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A Brief History of English, With Chronology

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By Suzanne Kemmer 

  • Pre-English | Old English | Middle English | Modern English

The language we call English was first brought to the north sea coasts of England in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., by seafaring people from Denmark and the northwestern coasts of present-day Germany and the Netherlands. These immigrants spoke a cluster of related dialects falling within the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Their language began to develop its own distinctive features in isolation from the continental Germanic languages, and by 600 A.D. had developed into what we call Old English or Anglo-Saxon, covering the territory of most of modern England.

New waves of Germanic invaders and settlers came from Norway and Denmark starting in the late 8th century. The more violent of these were known as Vikings, sea-faring plunderers who retained their ancient pagan gods and attacked settlements and churches for gold and silver. They spoke a northern Germanic dialect similar to, yet different in grammar from Anglo-Saxon. In the 11th century, the attacks became organized, state-sponsored military invasions and England was even ruled for a time by the kings of Denmark and Norway. The Scandinavian influence on the language was strongest in the north and lasted for a full 600 years, although English seems to have been adopted by the settlers fairly early on.

The Norman Invasion and Conquest of 1066 was a cataclysmic event that brought new rulers and new cultural, social and linguistic influences to the British Isles. The Norman French ruling minority dominated the church, government, legal, and educational systems for three centuries. The Norman establishment used French and Latin, leaving English as the language of the illiterate and powerless majority. During this period English adopted thousands of words from Norman French and from Latin, and its grammar changed rather radically. By the end of that time, however, the aristocracy had adopted English as their language and the use and importance of French gradually faded. The period from the Conquest to the reemergence of English as a full-fledged literary language is called Middle English. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English in the late 1300s.

William Caxton set up the first printing press in Britain at the end of the 15th century. The arrival of printing marks the point at which the language began to take the first steps toward standardization and its eventual role as a national language. The period from 1500 to about 1650 is called Early Modern English, a period during which notable sound changes, syntactic changes and lexical enrichment took place. The Great English Vowel Shift, which systematically shifted the phonetic values of all the long vowels in English, occurred during this period. Word order became more fixed in a subject-verb-object pattern, and English developed a complex auxiliary verb system. A rush of new vocabulary from the classical languages, the modern European languages, and more distant trading partners such as the countries of Asian minor and the Middle East entered the language as the renaissance influences of culture and trade and the emerging scientific community of Europe took root in England.

Shakespeare wrote prolifically during the late 1500s and early 1600s and, like Chaucer, took the language into new and creative literary territory. His influence on English drama and poetry continued to grow after his death in 1616 and he has never been surpassed as the best known and most read poet/playwright of modern English.

The King James Bible was published in 1611, the culmination of at least a century of efforts to bring a Bible written in the native language of the people into the Church establishment and into people's homes. Among the common people, whose contact with literature often did not go far past the Bible, the language of the scriptures as presented in this version commissioned by King James I was deeply influential, due in part to its religious significance, but also to its literary quality. Its simple style and use of native vocabulary had a surpassing beauty that still resonates today.

By the 1700s almost all of the modern syntactic patterns of English were in place and the language is easily readable by modern speakers. Colonization of new territories by the newly united Kingdom of Great Britain spread English to the far corners of the globe and brought cargoes of still more loanwords from those far-flung places. At this point English began to develop its major world dialectal varieties, some of which would develop into national standards for newly independent colonies. By the 21st century, as the language of international business, science, and popular culture, English has become the most important language on the planet.

Pre-English Period (before 600 AD)

ca. 3000 B.C.
(or 6000 B.C?)
Proto-Indo-European spoken in Baltic area.
(or Anatolia?)
ca. 1000 B.C. After many migrations, the various branches of Indo-European have become distinct. Celtic becomes most widespread branch of I.E. in Europe; Celtic peoples inhabit what is now Spain, France, Germany and England.
55 B.C. Beginning of Roman raids on British Isles.
43 A.D. Roman occupation of Britain. Roman colony of "Britannia" established. Eventually, many Celtic Britons become Romanized. (Others continually rebel).
200 B.C.-200 A.D. Germanic peoples move down from Scandinavia and spread over Central Europe in successive waves. Supplant Celts. Come into contact (at times antagonistic, at times commercial) with northward-expanding empire of Romans.
Early 5th century. Roman Empire collapses. Romans pull out of Britain and other colonies, attempting to shore up defense on the home front; but it's useless. Rome sacked by Goths.

Germanic tribes on the continent continue migrations west and south; consolidate into ever larger units. Those taking over in Rome call themselves "Roman emperors."

ca. 410 A.D. First Germanic tribes arrive in England.
410-600 Settlement of most of Britain by Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, some Frisians) speaking West Germanic dialects descended from Proto-Germanic. These dialects are distantly related to Latin, but also have a sprinkling of Latin borrowings due to earlier cultural contact with the Romans on the continent.

Celtic peoples, most of whom are Christianized, are pushed increasingly (despite occasional violent uprisings) into the marginal areas of Britain: Ireland, Scotland, Wales. Anglo-Saxons, originally sea-farers, settle down as farmers, exploiting rich English farmland.

By 600 A.D., the Germanic speech of England comprises dialects of a language distinct from the continental Germanic languages.

Old English Period (ca. 600-1100)

600-800 Rise of three great kingdoms politically unifying large areas: Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex. Supremacy passes from one kingdom to another in that order.
ca. 600 Christianity introduced among Anglo-Saxons by St. Augustine, missionary from Rome. Irish missionaries also spread Celtic form of Christianity to mainland Britain.
793 First serious Viking incursions. Lindisfarne monastery sacked.
800 Charlemagne, king of the Franks, crowned Holy Roman Emperor; height of Frankish power in Europe. Wessex kings aspire to similar glory; want to unite all England, and if possible the rest of mainland Britain, under one crown (theirs).
840s-870s Viking incursions grow worse and worse. Large organized groups set up permanent encampments on English soil. Slay kings of Northumbria and East Anglia, subjugate king of Mercia. Storm York (Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic) and set up a Viking kingdom (Jorvik). Wessex stands alone as the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain.
871 Vikings move against Wessex. In six pitched battles, the English hold their own, but fail to repel attackers decisively. In the last battle, the English king is mortally wounded. His young brother, Alfred, who had distinguished himself during the battles, is crowned king.
871-876 Alfred builds a navy. The kings of Denmark and Norway have come to view England as ripe for the plucking and begin to prepare an attack.
876 Three Danish kings attack Wessex. Alfred prevails, only to be attacked again a few months later. His cause looks hopeless.
878 Decisive battle at Edington; Alfred and a large contingent of desperate Anglo-Saxons make a last stand (they know what awaits them if they fail). Alfred leads the Anglo-Saxons to decisive victory; blockades a large Viking camp nearby, starving them into submission; and exacts homage from the kings of Denmark and an oath that the Danes will leave Wessex forever.

Under Alfred's terms of victory, England is partitioned into a part governed by the Anglo-Saxons (under the house of Wessex) and a part governed by the Scandinavians (some of whom become underlords of Alfred), divided by Watling Street. 15 years of peace follow; Alfred reigns over peaceful and prosperous kingdom. First called "Alfred the Great".

925 Athelstan crowned king. Height of Anglo-Saxon power. Athelstan reconquers York from the Vikings, and even conquers Scotland and Wales, heretofore ruled by Celts. Continues Alfred's mission of making improvemen ts in government, education, defense, and other social institutions.
10th century Danes and English continue to mix peacefully, and ultimately become indistinguishable. Many Scandinavian loanwords enter the language; English even borrows pronouns like them, their they.
978 Aethelred "the Unready" becomes king at 11 years of age.
991 Aethelred has proved to be a weak king, who does not repel minor Viking attacks. Vikings experiment with a major incursion at Maldon in Essex. After losing battle, Aethelred bribes them to depart with 10,000 pounds of silver. Mistake. Sveinn, king of Denmark, takes note.
994-1014 After 20 years of continuous battles and bribings, and incompetent and cowardly military leadership and governance, the English capitulate to king Sveinn of Denmark (later also of Norway). Aethelred flees to Normandy, across the channel.
1014 Sveinn's young son Cnut (or Canute) crowned king of England. Cnut decides to follow in Alfred's footsteps, aiming for a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. Encourages Anglo-Saxon culture and literature. Even marries Aethelred's widow Emma, brought over from Normandy.

After Cnut's death his sons bicker over the kingdom. When they die without issue, the kingdom passes back to the house of Wessex, to young Edward, son of Aethelred and Emma, who had been raised in exile in Normandy. Edward is a pious, monkish man called "The Confessor".

Edward has strong partiality for his birthplace, Normandy, a duchy populated by the descendents of Romanized Vikings. Especially fond of young Duke William of Normandy. Edward is dominated by his Anglo-Saxon earls, especially powerful earl Godwin. Godwin's son, Harold Godwinson, becomes de facto ruler as Edward takes less and less interest in governing.

1066 January. Edward dies childless, apparently recommending Harold Godwinson as successor. Harold duly chosen by Wessex earls, as nearest of kin to the crown is only an infant. Mercian and Northumbrian earls are hesitant to go along with choice of Harold.

William of Normandy claims that Harold once promised to support HIM as successor to Edward. Harold denies it. William prepares to mount an invasion. Ready by summer, but the winds are unfavorable for sailing.

September. Harald Hardradi of Norway decides this is a good time to attack England. Harold Godwinson rushes north and crushes Hardradi's army at Stamford Bridge. The winds change, and William puts to sea. Harold rushes back down to the south coast to try to repel William's attack. Mercians and Northumbrians are supposed to march down to help him, but never do. They don't realize what's in store for them.

October. Harold is defeated and killed at the battle of Hastings.

December. William of Normandy crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.

Middle English Period (ca. 1100-1500)

1066-1075 William crushes uprisings of Anglo-Saxon earls and peasants with a brutal hand; in Mercia and Northumberland, uses (literal) scorched earth policy, decimating population and laying waste the countryside. Anglo-Saxon earls and freemen deprived of property; many enslaved. William distributes property and titles to Normans (and some English) who supported him. Many of the English hereditary titles of nobility date from this period.

English becomes the language of the lower classes (peasants and slaves). Norman French becomes the language of the court and propertied classes. The legal system is redrawn along Norman lines and conducted in French. Churches, monasteries gradually filled with French-speaking functionaries, who use French for record-keeping. After a while, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is no longer kept up. Authors write literature in French, not English. For all practical purposes English is no longer a written language.

Bilingualism gradually becomes more common, especially among those who deal with both upper and lower classes. Growth of London as a commercial center draws many from the countryside who can fill this socially intermediate role.

1204 The English kings lose the duchy of Normandy to French kings. England is now the only home of the Norman English.
1205 First book in English appears since the conquest.
1258 First royal proclamation issued in English since the conquest.
ca. 1300 Increasing feeling on the part of even noblemen that they are English, not French. Nobility begin to educate their children in English. French is taught to children as a foreign language rather than used as a medium of instruction.
1337 Start of the Hundred Years' War between England and France.
1362 English becomes official language of the law courts. More and more authors are writing in English.
ca. 1380 Chaucer writes the Canterbury tales in Middle English. the language shows French influence in thousands of French borrowings. The London dialect, for the first time, begins to be recognized as the "Standard", or variety of English taken as the norm, for all England. Other dialects are relegated to a less prestigious position, even those that earlier served as standards (e.g. the Wessex dialect of southwest England).
1474 William Caxton brings a printing press to England from Germany. Publishes the first printed book in England. Beginning of the long process of standardization of spelling.

Modern English Period (ca. 1500-present) 

1500-1650 Early Modern English develops. The Great Vowel Shift gradually takes place. There is a large influx of Latin and Greek borrowings and neologisms.
1552 Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, publishes the Book of Common Prayer, a translation of the church's liturgy into English.
1611 King James Bible published, which has influenced English writing down to the present day.
1616 Shakespeare dies. Recognized even then as a genius of the English language. Wove native and borrowed words together in amazing and pleasing combinations.
1700s Classical period of English literature. The fashion for borrowing Latin and Greek words, and coining new words with Latin and Greek morphemes, rages unabated. Elaborate syntax matches elaborate vocabulary (e.g. writings of Samuel Johnson).

The rise of English purists, e.g. Jonathan Swift, who decried the 'degeneration' of English and sought to 'purify' it and fix it forever in unchanging form.

17th-19th centuries British imperialism. Borrowings from languages around the world.

Development of American English. By 19th century, a standard variety of American English develops, based on the dialect of the Mid-Atlantic states.

Establishment of English in Australia, South Africa, and India, among other British colonial outposts.

19th century Recognition (and acceptance) by linguistic scholars of the ever-changing nature of language. Discovery of the Indo-European language family. Late in century: Recognition that all languages are fundamentally the same in nature; no "primitive" or "advanced" languages.
19th-20th centuries Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Development of technical vocabularies. Within a few centuries, English has gone from an island tongue to a world language, following the fortunes of those who speak it.
20th century Communications revolution. Spread of a few languages at the expense of many. Languages of the world begin to die out on a large scale as mastery of certain world languages becomes necessary for survival. Classification and description of non-Indo-European languages by linguists continues, in many cases in a race against the clock.
1945-present American political, economic, military supremacy. Borrowing patterns continue. English has greater impact than ever on other languages, even those with more native speakers. Becomes most widely studied second language, and a scientific lingua franca.

By the 1990s, preferences begin to shift in many places from British to American English as the selected standard for second language acquisition. The twin influences of British and American broadcasting media make the language accessible to more and more people. Hollywood and the pop music industry help make English an irresistible medium for the transmission of popular culture. Even long-established European cultures begin to feel linguistically and culturally threatened, as English comes into use in more and more spheres and large numbers of English borrowings enter their languages.

New waves of immigrants to the U.S. Linguistic diversity increases where the newcomers settle, but immigrants repeat the pattern of earlier settlers and lose their language within a generation or two. The culture at large remains resolutely monolingual (despite the fears of cultural purists). But as ever, the language continues to absorb loanwords, continually enriched by the many tongues of the newcomers to these shores.


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Five Events that Shaped the History of English

Philip Durkin, Principal etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, chooses five events that shaped the English Language.

The Anglo-Saxon Settlement

It's never easy to pinpoint exactly when a specific language began, but in the case of English we can at least say that there is little sense in speaking of the English language as a separate entity before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Little is known of this period with any certainty, but we do know that Germanic invaders came and settled in Britain from the north-western coastline of continental Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders all spoke a language that was Germanic (related to what emerged as Dutch, Frisian, German and the Scandinavian languages, and to Gothic), but we'll probably never know how different their speech was from that of their continental neighbours. However it is fairly certain that many of the settlers would have spoken in exactly the same way as some of their north European neighbours, and that not all of the settlers would have spoken in the same way.

The reason that we know so little about the linguistic situation in this period is because we do not have much in the way of written records from any of the Germanic languages of north-western Europe until several centuries later. When Old English writings begin to appear in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries there is a good deal of regional variation, but not substantially more than that found in later periods. This was the language that Alfred the Great referred to as ‘English’ in the ninth century.

The Celts were already resident in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but there are few obvious traces of their language in English today. Some scholars have suggested that the Celtic tongue might have had an underlying influence on the grammatical development of English, particularly in some parts of the country, but this is highly speculative. The number of loanwords known for certain to have entered Old English from this source is very small. Those that survive in modern English include brock (badger), and coomb a type of valley, alongside many place names.

The Scandinavian Settlements

The next invaders were the Norsemen. From the middle of the ninth century large numbers of Norse invaders settled in Britain, particularly in northern and eastern areas, and in the eleventh century the whole of England had a Danish king, Canute. The distinct North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had great influence on English, most obviously seen in the words that English has borrowed from this source. These include some very basic words such as take and even grammatical words such as they. The common Germanic base of the two languages meant that there were still many similarities between Old English and the language of the invaders. Some words, for example give perhaps show a kind of hybridization with some spellings going back to Old English and others being Norse in origin. However, the resemblances between the two languages are so great that in many cases it is impossible to be sure of the exact ancestry of a particular word or spelling. However, much of the influence of Norse, including the vast majority of the loanwords, does not appear in written English until after the next great historical and cultural upheaval, the Norman Conquest.

1066 and after 1066 and all that

The centuries after the Norman Conquest witnessed enormous changes in the English language. In the course of what is called the Middle English period, the fairly rich inflectional system of Old English broke down. It was replaced by what is broadly speaking, the same system English has today, which unlike Old English makes very little use of distinctive word endings in the grammar of the language. The vocabulary of English also changed enormously, with tremendous numbers of borrowings from French and Latin, in addition to the Scandinavian loanwords already mentioned, which were slowly starting to appear in the written language. Old English, like German today, showed a tendency to find native equivalents for foreign words and phrases (although both Old English and modern German show plenty of loanwords), whereas Middle English acquired the habit that modern English retains today of readily accommodating foreign words. Trilingualism in English, French, and Latin was common in the worlds of business and the professions, with words crossing over from one language to another with ease. One only has to flick through the etymologies of any English dictionary to get an impression of the huge number of words entering English from French and Latin during the later medieval period. This trend was set to continue into the early modern period with the explosion of interest in the writings of the ancient world.


The late medieval and early modern periods saw a fairly steady process of standardization in English south of the Scottish border. The written and spoken language of London continued to evolve and gradually began to have a greater influence in the country at large. For most of the Middle English period a dialect was simply what was spoken in a particular area, which would normally be more or less represented in writing - although where and from whom the writer had learnt how to write were also important. It was only when the broadly London standard began to dominate, especially through the new technology of printing, that the other regional varieties of the language began to be seen as different in kind. As the London standard became used more widely, especially in more formal contexts and particularly amongst the more elevated members of society, the other regional varieties came to be stigmatized, as lacking social prestige and indicating a lack of education.

In the same period a series of changes also occurred in English pronunciation (though not uniformly in all dialects), which go under the collective name of the Great Vowel Shift. These were purely linguistic ‘sound changes’ which occur in every language in every period of history. The changes in pronunciation weren’t the result of specific social or historical factors, but social and historical factors would have helped to spread the results of the changes. As a result the so-called ‘pure’ vowel sounds which still characterise many continental languages were lost to English. The phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were also lost, which gave rise to many of the oddities of English pronunciation, and which now obscure the relationships between many English words and their foreign counterparts.

Colonization and Globalization

During the medieval and early modern periods the influence of English spread throughout the British Isles, and from the early seventeenth century onwards its influence began to be felt throughout the world. The complex processes of exploration, colonization and overseas trade that characterized Britain’s external relations for several centuries became agents for change in the English language. This wasn’t simply through the acquisition of loanwords deriving from languages from every corner of the world, which in many cases only entered English via the languages of other trading and imperial nations such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, but through the gradual development of new varieties of English, each with their own nuances of vocabulary and grammar and their own distinct pronunciations. More recently still, English has become a lingua franca, a global language, regularly used and understood by many nations for whom English is not their first language. (For further information on this see the pages on Global English on this site). The eventual effects on the English language of both of these developments can only be guessed at today, but there can be little doubt that they will be as important as anything that has happened to English in the past sixteen hundred years.


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History of the English Language

The figure below shows the timeline of the history of the English language. The earliest known residents of the British Isles were the Celts, who spoke Celtic languages—a separate branch of the Indo-European language family tree. Over the centuries the British Isles were invaded and conquered by various peoples, who brought their languages and customs with them as they settled in their new lives. There is now very little Celtic influence left in English. The earliest time when we can say that English was spoken was in the 5th century CE (Common Era—a politically correct term used to replace AD).

In case you hadn’t made the connection, “England” <– “Engla Land” <– “Angle Land” (Land of the Angles, a people of northern old Germany). Their name lives on in the district of England named East Anglia, and also in the Anglican Church. In the present day there is still a region of Germany known as Angeln, which is likely the same area from which the original Angles came. Angeln lies in Schleswig-Holstein on the eastern side of the Jutland peninsula near the cities of Flensburg and Schleswig.

Timeline of English language history

Here are some links for further reading on the history of English, in no particular order:

If you need any more references, try a Yahoo! search or Google search for “History of English”. You will get over 200,000 hits. That should be enough for you!

Yahoo! search


Copyright © 2003–2007 Daniel M. Short

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What Are the Origins of the English Language?

ScribeThe history of English is conventionally, if perhaps too neatly, divided into three periods usually called Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, and Modern English. The earliest period begins with the migration of certain Germanic tribes from the continent to Britain in the fifth century A.D., though no records of their language survive from before the seventh century, and it continues until the end of the eleventh century or a bit later. By that time Latin, Old Norse (the language of the Viking invaders), and especially the Anglo-Norman French of the dominant class after the Norman Conquest in 1066 had begun to have a substantial impact on the lexicon, and the well-developed inflectional system that typifies the grammar of Old English had begun to break down.

The following brief sample of Old English prose illustrates several of the significant ways in which change has so transformed English that we must look carefully to find points of resemblance between the language of the tenth century and our own. It is taken from Aelfric's "Homily on St. Gregory the Great" and concerns the famous story of how that pope came to send missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity after seeing Anglo-Saxon boys for sale as slaves in Rome:

Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, "Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon."

A few of these words will be recognized as identical in spelling with their modern equivalents—he, of, him, for, and, on—and the resemblance of a few others to familiar words may be guessed—nama to name, comon to come, wære to were, wæs to was—but only those who have made a special study of Old English will be able to read the passage with understanding. The sense of it is as follows:

Again he [St. Gregory] asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, "Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be angels' companions in heaven."

Some of the words in the original have survived in altered form, including axode (asked), hu (how), rihtlice (rightly), engla (angels), habbað (have), swilcum (such), heofonum (heaven), and beon (be). Others, however, have vanished from our lexicon, mostly without a trace, including several that were quite common words in Old English: eft "again," ðeode "people, nation," cwæð "said, spoke," gehatene "called, named," wlite "appearance, beauty," and geferan "companions." Recognition of some words is naturally hindered by the presence of two special characters, þ, called "thorn," and ð, called "edh," which served in Old English to represent the sounds now spelled with th.

Other points worth noting include the fact that the pronoun system did not yet, in the late tenth century, include the third person plural forms beginning with th-: hi appears where we would use they. Several aspects of word order will also strike the reader as oddly unlike ours. Subject and verb are inverted after an adverb—þa cwæð he "Then said he"—a phenomenon not unknown in Modern English but now restricted to a few adverbs such as never and requiring the presence of an auxiliary verb like do or have. In subordinate clauses the main verb must be last, and so an object or a preposition may precede it in a way no longer natural: þe hi of comon "which they from came," for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað "because they angels' beauty have."

Perhaps the most distinctive difference between Old and Modern English reflected in Aelfric's sentences is the elaborate system of inflections, of which we now have only remnants. Nouns, adjectives, and even the definite article are inflected for gender, case, and number: ðære ðeode "(of) the people" is feminine, genitive, and singular, Angle "Angles" is masculine, accusative, and plural, and swilcum "such" is masculine, dative, and plural. The system of inflections for verbs was also more elaborate than ours: for example, habbað "have" ends with the -að suffix characteristic of plural present indicative verbs. In addition, there were two imperative forms, four subjunctive forms (two for the present tense and two for the preterit, or past, tense), and several others which we no longer have. Even where Modern English retains a particular category of inflection, the form has often changed. Old English present participles ended in -ende not -ing, and past participles bore a prefix ge- (as geandwyrd "answered" above).

The period of Middle English extends roughly from the twelfth century through the fifteenth. The influence of French (and Latin, often by way of French) upon the lexicon continued throughout this period, the loss of some inflections and the reduction of others (often to a final unstressed vowel spelled -e) accelerated, and many changes took place within the phonological and grammatical systems of the language. A typical prose passage, especially one from the later part of the period, will not have such a foreign look to us as Aelfric's prose has; but it will not be mistaken for contemporary writing either. The following brief passage is drawn from a work of the late fourteenth century called Mandeville's Travels. It is fiction in the guise of travel literature, and, though it purports to be from the pen of an English knight, it was originally written in French and later translated into Latin and English. In this extract Mandeville describes the land of Bactria, apparently not an altogether inviting place, as it is inhabited by "full yuele [evil] folk and full cruell."

In þat lond ben trees þat beren wolle, as þogh it were of scheep; whereof men maken clothes, and all þing þat may ben made of wolle. In þat contree ben many ipotaynes, þat dwellen som tyme in the water, and somtyme on the lond: and þei ben half man and half hors, as I haue seyd before; and þei eten men, whan þei may take hem. And þere ben ryueres and watres þat ben fulle byttere, þree sithes more þan is the water of the see. In þat contré ben many griffounes, more plentee þan in ony other contree. Sum men seyn þat þei han the body vpward as an egle, and benethe as a lyoun: and treuly þei seyn soth þat þei ben of þat schapp. But o griffoun hath the body more gret, and is more strong, þanne eight lyouns, of suche lyouns as ben o this half; and more gret and strongere þan an hundred egles, suche as we han amonges vs. For o griffoun þere wil bere fleynge to his nest a gret hors, 3if he may fynde him at the poynt, or two oxen 3oked togidere, as þei gon at the plowgh.

The spelling is often peculiar by modern standards and even inconsistent within these few sentences (contré and contree, o [griffoun] and a [gret hors], þanne and þan, for example). Moreover, in the original text, there is in addition to thorn another old character 3, called "yogh," to make difficulty. It can represent several sounds but here may be thought of as equivalent to y. Even the older spellings (including those where u stands for v or vice versa) are recognizable, however, and there are only a few words like ipotaynes "hippopotamuses" and sithes "times" that have dropped out of the language altogether.

We may notice a few words and phrases that have meanings no longer common such as byttere "salty," o this half "on this side of the world," and at the poynt "to hand," and the effect of the centuries-long dominance of French on the vocabulary is evident in many familiar words which could not have occurred in Aelfric's writing even if his subject had allowed them, words like contree, ryueres, plentee, egle, and lyoun.

In general word order is now very close to that of our time, though we notice constructions like hath the body more gret and three sithes more þan is the water of the see. We also notice that present tense verbs still receive a plural inflection as in beren, dwellen, han, and ben and that while nominative þei has replaced Aelfric's hi in the third person plural, the form for objects is still hem.

All the same, the number of inflections for nouns, adjectives, and verbs has been greatly reduced, and in most respects Mandeville is closer to Modern than to Old English.

The period of Modern English extends from the sixteenth century to our own day. The early part of this period saw the completion of a revolution in the phonology of English that had begun in late Middle English and that effectively redistributed the occurrence of the vowel phonemes to something approximating their present pattern. (Mandeville's English would have sounded even less familiar to us than it looks.)

Other important early developments include the stabilizing effect on spelling of the printing press and the beginning of the direct influence of Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek on the lexicon. Later, as English came into contact with other cultures around the world and distinctive dialects of English developed in the many areas which Britain had colonized, numerous other languages made small but interesting contributions to our word-stock.

The historical aspect of English really encompasses more than the three stages of development just under consideration. English has what might be called a prehistory as well. As we have seen, our language did not simply spring into existence; it was brought from the Continent by Germanic tribes who had no form of writing and hence left no records. Philologists know that they must have spoken a dialect of a language that can be called West Germanic and that other dialects of this unknown language must have included the ancestors of such languages as German, Dutch, Low German, and Frisian. They know this because of certain systematic similarities which these languages share with each other but do not share with, say, Danish. However, they have had somehow to reconstruct what that language was like in its lexicon, phonology, grammar, and semantics as best they can through sophisticated techniques of comparison developed chiefly during the last century.

Similarly, because ancient and modern languages like Old Norse and Gothic or Icelandic and Norwegian have points in common with Old English and Old High German or Dutch and English that they do not share with French or Russian, it is clear that there was an earlier unrecorded language that can be called simply Germanic and that must be reconstructed in the same way. Still earlier, Germanic was just a dialect (the ancestors of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit were three other such dialects) of a language conventionally designated Indo-European, and thus English is just one relatively young member of an ancient family of languages whose descendants cover a fair portion of the globe.


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British Pub Signs: A Short History






Guinness sign outside Claffey's pub in Tyrrellspass, Westmeath in central Ireland.

Signs From The Spirit World

By Elaine Saunders

Lord Nelson pub sign
Lord Nelson sign

Everyone loves an “Olde Worlde” pub with its oak beams, horse brasses and roaring log fires. Nevertheless, no matter how old the pub itself, the name on the sign outside is probably the most historic thing about the place.

The idea of the pub sign came to Britain at the time of the Roman invasion. Wine bars in ancient Rome hung bunches of vine leaves outside as trading signs but when the Romans came here, they found precious few vines in the inhospitable climate. Instead, they hung up bushes to mark out the inns and the names Bush or Bull & Bush still survive.

What’s in a name?
It would be centuries before the first recognisable pubs opened. Religious houses ran the earliest true inns to cater for pilgrims and knights on their way to the Crusades in the Holy Land. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, whose cellars are carved from the rocks beneath Nottingham Castle, is just such an example. Established in 1189, it claims the title of the oldest pub in England and was a stopover point for forces on their way to meet with Richard the Lionheart. Other signs on this theme are the Turk’s Head, Saracen’s Head and Lamb & Flag – the lamb representing Christ and the flag the sign of the crusaders.

Even after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century, some of the names denoting religious connections survived, such as the Mitre, the Ship (symbolising the Ark) and the Anchor (the Christian faith). However, many of the landlords thought it more politic to show allegiance to the monarch and hastily adopted titles like the King’s Head or the Crown. Henry VIII who ordered the Dissolution is, unsurprisingly, the most popularly depicted monarch.

Heraldry has been a recurrent theme, the Black, White, Red and Golden Lions have formed part of the royal coat of arms since the time of the Norman Conquest. The Unicorn was in the Scottish arms, the Red Dragon in the Welsh and the White Horse in the Hanoverian. The Rising Sun was the badge of Edward III. Local gentry often had pubs on their land named after them or parts of their cognizance were taken.

Anyone who caught the public imagination was likely to be immortalised such as Lord Nelson or Wellington and even loveable rogues like Dick Turpin get a mention.

Marquis of Granby pub sign
Marquis of Granby

One of the most affectionate tributes is reserved for the Marquis of Granby, Commander in Chief of the British army. After the Battle of Warburg, he bought pubs for all his non-commissioned officers. His generosity ruined him however and he died in 1770 leaving crushing debts of £37,000.

Sporty Names
In the days of a largely illiterate population, pictorial signs were an essential way of advertising the inn or the type of entertainment on offer inside. Any pub called the Cock Inn or the Cock Pit would once have been a venue for cock fighting. Ye Old Fighting Cocks in St Albans (which also claims to be the oldest pub in Britain) was originally the dovecote for St Albans Abbey. After the Dissolution, it was realised that its circular shape made it a perfect venue for cock fighting. Just to confuse things, any pub called the Cock & Bottle has nothing to do with sport. It simply denotes that both bottled and draught beers were available.

As to other entertainments, the Bear denotes bear baiting, the Dog & Duck hunting, the Bull & Dog bull baiting and the Bird in Hand, falconry. Nowadays, the more modern sports are represented by names like the Cricketers’ Arms, the Anglers’ Rest or the Huntsman.

Often the predominant trade of the area would give the pub its name. The Golden Fleece is a reflection of the local wool trade. The Coopers’, Bricklayers’, Saddlers’ and Masons’ Arms are commonplace signs. Legend has it that the Smiths Arms in Dorset was once a blacksmith’s forge where Charles II stopped to have his horse shod. Whilst he was waiting he demanded a beer but was told the smithy was unlicenced. Exercising his royal prerogative, he granted one and was duly served.

In the 18th Century, the population became more mobile and a need for coaching inns grew with predictable names such as Coach & Horses or Horse & Groom. Later the advent of steam gave every town its Railway Inn or Station Arms.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub sign
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

Where good stories come from
There is a story that, in Stoney Stratford, the London coach changed horses at the Bull and the Birmingham coach across the road at the Cock Inn. The passengers from the respective coaches would swap news whilst waiting for the change and it is from this that the phrase “cock and bull story” is said to have originated.

Plenty of cock and bull stories and local legends have found their way onto pub signs. Take, for example, the Drunken Duck at Barngates. The landlady one day found all of her ducks dead in the yard. Unaccustomed to waste, she plucked them ready for cooking. As she finished, the ducks began to revive and a search of the yard revealed a leaking beer barrel surrounded by webbed footprints. She was apparently so contrite that she knitted little jackets until their feathers grew back.

Alternatively, there was the Flying Monk of Malmesbury who claimed his faith was so strong it would enable him to fly. He jumped from the top of the local abbey to demonstrate his faith and…well, the pub was a nice memorial!

It is rare to take time to consider the sign outside the pub in the rush to get inside but few pubs were named by accident. Almost every name has a story behind it and, together, they illustrate the social history of England. With names enduring for centuries it is possible that the sign above the door is as old as the pleasure of drinking itself.


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Behind the Masks

Books: With George Orwell as his guide, David Runciman asks when openness in politics becomes just another form of hypocrisy

George Orwell 

Unlike Tony Blair, Gordon Brown doesn't seem comfortable in his own skin and we are suspicious of his reserve. But is our obsession with sincerity in politics a good thing? With George Orwell, the patron saint of straight-talking as his guide, David Runciman asks when openness becomes just another form of hypocrisy

Saturday May 17, 2008
The Guardian

A still from the 1954 film Animal Farm, based on the book by George Orwell
A still from the 1954 film Animal Farm, based on the book by George Orwell. Photograph: Kobal Collection

Modern democratic politics sometimes seems to have been reduced to a game of hunt the hypocrite. Politicians who do not practise what they preach are an affront to democratic sensibilities, because they seem to be setting themselves apart from the rest of us, obeying their own private rules. The same goes for politicians who do not tell us what they really believe (which is the classical definition of a hypocrite - someone who "masks" the real person underneath). We want our politicians to be sincere, so that we can know they are not hiding anything from us. So all politicians are ceaselessly probed for the little inconsistencies, double standards, concealments and obfuscations that indicate a hypocrite, by opponents who know what damage that label can do. Almost all negative political advertising is essentially an attempt to show that a rival candidate for office is not as good as he or she pretends to be. And that's why negative advertising works.

This obsession with sincerity, and loathing of bogus sentiment, has benefited some politicians and damaged others. George W Bush, Tony Blair, John McCain and Barack Obama have all taken advantage of the premium we place on politicians who seem to be comfortable in their own skin, and with their own values; Al Gore, John Kerry, Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton have all suffered from appearing to hold something back, so that we can never be sure who it is we are dealing with. Brown in particular is paying the price for his inability to come to terms with the new confessional politics. People want to know who he really is, but if what he is really is a cautious and reserved politician who plays the percentages, then the public don't want to know. So he is forced to tour the daytime-TV sofas trying to show his human side, and ends up revealing only how uncomfortable he is with the politics of self-revelation. His caution and his constant calculation make him look like a man in a mask - the classic hypocrite with something to hide.

But there aren't really any winners here. The sincere politicians soon find that they too look like people with something to hide, since no one can withstand the scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle. They also discover that no one can survive without chipping away at the sincerity of their opponents. McCain and Obama want to offer a truth-telling politics that stands above partisan bickering, but they also have to make sure that no one is fooled by the fake versions on offer elsewhere. So the straight-talking politicians, as they allow their proxies to rubbish their rivals, end up looking like hypocrites too.

This dance of hypocrisy and anti-hypocrisy, the endless round of masking and unmasking that is electoral politics, can be profoundly frustrating and debilitating, not just for the politicians, but for all the political commentators who want to escape from it. Most journalists long to take politics to some higher plane of argument, where the truth can be told, yet find themselves reduced to reporting on the name-calling that passes for political debate. Looking for a way out from all this double-talk, they often start looking back, nostalgically, to the one writer who retains a reputation for never having compromised in telling it like it is. Enter George Orwell, the great scourge of political hypocrisy and cant, whose name now acts as a kind of shorthand for integrity in the face of the temptations of hypocrisy.

Orwell has become the patron saint of all those journalists who think most other journalists are no longer up to the job of wading through the bullshit of contemporary political life. "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," Orwell wrote, and this is the dictum that stands at the head of Andrew Sullivan's influential (and passionately pro-Obama) blog, "The Daily Dish", where he lays into anyone (particularly anyone called Clinton) who doesn't match up to Orwell's standards of straight-talking. What writers such as Sullivan love about Orwell is his apparently limitless contempt for obfuscation, euphemism and deceit. Orwell believed that good prose should be like a window-pane, allowing you to see through to the world behind. He also believed that most people talking about politics were simply smearing the window with grimy clichés.

Orwell's loathing of certain kinds of hypocrisy has also made him the patron saint of those journalists who want to defend the war on terror against what they see as the grotesque double standards of its critics. During the second world war, Orwell used to excoriate leftists who would happily criticise Roosevelt and Churchill but wouldn't say a word against Stalin. Replace the first two with Bush and Blair, and Stalin with Bin Laden or Saddam, and Orwell-lovers such as Christopher Hitchens think you have history repeating itself. The leading American neoconservative William Kristol recently wrote an article in which he says that browsing Orwell in an airport store reminded him once again why Democrats in the US may not be fit to govern: their "sniggering" attitude to American failure in Iraq shows that "they no longer even try to imagine what action and responsibility are like".

But using Orwell the anti-hypocrite as a stick to beat up anyone whose political values are not entirely consistent and robust in their defence of freedom is too easy, and it is wrong. Orwell himself was by no means a straightforward anti-hypocrite, and his attitude to hypocrisy is both more interesting, and more complicated, than his present-day champions would have us believe. Orwell does offer us a way out, but only if we stop treating him as someone who can save us from the curse of hypocrisy. Instead, Orwell shows us that the only escape from the most corrosive forms of hypocrisy is to accept that other forms of hypocrisy are unavoidable. He wanted the language of power to be transparent, but that did not mean that he thought either people or the political systems they inhabited should be transparent as well. He also accepted that hypocrisy in politics is invariably preferable to its opposite - an excess of sincerity. There were many forms of politics that Orwell was prepared to countenance in which a kind of double standard, hypocrisy or deliberate concealment was being practised, so long as that concealment had an element of truthfulness about it.

What I am thinking of in particular is Orwell's defence of the various, complicated hypocrisies of being English. Take, for example, Orwell's treatment of two very English writers whose political views he emphatically did not share: Rudyard Kipling and PG Wodehouse. Orwell was willing to stick up for both of them, and in both cases it was because, whatever might be said against them, they were at least to be preferred to those who used hypocrisy as a stick to beat them with.

So, while Kipling's imperialism was repugnant to Orwell - "it is no use pretending," he wrote, "that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilised person" - Kipling himself was not, for a variety of different reasons. First, Orwell felt that Kipling was at least open about his prejudices. He had a world-view that he was willing to defend for what it was, and as such he stood in obvious contrast to those "humanitarian" hypocrites who condemned empire while relying on its fruits to sustain their comfortable lifestyles. As Orwell puts it, in a characteristically belligerent passage from The Road to Wigan Pier

It is so easy to be witty about the British Empire. The White Man's Burden and "Rule Britannia" and Kipling's novels and Anglo-Indian bores - who could even mention such things without a snigger? . . . That is the attitude of the typical left-winger towards imperialism, and a thoroughly flabby, boneless attitude it is . . . For apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire. Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation - an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.

Second, Kipling's prose chimed with a truth about the world, even though it also represented a failure to face up to certain truths: "He dealt largely in platitudes," Orwell says, "and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he says sticks." But perhaps most importantly, Orwell felt that Kipling always kept something of his own personal character in reserve, and that there was therefore always more to Kipling than the views with which he was associated. Orwell described this extra something as his essential "personal decency", and he said on Kipling's death: "It is worth remembering that he was the most widely popular English writer of our time, and yet that no one, perhaps, so consistently refrained from making a vulgar show of his personality." Kipling was saved, in Orwell's eyes, by the fact that his writing, for all its robustness (and not least its robustness about power), was not fully self-revealing, in that it did not allow one to see all the way through to the man underneath.

Wodehouse, by contrast, was saved by the fact that the writing was the man - Orwell accepts that Wodehouse was "his own Bertie Wooster". This is why Orwell believed it was absurd to pillory Wodehouse for the mildly treacherous radio broadcasts he made while interned by the Nazis during the second world war. Wodehouse was what Orwell called "a political innocent", someone whose essential stupidity about politics - "his mild facetiousness covering an unthinking acceptance [of the world he inhabited]" - rescued him from the charge of the worst sorts of hypocrisy. Instead, the worst of the hypocrites were Wodehouse's critics after the war, who saw in him "an ideal whipping boy", and used him as a distraction from any attempt to expose the far more extensive collaborations and deceptions that underpinned their own war efforts. "All kinds of petty rats are hunted down," Orwell wrote in his defence of Wodehouse, "while almost without exception the big rats escape."

What Kipling and Wodehouse had in common for Orwell was that there was a kind of integrity to their double standards, though of very different kinds. Kipling deliberately concealed something of himself, but did not seek to conceal the truth about the nature of imperial power; Wodehouse exposed himself, and thereby inadvertently exposed something of the double standards of the system of power in which he unthinkingly believed. But it is also true that what rescued Kipling and Wodehouse in Orwell's eyes was that they did not share the other's vice. The easiest way to illustrate this is to consider what would have happened if their positions had been reversed. It is inconceivable that if Kipling had found himself in Wodehouse's position, broadcasting for the Nazis for the sake of a quiet life, then Orwell would have defended him; there was nothing innocent about Kipling, and therefore there was no way of imagining that he might have been self-deceived in such circumstances. Stupidity might just retain its integrity in the face of totalitarianism, but knowingness never could. Equally, it is impossible to imagine Orwell defending a PG Wodehouse view of British imperialism, because there was nothing innocent about imperialism, and political naivety in that context was always culpable. Kipling could write about empire because he was in no sense naive about it; what made Orwell despair of British imperialism was that it was not on the whole staffed by Kiplings, but by Bertie Woosters.

It is this complicated attitude to hypocrisy that underpins Orwell's most famous discussion of what it means to be English, in the essays published in 1941 as The Lion and the Unicorn, including the one entitled "England, Your England". There are two sorts of hypocrisy described in that essay. The first is the relatively innocent hypocrisy of democracy, which is underpinned in the English case by the sentimentality of the working classes and the stupidity of those who rule them. This innocent stupidity is exemplified for Orwell by the "morally sound" willingness of the English upper classes to get themselves killed in wartime. Even the Woosters of this world, who can't be relied on for much, can be relied on for this: "Bertie, a sluggish Don Quixote, has no wish to tilt at windmills, but he would hardly think of refusing to do so when honour calls." Democracy, for Orwell, is a charade, but the innocence of the English version is what saves it from being a total fraud. "It follows," Orwell writes, "that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship." But democracy is more than just a name in England, because the hypocrisy is more pervasive than that would suggest. It shapes and conditions the way that people behave. "Public life in England," Orwell declares, "has never been openly scandalous. It has not reached the pitch of disintegration at which humbug can be dropped."

The image Orwell uses to capture the essence of English public life is of "a society which is ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must never be taken out of its scabbard". He goes on: "An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face . . . The sword is still in the scabbard, and while it stays there corruption cannot go beyond a certain point." So, he concludes, "even hypocrisy is a powerful safeguard".

But there is another sort of hypocrisy at work in English life, beyond that of democratic solidarity. That is the hypocrisy of empire, and here Orwell tends to side with the foreign observers who detect in English attitudes to their empire a culpable double standard. In relation to their domestic affairs, Orwell believes that foreigners are wrong to write off the English hatred of "militarism" as merely a "decadent" form of hypocrisy. But it is impossible to ignore that, in relation to the politics of empire, English innocence cannot be what it appears. After all, it is in the essence of imperial power that the sword does not remain in the scabbard. The recurring images in Orwell's work that seek to capture the essence of the imperial experience are of the weapon, however blunt and however crude, being unsheathed.

Orwell himself described his personal awakening to the true nature of imperial power as occurring in Colombo harbour, during his trip out to Burma to begin his career as a military policeman. There, he witnessed a native servant, who had dropped a trunk that was being taken on board the ship, being viciously kicked on the backside by a white police sergeant, to the obvious approval of the onlookers. This, for Orwell, was in essence what empire meant: unthinking brutality. But the most memorable of all Orwell's images of imperialism in action comes in perhaps the most celebrated of all his shorter pieces of writing, "Shooting an Elephant". Orwell, in Burma, is called upon to shoot an elephant that is said to have killed a man, in front of a crowd of eager Burmese onlookers. This event, Orwell says, offers a glimpse of "the dirty work of empire at close quarters". And what it shows is that the agents of imperial authority don't know what they are doing; they are merely acting out a part over which they have lost control. "I was seemingly the leading actor in the piece," Orwell writes, "but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind." Orwell did not wish to shoot the elephant, but he felt he had no choice. The white man on imperial duty "wears a mask and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant." The hypocrisy of empire is revealed here as the unsheathing of the weapon by someone who does not wish to use it, and has lost all control of what can be done with it, or even of what it is for, but must go through with his part anyway.

In "Shooting an Elephant", Orwell doesn't exactly come across as Bertie Wooster - he is far too reflective for that - but he is not a million miles away from the world of PG Wodehouse either. Wooster would also shoot the elephant, and though, in his case, it might not cause him any great pangs of conscience, it would also be because he was the puppet, not the puppeteer. The stupidity of the British ruling class, which was their saving grace so far as democracy was concerned, was catastrophic in the context of empire. Kipling, who was neither stupid, nor strictly speaking a member of the British ruling class (he was, essentially, a journalist) at least did not try to pretend that the empire was something it was not. But not even Kipling was able to tell the basic truth about the British empire: that democratic hypocrisy and imperial hypocrisy simply do not mix. Democratic hypocrisy, in Orwell's terms, is saved by the element of self-deception on which it rests, which is what turns the illusion into a half-truth, and keeps the sword in its scabbard. Imperial hypocrisy is rendered self-defeating by that same self-deception, since the sword cannot remain in the scabbard, and will be deployed for the supposed benefit of the people it is being used to coerce, by people who are unable to be honest with themselves about the nature of that coercion.

In a way, it is easy to see what the solution is to this clash of hypocrisies: democracy needs to abandon imperialism, as Orwell was convinced that Britain needed to divest itself of its empire, and to face up to the sacrifices which that would involve. But it is important to recognise that the democracy that abandons imperialism does not abandon hypocrisy: rather, it preserves its own sustainable hypocrisy by ditching the form of power that makes a mockery of it. There is an alternative remedy, of course, which is to abandon hypocrisy altogether. This is what would happen if imperialism jettisoned democracy, rather than the other way around. An imperial order unconstrained by democratic or liberal hypocrisies, in which power can be called by its proper name, in which the sword is always unsheathed because there is never any need to conceal it, is certainly possible. Indeed, Orwell believed, it was not just possible, but prevalent in the world he had come to know, and would be all-pervasive in one possible future world that he was to imagine. Imperialism without hypocrisy is called fascism, and it is one of the distinguishing marks of fascism, as of other totalitarian regimes, that it does not need to be hypocritical. Totalitarians can afford to be sincere about power. It is out of this sincerity that we get a third quintessentially Orwellian image, to place alongside that of the unsheathed sword, and that of the young military policeman stumbling along a road in Burma, armed only with his elephant-gun. The third image is of a boot, stamping on a human face.

Yet it is not only the sincerity of fascism that poses a threat to English hypocrisy in Orwell's eyes; there is also the dangerous sincerity, or anti-hypocrisy, of anti-fascism. Orwell gives an extended glimpse of what this sincerity might look like in a passage in the novel Coming Up for Air, in which the hero George Bowling attends a political meeting, in the period before the outbreak of hostilities between England and Germany, and listens to a speech:

[He was] a rather mean little man, with a white face and a bald head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans. What's he doing? Quite deliberately, and quite openly, stirring up hatred. Doing his damnedest to make you hate certain foreigners called Fascists. It's a queer thing, I thought, to be known as "Mr So-and-so, the well-known anti-Fascist". A queer trade, anti-Fascism . . . But the grating voice went on and on, and another thing struck me. He means it. Not faking at all - feels every word he is saying. He's trying to work up hatred in his audience, but that is nothing compared to the hatred he feels himself. Every slogan's gospel truth to him. If you cut him open all you'd find inside would be Democracy-Fascism-Democracy. Interesting to know a chap like that in private life. But does he have a private life? Or does he only go round from platform to platform, working up hatred? Perhaps even his dreams are slogans.

This scene foreshadows a better-known scene in a better-known book: the hate session in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the crowd is required to vent its fury at the hate figure of Emmanuel Goldstein, and does so in all sincerity, even Winston Smith, who feels the hatred wash through him ("the horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within 30 seconds any pretence was always unnecessary"). The scene from Coming Up for Air also foreshadows a theme of that later book, which is what it might mean not to have a private life, not to have anything held back or reserved, but simply to be the slogans that one is forced to spout through and through. In such a world, hypocrisy would not simply be valuable, it would in a sense represent the ultimate value, because its precondition is having something to hide. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a description of a world in which hypocrisy has become impossible.

What, though, of Orwell's greatest book, Animal Farm? Isn't this an exercise in the exposure of hypocrisy, rather than the exposure of a world where hypocrisy is impossible? Certainly, Animal Farm seems, at its most literal, to be a litany of hypocrisies: from the double standards of the pigs (changing the commandment from "No animal shall drink alcohol" to "No animal shall drink alcohol to excess", the day after they have discovered the joys of whisky) to the false promises of Napoleon, their Stalin-like leader, and the sanctimony of his speechifying. But at its end, Animal Farm also points towards the end of hypocrisy, as the criteria by which hypocrisy might be judged themselves become unsustainable. The final scene in the book describes the moment when the leading pigs play cards with the humans, with whom they are now happy to do business, and drink whisky, and fight. Their faces, Orwell says, began "melting and changing". He goes on:

Twelve voices were shouting in anger and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Throughout his life, Orwell was obsessed with masks, including the various masks of power, and the masks worn by those who sought to hide the truth about power. It is this preoccupation with masks that makes sense of one of Orwell's most famous lines, and one of his most misunderstood. In perhaps the last thing he ever wrote, Orwell declared: "At 50, every man has the face he deserves." This does not mean that we deserve our physical appearance; what it means is that we deserve our mask, the face we choose to show to the world, because having lived with it for so long we can no longer claim that it is merely a façade. Here, though, at the end of Animal Farm, is a scene in which no one is wearing a mask, because it is no longer possible to see what there is to mask. Once again, no one has anything to hide, and that is where the terror lies.

Orwell was an anti-hypocrite for whom there were worse things than hypocrisy. He was also an anti-hypocrite who understood how anti-hypocrisy could itself become the vice it was supposed to be rescuing us from. Democrats who sought to confront fascism on its own terms, like "Mr So-and-So the well-known anti-Fascist" in Coming Up for Air, were succumbing to the temptations of sincerity that ideological conflict offers to all its participants. These are the temptations that it continues to offer to this day - no doubt many neoconservatives are entirely sincere in their crusade to unleash the weapons of democracy against Islamofascism, which is what makes their attempts to corral Orwell into that all-or-nothing struggle so unconvincing. As Orwell said in March 1940 of the war then only just begun: "For Heaven's sake, let us not suppose we go into this war with clean hands. It is only while we cling to the consciousness that our hands are not clean that we retain the right to defend ourselves." And as he said in February 1944 of the war whose end was still nowhere in sight: "In the last analysis, our only claim to victory is that if we win the war, we shall tell fewer lies about it than our adversaries." This is not truth versus lies; it is fewer lies versus more lies, or democratic hypocrisy versus the total lie. Indeed, for Orwell, it was the hypocrisy of the English that served to ensure that they were not entirely self-deceived about the moral compromises entailed in confronting a totalitarian ideology; they at least still knew what it meant to have something to hide.

Orwell is an excellent guide to the problem of political hypocrisy, but not in the way he is usually taken to be. He shows us that politics is not about, and should not be reduced to, a choice between sincerity and fakery - seeing it in these terms opens the door to the worst sorts of hypocrisy, or worse still, raw power without the kind of hypocrisy that can keep it in check. The real choice is between different kinds of hypocrisy, and in this context it is democratic hypocrisy, not sincerity, that needs defending. It is all too easy to get frustrated with the messy and murky compromises of domestic politics - as Bush, Blair and their many sincere cheerleaders in the press have done over the past few years - and to look for escape in the cleaner and crisper air of a new liberal imperialism, where politicians and journalists can open their hearts about all the good they want to do. But as Orwell shows us, imperial politics and democratic hypocrisy do not mix and, as Orwell makes clear, this is the point where we have to choose. Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond by David Runciman is published this month by Princeton University Press (£17.95).


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