Thanks to F.W. Brownlow for an informative article in the February issue (“Of Genes, Vowels, and Violence,” Correspondence), which was a rebuttal to a previous article by Philip Jenkins.  It has become increasingly obvious that the traditional story of the evolution of the English language—that a small, all-male military caste of Anglo-Saxons quickly imposed their language on the mass of indigenous Britons—is not true.  But what is the real story?  Brownlow states that philologists are baffled by the problem: “the best explanation they can come up with is that English . . . is a ‘killer’ language, which . . . drives out other languages.”

The “killer language” theory doesn’t make sense.  It hasn’t happened anywhere else.  There has to be much more to the story.  In The Secret History of the English Language M.J. Harper posits that some form of English was spoken in the British Isles before the arrival of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons.  He says we have only the written record and cannot know what the great mass of illiterate people spoke.  DNA evidence supports his general theory.  Studies now show that the conquering Celts, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Norman French had only a minute genetic impact.  A population of over 90-percent “common people” would not suddenly start speaking the language of a small number of conquerors.

I would love to hear Dr. Brownlow’s comments on M.J. Harper’s theory.

—Paul F. Kennedy

Greensburg, PA

Dr. Brownlow Replies:

I’m glad that Paul Kennedy enjoyed my piece, but I’m afraid the only comment I can make about M.J. Harper’s book is that its ideas—for instance, that English has always been spoken in Britain, and that it is the parent language of French—are nonsense.  Meanwhile, the “traditional story” of English remains true: in the fourth through sixth centuries Germanic warrior in-comers displaced the ruling group, and their language displaced the P-Celtic then spoken in southern and eastern Britain.  Why this happened, we don’t know—but then we don’t know why, if the newcomers were a minority, the P- and Q-Celtic languages displaced their predecessor languages, either.  Nor do we know why English was not displaced in its turn by Norman-French.  All that calling English a killer language means, really, is that it displaces other languages, but it has not itself been displaced.  That, so far, seems to be a fact.


On the Redesign

The February issue arrived yesterday.  I love the redesign.  The magazine is more inviting and readable.  Congratulations!

—Ronald E. Burr

Vienna, VA

I like the new Chronicles format.  It took a bit of getting used to at first, but it is clearer and less cluttered.

—Steve Berg

DeKalb, IL

My kudos to all who contributed to a long-overdue format “face-lift,” especially from one whose acuity (vision only, of course) leaves much to be desired!

—P.J. Corr

Wesley Chapel, FL

I liked the old appearance of Chronicles, but I believe I like the new layout even better!

—Mark Slater

Wheat Ridge, CO