What Students Can Learn from Baugh and Cable

The edition of Baugh and Cable I am using is the 6th edition: Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013). This is the 6th edition: in other words, Baugh and Cable is a widely used text in courses about the history of the English language, and this book has presumably been updated five times since the first edition of 1930. It does directly or indirectly teach students a number of valuable things, some of which I shall list below.

1. Let me state clearly that the two authors (the first of whom died in 1981) are excellent historical linguists, they write clearly, and students can learn a very great deal about the development of English from this book. However, I am an historian, and I have a number of quibbles… Let us start at the beginning.

2. The first sentence of chapter 1 quotes “the remarkable twelfth-century chronicler Henry of Huntington” (though it provides no footnote). This first sentence was also in the fifth edition; I did not trace it further back. There is no such person as Henry of Huntington. Although in medieval documents Huntington and Huntingdon may be confused, there is no confusion in modern English: there is one Huntingdon, and several Huntingtons. Henry was archdeacon of Huntingdon. So Baugh and Cable teach a valuable lesson: before submitting your work, check spellings, especially of names and places.

3. On page 2, line 9, they refer to the “Roman Christianizing of Britain in 597, which brought England into contact with Latin civilization”. It would take a longish essay (or a book) to explain all the errors in this statement. But, to summarise:

a. when historians say something happened in a particular year, they mean that something happened in a particular year. The Christianising of Britain is a process that took centuries.
b. Britain was not introduced to Christianity in 597. Christianity came to Roman Britain by the third century at least (three bishops from Roman Britain were at the Council of Arles in 314), and missionaries from Roman Britain had gone to Ireland (St Patrick) and Scotland (St Ninian) as well, long before 597. The descendants of the Romans in the west of Britain (Wales, the south-west, the north) were still Christian in 597. All that happened in 597 was that a missionary sent from Rome (St Augustine) arrived in the kingdom of Kent (one of the numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the time); King Æthelberht of Kent converted to Christianity at some unknown point after this event (he died in 616).
c. “Conversion”, meaning in this period the acceptance of Christianity by the king and his most important followers, is not the same as “Christianisation”, which is a much slower process, involving profound changes in society. Missionaries at the time said that it was devil worship to honour the pagan gods by naming the days after them; from their point of view the fact that Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are still all named after Anglo-Saxon gods means that the English were never properly Christianised.
d. Don’t even get me started on the implications of the word  “Roman” in the phrase  “Roman Christianizing of Britain”, but it almost certainly relates to the dichotomy between  “Roman Christianity” and  “Celtic Christianity”. This used to be regarded as significant; but the terms  “Celtic Christianity” and  “the Celtic Church” are now carefully avoided by those that work in the field. Those who believe in Celtic Christianity tend to be those who believe in some racist myth about the Celts as a people who are particularly spiritual or close to nature. As a final comment on the Roman Christianizing effort: the Roman missionaries led by St Augustine were actually pretty incompetent, and the missionary project might have died altogether had not Irish missionaries arrived in northern England (the kingdom of Northumbria) in the 630s, and from there spread Christianity into other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

So, to sum up, and this is always the most important lesson that students should learn: do not believe everything you read! And therefore, when you write, check everything in more than one source (or, preferably, in more than two sources)! 

4. On page 9, readers are told that “we do not feel that there is anything ‘foreign’ about the words chipmunk, hominy” and so on. Well, personally, since I am not American, I do think of hominy as a rather odd, and perhaps foreign, word (I am not even sure what it means). The book is written for an American audience. But that does not excuse the authors. As a general lesson, Only use ‘we know’ or ‘we feel’ in anything you write after considerable thought, as you are in danger of narrowly defining your readership and making potentially false or even insulting assumptions about what they know.

5. Turn to the start of Chapter 3: “The Languages in England before English.” Any historian faced with that phrase in a student essay would start using a red pen vigorously. But we should have been warned by the apparent confusion between “Britain” and “England” in the sentence quoted in point 3 above. Throughout Cable and Baugh there is a constant confusion between “Britain” and “England” — a confusion which is not untypical in common American usage. But as far as “the languages in England before English” is concerned, please note that England did not exist before the English invaded and settled in eastern Britain in the fifth century AD. Thereafter, England is defined as “the part of Britain ruled by English kings”, which initially was just the south-east corner of Britain, and only later spread out over other territories under the control of British rulers. Cornwall was not part of England until the tenth century. In the seventh century, however, Edinburgh was in England, and, although you would never learn it from Baugh and Cable, the people of lowland Scotland began speaking English at that point. (Which is why the map of the “counties of England” opposite the title page of the book is so pointless. The history of the English language in these islands has nothing to do with the English county names and boundaries as proposed by the Local Government Act of 1972.) (And while we are complaining about that map, please note that Humberside, marked on the map, only existed between 1974 and 1996: it was abolished in 1996 and replaced by four new unitary authorities. There may be other changes that make this map, published in 2013, quite obsolete.) So, we learn, above all, Think carefully before using words like “Britain”, “England”, “Wales” and “Scotland”: and above all, do not use “England” when you mean “Britain” (and vice versa). My fifteen years of teaching at University College Dublin also taught me to avoid the phrase “the British Isles” as if it included Ireland.

6. On page 41, we read “The first people in England about whose language we have definite knowledge are the Celts.” Well, ignoring the fact that “England” means “Britain”, are the Celts “a people”? Certainly racialists from the nineteenth century onwards assume that the Celts are a people, or even a race. But it is totally different from saying “the English” are a people, since, from the tenth century onwards, the English refer to themselves as such, and were part of a political entity. The Celts did not know they were “a people” until linguists told them in the nineteenth century, and have never formed a political entity. When Greeks and Romans came across them on the Continent, Greeks called them Keltoi and the Romans called them Galli, but the Keltoi probably did not use this word of themselves. And, interestingly, Roman historians did not refer to the Celtic-speakers of Britain as Galli (“Celts”), but as Britanni: “the British” or “the Britons”, and these are the words that are invariably used by historians and archaeologists today when talking of pre-Roman Britain. The British in 55 BC probably all spoke a Celtic language; but they might not have done, since the earlier language of Britain, which was there before Celtic-speakers arrived in maybe c. 500 BC, may have survived in places. Above all, the lesson is: avoid the assumption that those who speak a particular language are a people (which is a political term) let alone a race (which is a biological term).

7. “About the year 449, an event occurred that profoundly affected the course of history” (p. 43). Well, the following sentence adds “as traditionally stated”, which admittedly modifies the first statement. Baugh and Cable do not tell us that the “traditional” date does in fact come from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People; he was the first historian anywhere in the world to use BC and AD dates, and he carefully tried to work out AD dates from his various sources. He doesn’t give the date 449 as the date of the actual arrival of the English, though; he said they arrived between 449 and 455. These dates are calculations, based on his inadequate sources, and later on Anglo-Saxon historians reduce his 449-455 to simply 449, because it is easier. No historian these days believes that date for a minute. Angles, Saxons and Jutes had been around in Britain for decades at that point. More significant is the fact that Baugh and Cable give a very traditional account of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, which largely ignores the scholarship of the last forty years. Historians and archaeologists have been very busy working on this period for forty years (and in much larger numbers than ever before), and they have been busy overturning all sorts of assumptions that were common forty years ago, but you would never know it from reading Baugh and Cable. Look at their bibliography, on pp. 68 and 69. Salway’s Roman Britain (1981) is the most modern work (although it was old-fashioned even in 1981), and the dates on other works are deceptive: Myres 1986 is a not-very-much revised version of Myres’s part in Collingwood and Myres 1936, and Stenton 1971 is a superficially revised version of Stenton’s first edition of 1943. Baugh and Cable say Stenton’s book is “masterly”, which it indeed was in 1943; now it just looks desperately outdated. There is a clear lesson in all this: when anyone in an academic institution writes they should refer to the most up-to-date secondary sources available, particularly when venturing outside their own discipline, as linguists do when they touch on history.

8. Sorry to keep harping on this… But it is deeply irritating to see Baugh and Cable keep talking about “the Celts” in the period after the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Our sources make clear distinctions; there are the Britons in much of mainland Britain; there are the Picts in the far north of Britain; and there are the Irish (whom our Latin sources describe as Scotti) in Ireland and in parts of Argyll and the islands of what we now call Scotland. None of these people realised they were Celts, because they hadn’t read the works of modern linguists, and none of these people thought they were connected in any way. So why on earth refer to them as Celts? After all, Baugh and Cable are quite careful not to refer to the invaders of Britain as “Germans”; they were “certain Germanic tribes”. Gildas, the only British writer surviving from the sixth century, writing in Latin, referred to his countrymen as Britanni, and he described how they fought constantly with the Scotti, the Picti and the Saxones: indeed, he tells us that the Saxones were invited in by the Britanni to defend southern Britain from the deadly attacks of the Scotti and the Picti (his “fellow Celts”). However, a century and a half earlier than Gildas, many Britons would have described themselves as Romani: they were, after all, Roman citizens. Even in Gildas’s day, British kings had names like Aurelius and Constantinus: good Roman names. Baugh and Cable are right to say that Celts (I would prefer to say “Celtic-speakers”) called and still call the English “Saxons”; why on earth they say that “early Latin writers, following Celtic usage” called the English Saxons, I have no idea. Every Latin writer on the Continent called the people who settled Britain Saxones; that was the Latin word for the sea-borne pirates and raiders from north Germany. And the “Celtic” writers at this time were all writing Latin, after all, and are following Continental Latin usage… I don’t think there is a new lesson to learn from Baugh and Cable here: except to repeat think hard about the words you use, and make sure you check your facts in up-to-date books!

So far I have not progressed much beyond the chapter on Old English. I may add to this little essay later… Anyone who has read this far is wondering why, after my attack on Baugh and Cable, I am recommending this book for the course. Well, purely in linguistic terms, there probably isn’t a better one. And most of the painful historical errors I have pointed to can be found also in other introductory books, even in volume 1 of The Cambridge History of the English Language.

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