1066 and all that. It wrixled everything, it did. Sorry, I mean, it changed everything. Wrixle was the Old English word for “change” (the noun form being wrixling, the title of this blog). One of the most obvious and longlasting legacies of Harold’s defeat at 1066, as you can see, was the English language itself. But how big a change was effected? Take a look at any Old English text, or a quick glance at German, Swedish, or Frisian, to get a clue. The changes affected the vocabulary (wordstock), the grammar, and even the spellings of English.
Many native (homeborn) words were immediately ousted — those relating to law and governance and suchlike — but the deeper changes to our language only came later after the influence of French grew deeper. A great deal of words were pushed out to the margins of our language or shoved out altogether. Many of these formations were of great beauty; how can we best threeness when trying to express the concept of the “trinity”, for example?
It even became illegal — or should I say “unlawful” — to speak English in English courts(!) Don’t believe historians who downplay the importance of 1066 and the wrixlings it brought; 1066 and its aftermath wrixled everything!
One thing that happened was a fetish grew for foreign (outlandish) borrowings. One commentator has remarked that English hasn’t so much borrowed words from other languages, but rather ‘chased languages down alleys, beat them up, and rifled through their pockets for spare vocabulary’.
Now, this all makes learning foreign languages all the more easy: we feel quite at home with Swedish man and kvinna (“woman”), hand, knä, or fot; likewise, Spanish cerebro (brain “cerebrum”), lengua (tongue), humano, and persona are easily intelligible to us. However, I can’t quite help but feel we do ourselves and the richness of our language down when we throw away our own gems, gems that other Germanic languages keep (e.g. Swedish befolkning “population”, from be- + folk + ning, which would translate almost exactly into English as befolking; that is, the noun form of ‘to folk’, i.e., to people, to populate).
A “Purer” English
I’m not the only person who has worked on creating a “pure” or more English version of English. There are many others out there (it turns out). However, when you find them and you speak to these, you would suppose, likeminds, you find they have some very different ideas indeed. This apparently clear goal of creating a de1066ified English is not so straightforward, after all.
There are, I think, two broad schools of thought which are quite different (albeit with a gray area in between). These are what I call (1) Modern Old English, and what is known as (2) Anglish.
Modern Old English
What I call “Modern Old English” is a language that could have been, it’s English as it would have been had Harold not lost the battle of Hastings. This involves, in effect, creating an alternative history, a timeline of the word different to the one we have had over the last 950 years.
This is a very fun project, but quite different to the beast commonly known as Anglish.
Anglish is an attempt to make better use of the resources we still have. So this could even include grasping enthusiastically foreign words as being thoroughly anglicised.
Modern Old English versus Anglish
If you still aren’t sure on the difference between these two projects in real terms, I will illustrate it with a couple of choice examples.
(1) Face it
Modern Old English (ModOE) supporters might insist on chucking out “face” because it came from French. The word we used to use was onsyn which evolved into, and would still be today if it were used, “ansene”.
Anglish-ers might just say, ‘well, “face” is pretty basic and highly naturalised, so let’s just keep it’. They might respell it “fase”, though.
(2) Starry-eyed Surprise
ModOE proponents might say ‘let’s replace “astronomy” with “tongelcraft”‘, which is a modified form of the word in Old English.
Anglish folk might say, ‘”tongel” is deader than the dodo — quite literally — so let’s just stick with originally foreign “star” and say “starlore”, “starcraft”, or even “starology”‘
There are, of course, many, many possibilities even within these two schools of thought. For example, do ModOE proponents start their alternative history off from 1066? Or do they start it earlier from before Edward the Confessor? Perhaps they go back to the before the Danelaw, or maybe they start after 1066, having Hereward the Wake overthrow William and take the throne back for an English king.
And of course that is assuming that people even recognise these schools; from having spent quite a bit of time on these projects, I feel as thought most people likewise engaged have actually not stopped, in their passionate rush, to think about what their own goals in fact are. And so they end up with an ever-wrixling, hodgepodge mess.
I think that, before we can even discuss the project of a “pure” English (or whatever), all people interested in such things should really think about what it is exactly that they themselves are striving for. Why? Well, otherwise, there’ll never be any progress on this matter, and these projects, whatever forms they may take, will never become greater than the sum of their parts; rather, we will remain with isolated eccentrics and their yellow, stained notebooks.
So, yes! These English “projects” of mine are open to dialog with likeminds. Join me!