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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘English’

The Battle of Battle

Although we don't call it that, do we

It’s time for an anniversary! Nine hundred and fifty-four years ago tomorrow, give or take a calendrical change in the meantime, was the Battle of Hastings. An all-day affair, it is famously that One Date That Everyone Knows from all of British history. If you believe the more mouth-frothing end of the political spectrum, England has not been successfully invaded since, although that arguably isn’t really true.

Although it has become that one key fixed date in British history, the battle itself was rather more narrow than you might think. In the Traditional Whig History of Britain, that of course is completely forgotten: instead, the battle is something that in essence had to happen so that Britain could be rescued from peasants in brown robes and conquered by knights on horseback to drag us kicking and screaming into the medieval period. This is how I recall it being portrayed even as recently as the 1980s, when everyone became greatly excited about the 900th anniversary of the compilation of Domesday Book. However, one of the problems with teaching Whig History is that this whole concept, the idea that everything “good” that happened in history is both inevitable and inevitably a Good Thing, and that everything else in history is a misstep or a mistake, is an enormous fallacy propped up with industrial quantities of hindsight.

What actually happened in detail on October 14th 1066 is now probably lost to us. Despite what you might think, there have always been a number of conflicting sources as to the progress of the battle and what happened in the confusion of the fighting. Contemporary estimates of the size of the winning side vary by a factor of 10; the winning side’s estimates of the size of the losing side were in some cases 100 times more than a plausible figure. What is clear is that the English forces consisted solely of infantry; the Normans had a mixed army of infantry, cavalry and archers; the battle lasted pretty much a full day from 9am until dusk; and the Normans definitely won. Almost certainly the English king died, although there are stories he managed to escape, but how he died and what happened to his body afterwards has been retold in too many conflicting versions to know which is true. What’s also very likely is that, pretty early on in the battle, certainly before lunch, the Norman army started to think that Duke William was already dead and started to retreat from the field. William took off his helmet so they could see his face, the story goes, encouraging his men to turn around and fight, and so they did. If they hadn’t, or if doing that had led to an injury, the ending would have been very different; we would remember Hastings about as well as, say, the Battle of Largs or the Battle Of The Standard.

The question there, though, is: what would have been different. But in some ways posing a counterfactual nearly a thousand years back in time is itself a pointless exercise. Everything would have been different, yet everything would still be the same. Me, you, everyone reading this: we wouldn’t exist. None of the people you know would. England wouldn’t exist in its current form, or the UK, or the EU, or the USA. The English language would probably sound very different, too. All these things that we take for granted as basic facts about the world around us, all of them would be different in ways that are almost impossible for us to imagine. Other things, though, would be just the same. The Black Death would still have happened, and many more plagues since. We’d still have had an industrial revolution; we’d still have a climate crisis; we’d still have invented nuclear power and nuclear war, reached the Moon, and be talking to each other through an Internet of some sort. It would be in so many ways an entirely alien world, that you would be surprised just how many things wouldn’t have changed at all.

Historians aren’t really bothered overmuch with what might have happened. What actually happened is far too confusing and debatable and unknown as it is, without introducing hypotheticals that would change the world completely. Imagine, somewhere in an alternate universe, someone is reading a blog post about how the Normans might potentially have beaten the English at the Battle of Hastings, and how if so, everyone in England now might be speaking Normande, part of a single great Normandy stretching from the Meditteranean to the Trent. Of course, they wouldn’t be reading it in a language you or I would recognise as English, but they’d probably be using some sort of device like the one you’ve got, some sort of physically similar screen. Humans and physics wouldn’t have changed, after all. Sit back tomorrow, wherever you are, and think about the Battle of Hastings all those years ago. Without it, the world would be completely different even though it would be still the same.

Books I Haven’t Read (I’ve lost count which part)

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of my head

Yesterday’s post, about how we can’t stop ourselves buying books, segues quite nicely into today’s. We didn’t just buy books on Saturday; we bought more on Sunday, from the weekend bookstall outside the Watershed that I remember mentioning not that long ago. I picked up a copy of By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal; and then, thought to myself, should I really be buying a David Crystal book when I already have a book of his on the shelves that I haven’t yet read? I didn’t pause for long, because “you’ve already got one by him” is hardly a very good reason for not buying a book, but it’s true that the one Crystal book already on our shelves is one that I’ve never been able to get very far with. It is: The Stories Of English.

I find the language fascinating: both in use and in history. It’s such a playful thing, can be twisted and swerved, can be squeezed and stretched, and can be bent into truly awful puns. I love playing with it, I love its richness and I love its history, its constantly fluctuating and mercurial history. And so, I thought – rightly – that The Stories Of English would be an extremely interesting book. Crystal, moreover, is a very engaging and lighthearted writer. He’s very easy to read, very interesting, and clearly knows what he’s writing about very thoroughly.

So why, then, is it that I’ve never managed to get past the Middle English chapters? I’ve tried to read it several times, I’ve always enjoyed the sections I have read immensely, but I’ve never been able to get through Middle English. Every time, my enthusiam’s petered out somewhere in the fourteenth century, I’ve not come back to the book, and its later chapters have remained untouched. And so – given the number of times I’ve made an effort to read it – it definitely counts as a Book I Haven’t Read, even though it’s actually very good.

There’s one thing, only one thing, I can put my finger on. It’s quite a non-linear book. There are excurses and diversions. There are lots of box-outs. This is understandable. All histories can be highly non-linear, and The Stories Of English is deliberately written in a non-linear way, to take account of the parallel histories of different dialects of the language. I’m used to reading non-linear texts, or in a non-linear manner when I’m online and going down a Wikipedia hole, or when I’m researching something: flipping between tabs in my web browser, or shuffling through several open books on my desk, comparing pages and stopping to take notes. Only the other week, for example, I was sitting in the city reference library comparing passages in several books of railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway Wagon handbrakes. When I sit down to read a book for pleasure, by contrast, I’m not used to doing that. I expect my books to have a beginning, middle and end; a linear structure if not a linear narrative; flipping back and forth, both physically and mentally, needs more concentration. Crystal’s straightforward writing style, in this context, is deceptively easy to read. Especially when you reach the Middle English period, and the stories of English really start to get complex, purely because the amount of evidence available on the history of the language becomes much, much more comprehensive, it needs a lot more mental effort to keep track of things than you might think you’d need when you open the book.

By Hook Or By Crook, by contrast, is structured in a linear way, but one that’s orthagonal to its linguistics. It’s a road-trip book, essentially, with Crystal musing on anything of linguistic interest – or of any interest to him at all – which he comes across on the way. And it’s ideal for me to read, particularly because that’s the way my own brain works. Like him, I’m exactly the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a misspelled sign at a level crossing. I’m racing through it, and I’ll probably have read it by the weekend; and I’ll probably read it again and again over the years. Its mode of writing complements my own favourite mode of reading, and my own favourite mode of thinking. It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about: for example, when I first opened the book at a random page I saw a photo of the Boston Lodge toll house apparently taken from a passing train.

The Stories Of English, by comparison, is something I have to concentrate on to get my head around. That, I suspect, is why it’s a Book I Haven’t Read. Yet.


In which the family seem foreign

My parents are not Norwegian. They’re English, have hardly ever left England, don’t speak any languages other than English. Until last week, my mother hadn’t had a foreign holiday for 35 years, and my dad had never had one at all.

Now, often, you can look at someone, and spot their nationality. It happened to me in Paris the other month: I only had to go up to someone and say “Um … bonjour?” and I’d get: “Hello, can I help you.” Sometimes the hello came first, so I’m sure it wasn’t just the accent or the awkward pause. I’d assume that the same would apply to the parents too, as they’ve hardly ever left Britain.

But no: they set off for their first foreign holiday together after 30 years married, and they get on the ferry to Norway. They arrive at the ferry terminal in Newcastle, where you’d think the staff would be used to spotting the difference between Norwegian and English people. All of a sudden, everyone, even the English terminal staff, automatically assume they’re Norwegian. Getting on the ship, they’re being greeted: “hello … hello … hello …” – then as soon as The Mother appears on the gangplank, the greeter switches to Norwegian.* Why, she has no clue. Apparently, people from Norway, people from Newcastle, people who meet a lot of Norwegians, automatically assume my mother is one too. Strange.

(and on their return, they brought me a giant sausage. Which appears to be Danish. But that’s a blog for another day, when I’m not too lazy to get the camera out to shoot a picture of it)

* Whether Bokmål or Nynorsk, I don’t know – as the parents don’t actually know any Norwegian of either sort beyond “Does anyone know where the toilets are?” they didn’t appreciate the subtlety – never mind the subtler still differences between spoken and written languages.

Ravens (part one)

In which a myth is researched

When I was still a student, as a researcher, I was always a bit rubbish. I’m one of those people who hoovers up random, unconnected pieces of information like anything; but when it comes to use it I can never remember where it came from. Little factoids are no good unless you can judge how true it is likely to be, and you can’t do that if you don’t know their provenance.

For example: everybody knows that the Tower of London maintains a family of ravens, for there is an ancient legend that states that should they ever leave, the Tower, the monarchy and the nation will fall. Their wings are therefore clipped, to try to lessen the risk of them wandering.* Everybody knows about the legend, and its ancient origins. Just how ancient is it, though?

There’s an article on the ravens and the current Tower Ravenmaster in the current issue of Fortean Times. It claims that it was Charles II who was first warned that the ravens must never leave the Tower; but that there is no actual evidence for their presence before the end of the 19th century. So, possibly another of those ancient traditions invented by the traditionally-minded Victorians. Possibly not, though. There is another, older myth on a similar theme; but it wasn’t about literal ravens at all. It’s a much, much older myth, and it isn’t even English.

On Sunday, after reading the FT article, I spent a good hour or two reading up about it, and writing a post about it, but accidentally deleted it in a fit of stupidity, by pressing the “reload” shortcut when I meant to type the “open new tab” shortcut. It took an hour or two because, as I said above, I can remember a lot of things, but can’t remember why. So, I spent quite a long time reading the wrong books in search of information I was sure was in there. Bah. I’m going to go and reread them now, so I can go and rewrite.**

(read part two here)

* and, incidentally, the Tower now has a well-equipped isolation aviary to which they’ll be moved if there’s a bird flu outbreak in Britain.

** and to give me an excuse to break this over-long post up into parts.