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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:
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.