The original Frenglish

original frenglish

The original Frenglish

By TS Morangles

original frenglish

Imagine a time where two countries could understand (or about) each other. Without any band of brothers interference, without any threat of invasion. Imagine a time when it was really peaceful and there had never been any suspicion. Never happened? Well, you are wrong.

It all started when the Roman Empire entered its long agony in the Western territories. There was turbulence in the 4th century. Romano-Britons deserted the fancy Roman towns in favour of their bucolic villas while Roman leaders accepted as foederati some Frankish tribes. The Franks moved into the Empire leaving presumably free land. Lands quickly occupied by their Northern neighbours as the great Dominoes game of the 5th century was about to start.

Dark Ages say the Anglo-Saxons. Age of Migrations reply the Continentals. All Europe but the Native Iberians, Gauls, Italians and Greeks got out theit camping equipments and caused traffic jams all over the Legions roads. At the end, even some Romano-Britons felt they had to relocate under sunnier climates, which is why they moved to Britannia Minor known today as Brittany (they were the penultimate to move and probably had been given misleading information about the number of sunny days). The last tribes would be the Scandinavian ones who complaint about not being given a fair deal is still remembered these days.

”Summa pia gratia nostra conservando corpora et cutodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna”

Franks where a Germanic tribe hailing from the Netherlands: they certainly did not speak Latin and the first contact with a realm which was Latin friendly since somewhat four hundred years must have been bewildering. Just like in most things numbers matter. The Franks were a small tribe and the first relocated were probably elite warriors. Thus just a few soldiers lost in a sea of Gallo-Romans. Frankish or Old Franconian must have put up quite a fight. Frankish was still fighting up 584 AD then it petered out.

In Britannia Major, three (named – maybe more) Germanic tribes moved in: Jutes, Saxons (the Northern neighbours of the Franks) and Angles (from Angeln, Germany. Also neighbours of the Franks). We may suppose that in the third century CE, neighbours could understand each other.

Unlike the Franks having to deal with a local administration eager on its survival, happy to carry on dictating the daily life of its population but certainly not Germanic/Frankish fluent, the Jutes, Angles and Saxons who seemed to have understood each other quite well or well enough without interpreters had a population bereft of its local elite and happy to accommodate them. In a way you can imagine a picture and its reflection in a mirror: we both live together with the locals but the former has got lucky in the sense the realm is still somewhat functional at the extent that Franks would have to learn Latin along worshiping a new God while Jutes and al. would rule without the help of local managers but would keep their language and religion.

All this ending up with the need of interpreters between the new country from about Alcuin of York time. Charlemagne did not speak Old Englisc; Alfred did not speak Medieval French.

How countries and importantly neighbours stop understanding each other? Because they did and before they did, they spoke and knew enough of ‘The Other’ language to understand each other.

In the early 580s, a prince of Kent, illiterate (in Latin obviously) marries a Frankish princess. Great-granddaughter of Clovis, Aldeberga of Paris will become known as Bertha of Kent on this side of the Channel. Her father is known as a man who had a keen interest in law-making (says Venantius Fortunatus the poet-bishop of Poitiers); her uncle Chilperic who is sadly known for his dubious taste in women such as Fredegund is also a poet, and the man who attempted to revolutionize Frankish.

This is the interesting bit: by dying son-less, Charibert of Paris kingdom is divided between his surviving brothers. Chilperic feels that his regal powers are slowly shifting toward the hands of the local aristocracy and the Gallo-Roman bishoprics. The language used by his grand-father Clovis is dying. He decides to introduce four letters in the Roman alphabet to accommodate his Frankish. With these letters, he feels his own linguistic universe has a fair chance to survive. To say that this royal initiative meets with disapproval is a mild understatement. It is an outrage for the Gallo-Romans. Gregory of Tours has no qualms in mocking and vilifying the king’s attempts.

What are we told?

The King – Chilperic I – also wrote books of verses following the style of Sédule, but they were not at all compounds metric/poetic rules. He also added several letters in our alphabet, namely, ω of the Greeks, æ, the, uui, he figured in the manner as follows: ω, ψ, Ζ, Δ, and sent orders in all cities of his kingdom we should teach children in this way, and that the books were written previously erased pumiced out, and rewritten again.

Augustin Thierry in his History of the Merovingian Times, Book V, reports the facts according to Gregory:

Guided by a flash of sensible common sense, Chilperic had thought to make possible to obtain via Latin letters, the writing sounds of the German language; for this purpose, he thought to add to the four-character alphabet of his own invention, including one with the dedicated pronunciation which has since rendered by W. The specific names of Germanic origin would receive, in texts written in Latin, an exact and fixed spelling. But neither this result sought later with difficulty, and the measures taken since then to get it, appear to have found much favour with the bishop too difficult or too warned against. It did little to smile with pity at seeing a barbarian issued from a potentate race showing he dared to pretend to rectify the Roman alphabet and order, in letters to the Counts of cities and municipal senates, that in all public schools, books teaching employees were scraped with pumice and rewritten under the new system.

frenglish1Manuscripts vary the shape and sound of these characters, and Aimon gives a different version from Gregory of Tours. King Chilperic, he said, added to our letters the Greek ω, and three other invented by him, which we insert here the form and sound: χ ch, th θ, φ ph. (… Aimoin of gestis Francor, l 3, c 40) Aimoin seems more likely that Gregory of Tours, the three sounds, he says, Chilperic tried to represent with letters ch, th , ph, are in effect in the Germanic languages, the three forms there wanted to apply, χ, θ, φ are taken from the Greek alphabet, while there is no report in any of these languages, between sounds and letters which Gregory of Tours mentions

Aimon was a monk, author of a history of the Franks who lived in the 10th century. He was a follower of Adrevald of Fleury.

Let us not forget Gregory of Tours was a Gallo-Roman, an aristocrat whose family had ties with all the local native leaders. In no way, would he and all these people allow the language of his country and its evolution in the future give a breathing space, give a fairer share of Germanic words/grammar etc. Alphabet can be power! Alphabet, writing was power.

And this includes religious power. Chilperic is interested by theology to the point he starts dabbling into the Holy Trinity debate along interfering with more bishops. A dangerous ground in a time where kings can be invalidated by the accusation of heresy!

This was to be the swan song of real Old Frankish. In 584, a few years after the wedding of the prince of Kent, Chilperic is murdered. His heir is a four months-old baby whose mother has a lot of things better and wiser to do than impose an alphabetical upgrade agenda. The four letters fade into the mist of History… until a new alphabet arises.


Aethelbehrt, now king of Kent converts to Christianity and dictates the first English speaking Law Codex. Unlike all the Barbarian Law Codex of Continental Europe this book is written in vernacular. In Saxon/Old English and, – hold and behold -, what do we find?: the four letters introduced by Chilperic , plus a few others naturally. Aethelbehrt must have refused the offer of a Latin speaking codex but did make use of his uncle by marriage alphabetical revolution. Chilperic failed to save Frankish but allowed the survival, therefore the success of English.

What does it say to us? Firstly, this attempt to give a written medium to the Germanic OE and Old Frankish ‘made it’ and was successful as English has survived to this day but not Old Frankish because the 4 ‘Germanic’ letters did not make it in the Gallo-Roman later known as French alphabet. Secondly, that Kent ‘Jute/ Englaland ‘OE’ must have been pretty understandable to Frankish ears and the opposite around. These four letters and the phonetic freedom they were giving to Germanic languages are essential in understanding the mechanisms on how languages are built and can survive … or not.

It also says that massive consequences can be borne from minor events such as the assassination of an obscure early medieval king.

In 2014, the actual Queen of Britain which includes England and Kent was honoured by the French Republic in having her name given to the Flower Market of Paris. This market is situated in the City Island of Paris, on which was built the Imperial Palace of Julian later to become Clovis thus Chilperic royal palace. This shows History is a small world after all…

Thanks to:

  • and all the history-loving websites
  • Saint Gregory of Tours: in Gregorii episcopi Turonensis. Libri Historiarum X
  • : Cabinet des Curiosites
  • Gregoire de Tours (538-594) pere de l’histoire de France. Gregory of Tours: Father of French History. Exhibition book. Nnational celebration of the 1400th anniversary of the death of Gregory. Departmental Museum of Antiquities. Rouen (France)
  • B.Krusch-W.Levinson traduction of Gregory : Gregorii … edition 1937-1951 page 254-255
  • Google, Wikipedia, Amazon…
  • Finally my own blog:

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