Friday, February 8, 2008

Slavery, language, cultural annihilation

After a careful reading of Richard Coates' Invisible Britons (thanks, Marisa) I was pondering upon slavery, language, and cultural annihilation and, frankly, getting nowhere at the speed of light. And then in the Economist this week, I encountered an article about the evolution of language that ended (in typical Economist style): "As Noah Webster, the compiler of the first American dictionary, put it: “as an independent nation, our honor [sic] requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.” In other words, if you don't speak proper, you ain't one of us." It was my way in.

Britons, I've decided, disappeared because their culture disappeared. Their culture disappeared because their language disappeared. Their language disappeared because they were slaves. Speaking Brittonic was forbidden or at least frowned upon by those with the power over life and death and to grant favour. If you wanted to belong/get fed/escape punishment/better yourself, you learnt Anglisc and used it. As those in power did not use a written language, no records were kept of interesting snippets of legends or songs. Brittonic was obliterated, just as in the twentieth century, with the advent of radio and television, many UK dialects and accents began to wither away. In the twentieth centure, if you didn't speak with something approaching the BBC accent (received pronunciation), you weren't quite the thing. You didn't belong.

I grew up in the north of England, surrounded by sturdy Yorkshire accents. My father, though, was from London, so at home I grew up using a long 'a', saying 'baath' and 'fahst' and 'grahs'. When I got to school, those around me assumed I was stuck up and trying to act better than they were because they used a short 'a'. 'Oooh,' they said, 'Miss hoity-toity.' They didn't like my being better than them--which is what they believed, simply because of the accent--but looking back it's clear I was treated differently because of it. (Sometimes this was an advantage, sometimes it really, really wasn't.) But my accent marked me. It's powerful stuff.

Coates' thesis makes complete sense to me. Brittonic died because it was not only dangerous to speak it but also painfully uncool. I'm going to have to go back to beginning of my draft and reimagine a lot. But now at least I have a way to approach the slavery issue. All very exciting.

2 comments:

joe linzalone said...

I do not think slavery, which was a form of commerce and the main income of war, as it was with the Romans, would have extinguished a lanuage of culture.
These things are tenacious.

nicola said...

Not slavery alone, no. Perhaps what I mean can best be illustrated by taking a look at Breton. (Broadly stated--very broadly--Breton could be seen as the evolution of Brittonic.)

Breton is spoken in Brittany by over half a million people. Yet most of those Breton-speakers are over the age of 50. However, I read (here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breton_language)
that in 1997 fewer than two percent of 15-19 yr-olds in Brittany spoke Breton. Why? From a cultural perspective I'd say that Breton just isn't cool anymore. It no longer mirrors the culture these teenagers grew up in. Their culture is mainstream French. Breton is no longer relevant.

This, I think, is what happened in England. The Angles striding about with their new fashions and their beautiful swords, tall good looks and barbarian confidence were what people emulated, along with their language. (Some of them--but by no means all--forcibly, because they were slaves).