Celtic Influence on Old English Rhetoric - a Case Study of the Interface between Diachronic Contrastive Rhetoric and History of Art

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1. Problem and method

Kari Sajavaara, whose 60th birthday this volume celebrates, is both an expert in the history of the English language, and he played a leading role, too, in launching modern contrastive linguistics, in extending its scope to cross-language studies, and strongly promotes its current transition into synchronic contrastive rhetoric. The following contribution attempts to weave these two strands together, the diachronic one, and the contrastive rhetoric one.

For a general topic we select Old English poetry, the specific theme being some major characteristics of its textual structures. Our aim is a philological one: to cast some light on the origin of these structures. Theory and method applied to achieve this end are linguistic ones, complemented by an extralinguistic extension: we will draw on contrastive rhetoric to furnish us with intralinguistic evidence, which we will submit to confrontation with extralinguistic, non-literary, contemporaneous evidence by drawing on history of art.

Research into and descriptions of the history of the English language would confine the impact of the Celtic element to traces left in placenames, (1) rivernames, topographical and other designations, (2) and to Celtic transmission of Latin elements as (parts of) palcenames. (3) In addition, e.g., Baugh and Cable (1996) would point out to two further groups of lexemes: the ones acquired by the Anglo-Saxons via everyday contact with Celts, (4) and the ones introduced via the Irish missionaries. (5)

As seen from a language contact situation, what is amazing about such lists is their restriction to the level of lexis, the more so when we consider the chronological and the sociolinguistic patterning of that language contact situation.

As early as at least two centuries before the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain there had been numerous contacts between (Romano-)Celtic British people and Roman army soldiers of Germanic descent, who would serve as (sometimes fairly high-ranking) mercenaries in Britain under Roman rule, marry mates of Celtic descent, ultimately settling down with them in the security of the precincts of Roman forts to raise children in a trilingual Celtic-Germanic-Latin environment, within which more emphasis must have been given to Celtic and Germanic, due to the sociolinguistic status of Latin as the language of the ruling class; and as to the rivalry between Celtic and Germanic in this early setting: the father as the speaker of a Germanic language would wage war, take care of the family estate, whereas it was the mother with her Celtic language and cultural background, who would raise their children, imbibing Celtic tradition and thought. It is true, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, many Celts either made thei r retreat to remote corners of the country, thus reducing language contact to a minimum, many were enslaved, thus being prone to adopt the language of the Germanic conquerors (in language contact situations, at least), but: Celtic-Germanic intermarriages outlived the conquest, and about one century later, missionaries of Irish, i.e. of Celtic descent took the lead in christianizing the North of England, soon excelling in cultural and educational leadership. It was in the milieu of their monastic communities, where the incentives to produce literature and art were provided for the young talents; it was to these monasteries in Northumbria and Ireland, to which Anglo-Saxon students would flock to receive their education.

Language-wise the issues of such a kind of language contact situation will not differ significantly from the ones yielded by comparable language contact settings in the world of today, as they are demonstrated by a large number of empirical studies that were carried out in bilingual settings within an educational framework, above all, in contrastive rhetoric (rather than e.g., in syntax or in phonology). (6) Thus, a restriction of the Celtic influence on Old English to the mere level of lexis seems unlikely. …