Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth about the English Language – by M J Harper.

History

At some point in Michael Harper’s life, a member of the academic establishment must have done something truly awful to him – like decapitating his Action Man®.  Nothing other than a deep-seated childhood trauma can possibly account for the venom he directs at Academia and all who sail in her.

His book – The History of Britain Revealed – seems to have been written in a state of sustained fury, which makes for a great read but somewhat diminishes the force of his argument.  This is unfortunate, because the argument in itself is an interesting one.

He claims that English was spoken in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived which – given that English is supposed to be a direct descendant of Anglo-Saxon – could be considered a bit outré.

It is not, however,  an entirely new idea and it’s certainly not without its merits …

The ‘standard’ version of events is that the Celtic inhabitants, after the departure of the Romans, were invaded by the Anglo-Saxons and driven back to the western fringes of Britain (to which they still cling) and their language swamped.  The Anglo-Saxons were subsequently subjugated by the Vikings and then the Normans, with the English language emerged triumphantly as a modern descendant of Anglo-Saxon, with some Viking, Latin and French hoovered up along the way.

Michael Harper’s hypothesis is that English speakers were already in occupation when the Celts landed on the western fringes and they’ve basically carried on being in occupation ever since – through wave after wave of invasions – with the English language trundling on, more or less unmolested by all them foreigners.  Further, he also offers up for our consideration the possibility that Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French, Spanish, Italian and even German are all offshoots of – gasp – English.

He came to this conclusion via something known as Applied Epistemology – a new one on me.  I had to look it up to make sure that I wasn’t actually the unwitting butt of an elaborate pun – but no – Applied Epistemology really exists:

The Applied Epistemology Library

Its golden rule – which is repeated frequently – is that “What was, still is.”  To wit:  English is eternal(ish).  It was there before all those invaders came along and it was still there after they’d got it out of their systems.

Along the way, he also – slightly bizarrely – takes a side swipe at evolutionary biology.  I’m not entirely sure WHY (I think I was a bit concussed by then), but he does.

I actually have quite a lot of time for the author’s basic argument (about English, not about evolution).  It makes sense in many ways.  I just wish he hadn’t gone at it like a demented pit bull, apparently convinced that no-one but him has ever had this slightly revolutionary idea before and that the entire academic establishment has a vested interest in not disturbing the status quo.  Well, doubtless some of it does, but it seems a bit unlikely that every single academic in the field is in on the conspiracy and as thick as pig muck to boot.

He doesn’t provide a bibliography or footnotes either … he just throws facts and names and dates at his readers and expects them to accept everything he says at face value.  Sorry to use a dirty word here but – academically speaking – that leaves him on fairly shaky ground.

Having said all of that, I actually enjoyed this book hugely (possibly for all the wrong reasons) and I’d thoroughly recommend it as an engrossing and entertaining read – just as long as you remember  – it’s fun, and it’s possible, but the jury’s still very much out.

Icon Books. 2006.  ISBN 184046769X.  200pp.

Anybody interested in the subject might like to get their hands on a copy of Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Origins of the British: A Genetic detective story, published by Robinson Publishing.  It can be a bit heavy going, but Dr Oppenheimer looks at the genetic, as well as the linguistic and archaeological, evidence – and there’s an interesting article and follow-up in Prospect Magazine.

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28 comments on “The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth about the English Language – by M J Harper.

  1. catsidhe
    March 13, 2009

    By amazing coincidence, I found this in a cheap bookshop today, bought it and started to read over lunch.

    I almost swallowed my tongue.

    He relies, I think, on the fact that most people don’t know historical and comparative linguistics from a hole in a ground. I’m not saying that I’m an expert in the subject, but I do know more Old English, Middle English, Middle and modern Irish than most people, and the linguistic history and principles involved. And from the point of view of someone who knows more-or-less what they’re talking about: Mr Harper doesn’t.

    He has written one of three things:
    1) something deeply cathartic, to make him feel better for his beheaded action figure, or thwarted Academic career, or disappointing love-life, or something.
    2) A Livejournal rant which someone has printed.
    3) A sly and, frankly, stunning tour de force reductio ad absurdam of what happens when pseudo-academics write screeds based on a lot of idiosyncratic theory and not a lot of getting out in the fresh air and talking to other people.

    And when the cover has blurbs saying things like “The best rewriting of history since 1066 and all that” (Fortean Times) or “Mind-blowing, incredibly entertaining stuff” (Daily Mail) … let’s just say I don’t think they’re laughing with Mr Harper.

  2. Moira
    March 13, 2009

    Yep – a ringing recommendation from The Fortean Times is a not unmixed blessing, I feel …

  3. Catsidhe
    March 13, 2009

    Don’t get me wrong, when the FT compare this book with 1066 and all that, I think it’s a strong hint that it should be taken about as seriously.

    It’s not exactly an endorsement.

  4. Moira
    March 13, 2009

    Agreed – but it’s probably EXACTLY what he wanted.

    I believe ‘M J Harper’ is a pen name … and the real culprit hasn’t held his hand up yet.

  5. Catsidhe
    March 13, 2009

    I just realised the biggest counterargument to his thesis, which does not rely on linguistics, but on simple logic.

    For all the time that he says English was bubbling along through the majority of the British Isles, not one person ever wrote down a word of English until the 1400s. He asks us to consider any number of things as ridiculous on their face, but demands that we swallow this whole.

    It really is either insanity or genius.

  6. Hilary
    March 13, 2009

    A ringing endorsement from the Fortean Times! I want one! I now know what to aim for in life. If my memoirs (when finally unleashed on the world) do not get 5* in there, I shall mope.

    I feel now I must read this, strangely enough, as I think that part of the intention of your review, Moira, was to warn us of the sheer waste of a portion of one’s precious life that might be. The other part was to alert me to something that could give me the biggest laugh since Alfred burnt the cakes (topically enough). Thanks for a very entertaining review, that makes me too want to read it for all the wrong reasons.

    No bibliography or footnotes? Tsk.

  7. Jackie
    March 13, 2009

    But it’s not even possible for a language to remain untouched by so many others, is it? That would be saying that language is static, a dead thing, instead of something actually used by humans, making it fluid & evolving. How can someone think history would not have an impact on something like that?
    I think this book would just annoy me immensely, so I’d best avoid it.

  8. Moira
    March 14, 2009

    He isn’t saying that, Jackie. English carries with it evidence of all the languages that have touched it – of course it does. He’s saying that the orthodox view … that English only came into being as a language after the Anglo-Saxons had arrived in Britain … is wrong. He’s saying that English was there already and the Anglo-Saxons (and everyone else) merely left their marks on it.

  9. Jackie
    March 14, 2009

    Ah, I see. It’s a question of timing, then.

  10. Lisa
    March 14, 2009

    This sounds like fun, Moira. Is it supposed to be entirely serious? Not at all tongue in cheek?

    I think you should quest to discover M J Harper’s true identity :)

  11. Moira
    March 15, 2009

    I think it’s dead serious. I mean, it’s written with humour … witness:

    “I do not wish to be Rainbow Warriored by the Deuxieme Bureau acting as the executive arm of the Academie Francaise.”

    … but he gives every impression of believing what he’s saying.

    It IS fun though …

  12. Lisa
    March 16, 2009

    Great quote! Well, if he is serious, one wonders why he didn’t use his real name. If you’re going to take on the establishment and question some ‘accepted wisdom’ why not hold your hand up?

    Still, I’d read it for the fun factor alone. In fact, I would have probably read this with great delight after attending (the most tedious) linguistics lectures at university. I might even have stretched to buying my lecturer a copy, since his reaction would have been priceless.

  13. M J Harper
    March 21, 2009

    Sorry, poppets, but this is my real name! Let me pick up on the (only?) technical criticism levelled.

    <>

    It is difficult to think of a sillier observation. Every single language ever spoken had not a single word of itself written down until it became a written language. Therefore, on this evidence, English became a written language in c. 1400. This is about average for European vernaculars — later than French and Irish, earlier than German and Welsh.

    However, since the issue has been raised, the earliest written English dates in fact to 1130-50, at the very end of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough codex) but of course all the academic boobies think that is Anglo-Saxon. Have a look and, blinkers off, you will be able to see the difference for yourselves in about two minutes. Thus endeth “Middle English”.

  14. M J Harper
    March 21, 2009

    For some reason my quote of Catsidhe’s comment didn’t come out. It is this.

    For all the time that he says English was bubbling along through the majority of the British Isles, not one person ever wrote down a word of English until the 1400s. He asks us to consider any number of things as ridiculous on their face, but demands that we swallow this whole.

  15. Moira
    March 21, 2009

    Greetings, M J Harper! I’m delighted to hear it’s your real name and I apologize for repeating an untruth.

    I loved the book. I particularly enjoyed imagining the apoplexy that it would have engendered in my Mediaeval History lecturer …

  16. Catsidhe
    March 21, 2009

    the earliest written English dates in fact to 1130-50, [...] but of course all the academic boobies think that is Anglo-Saxon. [...] Thus endeth “Middle English”.

    You know, it’s a funny thing, but I have read the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. I have also read Pearl, bits of Acerenes Wisse, Gawain and the Green Knight, and other works of Middle English. And the thing is, that there is a continuity amongst them.

    The thing about the Peterborough codex is that after William the Bastard’s invasion there is a break in quality, but at the same time there is no break in any linguistic standard. It is still the same language as was spoken before. There are differences between it and the language spoken a hundred years earlier, just as there are differences between that and a hundred years earlier yet. These differences are more-or-less regular, and can be followed.

    But the point of my criticism is not about whether the English wrote anything down: why is not a single word of English recorded by any of the other chroniclers, travellers, historians or other authors of the time. When the Romans were in Britain, all the names they mentioned were British (which is, Brythonic Celtic). Why not a single English speaker, not a single English name? Mr Harper says it is because they were a peasent underclass unworthy of notice. Everyone else says it is because they weren’t there.

    Bede (copied in the first section of the ASC) talks about the five peoples of the British Isles: The Latins (Romano-British), the British (Brythonic Celts, including the Welsh and Cornish), the Scots (Goidelic Celts in Ireland and the Dail Riada of Scotland), the Picts (A non-celtic people in Scotland, who really are a mystery, and whose language has vanished more-or-less without trace – because they retreated from and were overwhelmed by the Scots before they had enough influence by literacy to write down their own language), and the Angles (his own people). It’s not a deep analysis, but it’s not bad for a first approximation. And there is something missing from this collection, which no-one before Mr Harper had ever thought to look for; there is no mention whatsoever of an entire other language group, ubiquitous throughout all the islands. And nowhere else is this group mentioned, either. They talk about the Picts, despite the Picts being practically extinct as a language group by the time of Bede.

    Not one mention, anywhere, of the existence of an entire other language group. Not one word of that language recorded anywhere. But lots of intermediary forms between the language we now know as Anglo-Saxon (but which they called Englisc, and the language we are speaking now.

    What I suspect Mr Harper has done is taken the slowing down of change brought about by the introduction of printing in English (by William Caxton in 1473) as evidence that the rate of change in English before printing should have been the same as after.

    There is lots of evidence that Anglo-Saxon, influenced heavily by Norse, Norman French, and Latin, turned into modern English. My Harper’s dictum that “What is is what was unless there is extraordinary evidence to the contrary” hold. There is a great deal of evidence. It’s just that Mr Harper doesn’t understand or wilfully rejects just about all of it.

  17. M J Harper
    March 28, 2009

    Catsidhe asks: “When the Romans were in Britain, all the names they mentioned were British (which is, Brythonic Celtic). Why not a single English speaker, not a single English name? Mr Harper says it is because they were a peasent underclass unworthy of notice. ”

    Actually I don’t say that (though it’s a very fair point). What I would say is that not a single Brythonic Celtic name is mentioned by the Romans. Every single name is a Latin word that later academics tell us was a Brythonic Celtic name. If Catsidhe cares to give us any one of these names, starting with Boudicca/ Boadicea, you will instantly say to yourself, “Well, yes, it might be Celtic or it might be English.” Then you’ll say to yourself, “I never thought of that before.”

  18. Catsidhe
    March 28, 2009

    Every single name is a Latin word that later academics tell us was a Brythonic Celtic name.

    … which are not found in any other context other than as names for Britons, which can sometimes be associated directly with Gaulish names, and which somehow disappeared almost completely in the period between when the Anglo-Saxons moved in and when the Normans did… except sometimes in analogues in Welsh and Cornish.

    Caesar doesn’t mention many names, but those Britons he does mention (de Bello Gallico Lib.V.) include Cassivellaunus, Mandubracius, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus, Segovax, and Lugotorix. All of these are of Gaulish pattern. Not Latin (although Caesar perforce latinified them so as to fit into Latin grammar), and certainly not English.

    Boudica (which name is known in Welsh as “Buddug”) is not an English name, but does fit the Brytonic pattern. As does her husband Prasutagus, allowing for latinisation. Any idea you might have of Boudica being ‘English’ is purely the result of longstanding exposure, and the misunderstanding that any name you are familiar with in English must be English.

    Your statement at another point in the book that Welsh borrowed from Latin but Anglo-Saxon did not is also patent rubbish. ‘Bishop’ traces back directly to the Anglo-Saxon word biscop, which derives from Ecc.Lat. episcopos. ‘Priest’ goes back to preost, derived from Ecc.Lat. presbyter. ‘Street’ from Lat. strata.

    Your book is based on assumption, piled upon presumption, based on ‘common sense’ which only makes ‘sense’ in the complete ignorance of the subject in question.

    But then, I doubt that any evidence would convince you, given that you quite clearly dismissed two hundred years of scholarship and all the evidence it has gathered as more-or-less complete poppycock. Which is either a magnificent achievement or stunning arrogance, seeing as you seem to have not understood any of it.

    I look forward to any followup book you might care to write wherein you prove to your own satisfaction that physics is a narcissistic fraud, and you could build a perpetual-motion machine, if you cared enough to.

  19. M J Harper
    March 28, 2009

    “Cassivellaunus, Mandubracius, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus, Segovax, and Lugotorix. All of these are of Gaulish pattern.”

    There you go again. Hands up anyone who thinks these sound more like Welsh than they do English. They only sound “Gaulish” because two hundred years of scholarship have been assuring you they were. Start using your own ears rather than other people’s. Though of course I say the Gauls spoke French, so hands up anybody who thinks they are more Welsh than French.

    By the by, old thing, what’s your explanation for there only being seven Welsh words in English?

  20. Catsidhe
    March 28, 2009

    Let me put this simply for you: everything you say about historical linguistics is wrong, except by accident.

    Gaulish names as recorded by Caesar (and later by Agricola, Dio Cassius, and others) follow the same patterns as do the Brythonic names above. They were latinised when Caesar recorded them, but we know that names were slightly changed for grammar because the Romans did the same to Greek names (and we know what the Greek names were because they wrote them down themselves). These names feature elements which can usually been traced to cognates in Welsh and Cornish, as opposed to Roman names which can usually be traced to elements in Latin and Etruscan, as opposed to modern English names which can be traced back to just about every language group on Earth (Biblical names from Hebrew, Aramaic (Michael and Miriam) and Demotikoi Greek (John and Katherine), names like ‘Alfred’ from Anglo-Saxon, ‘Richard’ from Frankish via Norman, ‘Julius’ and ‘Theophilis’ from classical Latin and Greek. The point is that in most cases we can analyse these names and have some idea of where they come from, and they do come in clumps, where this group of names have a common origin, those have a different common origin, and the names given by Caesar follow the pattern of Brythnic names, sharing a language with Gaulish (which was not French — you’d think that Caesar would at least mention that he understood the language in Gaul in a way he couldn’t in Germania, unless you want to claim that the Germans have also always spoken French), and which can be traced through into Welsh today. Not one of them appears elsewhere in Latin, nor in English.

    As for ‘seven Welsh words in English’, you keep talking as if there was only one ‘English’. Standard English is now ubiquitous, but even then and over only a couple of hundred years, do you mean Australian Standard English, American English, British English, Irish English, Indian English, South African English…? There aren’t many words derived from Welsh in Standard English, because this is London English, and Essex is a long way from the marches. If you look at the dialect historically spoken in places like Cumberland or Shropshire or Somerset, you get a lot more Welsh derived words. But in late Victorian times you also had a strong opprobrium towards dialectal vocabularies and regional accents, which is why these terms were, if not already part of the London dialect, not taken up.

    Have you heard of Emmanual Velikovsky? You share much in common with him.

  21. M J Harper
    March 29, 2009

    I have mentioned the seven-words-from-Welsh only once and then only because it is a wholly orthodox linguistic finding. You seem to be suggesting that the late Victorians excised all the rest. Yes, I can just see them sitting around in the Athenaeum discussing this very topic. But if not…well, I suppose it will just have to remain one of those leetle problems permanently attached to the Anglo-Saxon-into-English theory.

    I think, at last and at least, we have reached agreement that all Latinised names can only be assigned to a given language group with a vast amount of procrustean academicism. My own name, Michael, clearly demonstrates I am of Israeli origin. Must have a word with mum…

  22. Catsidhe
    March 29, 2009

    It was not a deliberate academy exercise, it was a process of social opprobrium and class status games. And you still have not answered which dialect of English you are talking about. And it’s not a ‘problem’ at all.

    And you still have not answered why an entire other language group was systematically ignored over two thousand years of recorded history, even by everyone else around them, whom you claim were outnumbered by them.

    And that’s an impressive strawman, making a connection between language and ethnicity in a way that no-one with an IQ above double-digits believes.

    And there is very little procrusteanism involved… on the part of Historical Linguistics (but practically nothing but in your tortured logic): one merely requires a little familiarity with Latin naturalisation practices in onomastics (or, how did they write foreign names), and passing knowledge of the foreign language involved. Given the amount of utter ignorance you show in every line you write on the subject, I wonder at your knowledge even of English, given how badly and how baldly you shoehorn in anything which might advance your thesis, no matter how ridiculous, and ignore, misunderstand or misrepresent anything which is evidence against it; starting with the massive chutzpah of deciding that you personally and your ‘common sense’ know better than two hundred years of research.

    You, sir, are a crackpot.

  23. M J Harper
    March 31, 2009

    Then as a crackpot I retire.

  24. Phil
    February 10, 2010

    As someone who read recently MJ Harper’s book, and found it of great interest, I found of equal interest the lively exchange between him and Catsidhe. What a pity it had to get so personal.

    As a simple layman I don’t know who’s right.

    For what it’s worth, I looked up what Wiki had to say about the ancient British language. I was taken by this sentence:

    Tacitus (in his book The Agricola) noted that the language of Britain differed little from that of Gaul.

    How would MJ Harper have answered this?

  25. Henry Hay
    September 9, 2010

    In slight defence of MJ Harper, a thought: Would a superior, authoritarian Roman over-lord be interested in any aspect whatsoever of the ordinary peasant, their culture, their language, etc.? Tacitus would surely have met with, and spoken to, the indigenous, ruling and highly cultured elite and had no contact at all with everyday, common folk. As an alternative contemporary Western European culture to that from Rome it is quite likely that a Brythonic tongue was shared among the non-Romans. As today, educated persons rarely socialise with “chavs” of British council estates; their existence and ways appear alien and are largely ignored as uninteresting and of no purposeful relevance. Modern media can inform, and it may also entertain us. But before its existence I can imagine that those in power could well have indulged themselves with incredible and unimaginable hubris – in short, they would not want to know! The ordinary folk blathered and what they said and how they spoke was not heard.

  26. Dave
    August 23, 2011

    Can anyone explain why English, a Germanic language, shares many things in common with the Celtic languages.

    In particular that bugbear of all schoolkids learning French or German at school for the first time. The use of continuous tenses.

    Don’t exist in French, German or even Dutch.

    Also the lack of an infinitive. Like the Scottish Gaelic language we have to add ‘to’ to a root word to make it into a kind of infinitive.

    Likewise the Scottish Gaelic has the verb ‘Bi’ which means ‘Be’. ‘Bi’ changes to ‘Is’ when used with pronouns etc.

    It has another verb ‘be’ for use in its continuous form. ‘Tha’ pronounce ‘Ha’.

    Tha sinn a’ seinneadh

    We are a’ singing

    It’s past form is ‘Bha’ pronounced ‘Vaa’

    V is pronounced more like a W in Irish which could make ‘Bha’ similar in sound to ‘Were’

    As in

    Bha sinn a’ seinneadh

    We were a’ singing

  27. Daniel Reitman
    December 11, 2013

    I found a copy browsing the linguistics section at Powell’s. I got about as far as his claim that the Beowulf manuscript is a forgery before I decided that this must have been the book Dorothy Parker was referring to when she said it was not to be tossed aside lightly, but instead thrown with great force.

  28. Ray Phillips
    January 6, 2014

    Just finished reading ‘Blood of the Isles’ again prompted by this discussion. To quote Prof Bryan Atkins (Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford) page 338 ”Overall, the genetic structure of the Isles is stubbornly Celtic….however we may feel about ourselves and about each other,we are genetically rooted in a Celtic past. The Irish, the Welsh and the Scots know this but the English sometimes think otherwise.’
    The maternal line throughout Britain is ‘ both Celtic and ancient’ with substantial layers of Saxon, Dane and Norman (It is genetically difficult to distinguish between them) – 10% in the east and 5% in the north. The paternal line is a little different with 10% of men now living in the south of England the descendants of Saxons, Danes and Normans and above the Danelaw line 15%. The greater overlay above the Danelaw line suggests Vikings were more heavily represented than Saxons or Normans.

    There a couple of questions arising from DNA data and analysis.
    According to DNA of Britain’s current population there could only have been relatively small numbers of invading Saxons so how did they impose their language on a long established bedrock of Celtic Britain. How did they do it while the larger numbers of Vikings did/could not?

    Why are the languages of the western part of the Isles different? Sykes does not address language issues but identified ancient migration to the west of Britain along the coastal route mainly from Iberia, S France and Italy and a later overland migration from central Europe before the land bridge with the continent was sweep away. Did the more ancient coastal Celts have a language different from the migrants Celts from central Europe?

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