April 2008

Jonathan Shipley


The Secret History of the English Language by M. J. Harper

There’s nothing more exciting than a rousing book about applied epistemology! What’s that? You scoff? Epistemology isn’t your bag? Epistemologists don’t turn you on? For shame! No matter, all this epistemology will interest you after you read the short, enlightening, though somewhat maddening, M. J. Harper book The Secret History of the English Language.

So, first off, what is epistemology? Defined: the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity. The whole of the book puts forth a revisionist history in regards to the English language and what we think we know, what we’ve been taught about how the English language blossomed after the Anglo-Saxons went off to Britain and changed the history of languages forever. Those things are, well, wrong. The back cover of the book makes for a good Cliff Note. “The story goes like this: The Anglo-Saxons, a small, uncultured group of people from a place no longer identifiable, went to Britain, replaced the existing population, and, within 300 years, gave us the English language. This gives rise to three possibilities: 1) These ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are a very remarkable people. 2) History is full of surprises. 3) Historians have got it completely wrong. This book advances the third possibility.”

How does a book do that? By poking holes, lots of holes, in the prevailing theories of today. No, not holes; cannon blasts. For instance, according to the “creation myth,” as Harper calls the birth of the English language, the Anglo-Saxons occupied Britain and therefore the language of England was changed to Anglo-Saxon (“Old English,” as it is now called). Well, that sort of thing happens a lot, right? Invaders come and take over and therefore their language takes over. Well, no. The Visigoths occupied Portugal, Spain, France, Italy. Did those places change their languages? No. The Vandals occupied, for a time, the same places. Them, right? No. How about the Normans who invaded France, Britain and Italy? Sorry. Anglo-Saxons -- the only one that changed the language. Hmmm…

Whatever! It’s an anomaly! They did it. Others didn’t. Fine, okay (but not okay, these are anomalies and the book clearly points out), what about the language itself?

If the written language is any guide -- and it seems to be a reasonable one -- what the (Gaelic) Irish, the French, and, inferentially, everyone else were speaking a thousand years ago is recognizably the same as they are speaking today. And, as we have seen, Anglo-Saxon is no exception to this rule in the sense that, according to its written records, it changed hardly at all for 500 years; and English is no exception either, since, to judge from its written record, it hasn’t changed radically for 700 years. Which means that Anglo-Saxon/English, if it’s one language, is unique in the entire annals of languages on this our Earth, since it changes every goddamn word of itself.

Well, that seems a bit convincing.

But, you’re still unwavering in your commitment to the creation of the English language. “It’s poppycock,” you say. “Harper’s got it all wrong. We’ve got Beowulf, don’t we? It’s an Anglo-Saxon document that we can read. We can understand it (sort of)!” Yeah, well, Harper tears that beautiful epic into shreds as well.

“You’re making me angry with all this!” You’re shouting. You’re upset. I understand. Learning that the foundations you already thought you learned are not foundations at all can be a bit unsettling. But don’t be mad, get the truth as told by the witty Harper. There is something maddening about the book, however. It’s hard to follow along at times. Like a great lecture with oodles of information you want to take it in completely, suck up that information into your spongy brain but you can’t keep up with it all -- the theories, the arguments and counter-arguments, the facts, the informative asides, the nifty tangents to other sciences. So you sort of sit back, have it wash over you, following the threads about Gaelic texts and Latin words with English derivatives, the Dark Ages and Mongolian orthography.

In other words, it’s a book you might want to read twice to get all that info in. It’s slim so you get through it rather quickly. It’s witty and smart. And, well, it’s not Anglo-Saxon.

The Secret History of the English Language by M. J. Harper
Melville House
ISBN: 193363331X
225 Pages