Sutton Hoo Day: 6 things about the Anglo-Saxons that may or may not surprise you

On this day in 1939, a landowner on the East Coast asked a bloke to have a look at some mounds. The rest is not (as they say) history, it’s archaeology.

Until the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was by far the richest find from Anglo-Saxon England in terms of weight of gold and jewels. Archaeologically, it is probably still the richest: although the Staffordshire Hoard, on display in Birmingham Museum and elsewhere in the Midlands, contains more objects, equivalent to the melting down of about 5,000 gold tremisses, the vastly greater context of Sutton Hoo makes it more interpretable—for now at least.

In honour of Sutton Hoo day, here are six things about the Anglo-Saxons that may surprise you. Or they may not.


1 They did/didn’t have horns on their helmets

At the back end of the 19th century, horned helmets were used for a production of Wagner’s ring cycle, and the notion that Anglo-Saxons and/or Vikings had horned on their heads stuck in popular culture. Equally popularly, the intelligentsia have been telling each other for years that they didn’t.

What’s the truth? Well, we certainly don’t have any Anglo-Saxon helmets with horns on them, though there are some pre-Roman helmets which you can look at in the British Museum which have things a bit like horns, very like the helmets you see in Asterix comics. However, before the intelligentsia back themselves on the back in a QI sort of way, we actually only have three to five Anglo-Saxon helmets to go on. There’s a reason why you see the Sutton Hoo helmet again and again and again on pictures of things: it’s prettier than the Coppergate helmet, from York. For others, we have bits of helmets. The Staffordshire Hoard may (and probably does) include bits of one, or perhaps even more.

What we do have is pictures of a man in a helmet with horns. These are easiest to see on the British Museum reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet, but they are genuinely there on the helmet pieces itself, and elsewhere. We could easily argue that these are pictures of Woden, and the horns are for him only. However, in the absence of much in the way of helmet finds, that’s one conclusion too far

Verdict: it is entirely incorrect to say ‘they did have horns’ or ‘they didn’t have horns’. The evidence is ambiguous.

2 They drove the British out of England/they didn’t

DNA studies indicate that there is still plenty of Britishness left in the English populations. As interestingly, what you call ‘truce’ when playing as children (‘pax’, ‘arley-barley’, etc), when mapped, as the Opies did across the whole of Britain, comes out with patterns remarkably similar to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which come out with patterns remarkably similar to the earlier, British, kingdoms. What’s certainly true is that by the Battle of the Winwaed in 655, when Northumbrian Oswiu defeated the Mercian/Welsh alliance under Penda and Cadafael, British sovereign power was confined to what is now north and west Scotland, Wales, Devon, and Cornwall.

There is plenty of evidence of intermarriage at the top-table. Oswiu’s first (or second) wife was the daughter of the king of Rheged, in a late (and possibly non-factual) source it is suggested that Anglian Penda’s sister married the Welsh king Cadwaladr. A subsequent king of the West Saxons had a British name so similar to Cadwaladr’s that it appears at least one writer mixed the two up, and cross-attributed the stories. Oswiu’s nephew is described as ‘Talorcan, king of the Picts’.

Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies are a nightmare, and it’s not always clear whether similarly named persons are the same individual. In some cases, there are early documentary genealogies which entirely conflict with each other. Complex tables can be constructed positing large numbers of step-relationships, but it’s also possible that some of the genealogies are simply wrong.

Nonetheless, the best evidence suggests that there was a significant degree of intermarriage between the Germanic tribes and the British. Whether the ‘conquest’ was only by an elite that essentially supplanted the previous nobility, or was a much larger migration, is something which is still being discussed.

Verdict: DNA mapping and genealogies say they intermarried, but how much it was a conquest, how much a peaceful migration, and how much a mixture of the two is unclear.

3 The Anglo-Saxons worshipped one-eyed Odin (Woden), with his eight-legged steed and the same pantheon as the Vikings/no they didn’t

You probably know the answer to this one, but the internet is awash with people who don’t. If you were to check your copy of Hilde Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, you would note repeated caveats that it isn’t possible to read back from our extensive knowledge of Norse religion into what the Anglo-Saxons believed before they became Christian.

Essentially, we have a magnificent collection of Norse mythology and Norse-religious sagas and stories. However, although they certainly reach back to times before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to Britain (from around  CE 415, give or take a pinch of salt), even the oldest poems appear to have been steadily improved and altered along the way. Hamðismál, one of the poems in what is known as the Poetic Edda, begins with the claim that ‘few things are so ancient that this is not twice as ancient’, and then relates the tag-end of a story which can be reliably linked to a historic event which took place around CE 438. However, the checkable details of this event occupy about two lines in the poem. The rest—and the rest of the cycle—grew up over the 800 or so years between then and when the poem was recorded in the Codex Regius.

By contrast, our collection of reliably pre-Christian elements in Anglo-Saxon poetry comes down to a few lines scattered here and there. We have no Angl0-Saxon manuscripts from the pagan period, and the vast bulk of what we do have, even if its origins was in pagan times, was at the very least retranscribed into Late West Saxon in the time of Alfred or afterwards. To what extent were pagan practices removed from Beowulf? We don’t know. It is a poem about the pre-Christian era—in fact, what is datable puts it around the same time as Hamðismál—but the extant recension is quite clearly from a Christian hand: Grendel is described as a monster of the race of Cain, a Christian (or, at least, non-pagan) scop sings of how the world came to be.

We do have some parallels for some Norse myths, most especially Weland, but the literary references are confined to such back-handers as ‘Woden made idols, but Christ made the world’.

It’s therefore very tempting to simply “say ‘Woden’ is the same as ‘Oðin’, ‘Thunor’ is the same as ‘Thor’, the stories are the same, and so are the myths.”

Even if we were going to be very careful about such things on evidential grounds, the depictions of Woden should tell us that the dissimilarities go down to a fairly fundamental level.

Oðin is always described as the one-eyed god: he gave his other eye for acquiring wisdom. It’s probably a reasonable assumption that stories which are ‘early’ in Oðin’s career are also, by and large, earlier stories. That particular story comes right at the start. However, our Anglo-Saxon depictions—if the horned figure is, in fact, Woden—have him always with both eyes. More pertinently, we don’t have Anglo-Saxon depictions of a one-eyed god at all.

Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited is probably about the best contemporary work on Anglo-Saxon paganism. Unfortunately for those looking for the cut-and-dried, it is a book which poses more questions than it answers. There is much scope for work to be done.

Verdict: Although we can be pretty certain that ‘Oðin’ and ‘Woden’ were originally the same mythological figure, almost everything we ‘know’ about Oðin actually comes from after the Anglo-Saxon pagan period.

4 The Anglo-Saxons spoke Anglo-Saxon/Old English/neither/both

This one’s a bit of a trick. As anyone who faced the joys of first year Old English during the 1980s or before will remember, Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer and Anglo-Saxon Reader were the blessed introductions to the language. Mercifully they’ve now been replaced by Bruce Mitchell’s Guide to Old English, or even newer tomes. Aside from the fact that Henry Sweet was working with a 19th century view of language (the primer was published in 1882), he also ‘translated’ his Late West Saxon sources into Early West Saxon, for no readily apparent reason (though it always used to make a good Finals question). The Germanic philologists used to like to break everything into threes, and English philology followed suit, giving us Old English, Middle English and Modern English. For some reason, we’ve stuck with that, so pretty much everyone since Sweet has talked about ‘Old English’ rather than ‘Anglo-Saxon’. This is itself not devoid of difficulties, because there are many people who think that ‘Old English’ is the language of Shakespeare, which it absolutely is not.

Verdict: it’s a matter of terminology, but ‘Old English’ is now the accepted term.

5 The Anglo-Saxon world was male dominated

Almost every written source we have to do with the Anglo-Saxons made its way through monasteries at one time or another. Monasteries were the places where books were kept and copied. We tend to see this as a male-dominated world. Equally, the heroic fights of Beowulf and our other extant poems, such as the Battle of Maldon, would suggest that it was a man’s world.

However, a deeper look suggests that things were not quite thus. Anglo-Saxon England had a number of double abbeys, comprising men and women, presided over by an abbess. The powers of abbesses were not quite settled at that point. Later canon rulings suggest that some, at least, had ‘usurped’ some of the powers normally available only to male priests. We might want to treat some of the stories of abbesses with a pinch of dried-brine: several were said to have preserved their virginity through one, or even two, marriages, before becoming abbesses afterwards. This would seem to be a bit of ret-conning: some, at least, were queens who gave birth to royal children, before eventually settling into abbeys either as a second career or, possibly, a safe retirement. Evidently previous marriage was not regarded as a barrier.

Hild of Whitby (or, more exactly, Streoneshalh) presided over the synod of Whitby (or Streoneshalh—you got it) which determined the all-important question of the date of Easter, and, more importantly, brought Anglo-Saxon Christianity into the Roman fold.

It’s generally been assumed that poets were male, but this is a rather naive assumption. Poems such as the Wanderer and the Seafarer are written from a male, warrior, perspective, but there is no particular reason to believe that they were written by the person who is speaking them in the poem. The Wife’s Lament has a female protagonist.

Once we uncouple ‘gender of narrator’ from ‘gender of author’, there are very few entirely gender-specific poems in the Old English canon. Bede relates that Caedmon wrote the hymn by his name, but, aside from that, most early poetry is anonymous.

Both Maxims I and Maxims II (as they are known) give an impression of a strong understanding of what it was to be female.

In Maxims I, we have:

Scipscealgenægled, scieldge-bundan,
léoht linda bord, léof will-cuma,
Frísan wífe, þonne flota standeþ;
biþ his ?éol cumen and hire ?eorl to hám,
ágen ?t-giefa, and héo hine inn laðaþ,
wæsceþ his wárig hrægl and him seleþ wæde níewe,
lihþ him on lande þæs his lufu b?deþ.

It comes towards the end of a longish section of gnomic poetry (i.e., made up of obvious or proverb-type maxims).

…a ship must be nailed, a shield bound
with light linden wood; her love is welcome
to the Frisian wife, when the fleet lands;
His ship is come and her man is home,
Her own breadwinner, and she calls him in,
Washes his weary clothes and wraps him in new ones,
Lies him on the land as his love bids.

In Maxims II, we have another series of fairly obvious remarks, each two half lines long, and then, unexpectedly:

………… Ides sceal dyrne cræfte,
fæmne hire freond gesecean,      gif heo nelle on folce geþeon
þæt hi man beagum gebicge.


A girl must use secret crafts, the bride to seek her beloved, if she does not want a man to buy her with rings given to her people.

This might not seem like anything surprising, but it comes after a long series of “A king shall rule a realm, a city is seen from a distance…winter is coldest…” which then goes on afterwards in a similar rhythm. The ‘advice for girls’ section is twice as long as any of the others, four times as long as some of them, and different in kind and quality from the rest. Taken as a whole, it comes across as if it were the main point of the poem.

Verdict: The records, the poetry, as well as grave-goods and other finds, suggest that Anglo-Saxon society may well have been substantially more egalitarian, both in the church and in the secular world, than the later medieval period. Like all things, everything is open to interpretation.

6 Raedwald is buried at Sutton Hoo/he isn’t

Sutton Hoo is in East Anglia, and the artefacts found at the site tend to give a date of CE 610 to CE 635. Raedwald, king of the East Angles, died in CE 625. Of all the Anglo-Saxon burials that we have, Sutton Hoo is by far the most royal. What is more, it contains both pagan elements (such as the emboss of the horned god) and Christian elements, including what appear to be a pair of baptismal spoons, marked ‘Saulos’ and ‘Paulos’. Raedwald was known to have been a pagan king who converted to Christianity.

So it’s Raedwald’s tomb, right? Well, of all the kings that we know of, Raedwald is the best fit. However, we have absolutely no reason to suppose that we know of all the kings of that period, nor is there anything in the find which we can say is definitively royal. Concepts of ‘royal’ were much more fluid then. Not long afterwards, both Mercia and Wales had kings who were ‘self-made men’, or, at least, had no royal ancestors that we know of. There are also, in the same period, two kings among the Northumbrians who were stricken from the records (though, bizarrely, we are told this) because their short reigns were considered to be abominable. East Anglians, as well as other Anglian kingdoms, had more than one king reigning together sometimes. It is not always clear whether these were full partnerships or a senior king and a junior king.

What’s more, the dating of the burial is largely based on the gold content of the 37 coins and 3 gold blanks which were found with it. Virtually all Anglo-Saxon gold was melted down Roman coins, and it would appear that the three blanks had been re-coined to make the number up to an even forty, though why this should be is unknown (but not unconjectured). The one gold mine in Britain, at Luentium in Wales, was by this time no longer active, so gold coming into England was coming from the continental mints. The Romans had their own problems with gold, and the gold content of minted coins declined steadily throughout the period. Some very clever numismatics enabled archaeologists in the 1980s to establish the latest date for the coins, which comes out at CE 610 to CE 635. This gives us a latest date for the coins, and, plausibly, a latest date for when the coin collection was assembled. We assume that the three gold blanks were there because they didn’t have any more coins, and had no time to acquire them. This would tend to imply that the hoard had to be quickly finished off. But how quickly is ‘quickly’?

One of the things about gold is that—aside from working out the purity of the metal—it does not carry many traces of its history. Because gold jewellery is, by definition, precious, it can be kept unused except on special occasions for long periods. Therefore, even if the hoard was completed by 635, there’s no guarantee that it was buried then. 635 would be an entirely reasonable guess, but 636 would be entirely possible, which would bring Aethelric and Sigebryht into the frame. There’s also Eorpwald—and these are just East Anglian kings we know about.

Verdict: Raedwald is a best guess—but if you’re doing a quiz and the answer is ‘Raedwald’, then the quiz is wrong. 

Don’t let the grammar nazis get you down

Don’t let the grammar nazis get you down

Why Does Your English Let You Down? Advert

Long running Guardian advertisement

Been corrected by someone on your use of English? Had a sentence which you thought was right changed round? Someone may have been kindly helping you, but it’s also possible that you’ve fallen prey to the Grammar Nazis (which, apparently, is the only time you can describe someone as a Nazi without being un-PC).

Years ago there was a regular advert run on the front page of the Guardian (yes, THE Guardian) which began “Are you ashamed of your mistakes in English”. This was triply ironic, because i) the Guardian is generally read by people who are liberal-minded and favour descriptive rather than prescriptive grammar and lexicography, ii) the Guardian at that time had the highest reading age of any English national daily (though lower than the Scotsman), so if you were reading the Guardian then you probably weren’t making that many mistakes and, iii) the Guardian itself at that time had the reputation of being the newspaper most subject to typographical errors.

The gold standard for Grammar Nazis (who I shall define as people who take delight in correcting grammar, especially when not asked to do so) in the UK is the Oxford English Dictionary. It has everything going for it — Oxford, the spiritual home of pedantry world-wide, English — not American English, or International English, or British English, but plain ‘English’, and Dictionary, which, since Samuel Johnson is a word which resonates with authority, officialdom and, above all, definition.

However, this is a gold standard which is seldom referred to — and there are good reasons why this is.

Samuel Johnson’s original plan for a dictionary, which you can read in his ‘Plan’ was to fix the English language once and for all. It was round about the same time that the Cardinal Richelieu (yes, THE Cardinal Richelieu) created the Académie Française for the exact same purpose. In the ‘Preface’ to the Dictionary, however, Johnson admits that the task that he set himself was impossible, and also nonsensical. Johnson’s final dictionary described how language was used, rather than dictated it.

This has never stopped people from using it as such, and the New English Dictionary started at the back-end of the 19th century, and later retitled to the Oxford English Dictionary has been used in exactly the same way. This is ironic because the OED (or NED to some) is a dictionary on historical principles. Its aim is to define a word by its first use with a particular meaning.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of modern linguistics, argued that de définir, c’est de délimiter — to define is to delimit. In other words, we know what a word means by placing bounds around it. This is the origin of the linguistic concept of lexical and semantic field.

One of the first things I learned in first-year linguistics was that linguistics is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive study. Actually, I already knew that having done a year of field-work in a non-school language learning programme. Although the 19th century philologists might have disagreed, the thrust of virtually all modern linguistics is exactly that. As importantly, the people who write dictionaries come from that school of thought, which is why they introduce new words every year, and, when called upon to give an authoritative view on the ‘actual’ meaning of a word, always begin by explaining that a word is defined by its usage. The dictionary merely describes that usage, and is always out of date.

Not so the Grammar Nazis!

A few years ago, as part of an online community for young adult writers and people writing for young adults (I am one of the latter), I was challenged on my grammar by a correspondent. Numbers, he argued, must always be written out, except when they are over one hundred. I asked him where he had got this from, and he told me that his teacher, who had a PhD in English, had given it as a firm and unalterable rule, and she knew more than I did (almost certainly true, but irrelevant).

Somewhat taken aback, I contacted a Cambridge fellow (in case it was Oxford that had led me astray). She concurred with my though: in most writing, she would expect to see numbers over ten written in numerals, but under ten written out.  The conversation online never got anywhere (they rarely do), but I was on the look-out subsequently for use of numbers in writing.

For fiction, it appears to be fairly common to do exactly as he said, especially in reported speech. Journalists are taught (I didn’t know this, but now do) never to begin a sentence with digits. If the sentence has to begin with a number, it must be written out. However, when reading or writing something technical, the arbitrary distinction between under and over ten (or a hundred) does not work. Imagine that I am writing about a study where 72 people took part, of whom eight refused to answer question five. Writing about technical writing as I am doing now, this looks fine, but in a technical piece, it looks bizarre. On the other hand, if I were writing theologically about the twelve disciples, it would seem equally bizarre to use ’12’ on account of the number being above ten. Blakes 7 is always Blakes 7, notwithstanding the missing apostrophe, and Babylon 5 is always Babylon 5.

What’s the correct answer? Whatever looks right, and is consistent. This is where ‘house style’ comes in. Every newspaper has one, and every business that is concerned about its brand ought to have one, because while the choice of 12 of 12th March for the date is one you can make yourself, it looks scruffy if the two oscillate within a document.

For written English, that which makes the eye stutter is wrong, that which it smoothly accepts is (analytically) acceptable.

But what about grammar? Some people would say I shouldn’t have begun that sentence with ‘But’, or included the contraction ‘shouldn’t’ in this one. And yet we do this in real life. ‘However’ doesn’t get you away from the problem, because it is just as abrupt as ‘but’. Do we really want to have to write ‘Nonetheless’ or ‘Notwithstanding the foregoing statement’ as a frequent start to a sentence? No.

I recently read an article in which someone explained the difference between ‘further’ and ‘farther’, and why it was important not to show yourself up by getting them mixed up.

They were wrong.

‘Farther’ is a less common spelling of the word which, etymologically, has exactly the same root as ‘Further’. If you look on Google Ngram Viewer, you will see that in 1800, further and farther were used just as much as each other. Today, ‘Farther’ gets used about 1/10th as often as ‘Further’. People who want to make an artificial distinction as to when you use which one are welcome to. You are welcome to ignore them.

There are genuinely misused words in English — ‘Procrastinate’ means to delay, but ‘Prevaricate’ means to lie. They get mixed up so frequently that you can no longer know which one of the two a person means when they use it — something once exploited during the Thatcher administration for making an easily retractable accusation in the House of Commons. ‘Affect’ and ‘Effect’ usually have a different meaning, and, usually, ‘affect’ is a noun while ‘effect’ is a noun or a slightly pompous verb. However, ‘Affect’ in psychological literature is a perfectly decent noun. In fact, you are completely entitled to use any noun as a verb and any verb as a noun, provided that the person you are trying to communicate with understands it. The result may be ugly, but it isn’t ‘wrong’.

This concept of ‘wrong’ is a piece of semantic driftwood which the Grammar Nazis seem to have picked up from the beaches of language without quite understanding what it is for. ‘Wrong’ has a moral weight which ‘incorrect’ doesn’t. There is a subtle, pervasive sense that when someone uses ‘wrong’ grammar that they are in some sense involved in something which is immoral. Ironically, many of the people who spray ‘wrong’ around in this way would defend other people’s rights to choose to live their lives in any way they want — just not their grammar.

What about ‘fewer’ or ‘less’. To the grammar pedant (and especially the fully-fledged Nazi), ‘fewer’ relates to things which are countable, while ‘less’ relates to things which are measurable.

But where does this distinction come from? In the 1880s, ‘fewer people’ is about three times as frequent in literature as ‘less people’. Today, the difference is about ten times. Most of us would accept that ‘fewer people’ is better than ‘less people’, but at what point did ‘less’ become ‘wrong’? The answer, of course, is that it is not wrong and never has been. However, constant use has led us to see ‘fewer’ as correct, and ‘less’ as a deviation.

The pedant definition, though, does not stand up consistently. If Oxford Dictionaries are a guide, ‘less’ is more commonly used when comparing numbers on their own, even when, logically, it should be fewer. ‘Today there are sixty-thousand members. Six weeks ago there were less than fifty-thousand’. I tweeted this, and someone came back to me to say ‘fewer’. Nonetheless, as a number on its own, fifty-thousand takes ‘less than’. You can’t write ‘fewer than’ without giving it a ring of conscious pedantry, which is as unwelcome as ‘poor’ grammar.

Forums or Fora? Focuses or Foci? I pitched this question to my mother, who is a classicist. The Latin plural is, in each case, as given: Fora, Foci. But, she pointed out, using those plurals sounds hopelessly affected. Google Ngrams (again) tells us that until the 1920s, ‘Fora’ was the most common term. Between 1920 and 1930 they were level pegging. Since about 1932, ‘forums’ is more common. Today, there are five uses of ‘forums’ for every two uses of ‘fora’. Is this just a reflection of the rise of American English? Google Ngrams can search in just one dialect. Sure enough, we see that ‘fora’ stayed ahead until about 1978, but, since then, ‘forums’ has been the more common term, albeit only by a 4:3 margin.

Nobody in British English used ‘focuses’ until the 20th century. During the 1970s, ‘focuses’ became more popular than ‘foci’, and now outstrips its use by 8:1. The same is true for American English, except that the crossover point came in the late 1960s, a decade before.

You can still use ‘Fora’ and ‘Foci’, and in particular contexts they are a better choice. If you are writing about Romano-British marketplaces, ‘fora’ may serve you better. If you want to tell people that you have been on several ‘web fora’, you are either doing it for comic effect, like calling the web ‘the inter web’, or you are creating comic effect whether you want to or not.

I’ve seen people get cottered up with ‘grey’ and ‘gray’, trying to create different contexts in which they are correct. There is no difference — at least, not in British English — ‘gray’ has been the minority version since before 1800. In American English, the opposite is true. ‘Gray’ is the common version, but ‘grey’ is still there, although the two crossed over during the 1820s.

What about ‘who’ or ‘whom’? When I was a student, ‘whom’ was essentially dead. We were told it was not necessary to use it for the accusative of ‘who’. Thanks to the work of Ross Geller in Friends, ‘whom’ is back on the Grammar Nazi hit-list. My rule is simple: if it sounds affected or pedantic, don’t use it. But that’s just me: you can do whatever you like.

Spelling, grammar and word choice are important. Most words have just one spelling. In most contexts one particular word is definitely right, whereas a word that sounds similar is entirely wrong. ‘There’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ are never interchangeable.

There have been numerous projects to reform the English language, of which Webster’s is by far the most famous and the only one that really got anywhere. The apostrophe, for example, confuses most people. It especially confuses auto-correct, which changes ‘its’ to ‘it’s’ and back again seemingly at random, meaning that you now have to go back and check your txts and Facebook updates lest you be perceived to be illiterate. Grammar Nazis will explain in great detail why the apostrophe is used for the possessive in nouns, but not in pronouns. The reason always given is that the apostrophe represents a contraction of ‘his’, as in the phrase ‘Sir Martin, his sword’, whereas there is no contraction in the pronoun.

This is an attractive and popular explanation, demonstrating the hidden logic behind English grammar. It is also entirely bogus. As any first year Old English student can tell you, the Anglo-Saxon genitive adds ‘s’ or ‘es’ onto a word. The same is true in Dutch and Frisian, our most closely related languages. Regular readers of this site will recognise the famous proverb from the Durham book, Nu hit ys on swines dome, cwæð se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge. (Now it’s in the swine’s judgement, says the man on the boar’s back). Do you notice that neither ‘swines’ nor ‘eoferes’ have apostrophes? We, the English, have been talking about and writing ‘swines’ long before the *Grammar Inquisition told us that it should be ‘swine’s’. That doesn’t make the modern usage of apostrophe wrong, it’s just an illustration of the fact that it’s usage that determines ‘correct’, not something intrinsic in the logic of language.

I do not wish to judge the Grammar Nazis harshly: everyone could, indeed, benefit from their written English being pristine. My problem is that the Grammar Nazi is not some kind of freelance proofreader helping out the poor and ill-educated. Grammar Nazism is generally unsolicited, and it is, in my experience, simply wrong about 10% of the time. Correcting someone’s use of ‘gray’ does not improve their text. Demanding ‘fora’ rather than ‘forums’ isn’t helping anyone, and insisting that one house style is superior to another simply displays ignorance.

Are you ashamed of your mistakes in English? You shouldn’t be. Are you ashamed of your constant tendency to correct other people’s? Well, that’s another matter.

Those migrants, what are they like?

Those migrants, what are they like?

Pew Global has released a fascinating set of maps for determining who is migrating to and from your country, and where they are going.

During the recent UK General Election, I took part in three hustings debates. In one of them, one of the candidates answered every question beginning “We all know the problem is immigration”.

But how much immigration is there actually about? Most of the shock figures that appear in well-known tabloids are about numbers arriving, or, even better (from the point of view of shocks), numbers who might well be about to arrive. We almost never hear about people who are leaving.

So, what’s the figure?

According to Pew, in 2013 there were 7.82 million people living in the UK who were born in other countries. However, there were 5 million people born in the UK living in other countries. In other words, net immigration is 2.82 million.

2.82 million sounds rather a lot — this is the problem with any kind of demographic figures: they always sound enormous. But how many is it really?

Well, the UK population is just over 63 million. That means that net immigration is just shy of 4.5%, so less than one person in twenty.

Ipsos Mori, the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London have taken some delight in surveying people about what they think statistics are, versus what they really are. Kindly, helpfully, and with only a very small amount of appropriate schadenfreude, they have published the results here.

In 2013, the consensus estimate by the British population was that immigration was at 31%. The real figure, is no more than 15% even when hidden and illegal immigrants are factored in. That means that people imagine that total immigration is twice as much as it really is, and the real figure for net immigration (which is what people typically mean when they talk about ‘the problem of immigration’) is only one seventh of that.

Bizarrely, the consensus estimate of British people is that 30% of the population are Black or Asian. The real figure is 11%, or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups. So, despite people going on endlessly about Poles coming to Britain, there’s a persistent imagined view that almost all immigrants are non-white. As it happens, just 5% of the population are Muslims, but on average people think that 24% of the population are Muslims.

Here’s another fact about internationalism. On average, British people believe that 26% of government spending goes on foreign aid. The true figure is 1.1%.

Of Ipsos Mori’s discovered top ten misconceptions, all of them skew people towards believing things in a more right-wing, anti-minority, anti-benefits, Britain-is-on-the-edge-of-a-cataclysm sort of way. Most people think crime is rising, when, in fact, it’s been falling for years. One third of people think we spend more on Job Seekers Allowance than pensions. Actually, we spend 15x as much on pensions. The public thinks that benefit fraud accounts for a quarter of all the money spent on benefits. In fact, it’s 0.7%. Around one in two-hundred girls under sixteen get pregnant each year. The public thinks its twenty-five times that level.

Let’s get back to immigration.

One of the things that people who are desperately concerned about immigration usually say to me at some point in a conversation is “this country is only large enough for a certain number of people”. I recall a leader of one of the political parties saying last year that Britain was the most densely populated country in Europe.

Is it?

The most densely populated country in Europe is Malta, at 1,261 people per square kilometre. Ok, Malta isn’t very big, so let’s move on to the next. This is the Netherlands at 394 people per square kilometre, followed by Belgium at 344 people per square kilometre. The UK is fourth, but the figure is just 246 — a mere two-thirds the density of the Netherlands. Germany is barely less, at 225. Interestingly, the bulk of the wealthiest and most developed countries in Europe are in the top half of the table, with the bulk of the less developed in the lower half.

Ah! Say those who are concerned — Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium may be like that, but who takes in all the asylum seekers, eh?

There is a desperately common (and rather desperate) belief that Britain has a more or less open door policy to asylum seekers, while the rest of Europe sit tightly behind their walls, laughing at the soft-touch Brits.

But what are the facts?

Germany, France and the UK have the largest populations, so, self-evidently, they should be accepting the largest numbers. But what about accepted asylum seekers per inhabitant?

Well, the most welcoming country is Malta, at 348 per 100,000, 2012 figures.

The wider table looks like this:

Country Total number Per 100 000 inhabitants
1 Malta 625 348
2 Sweden 15,290 161
3 Norway 6,125 123
4 Austria 6,000 71
5 Switzerland 4,580 58
6 Belgium 5,880 53
7 Denmark 2,105 38
8 Netherlands 5,920 35
9 Finland 1,840 34
10 Germany 22,165 27
11 United Kingdom 14,570 23
12 France 14,325 22
13 Italy 9,270 15
14 Greece 625 1
15 Spain 565 1

The actual figures — not just the rankings — are worth looking at. By mid-April this year, 1,700 migrants are believed to have died in the Mediterranean alone, which would extrapolate to perhaps 6,800 by the end of the year. Britain welcomed barely more than twice that number in 2012 from the entire world. We are a nation that loves to respond with shock, and, sometimes, donations, when we read about the Mediterranean migrant deaths and the Nepal earthquake, but our doors remain almost entirely closed for those fleeing persecution in fear of their lives. Judging by what we think we give as a nation, compared to what we actually give, we begrudge even the 1½p in the tax pound that goes to international development.

However we look at it, at just one accepted asylum seeker for every five thousand people in the country in 2012, Britain is not being swamped.

So, these migrants, what are they really like? The answer is, they’re a lot like the rest of us, at our best. The University of Oxford has published some helpful data. Most migrants are here to work. They are people who have (to take a phrase from the ’80s) got on their bikes and gone where the work is. They work hard, often in jobs that don’t attract much local talent, largely because they are unappetising, don’t offer much career progression, take a lot of hard work and unsociable hours, and don’t pay particularly well. Many of them, of course, are highly skilled. Without international colleagues, the NHS would collapse tomorrow. Some of them — my wife, who is a Dutch translator, is one of them — are crucial for Britain’s ability to trade with the world.

During the ’80s and ’90s, it was becoming socially unacceptable to be racist. In 2001, all that began to change. Asylum seekers — or ‘bogus asylum seekers’ as they were always described in the tabloids — suddenly became a legitimate target of hatred and derision, not just for tongue-in-cheek journalists, but also for politicians on both sides of the house. Following that, it became acceptable to be racist about East Europeans. In the last year, it seems that all Europeans are now acceptable targets.

Do we really want to go back to the days when racist abuse was shouted openly on any street at someone who looked different, or spoke a different language?

Racism does not just harm the people subjected to it. Even closet racism, kept in check by a veneer of socialisation, makes us meaner people, less able to appreciate the amazing diversity of the world around us, less open to new cultural experiences.

If you are ethnically English, then at least some of your ancestors came to these shores during The Great Migration. Others may have arrived later as Vikings, Normans, or Huguenots. If ethnically Welsh or Scots, they will have arrived some time earlier. But they still arrived.

This, of course, is a common-place, and widely discarded as irrelevant by those who wish to keep Britain for those whose families arrived before 1935, which appears to be the cut-off point in the ‘us versus them’ epistemology.

The actual extent of it, though, is only now being scientifically established.


Genetic study of UK population

Genetic study of UK population

Genetic studies, such as that discussed in the Guardian in March, the map from which is reproduced here, show what a mish-mash we are. Genome analysis gives far more comfort to those who want Scotland, Wales, Devon and Cornwall to secede than those who want to keep the Europeans and others out, or else leave them to their own devices. For those of us living in South and Central England, we are 30% German, 40% French, 11% Danish and a surprising 9% Belgian. Interestingly — and a counter to the secessionists — the genetic evidence suggests that the incoming Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th-7th centuries did not wipe out or displace the original British inhabitants. Instead, they married them, and brought up a nation with a rich, blended, multi-threaded cultural inheritance.

The immigrants are not merely like us. They are us.

Quite literally, migration is in our DNA.


What shall we do with irony?

(and the strange case of the man on a boar’s back)

Alanis Morissette wrote a famous song about irony, which demonstrated that she didn’t actually know what irony was. There’s a rather brilliant scene in Archer series, episode 5, More

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