A history – or two – of the English language
Adapted from Random House and Sally Thomason
The English language has a complicated history marked by extremes and waves of linguistic exchange. This history is often split up into four, perhaps too neatly divided, periods: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English and it is classified in comparative linguistics as a West Germanic language in the Indo-European language family. At present it is understood by approximately two billion people around the globe. It is the primary language of the worlds of aviation, science, information technology, international trade and diplomacy and plays a central role in the culture, politics and economics of countries all over the world. Yet its current linguistic dominance is in sharp contrast to its humble origins as a series of Germanic dialects. Indeed, it was nearly lost to the world while still in its infancy (Bragg, 2003). Perhaps it was precisely this unpromising start that encouraged the language to display a remarkable ability to spread and colonise as well as to adopt and collect vocabulary from all over the world in order to survive. This is at least a rough outline of the generally accepted account of the origins of the English language.
Old English (500 – 1100 A.D.)
It is virtually impossible to pinpoint the birth of a language, but it is broadly accepted that English did not exist before the West Germanic tribes settled in Great Britain. During the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. West Germanic tribes from Jutland and southern Denmark, including the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, invaded the British Isles. These tribes spoke a Germanic language nowadays described as Old English, which was strikingly similar to modern Frisian. These tribes each developed their own dialect, four of which became dominant. However, all of these would have easily been destroyed as a result of the Vikings’ attacks, had it not been for Alfred the Great, also famous for allegedly burning a poor woman’s cakes whilst in disguise and hiding from the enemy. After he had defeated the Vikings, who had threatened the English lifestyle and language, Alfred promoted the writing and speaking of English throughout his kingdom (McCrum et al., 1986).
The Celts were the original inhabitants of Britain before the arrival of the Germanic peoples. When these tribes invaded England, they drove the Celtic speakers out of England to what is now known as Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland. There the Celtic language lives on in the modern-day Gaelic languages and some researchers believe that the language of the Celts could have had some influence on the grammatical development of English (Bryson, 1990).
The Vikings were, however, not solely the bringers of destruction. On the contrary they made several important contributions to English vocabulary. Starting in the middle of the ninth century a large number of them settled in Britain, particularly in the northern and eastern regions and they brought much North Germanic vocabulary with them. Thus they gave us basic words such as “that”, “they” and “them” and this North Germanic influence, was possibly also responsible for some of the fundament grammatical simplification of Old English that began around this period, including the loss of grammatical gender and cases (Bragg, 2003).
The majority of the words which make up modern English do not have Old English roots and in fact only about a sixth of all known Old English words have survived in one form or another to the present day. However, almost all of the 100 most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. Many basic English words such as “water”, “the”, “a”, “he” and “no” are derived from Old English (Bragg, 2003). However, the English language as we know it today is far removed from its Old English predecessor. This can be seen from the example of the epic poem Beowulf (McCrum et al., 1986). Beowulf, which is the best preserved example of Old English literature, cannot be understood in the original without a detailed study of the Old English language or the epic itself. It is therefore known to most English speakers only through one of the many translations available, among which Seamus Heaney’s stands out as one of the best of recent years. The Old English period ended with the Norman conquest of England, which led to even greater changes to the English language through the influence of the French dialect spoken by the Normans.
The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100 – 1500)
In 1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, attacked England and conquered the country and the Anglo-Saxons. After the invasion the Norman kings and nobility spoke a dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman, whilst English remained the language of the ordinary populace. This class divide can still be seen in the English language in words such as “beef” and “cow” or ‘pork’ and “pig”. The upper class normally ate “beef” and “pork”, words which are derived from Anglo-Norman, whilst the Anglo-Saxons peasants, who looked after the animals, kept the Germanic terms “cow” and “pig”. As the Normans established their own legal system, many Modern English legal terms, such as “indict”, “jury” and ”verdict”, also have Anglo-Norman roots.
It was not unusual for French words to replace Old English words; for example “earn” was replaced by “uncle”, “firen” by “crime”. French and English were also combined to form new words, so that the French “gentle” and the Germanic “man” became “gentleman” (Bryson, 1990). Even nowadays words with French origins generally have a more official tone than those with Germanic roots.
As a result of the loss of Normandy in 1204 to the King of France during the reign of King John, the English nobility began to lose interest in their estates in France and began to speak a modified version of English. This was not the only change in English society to have a significant effect on the English language. As the plague ravaged Europe, the reduction of the population led to a concentration of wealth and the old feudal system began to crumble, as the new middle class increased in economic and social importance. Parallel to these social developments, the English language used by the middle class traders gained prestige and popularity in comparison to Anglo-Norman. With English being spoken by a broader range of society the Old English system and its inflection gave way to a version of English similar to that dominant today, which, unlike Old English, does not have many grammatical word endings. Unlike in the case of Old English, present-day English speakers can read Middle English (perhaps with some difficulty). By 1362 the linguistic distinction between the nobles and commoners no longer really existed, which can be seen from the introduction of the Statute of Pleading, making English the language of the courts and of Parliament. In 1362 Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the first document to be produced in English since the Norman Conquest was the Provisions of Oxford. The best-known literary example of Middle English is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The era of Middle English drew to a close around 1500 with the rise of modern English (McCrum et al., 1986).
Early Modern English (1500 – 1800)
The Renaissance led to far-reaching changes in the English language. The rediscovery of classical knowledge led to a flood of Latin and Greek words in the language. Although Latin and Greek loans indisputably enriched the language, some scholars were felt to be taking this process too far and adopting awkward Latin terms excessively often. This earned them the derogatory nickname “inkhorn” referring to the horn pot containing ink for the scholar’s quill, an important object for the scholars.
The invention of the printing press marked the turning point from Old to Modern English, with the spread of literacy accompanying the greater ease of access to books. Soon publishing became a viable profession and books written in English were often more popular than books in Latin. The printing press also helped to standardise English. The written and spoken language of London already influenced the whole country and London English was soon dominant, being widely adopted by the population, especially in formal contexts. Soon rules for English spelling and grammar were determined and in 1604 the first English dictionary was published (Bryson, 1990).
In the fifteenth century the Great Vowel Shift – a series of changes in English pronunciation – changed the English language even more. These purely linguistic sound changes removed many of the so-called “pure” vowel sounds still found today in many continental languages. As a result, the phonetic pairings of most short and long vowel sounds were lost, which led to the “strange” nature of many English words and disguised their foreign roots. The Great Vowel Shift happened relatively suddenly and the main changes took place within one century, although the shift is still taking place and many vowels are becoming even shorter, although at a much slower rate. The reasons for the shift are disputed. Some researchers believe that such a shift took place as a result of the “massive intake of Romance loanwords so that English vowels started to sound more like French loanwords. Other scholars suggest it was the loss of inflectional morphology that started the shift” (Bragg 2003).
Modern English (1800 to the present day)
Modern English pronunciation, grammar and spelling are for the most part the same as in Early Modern English, but Modern English has far more words than its predecessor. There are two main reasons for this; first of all, discoveries during the scientific and industrial revolutions meant that a new vocabulary was needed. Researchers derived words from Latin and Greek and invented new words such as ”oxygen”, “nuclear” and “protein”. The ongoing processes of scientific and technological discovery are constantly creating new words, particularly in the fields of electronics and computers. Just as the printing press revolutionized spoken and written English, the new language of technology and the Internet are also moving English to a new stage of its long history, from modernity to postmodernity.
Secondly, English was always a colonising power. During the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the influence of English extended rapidly throughout Great Britain and from the beginning of the seventeenth century it began to spread all over the world. The increase in Great Britain’s maritime and military power over the next two centuries had a correspondingly significant influence on the language. Britain’s complex process of colonisation, discovery and overseas trade imported loanwords (such as ”shampoo”, “pyjamas” and “yoghurt”) from every part of the globe and on the other hand it led to the development of new varieties of English, each with its own nuances of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. It is telling that one of England’s colonies, America, created a dialect which is in some respects closer to Shakespeare’s English than modern British English is, since many Americanisms were originally British expressions that were preserved in the colonies, but lost at home (e.g. “trash” instead of “rubbish”). The vocabulary of the Native American languages and Spanish have also been important influences on American English, which has adopted such words as “raccoon”, “canoe”, “mustang”, “ranch” and “vigilante” (Bragg, 2003).
English as a global language
In the course of the past century English has become a lingua franca, used and understood in many countries in which it is not the first language. When Pope John Paul II travelled to the Middle East in order to retrace the footsteps of Jesus Christ and addressed Christians, Muslims and Jews, did not speak Arabic, Italian, Hebrew or his native language Polish. Instead, he spoke English. English is used in over 90 countries, it is the working language of the Asian trade group ASEAN and is used by 98 percent of the world’s research physicists and chemists. With more than a billion current learners, English is without a doubt a global language.
A theory that contradicts the others
However, although the above history of the English language is generally accepted as being correct, one should always be cautious when interpreting historical documents and examine all possible explanations. One very different theory about how the European languages came to exist was proposed by M.J. Harper (2002). According to his “Secret History of the English language”, English has existed since antiquity and is in fact the ancestor of most modern western European languages. He paints a picture according to which English had two main linguistic descendants. One branch of Harper’s linguistic family tree starts with French, from which Provencal, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Latin evolved and the other branch with German, from which Anglo-Saxon originates. In Harper’s scheme Latin is thus not the origin of the Romance languages but rather an artificial, invented language. This would mean, as Harper himself states, that the vast majority of the suggested and established etymological roots of English words are false.
Reviews from a well-known Internet bookshop suggest Harper’s theory is a breath of fresh air in the academic world. It is shocking, radical, sometimes irreverent, unnecessarily offensive, sarcastic, cheerily perverse – yet scarily plausible. Somehow it ”makes so much damn sense”. The author challenges the reader never to accept something as true just because the majority of people do. The book is often described as offensive and at least parts of it are said to be incorrect. And yet it is an interesting book, because it could in part be correct.
A strong argument against the claim that the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain and forced the native population to speak the language we know today as English is that in many other cases invading armies did not have a noticeable effect on the language of those conquered. Often only individual words and phrases remained in the language. And that is not all: it was not uncommon for the opposite to happen, for the conquerors to adopt elements of the language of their new territory, which they then took back to their homeland.
“The Secret History of the English Language” can be recommended to lovers of languages, history, Anglophiles and everyone else who ever thought twice about what he or she learnt at school. This book is probably meant as a serious criticism of the academic establishment. It has, after all, a serious underlying message. In the end though, it is still probably best taken with a pinch of salt.
Bragg, Melvyn. 2003. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. New York: Arcade Publishing.
Bryson, Bill. 1990. Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. New York: Perennial.
Harper, M.J. 2002. The Secret History of the English Language. Brooklyn, New York: Melville House.
McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. 1986. The Story of English. New York: Viking.