National English: the language that would save England

Dispossession and grinding poverty blighted 19th-century rural England. The solution, according to one eccentric clergyman, lay in a form of English taken back to its Anglo-Saxon roots. Siân Rees investigates...

A portrait of William Barnes. The accomplished linguist wanted to adopt a form of English purged of foreign imports

The Reverend William Barnes falls squarely into an English tradition of rural clerics with long white beards, eclectic intellectual passions, a powerful social conscience and a slightly mad look in their eye. Born to
a family of agricultural labourers in rural Dorset in 1801, over the course of a long and active life Barnes (shown above) was a schoolmaster, parson, husband and father, inventor, illustrator, solicitor’s clerk, contributor to a Royal Commission, and antiquary.

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Barring the trips to study divinity in Cambridge, Barnes lived in Dorset and Wiltshire until his death in 1886. He witnessed enormous changes – none of them, in his eyes, good – in the lives of the working people around him. The agricultural “improvements” that had begun in the 1700s caused particular hardship during the long economic depression of the early 19th century. Experiments with crops, animals and equipment and the development of large-scale mono-crop and dairy farming all led to rising yields and profits for farm own- ers, but not for the labourers who worked their land. Over a few generations, a self-sufficient yeomanry be- came a landless peasantry, reduced to selling its labour by the day or hour or season, turning to welfare or emi- gration to replace their lost security.

Barnes was a phenomenal linguist: he had a working knowledge of 70 languages and was fluent in 14

Although Barnes’ vision of previous generations of happy landfolk sustaining themselves from an honest day’s toil was a romantic one, the 19th century certainly inflicted brutal changes on rural life. Where historians and contemporary commentators found explanations in new technologies, a rising population and the availability of capital, Barnes saw a longer pattern of exploitation.

For him, the recent dispossession of farming folk was the latest chapter in an unbroken eight-centuries-long story. The rapacious brutality of Norman feudalism was still alive and in operation, given a new lease of life by a rampant capitalism which had destroyed any remaining sense of social solidarity.

Under the “atheldom” of Anglo-Saxon England, which had been eliminated by the Norman warrior caste, all classes had lived in harmony – in Barnes’ belief – bound by common interests and values. The elite of 19th-century England might no longer be Norman, but its values remained those of William the Conqueror: command- and-obey enforced by brutal punishment; the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate-kept there by violence, fear and the rigorous collection of taxes.

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Many solutions were proposed to alleviate the rural distress of the early and mid-19th century: the poor law, assisted emigration, organised labour, machine-break- ing. The salve suggested by Barnes was to purge the Eng- lish language, as a means to revive the lost Anglo-Saxon commonwealth. If everyone in England spoke real English, he thought, as opposed to what he termed “Englandish” – the language disfigured by Latinate imports – a common sensibility would emerge among classes who currently found each other incomprehensible. Why should the language of power be Normanised when fine English words lay dormant, waiting to reclaim their rightful place in English discourse? How could the English behave with Anglo-Saxon solidarity when they were taught to think in the arrogant patterns of the Normans? Barnes was determined to offer a solution.

Barnes was ideally placed for the task of excavating pure Anglo-Saxon from what he regarded as the corrupted mish-mash of borrowings his compatriots spoke. He was a phenomenal linguist: he had a working knowledge of 70 languages and fluency in 14. However, he was most fascinated by the dialect of Dorset, which he was convinced was the closest approximation to the Anglo-Saxon spoken in pre-Conquest England.

In plain language

Below are five of the most colourful words Barnes invented, and their English counterparts

Mind-glee : delight

”Glee” is the Middle English word for the Latinate ”pleasure” and ”music”. Thus, ”mind-glee” means pleasure/music of the mind.

Skysill : horizon

“Sill”, as in window sill, means threshold. So Barnes’ “skysill” translates to threshold of the sky.

Incarveling : insect

Barnes explains this translation with “insects have two deep incarvings, sundering head, throat and belly”.

Leechcraft : medicine

This is one of many “crafts” in national English (others include gleecraft, meaning the practice of music). Here, “Leech” does not refer to the creatures’ traditional use in medicine (as shown right), but instead comes from the Old Saxon word laki, meaning physician.

Licherest : cemetery

“Lich” is the Middle English word for corpse. This is where “lych gate” – the gate at the bottom of the cemetery through which a funeral procession passes – comes from.

This dialect formed the bones of his new language. He began working on it in the 1830s, listening to the speech of those around him in Dorset and studying texts written in Frisian and Old English, before producing reams of poetry written in this Dorset dialect. Over the next three decades he continued to refine the language, ultimately producing reference books that laid out hundreds of words belonging to this new “national English” he had concocted.

In the 1840s, Barnes published two volumes of poetry written entirely in Dorset dialect, the bedrock of Barnes’ “national tongue”. They had a modest reception general- ly but a huge effect on another Dorset writer, Thomas Hardy, whose notions of “Wessex”, its landscapes and its folk were heavily influenced by his older neighbour. Barnes lovingly described the county in his second collection of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect:

“The Primrwose in the sheade do blow
The cowslip in the zun
The thyme upon the down do grow
The clote where streams do run
An’ where do pretty maidens grow
An’ blow, but where the tow’r
Do rise among the bricken tuns
In Blackmwore by the Stour.”

So far, so sweetly rustic. Yet Barnes had also used this language for political commentary, voicing the anger of agricultural workers stripped of rights, security, land and agency in a series of “eclogues” (dialect conversa- tions) published in the 1830s, a decade of extreme un- rest. In 1830, Kent labourers, enraged by rapid enclosure and the introduction of threshing machines to replace human labour, embarked on a wave of destruction that became known as the Swing Riots and swept eastern and southern England. Four years later, the Tolpuddle martyrs – six labourers from a town not 20 miles from Barnes’ own home – were transported to Australia for organising wage protests. Barnes wrote of these events:

“In thease here pleace there use to be/
Eight farms avore they were a’draw’d together En’ eight farm-housn/
Now how many be there?
Why after this, you know/ there’ll be but dreee.
Thomas Thomas’s employer is to be turn’d out of his farm by the landlord
An’ now they don’t imploy so many men/
Upon the land as work’d upon it then
Vor all they midden crop it worse, nor stock it/
The lan’lord to be sure, is in pocket.”

Towards the end of his life, Barnes drew on his linguistic knowledge to produce magisterial works setting out an almost Tolkien-esque corpus of philology (word-craft). They are not the easiest read: both Early England and the Saxon-English and An Outline of English Speech-craft (grammar) contain sections of almost complete impenetrability, as Barnes leads us through breath-pennings (words) and speech-strains (emphases), thing mark-words (nouns), unoutreaching (intransitive) verbs and the hinge-mood (subjunctive).

But the word-hoard (a term he included in his 1869 publication Early England and the Saxon-English, mean- ing “glossary”) of terms he devised to replace the lore- words (scientific terms) which drew on Greek or Latin rather than Old English is a thing of delight. How can any doctor continue to diagnose sciatica when hip-wark is available? Why do we speak of probability when we could be discussing mightsomeness? And if Americans were wise to retain fall instead of autumn, they could have gone further: steadsmen could have upthronged in the loremote (representatives met in congress).

However, Barnes was out of step with his times. He was rather shunned by the local establishment, and although he had his admirers, his ideas were not taken up – perhaps understandably – in pedagogical or linguistic circles. The governors of the local grammar school never offered him the headmastership he wanted, and Furnivall, compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary, refused his offer of collaboration.

But Barnes persevered. In 1884, two years before his death, he suggested – perhaps tongue in cheek – an alternative version of the queen’s speech to be delivered by the lord chancellor in that year’s trip to the House of Lords. Rather than “I continue to view with unabated satisfaction the mitigation and diminution of agrarian crime in Ireland, and the substantial improvement in the condition of its people”, Barnes suggested: “I do still zee to my unlessened happiness how vield crimes be a milden-d and a lessen-d in Ireland, and in what a sound-ly bettered plight be the vo’k.”

He was not taken up on his suggestion.

Siân Rees is an author and historian. Her books include Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders (Chatto & Windus, 2011)


History quiz: would you be able to speak in National English?

This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine