, what the Franks also though their forebears had done to the Gallo-Romans - but not before they got the Gallo-Romans to teach them Latin.

As I hope we'd all agree, Coates was just cracking a gag - the idea that bloodthisrty hordes bent on conquest would be peculiarly keen to learn the names for existing landscape features before killing everyone is not a theory which need detain us long. Especially as it is unclear how the invader would actually make himself understood to the sap who was about to get a spear up the jacksie...

As authun implies, none of our existing models for Anglo-British interaction fit all of the data. The language issue is the big unanswered question for any model based around acculturation or assimilation and, as such, it is perhaps not surprising that linguists are more ready than either archaeologists or historians to adhere to the old historical frameworks of extermination and expulsion, notwithstanding that most historians (and nearly all archaeologists, from what I can work out) abandoned those frameworks long ago.

But that said, the issue still needs to be dealt with. Insofar as place names are concerned, I think we have to be careful to avoid back-telescoping. English place-names were given over a very long period and the relative chronologies of place name-elements that have long been established by the likes of Margaret Gelling and Kenneth Cameron seem to make it clear that only a fairly modest number of existing English place names were (or could have been) given in the 'migration period'. Many, many more were coined in the eighth century, when a large-scale reordering of space took place. The emergence of the classic English nucleated village dates to this period and many of our most common English place-name elements (such as the ubiquitous tun) do likewise, although there are a smattering of earlier examples.

Back in 1976, Barrie Cox drew together all of the place-names mentioned in English sources up to Bede. The corpus basically consists of early charters for the south and early hagiographies for the north (plus Bede's Ecclesiastical History). English place names constituted a higher percentage of southern names, but in Northumbria, British or part-British names accounted for over half of the entire corpus of 56 names. Of the total corpus of 224 names for the whole country, 26% are British or part-British. I get that Cox's source materials may not be representative, but even so, they represent the totality of post-Roman name forms known up to 731 and they have to stand as the start point for any discussion. I'd argue that on the basis of the known early name forms, it is not correct to argue that the Anglo-Saxons only took over a modest number of place names.
 
Jan 2014
2,518
Westmorland
I have seen this map, usually accompanied with another showing the expansion of A-S areas from starting AD450 - 500, mostly East Yorkshire, Fenland, East Anglia and Kent - all almost blank on your map - etc East to West. Do you have a map of A-S river names? If so, it would be nice to compare the two. I assume the "blank areas" area filled with A-S names, eg of the seven main rivers that debouch into the Vale of York, only one, the Swale, is germanic and seems to be missing from your map.
As authun says, this is the famous Kenneth Jackson map which has been used many times since it was first drawn in the 1960s. He didn't do one for AS river names and, so far as I am aware, no-one else has done one either (athough our Anglo-Saxonists might know better).

It is worth pointing out that some of the river names may be pre-Celtic and thus already in existence when Celtic names were first coined. This doesn't take away from the observations that their survival needs to be explained and it is hard to see how that happened unless locals were speaking to newcomers.

we only have a few celtic names alluded to in roman sources
In all fairness, we have a fair few, as many of the place names of Roman Britain are Celtic names kitted out with regular Latin noun-endings so that they could be used properly in written documents. So, Celtic Lindon ('hill by the pool') becomes Lindum, Bannau ('the peaks') becomes Banna and so on.
 
Last edited:

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,179
I have seen this map, usually accompanied with another showing the expansion of A-S areas from starting AD450 - 500, mostly East Yorkshire, Fenland, East Anglia and Kent - all almost blank on your map - etc East to West. Do you have a map of A-S river names? If so, it would be nice to compare the two. I assume the "blank areas" area filled with A-S names, eg of the seven main rivers that debouch into the Vale of York, only one, the Swale, is germanic and seems to be missing from your map.

My wording was somewhat ambiguous. This map, produced by Kenneth Jackson shows only Celtic and possibly celtic river names, no anglo saxon river names. His purpose was to show that the definitely celtic river names have a higher concentration in certain regions, mostly towards the west. It's not showing anglo saxon river names. It's from his 1953 book, Language and history in early Britain: a chronological survey of the Brittonic languages, first to twelfth century A.D.

Fichier:British River Names after Kenneth Jackson 1953.png — Wikipédia


Since 1953, some names on his 'celtic list' have been taken off and placed in a group of earlier 'unknown language(s)'. Doubtful names are Amber, Clun, Hodder, Humber, Itchen, Kennet, Neen, Nene, Ouse, Parret, Soar, Tees, Test, Till, Tweed, Tyne, Ure, Wear, Welland, Witham. Pre celtic names which appear to have similar names on the continent; be Wey, Wye, Bovey, Tamar and Don. The point is, all these names plus the known celtic river names were transmitted to the anglo saxons so there must have been some contact for that to happen. In the areas where there are lots of english river names, one presumes there was little or no contact but that, further west, there was enough contact for the names to be transmitted.
 
Likes: Isleifson
Nov 2008
1,352
England
An interesting set of data however is in the survival of celtic river names. The large number of english village names might mislead because villages develop when people were speaking english and we only have a few celtic names alluded to in roman sources. Celtic river names seem to have survived however and the anglo saxons used them, so where did they learn the names? This is a map based on Jackson's work. In the east, they are mainly english but still with some celtic names, the relative proportion varies according to region
Coates is suggesting that only contact of the lowest and most practical intensity happened, and this is where all conversation is about concrete situations and physical or conceptual necessities, and this of course would include some river names and some place-names, or other words which have no equivalent in the borrowers language. In effect it will only take place if there is some "projected gain" for the borrower where there is no equivalent word in the borrowers language. To emphasise, it will not take place unless there is some gain for the borrower, and it will certainly not take place if there is some risk that the borrower will sound foreign or stupid or low-born.

We actually see this in the modern world if you look at the 200 words in Australian English that have been borrowed from the indigenous people, words denoting some place names, words about Aboriginal culture, and words describing native for a and fauna. The early English borrowed from Brittonic just 14 words.
 
Nov 2014
1,592
Birmingham, UK
Coates is suggesting that only contact of the lowest and most practical intensity happened, and this is where all conversation is about concrete situations and physical or conceptual necessities, and this of course would include some river names and some place-names, or other words which have no equivalent in the borrowers language. In effect it will only take place if there is some "projected gain" for the borrower where there is no equivalent word in the borrowers language. To emphasise, it will not take place unless there is some gain for the borrower, and it will certainly not take place if there is some risk that the borrower will sound foreign or stupid or low-born.

We actually see this in the modern world if you look at the 200 words in Australian English that have been borrowed from the indigenous people, words denoting some place names, words about Aboriginal culture, and words describing native for a and fauna. The early English borrowed from Brittonic just 14 words.
A very minor point but 'hard yakka' is an aboriginal phrase adopted, that doesn't quite fit the above (place names, flora and fauna)
 

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,179
Coates is suggesting that only contact of the lowest and most practical intensity happened,
That's more to do with the nature of the contact whereas Jackson's map was about the amount of contact, with there being four different zones, the lowest level being in the east.

In addition to the nature and level of contact, there is a third, that of period which itself comes in two forms, period in history and for how long was there contact? What language did those sources named in the history, Hengist and Horsa in the south and Soemil in the north, use when talking to the Britons whom they, originally, served? At what point in time did women start to come over? I don't know if they are mentioned in the sources so how long were anglo saxon men interacting with british women?

We know that Ine's law refers to the king's welsh horse messenger so, there is an example of some britons being placed in a position of trust and according to the sources, the Deirans must have trusted the royal houses in Elmet and Gwynedd when Edwin and Herewic asked for protection from Aethelfrith. What language did they use? Presumably, this was the result of some careful diplomacy which had been conducted prior to their arrival. How long had they been in contact?