ESTABLISHING THE "SUPERIORITY" OF ENGLISH

The first myth that we looked at in chapters 1 and 2 was used exclusively to raise English above other European languages. Its social function within the framework of the Victorian nation-state was to act as a catalyst for national unity in the wake of the social unrest and the perceived threat of armed insurrection by the working-classes after the Chartist movement fizzled out in the early 1850s (cf. chapter 9). The longevity of English myth consisted of two interlinked myths, the ancient language myth and the unbroken tradition myth.

In chapter 2, I seriously questioned the validity of the “story” that the Beowulf manuscript is the final manuscript in a line of lost manuscripts going back at least into the eighth century. As far as we know, there is—and in all probability was—only one manuscript of Beowulf, and even this manuscript was very nearly destroyed by the fire at Ashburnham House. Ingenious arguments have been put forward to support the “story”, some linguistic, others stylistic and still others of a cultural-historical nature. Most arguments, however, were made without looking at the manuscript in meticulous detail, and they miss some very important factors which vitiate against the assumption of a long manuscript history. Kiernan (1996) has taken the trouble to examine the manuscript in detail, as has Westphalen (1967), and he raises a number of points in favour of the hypothesis that the surviving Beowulf manuscript was

the only one prepared and that its preparation was scribe B’s personal project. The evidence of the palimpsest put forward by Westphalen opens up the distinct possibility that scribe B was the author of at least the homecoming episode that links the two stories of Beowulf.

My own theory relies on palaeographical evidence to show that, in all probability, the manuscript has to be situated temporally in the first decade of the eleventh century rather than during the reign of Cnut from 1016 on. The following question thus arises: Why, in the face of the evidence to the contrary, do the majority of researchers still cling to the “story” of a long manuscript tradition? The answer that I proposed in chapter 2 is that the story is part of a myth constructed in the latter half of the nineteenth century which insists on a long history for the English language, the ancient language myth. The myth can be told only if we are prepared to accept that Anglo-Saxon was an early form of English. But whether or not this hypothesis is accepted, there is still another question: Why does the hypothesis as such need to be made? Where is the reason for elaborating the ancient language myth in the first place? The reason actually lies outside the content of the myth and is to be found in the fierce competition among European national standard languages (or Kultursprachen, languages with a literature). Part of the economic struggle for imperial domination between nation-states such as France, Spain, Great Britain and Germany in the nineteenth century consisted in being able to show whose language was superior to all the others. If Anglo-Saxon is counted as an early form of English, it has a longer and better documented literary history than any of the others, but only just. German[1] also has literary monuments going back at least into the ninth century. The Hildebrandslied, which like Beowulf was written in alliterative verse, exists in a manuscript codex dating from the 830s. The text is relatively short, by no means as long as Beowulf, but historians of English, the philologists of the nineteenth century, had a difficult time in claiming the greater longevity of English when compared with German. The myth thus validates the fierce competition between two nation-states in claiming the more ancient language. In the light of the uncertainties about Beowulf, one might wonder why modern historians of English still need to make those claims.

The other half of the longevity myth, the unbroken tradition myth, dealt with in chapter 3, is closely associated with the ancient language myth. Given the tenuous fact of the great age of English, the next challenge is to show that the language represents an unbroken tradition from the very first runic inscriptions all the way through to the present. The textual instantiations of the Kultursprache English can be shown to exist in all centuries as far back as the eighth century,[2] but the links are very tenuous, particularly in the period of transition after the Norman Conquest from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English.

If a cultural tradition is invoked, this part of the longevity myth does not hold up at all, since, as I showed in chapter 3, it is possible to discern a very clear break in continuity in terms of the dominant archive of Anglo-Saxon England and the period after the Conquest. There is an even cleaner break between the last of the Norman kings, Stephen, and the first of the Plantagenets, Henry II. My argument consisted in showing that an increased degree of what I call inscribed orality is evidence for the cultural breakdown of the archive. Once again, we need to question why it is still important to uphold this myth. Part of the reason is given in the second part of chapter 4, in which I demonstrate a linguistic continuity in terms of levelling processes and forms of simplification that reach back to the language contact period in the Danelaw between the Danish variety of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon.

  • [1] Old High German is also more closely related to modern German than Old English/Anglo-Saxon isto modern English.
  • [2] Even further back if one counts the inscriptions on stones such as the Ruthwell Cross.
 
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