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A proposed British Romance language

1. Introduction

1.1 Reason for this project

The project is to create an altlang, i.e. a language of an alternate history. As the result of discussion that took place on the "On Creating Altlangs" thread on the Conlang list in February 2013, and of private exchange of emails following that thread, I was persuaded to begin this project.

Let me state at the outset that this is not intended as a rival to Brithenig. Indeed, Andrew Smith, the creator of Brithenig, has himself at least three times over the past years said he would like to see how I would handle a British Romance altlang. My British Romance language (Romlang) will not be set in Ill Bethisad, so will not in any way rival Brithenig. I shall refer to the timeline of this language by the acronym BART (British Alternative Romance Timeline). This timeline is an alternative, not only to our own timeline, but also to the Ill Bethisad timeline.

Finally, it may be observed that one reason that Brithenig became so popular after its publication in 1996 is that, like Tolkien's Sindarin, it had a 'Celtic' feel to it. My British Romlang will not feel Celtic. I cannot, nor do I wish to, rival Brithenig in that respect.


1.2 We have Brithenig, so why another British Romlang?

Britain in Ill Bethisad
Britain in Ill Bethisad.
Green = Romance speaking
Red = Germanic speaking
Orange = Celtic speaking

The simple answer is, as I state above, that several people, including the author of Brithenig, have asked me to construct an alternative British Romlang.

In my opinion, Vulgar Latin would have survived only if the Romano-British urban centers had remained Latin speaking. Important urban centers such as Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), Lindum (Lincoln) and Eburacum (York) are all lost to Germanic speakers in Ill Bethisad (see map on the left). If Germanic speakers had managed to get such a substantial foothold in Britain, I feel the linguistic situation would not be so different from what it is today.

In any case, we already have other alternative British Romlangs, four others at least existing in Ill Bethisad itself (Breathanach with a Gaelic flavor, Kerno with a Cornish flavor, and the Breton-flavored Brehonecq and Brzhonegh), as well as Brittanese [sic] in its own timeline and which seems to have a distinctly Hispanic flavor! So one more British Romlang should not cause a problem, especially as it exists in its own timeline.


1.3 In what ways might this language differ from Brithenig?

The other point on which I depart from Brithenig is the degree of influence of the Brittonic substratum. Sure, the use of periphrastic phrases with the verb "to be" and a 'verbnoun' or gerund is common to both the insular Celtic languages and to English; it appears to be an areal feature. It is also not unknown in some Romance languages; thus, e.g. "I am speaking" may be rendered as:

  • Italian: sto parlando
  • Catalan: estic parlant
  • Spanish: estoy hablando
  • Portuguese: estou falando

But in these languages it is more common simply to use the synthetic present tense, i.e. parlo, parlo, hablo, falo respectively. As English has also developed similar periphrastic progressive forms, I think it inconceivable that a British Romance language would not have come to use similar forms as the normal progressive form, reserving the simple present tense for habitual acts as in English and Welsh.

Initial consonant mutations, however attractive they may be, are not an areal feature in the same way. There is no trace of them in English; they appear to be a development within the Celtic languages in Britain and Ireland. The old Gallic language seems to have been similar to old Brittonic; yet while French and, indeed, western Romance generally, displays lenition (or 'soft mutation') of the Welsh sort within words (cf. Latin vita → Old French: vide, Spanish & Port.: vida), there is no trace of any development of grammatically triggered initial mutations in French. Nor, I think, would a British Romlang have developed such initial mutations any more than English did in our own timeline.

Nor, I may add, do I see any reason to suppose that a British Romlang would have adopted peculiar Welsh spellings such f = [v] and ff = [f] which, in any case, seems odd to me in Brithenig when that language does not use c = [k] as in Welsh, but keeps the 'soft-c' and 'hard-c' of the Romance languages (as, indeed, we would expect a Romlang to to do also). The orthography of the language would surely have developed from Latin orthography in a similar sort of way that it did in its sister languages in our own timeline.


1.4 Under what circumstances would southern Britain have become Romance speaking?

The early 5th century saw the collapse of the western Roman Empire. It saw the irresistible invasion of Germanic speakers into Roman territory. At the end of December 406 there was a mass crossing of the frozen Rhine; the Germanic Suebi and Vandals, together with the Alans (Iranian speakers, driven westward from the Pontic steppes by the Huns) made their way through Gaul and entered Spain. The Visigoths, under their king Alaric, had entered Rome in 410; Alaric died shortly afterwards, and the Visigoths turned westward through southern Gaul and into the Iberian peninsula, where the earlier Suebi, Vandals and Alans were constricted into corners of the peninsula. The Visigothic kingdom dominated the peninsula for 250 years until the Muslim invasion of 711.

Elsewhere in the western Empire, we find that by the end of the 5th century, the east Germanic Burgundians were holding south east Gaul, while the various Germanic tribes that made up the confederation known as Franks, united under the Merovingians, had assumed control over the rest of Gaul which, henceforth, would be known as Francia (i.e. France). The Ostrogoths had taken Italy, soon to be displaced by the equally Germanic Lombards (also known as Longobards or "Long Beards").

Yet when all the turmoil of the 5th century had settled, we find the linguistic boundary much the same as it was before the century began. Everywhere, the Germanic conquerors had accepted Christianity and the "Roman language" (i.e. the Romance vernacular of the area).

Why in Britain alone did the Germanic invaders hold onto their own language and their own polytheistic religion? Prima facie, one would have expected the fate of Britain to be similar to that of Gaul, Iberia and Italy. Indeed, the complete loss of a Romance language in Britain is even more surprising if one recalls that while the Romans held Dacia for just under 170 years, the Romanian language survives to the present day, whereas in Britain, which the Romans occupied for a little under 370 years, the only surviving vestige of Vulgar Latin are the numerous word borrowings from this period that survive in modern Welsh.

In later times, Bede was to complain that the Britons neglected the various Germanic immigrants, making no attempt to convert them to Christianity. It was, indeed, left to missionaries from Ireland in the north, and from Rome in the south to bring Christianity to the Germanic peoples of Britain. But are we to assume that in Britain alone, the Christian Latin-speaking peoples simply turned their backs on the invaders and moved westward? This seems an unlikely scenario. Indeed, if this is what happened, then Welsh should be a Romance language, not a Celtic one.

There was clearly a breakdown of society in the urbanized lowlands of Roman Britain. Nothing else can explain the complete walkover of the Germanic immigrants (Saxons, Angles, Frisians and Jutes), the complete loss of Romance speakers and the survival of pre-Roman Celtic in the mountainous western areas. One can see then why the demoralized Celtic-speaking survivors turned in on themselves and regarded the Germanic invaders as God's punishment for their own shortcomings. But what caused this drastic depletion in the Romano-British population?

This is one of the enigmas of history. There is a theory that extreme weather events of 535 & 536 AD led to tens of millions of people dying around the globe as a bubonic plague epidemic broke out. It is claimed that this plague hit Britain during the 6th century, severely depleting the population of the urbanized lowlands (cf. David Keys, 1999, Catastrophe: an Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, London:Century, chapters 13 - 16).

The only feasible circumstance that would, in my opinion, have left southern Britain Romance speaking is if the Romano-British population had suffered no depletion, and that the Germanic invaders had adopted Christianity together with the "Roman language" as they did in the other western provinces of the former Roman Empire.


1.5 Summary

I assume that:

  • the Latin-speaking urbanized lowlands of southern Britain suffered no loss of population in the post Roman period;
  • hence the Germanic incursions into Britain were as linguistically ineffectual as the Germanic invasions of the Iberian peninsula, Gaul and Italy.
Britain in BART
Britain in BART.
Green = Romance speaking
Orange = Gaelic speaking

Thus in BART the greater part of Britain would have been Romance speaking.

This, I am sure, would have seen the eventual extinction of the earlier Celtic language, just as it did in Gaul. In both the original Brithenig timeline, as I understood it, and in the timeline I envisage, the Brittonic language(s) would have become extinct.

However, in the timeline I envisage, not only would there be no Welsh (as there is not in Ill Bethisad either), there would also be no English!

The English name of the language, used on the Conlang mailing list, is "Britainese", i.e. Britain plus the suffix -ese. This will, of course, not be known in BART where its own native name will be the Britainese word for Britain with the Britainese version of the suffix derived from Latin -ēnsis.


1.6 Caveat: BART alternative history

When I first wrote this page in March 2013, I wrote:

There is no reason at all to suppose that an essentially Romance speaking Britain would be any less powerful or dominant in subsequent history as the essentially English speaking Britain in our own timeline. Thus we can retain a ceteris paribus approach to history and to contemporary events and thus avoid the arbitrary and widely different histories of Ill Bethisad.

But this is a fudge - a convenience to avoid working out an alternate history and, quite frankly, it is unlikely. So quite rightly on 27th of March 2014 (at a time when the name of the language was undecided), James Puey McCleary wrote to the Conlang list:

By the way, this discussion is also pertinent to other alternate languages, such as Carrajinna and Wenedyk …
[I]t occurs to me that the complexities between art and language in an alternate world are so mind bogglingly explosive, that I'm not entirely sure where to start:
Given the general tone of the project, that is, an attempt to recreate what Vulgar Latin might have been like in such a timeline, perhaps similar rules could be applied to literary figures as well. Rules for an alternate history are of course a literary device, but as long as they are enforced strictly, they should have the same flavor as these linguistic rules. (Examples of "rules" for an alternate history can perhaps be found under George Bailey and Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life," but also in many other places).
My guess is that, most consistent with the tone of what we know about Bretainois, is that, after the point of divergence, not a single human being in our timeline can exist. Individuals will simply have a different genetic makeups. The genetics of the population as a whole will probably be about the same, I would guess, but as time goes on, these changes will ripple outwards, and no single individual from our world would (or could) ever be born. Now, whether a butterfly affect will touch the New World or not (and when) I cannot say. But my guess is that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and all the rest simply cannot exist, and hence, Bretainois will be affected in different ways.
It may be possible to speak of some literary figure of roughly the same socio-economic background doing something within roughly a few generations as our figure, but, once again, I don't know the rules. I would guess that an Other Chaucer and Other Shakespeare can only be influential for a brief bit of time.
It's likely that at a certain time someone will write a dictionary and standardize spelling ... but in terms of literature (and the enriching of the language therefrom), given the document above, I'm not entirely sure that anything like our Lewis Carroll or Baum or Tolkien would ever exist. Completely different writers with completely different innovations would fill that gap, surely.
As I wrote before:
"Also, names are all going to be different. Save for the names borrowed from other places ...which in turn are going to be influenced by an extra Romance language at their doorstep."
By "from other places" I meant "non-Bretainois speaking places," as can be understood from context. So yes, German and Norman names would be the same. But, given what is known about the Point of Divergence, as well as the realism of this project, I don't think that we can really expect any real person from our timeline to have existed after the 5th century of so -- though the general shape of history may continue to be the same.
So ... perhaps a completely new batch of literary figures will have to exist in BART …

Puey is absolutely correct to say that these matters are pertinent to other alternate languages such as Carrajinna and Wenedyk; they most certainly are pertinent to all the Romance-based 'bogolangs' - constructed languages in which the phonological development of another language, e.g. High German, Icelandic, Slav, Irish, is applied to (Vulgar) Latin. I agree whole-heartedly that "the complexities between art and language in an alternate world are … mind bogglingly explosive." Indeed, I would go further and say that the complexities between art, language and history are mind bogglingly explosive in an alternate world.

Possibly the most popular form of alternate history in my country are those stories that imagine that Hitler defeated Britain. Here we are dealing with events which are within the living memories of people of my generation and older; also we have a wealth of written and other evidence to draw upon. But if we go further back in time, things start to get less clear. What would have happened if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What would have been the effect on the subsequent history of Europe and Britain? How would it have affected the history of the German states? How would it have affected 19th century European colonization and imperialism? There are so many different outcomes one can imagine.

When we go further back there are even more variables and more unknowns. I have written two short alternate history stories for a creative writing group I belong to:

  • "Breakfast with Lucy & Henry" is set in a Britain in which Richard III defeated Henry Tudor on Bosworth Field.
  • "Tom's Implausible Book" is set in a Britain in which Henry VII's eldest son, Arthur, did not die young, but became king after his father's death, and there was no Henry VIII.

The two stories have a somewhat different vision of what contemporary Britain would be like. But I am well aware that there are many other possibilities. If we go further back and imagine an England in which Harold defeated William at Hastings in 1066, then our alternate history is, quite frankly, very largely a work of fiction. If we push the point of divergence even further to the 5th century the fiction is greater.

The questions raised above by Puey and speculation about an alternative history are fascinating; if I were 50 or more years younger, I would be tempted to pursue some of them. But when I first wrote this page I had tuned 74 and, unless I confine myself to thinking about the language, I will not even get that completed (as far, indeed, as it could be without an alternate history). But what I have said above about alternate history is equally true about alternate language; the further back one goes in time, the greater become the unknowns. I make no claim that my Britainese is more or less what a British Romance would have actually been like in the 21st century. One thing I am certain about is that the 'bogolang' approach, although it might be fun, is most definitely far too simplistic and, in my opinion, quite implausible.

At best, my Britainese and the 'Preliminary Considerations' on the next page are only thought experiments of the way a surviving British Romance may have developed.