Origins of English…. war, famine, plague, meteors?

by Translation Guy on February 12, 2010

It’s easy to take the English language for granted, but years ago in England, no one spoke English ― it was Latin or bust.

So why aren’t we now speaking some Anglo-Romance version of Latin, like the French or Italian now spoken in those lands formerly belonging to the Latin-speaking Western Roman Empire? Something really, really bad must have happened to all those Latin speakers in the province of Britain.

Sure, it’s easy to blame the barbarians, who in England came in three different flavors: Angles, Saxons and Jutes. All these hordes were pretty handy with fire and sword, and they, along with other hordes, were pillaging all over the Roman Empire at that time. In Britain, the collapse of Roman power spelled the end of Latin, to be replaced by the Germanic tongues of the conquerors.

This language displacement event was unique; it was the one and only time that the Germanic conquerors were able to hold on to their own language, says Nicholas Ostler, noted linguist and historian. Consequently, the influence of Latin on early English was practically non-existent.

Unlike anywhere else in the Empire, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t mix…they displaced. The original inhabitants of the Island appear to have just died off. Historian David Keys says that, in this demographic walkover of the Roman British, the hordes had lots of help in the bubonic plague (aka the Black Death or black plague). The plague killed the native Britons in their cities, which were still plugged into the rest of Europe by trade, while sparing the Saxons, isolated in their fortified villages and lonely farms.

A folk memory of this dreadful disease, and the depopulation it caused, would remain in the Arthurian legend of the Waste Land, which combined famine with military defeat, and spoke of a mysterious wound to the King in the groin area ― one of the characteristics of the black plague.

Under this apocalyptic onslaught of war, famine, and disease, the Roman Britons and their language disappeared, leaving the field to the invaders and their new language, English. The sparse Latin legacy in Old English and the slim Briton slice of contemporary English genotype provide the proof of a major die-off around this time.

Recently, however, marine geophysicist Dallas Abbott has argued that it wasn’t plague or hordes that did in the old Brits, but a meteor strike in Australia, which left the English language in its dusty wake. Here’s how it may have happened: tree rings indicate that the whole planet got cold really fast around 536 AD. The cause, according to historic sources, was a huge dust veil that enveloped the Earth. For instance, Byzantine historian Procopius recorded in 536AD that ‘during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness. It seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear.’

This global dust cloud, kicked up by a big meteor impact in Australia, could have clouded over the planet for years, causing an instant ice age. Abbott claims to have found mounds of evidence pointing to a massive meteor strike in the Land Down Under.

Roman or Saxon, contemporary farming societies were super vulnerable to bad weather, which brought famine, disease, and hungry neighbors all at the same time. So it’s kind of chicken or egg to figure out what caused what. Details and causes will remain as obscured as the sun rising in England in 536 AD, but the language that we speak is proof of the eradication of an entire people. They did not get a chance to leave their legacy in our language.


  1. Oliver says:

    This is a very interesting theory on the English language. Do you have any references Ken

  2. Bullocks, I dont buy it for one second

  3. Jigga_what says:

    This is possible in theory….

  4. Others have postulated that a violent volcanic eruption, possibly of Krakatoa, in 535 may have been responsible for the global climate changes as well…what a year

  5. Gordon says:

    Interesting, but the Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD and was well in decline before that. The meteorite probably helped push Europe into the Dark Ages, though…

    • Ken says:

      Gordon, when it rains it pours. Bad news really seems to come in batches, doesn’t it?

  6. Devon G says:

    Right, Wikipedia has an article that lossely covers this. It mentions the Plague of Justinian, the fall of Teotihuacan, the decline of the Avars and Persians, and various local famines around the world…

  7. Hilary says:

    How much we forget the evil history of Krakatoa and the effects of the last big one in 1883 is very well documented:

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