Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Latin in Post-Roman Britain – An Old Debate Revisited

By Gareth Griffith

The current orthodoxy among historians of post-Roman Britain would seem to be that Latin was spoken and written widely in the century or so after the departure of the legions in around 410. This applies with particular force in what is called the Lowland Zone, the region in the south of the country where villa civilization proliferated. 

The issue is significant, not least because former assertions of the widespread displacement and even genocide of the native British population were sometimes based in part on the lack of Brittonic loan-words in Anglo-Saxon (for example, Ronald Hutton, p 296). But if Latin was the most common language encountered by the incoming Germanic people, at least in lowland Britain, then such assertions must look to new and different evidence. 

An example of the contemporary approach is found in Guy Halsall’s 2013 book, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, where language is only one part of a larger and novel re-interpretation of the period. Halsall challenges the assumption, “still more or less universal,” he claims, that the people the Anglo-Saxons encountered in the Lowland Zone spoke Brittonic or Brythonic. He argues that: “This is very rarely questioned but it is more than a little problematic, being based upon absolutely no evidence.” Halsall’s view is that, while Brittonic was indeed the main language of the highland regions, the same cannot be said of what he calls “the lowland villa-zone.” By analogy with northern Gaul, he maintains that, after 400 years of Roman rule, in this zone “the local Celtic language was replaced by low Latin.” If that was so, then the “Anglo-Saxons’ lack of contact with British speakers would be entirely unsurprising.”

According to Halsall:
If we look for Latin loan-words in Old English, we find hundreds: about as many as there are in Old Welsh. It is usually claimed that these words were introduced during the Anglo-Saxons’ conversion to Christianity, yet that argument is itself founded ultimately on two propositions. 
One proposition is that, because the British spoke Brittonic, these Latin loan-words could not have been introduced earlier. The other is that Christianity died out in the lowland region before Augustine’s mission in 597. “Neither assumption is secure,” Halsall asserts. 

A similar, if less categorical version of this argument is found in Nicholas J Higham’s most recent book, King Arthur: The Making of the Legend. His conclusion is that, “Latin was widespread in late Roman Britain, particularly in the Lowland Zone, and literacy along with it, but Celtic was still heard everywhere and was for many their first language – particularly in the north and west.” 

In Wales and the Britons 350-1064 TM Charles Edwards wrote that in 400: 
…many Britons then spoke Latin, though many of them would also have been able to speak British…In the sixth century, Gildas referred to Latin as ‘our language’, contrasting it with the Germanic of the Anglo-Saxon settlers. 
This language issue is not new. For that reason, it is worth looking at it in a wider context, that of the development of scholarly thinking on the Latin question. Taking a step back a few generations, therefore, the issue of the use of Latin in post-Roman Britain, from around 410 to 600, can be viewed through the prism of Kenneth Jackson’s seminal 1953 book, Language and History in Early Britain
In Chapter 3, in his discussion of Roman Britain, Jackson looked back at the state of scholarship in the late 19th century. He noted: 
Since it was a Roman province, like the others [Gaul and other provinces], the natural tendency was to assume a priori, that Latin was the regular language everywhere, except for a few remote half-barbarous peasants who may have clung to their Celtic tongue in the East and (because of the existence of Welsh and Cornish) admittedly must have done so in the West. 
Jackson then commented that since the First World War, with the growing “interest in the Celtic side of all questions,” the pendulum swung the other way, possibly “a little too far.” Taking recent developments into account, Jackson presented a nine-point summary of the “probable situation” of the Latin and British languages in Roman Britain, as follows:
Latin was the language of the governing classes, of civil administration and of the army, of trade, of the Christian religion, and very largely (but perhaps not entirely) of the people of the towns. The rural upper classes were bilingual; the peasantry of the Lowland Zone, who constituted the great bulk of the population, spoke British and probably spoke little Latin; and the language of the Highland Zone (apart from the army and its native camp followers) was to all intents and purposes exclusively British. 
On this account, the speaking of Latin “coincided roughly with the ability to read and write,” making it largely “a polite tongue of the upper classes,” which for Jackson accounted for the “peculiarities of British Vulgar Latin.” On a technical note, Jackson was of the view that the superior British Latin from which loan words in Brittonic were derived was “quite different in certain important respects from Continental Vulgar Latin.” He estimated that Latin remained the “official” language up until around 450, after which it found refuge for a time in the Highland Zone; in the same period, the “British language came into its own among the upper classes in the Lowland Zone, as it had always been among the lower.”

Armed with this interpretation, Jackson then proceeded in Chapter 6 to analyse in more detail the situation in post-Roman Britain, as regards the influence of Latin on Anglo-Saxon. Jackson’s main point of departure was the work of the German scholar K Luick (Historische Grammatik der Enlischen Sprache, 1914). Luick divided Latin words in Anglo-Saxon into two main groups, as follows: firstly, popular oral borrowings from colloquial Vulgar Latin, which were early and almost all taken to belong to pre-Christian times; and secondly learned loan words, chiefly from the ecclesiastical spoken and written in Latin, which were late and subsequent to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

The first early group, Luick further divided into two classes: (1) those loanwords adopted on the Continent by the West Germanic peoples during the Empire and inherited by the Anglo-Saxons prior to their coming to Britain; and (2) those loanwords which came into Anglo-Saxon between around 450 and the 7th century. Distinguishing between these two classes of loan words was far from straightforward, with Jackson describing the criteria for words in the (2) class as “vague and unreliable.” There was also the question of the extent of Anglo-Saxon intercourse with the Continent in this period, which could well have meant that some Latin words were derived from the spoken Latin of Gaul. He continued:
…the existence of the group (2) loanwords cannot be taken as positive proof that Latin was at all widely spoken in the Lowland Zone of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. 
In 1939, Sir Ivor Williams had argued that the larger number of borrowings from Latin than from Brittonic into Anglo-Saxon was evidence that the Lowland Zone was Latin rather than Brittonic in speech. Jackson disagreed:
But even if all the group (2) loanwords were adopted in Britain (and it is possible that none or almost none of them were), it would still not be safe to come to any such conclusions, because we are dealing with such small figures on both sides – about eighteen Brittonic versus a round two dozen Latin at most – that proportions are of little significance.  
Jackson went on to say:
Besides, assuming that the Latin words were taken over in Britain, some such relative number is only what would be expected, for Latin was the speech of an admired and superior culture, with expressions for ideas not existing in Germanic…. 
The conclusion arrived at by Jackson was that: “although it does not prove anything for certain, the heavy accumulation of negative evidence does seem to suggest strongly that the English met very few people who talked any sort of Latin at all during the course of the occupation of Britain.”

From this account, it would seem that Jackson’s views are not consistent with those of such contemporary historians as Guy Halsall whose argument is, in part, based on the evidence of Christian loanwords, which he claims were pre- and not post-600.

A number of questions and observations follow. One question is how persuasive is that element Halsall’s argument, bearing in mind that even if ecclesiastical words were imported early into Anglo-Saxon, many of these could very easily have been loaned from the Latin of Gaul. After all, modern historians are inclined to take a less insular view of this period of British history, with a new focus on links between the Anglo-Saxons and the continent of Europe. Moreover, even if British Christianity did endure in the Lowland Zone, might it not have been the case that Latin was primarily, if not exclusively, the language of the church, as it proved to be subsequent to the conversion?

More broadly, are contemporary interpretations of the prevalence of Latin in post-Roman Britain based on new evidence, sufficient to set aside the obvious counter arguments. If so, what is the nature of this evidence? Is it archaeological? Does it rest on new linguistic interpretation of a technical nature? Discounting Christian loanwords, Jackson counted a mere two dozen Latin imports into Anglo-Saxon in the period 450 to 600. Have more now been identified? For Jackson, the evidence was still largely a priori, which is to say based on deduction, using inference and analogy in place of inductive empirical proof. How far advanced are we since 1953 along the inductive route as far as the language question is concerned? Whereas other questions may lend themselves more to the archaeological and other tools available to contemporary research, language would appear to be a more recalcitrant customer, leaving room for continuing doubt and debate. The less than categorical conclusions reached by Nicholas J Higham would seem to indicate as much.

From Kenneth Jackson to the contemporary historians cited, there would seem to be broad agreement that Latin was the language spoken by the reading and writing classes of the Lowland Zone; that is, the administrators, traders, the army and the like. The difficult question is how far down the social scale did Latin reach? Was Latin the more or less universal language of the Lowland Zone in Roman and, for a time, in post-Roman Britain? Is there a case to be made, as Jackson thought, for bilingualism, at least outside the cities of Southern England? If bilingualism did endure in the country areas, did it conform to the model of social hierarchy suggested by Jackson? Was it the case that Brittonic displaced Latin in the 5th century as the spoken language of all classes of the native population in the former Lowland Zone? Alternatively, was Latin still the dominant language, to be replaced ultimately by Anglo-Saxon? For Gildas, writing in the 6th century, Latin was still “our language.” But then, Gildas was writing in a rhetorical vein, very much from an educated, Christian standpoint.

One thing we can say with assurance is that Kenneth Jackson was of the view that the evidence he had at hand in 1953 did not “prove anything for certain.” Has much changed in the intervening 66 years? It seems the language question will not go away. It has long been and still remains an important aspect of any analysis of the post-Roman era.

Kenneth Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, Edinburgh University Press 1953
Ronald Hutton, Pagan Britain, Yale University Press 2014
Guy Halsall’s 2013 book, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, Oxford University Press 2013
Nicholas J Higham, King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Yale University Press 2018
TM Charles Edwards, Wales and the Britons 350-1064, Oxford University Press 2013

A replica of the Old Roman Cursive inspired by the Vindolanda tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain - public domain via Wikipedia
Historische Grammatik der Enlischen Sprache, 1914 Image from Internet Archive.Org
Statue of Saint-Gildas. It on the shore line in a small bay near the "Grand-Mont" (Morbihan, France) Via Wiki commons


Originally from Penmaenmawr, North Wales, Gareth Griffith now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Sue.

His career has encompassed teaching, research and writing, including many years working as the manager of research for the parliament of New South Wales. He has a PhD from the University of Wales. His academic publications include a study of George Bernard Shaw's politics, published by Routledge, and several publications on the study of parliament and constitutional law.

 These days, when Gareth isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, music, dark Scandi film and TV, and Dark Age Britain. Glass Island is his first historical novel.


  1. Delightful article Lauren. Thanks for sharing

  2. Plenty to mull over. Thanks for taking the time, Gareth. Appreciated.


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