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English lit or British lit?

Q: Which is correct: English literature or British literature? I studied “English literature” during my schooldays in England. We read the works of authors and poets born in England, Wales, and Scotland. “British literature” sounds strange to me.

A: This is a somewhat sensitive subject, one that seems to change along with ideas about national identity.

When the two of us were in college, in the 1960s and ’70s, the term “English literature” loosely meant works by writers from the British Isles (a term not popular in the Republic of Ireland).

The problem with “English” is that it can refer either to the people of England or to the language, which is spoken in many other nations.

That makes the term “English literature” a little ambiguous. It could mean works written in English, or works written by English authors.

Today, “English literature” is often defined simply as literature written in the English language.

“British literature,” on the other hand, usually refers to works by authors from the United Kingdom (comprising England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), and sometimes from the Republic of Ireland.

The choice of terms can be difficult. A case in point is the five-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, which includes entries for authors and works from the UK and the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation.

The editor in chief, David Scott Kastan, says in the preface that the choice of an adjective for the title was “vexing,” and explains why “British” was chosen instead of “English”:

“ ‘English’ would either limit the field too narrowly (that is, by restricting the focus to the writers of England) or not enough (that is, by opening it up to all writers writing in English),” Kastan writes.

The adjective “British,” he says, “accurately if sometimes uneasily accommodates the Welsh and Scottish entries. The Irish entries less comfortably fit under the rubric.”

So the term “British literature,” Kastan writes, “is admittedly a compromise,” and is intended “largely as a geographical rather than a political term.”

Consequently, Irish writers like Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and others are included in the encyclopedia as writers “participating in and substantially contributing to a common linguistic and cultural history with writers who with greater terminological precision are labeled ‘British.’ ”

As we hinted above, you’ll find that opinions on such terminology often differ. It’s been our experience, for example, that some people from England resent being referred to as “British” and insist on being called “English.” And we’ve heard from some Scots who don’t care to be referred to as “British” either.

We will leave all that for them to sort out. Meanwhile, a little etymology might be in order.

The short version of the story is that the word “English” is Germanic in origin and “British” is from Latin or Celtic or both.

“English” and “England” are derived from an ancient and long dead noun, Engle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Engle was used in early Old English as a collective plural. It referred both to the Angles—a Germanic tribe that invaded Roman-occupied Britain in the fifth century and settled the region north of the Thames—and to the people of England.

The Angles were originally from Angeln, a region now known as Schleswig and located in northern Germany and southern Denmark.

The words “British” and “Britain” are derived from Latin by way of Celtic (or vice versa), and can trace their roots to the Roman occupation or even further back. The occupation extended into the southern part of what is now Scotland and lasted from the first through the fifth centuries.

“Britain” is from the classical Latin adjective Britannus, which the OED says is “perhaps ultimately [from] the Celtic base of Welsh pryd,” meaning “countenance, image, beauty, form.” (The Old Welsh for “Britain” was Priten.) 

Why, you’re probably asking, can’t we be more precise about the ultimate origin of  “British” and “Britain”? Did their ancestors come into Old English from Latin or from Celtic? Here’s what the OED has to say on the subject:

“At the time of contact with the Anglo-Saxons, south-eastern Britain was heavily Romanized and bilingualism with Latin must have been common. Therefore, although post-classical Latin Brittus (as well as classical Latin Britto and Brittannus ) appears ultimately to have a Celtic base …, it is unclear whether Latin or British forms (or both) were borrowed into Old English.”

The name “Britain” has been used since the Old English period, the OED says, “to denote the geographical area comprising England, Wales, and Scotland, with their dependencies (more fully called Great Britain).” More recently, the term is “also used for the British state or empire as a whole.”

We mentioned the term “British Isles” above, so let’s not keep it dangling.

It’s defined in the OED as “a group of islands, including Britain, Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Scilly Isles, and the Channel Islands, lying off the coast of northwestern Europe, from which they are separated by the North Sea and the English Channel.”

The OED says the phrase “British Isles” is “generally regarded as a geographical or territorial description, rather than as one which designates a political entity.” The term, the OED adds, “is deprecated by some speakers in the Republic of Ireland.”

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