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Review: History of Britain Revealed by Harper

It is a needlessly insulting little book, and probably mostly incorrect. Still, it's interesting book if we can't prove it to be wrong. The book tries to completely re-arrange the standard story of the development of the English language. The standard story is that people in England were speaking Celtic (before 50bce), Celtic mixed with a bit of Latin (around 300ce), Anglo-Saxon and Old English (i.e. Germanic) 500ce-1066ce, then a mix of English and French around 1100, and finally Modern English. Language changes were driven by invasions.

Harper's story is that the English were rather resistant to language change. We spoke a Germanic language before 50bce; when the Romans took over, we spoke a Germanic language with a trace of Latin; when the Anglo-Saxons took over, we spoke a Germanic language, and when the Normans took over, we continued speaking a Germanic language (but with a moderate amount of Norman French mixed in). (There's more, too, but this is the part of the book that's most coherent and most interesting.)

I hope the right people read it, and manage to overlook the insults and errors.

  1. His description of evolutionary biology and the problem of fossil ancestors is just uninformed. He makes the common error in assuming that we humans have evolved and improved, but our ancestral species have not. Then, he wonders "where our the ancestral species?"

    Silly! The ancestral species have evolved too. It's basically symmetric: we and the apes both evolved from a common ancestor. We are as much the ancestral species of a chimpanzee as chimpanzees are our ancestors. The reason that ancestral species are not here any more is simply that all species change with time because their environments change and because of genetic drift.

    Now, this is not the central point, but it's well known and has been well popularized by people like Stephen Gould, so it's something that he should have known when writing the book. You have to wonder what other errors there are?

  2. He tells a story about how academics avoid dealing with inconsistencies in their data. It sounds plausible enough, and may even sometimes be partially true. But, academics are not just fat cats who are trapped in their boyhood myths. Most of us are curious and want to know what was really going on.

    Most of us understand that conforming to the standard model is indeed a good way to live quietly and comfortably, but we also know that there is nothing better than breaking the standard model, if it can be proven to be wrong. The model breakers are the people who are remembered by history and the ones who get the juicy academic posts and prized. The quiet people who conform may live comfortably, but they tend to live comfortably in second rate, out-of-the way institutions.

    So, while there are forces for conformity in academia, there are also forces for revolution. If an academic discipline slides into slothful conformity, you can be sure it is because real proof is unobtainable, not because people are too blind to see it. If it were clear evidence, some ambitious junior lecturer would grab it, and use it.

Don't take the book too seriously. If it's wrong on the stuff I know, it's probably wrong on the stuff I don't know. Still, it has an interesting idea or two in there. Do we really know that the common people in AD 800 spoke Anglo-Saxon? Do we really know that in 55 BCE they spoke a Celtic language? How do we know that they didn't speak something basically Germanic, rather closer to modern English?

I'll keep an eye open. Just in case he's right, if there were a way to prove it, it might give my career quite a boost.

[ Papers | | Phonetics Lab | Oxford ] Last Modified Thu May 29 17:55:56 2008 Greg Kochanski: [ ]