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History of English

From Teflpedia

While EFL teachers do not necessarily have to be aware of the history of the language they teach, it is certainly a good idea to at least know the outline of its evolution so that they may refer to it occasionally in class.

Chronology[edit | edit source]

  • Old English (also referred to as Anglo-Saxon): from the earliest Germanic-language speaking settlers in Britain to 1100, just after the Norman Conquest;
  • Middle English: 1100-1500;
  • Early Modern English: 1500-1700;
  • Modern English: 1700 to the present

The origins and ongoing history of the English languages[edit | edit source]

The following text spans the 1,500-year-old history of English, its structure and its uses.

One of the main characteristics of the English language - or the English languages, to use the terminology now preferred by most specialists to reflect its many existing varieties - is that it is the result of several successive linguistic “invasions”. Each of these invasions has added to the language’s linguistic diversity and has had an impact on its form and structure. This, together with its readiness, both historical and current, to incorporate loanwords from other languages – in the words of the editors of the OED: “a seemingly endless capacity to accept borrowings” – has led to its great richness.

These linguistic invasions are especially noticeable in one important feature of English – its many synonyms: for instance kingly (Anglo-Saxon), royal (French) and regal (Latin), allowing for subtle shades of meaning in style. Neat distinctions such as ask from Old English, representing the prosaic, and demand from Norman "rench", representing “elegance”; and in the same manner we find nuances such as wish and desire; start and commence.

On the other hand, those same influences have produced many idiosyncrasies and apparent irregularities which have been preserved in English over time and have created demands for their abolition. But, as the editors of The New Oxford Dictionary of English put it: “A good dictionary reports the language as it is, not as the editors (or anyone else) would wish it to be, …"

The ongoing process of linguistic change has, as a consequence, long been a battlefield.

The Romans[edit | edit source]

The history of Britain is sometimes thought to start with the Romans, so we shall begin there - though the true history of what we call the English language does not start until several hundred years later.

In 54 and 55 BC Julius Caesar made abortive attacks on the island of Great Britain and subsequently established trade relations with several tribes. Those commercial ties continued with his successor Augustus, and it was not until the time of Claudius that four legions were sent to successfully conquer the island. The original inhabitants of the Britain, the Ancient Britons, were then absorbed into a Celto-Roman society. With the eventual departure of the Roman legions - to deal with problems closer to Rome itself - this Celtic-speaking society was left to fend for itself.

As this Celto-Roman society did not give birth to the English language, the linguistic impact of the almost four-hundred-year presence of the Roman legions is very limited. Nevertheless, a smattering of words has been handed down almost all of which are related to the names of Roman settlements. These include towns and cities now ending in –chester or -caster (from the Latin word for camp, “castra"), or “straet" street and "win" for wine.

The first linguistic invasion - The Anglo-Saxons[edit | edit source]

Almost directly following the departure of the Romans, and perhaps as early as AD 449, Germanic tribes including Anglo-Saxons, Angles and Jutes[1] began their invasion of the country and the true seeds of English were sown. They divided the territory into some 12 kingdoms and spent much of their time fighting amongst themselves.

The existing Romano-Celtic tribes were pushed to the north and west of the country where the Celtic languages were preserved and nurtured in areas such as Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Brittany in France. These languages eventually evolved into Welsh, Cornish, Scots Gaelic and Breton, while the dominant language in England became what is now called Anglo-Saxon or Old English.

Celtic influences[edit | edit source]

There are hardly any remaining written examples of the original Celtic language, and the only folkloric or historical reference remaining from that period are the Arthurian legends - although some sources refer to him as a Romano-British chieftain of the 5th or 6th century.

Apart from a few significant place names such as London and Dover, as well as several rivers such as Thames and Avon, no more than two dozen Celtic loan words from this period have entered English, many of which relate to landscape features. This is in stark contrast to the way that the English language later absorbed words from almost every other language with which it came in contact.

Early Christian influences[edit | edit source]

Christian missionaries, led by St Augustine in 597, introduced a large Latin vocabulary into English. This was mainly to do with the church and religion but also included (exotic?) animals and some domestic words related to food.

Thus we have abbot, angel, cucumber, elephant, hymn, laurel, lentils, lobster, mass, noon, nun, oyster, pear, priest, school, temple, tiger, and verse. In all, around 450 new words were added to the language at that time.

The second linguistic invasion - The Norsemen[edit | edit source]

The second big linguistic invasion came about as a culmination of the innumerable Viking raids which began in AD 787 and continued until the beginning of the eleventh century. There are more than 1,500 place names of Scandinavian origin in England – of which some 600, such as Rugby and Derby, end in -by, which is Danish for farm or village. Furthermore, some of the most commonly used words in modern English – cake, call, fellow, get, give, guess, hit, kid, knife, leg, lift, same, smile, take, them, they, want, weak – come from this period, directly introduced from Old Norse,[2] as do many of the words using the “sk" sound – skin, skirt, sky, skull, skill, etc. The suffix -son for family names was also introduced at this time.

Apart from the words above, of the approxiamately 900 words of Viking origin, some of the most common ones refer to the body: ankle, fang, freckle, leg, skin, wing, die; eating and drinking: beaker, egg, knife, steak; names for people: husband, sister; fish and animals: bull, reindeer; and other, basic words such as both, their, till, though, until.[3]

Northern monasteries had been repositories of learning and language but unfortunately the monasteries and their libraries suffered the brunt of the Viking raids, and the 3,000-odd written documents that have survived their wrath only total around 3 million words. By way of reference, Dickens wrote some 4 million words.

The cumulative invasions left the Norsemen occupying the north of the country and the Anglo-Saxons in the south - both of them speaking a Germanic tongue. However, while there were substantial similarities in vocabulary between the two languages the grammar was more dissimilar. Over time the languages merged, a greater variety of vocabulary entered the language and the grammar of both was simplified as the large number of inflections, which both languages initially possessed, began to be reduced.

The third linguistic invasion - The Normans[edit | edit source]

The third linguistic invasion was the result of a single military incursion, that of Duke William of Normandy. He came to claim the crown which he maintained that he had been promised some fifteen years earlier and defeated the newly-crowned Anglo-Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Following the Conqueror’s victory the country was divided into English-speaking peasants and French-speaking Norman rulers. These new rulers imposed their language of rule, of power, and of authority and introduced some ten thousand words over the next three hundred years. From army, soldier, guard and battle to crown and court; from duke and baron to peasant and servant; from authority to obedience; from sir to serf; from crime to fine to judge to jury. From spy to fool.

But not everything these invaders introduced was the language of dominance. They also introduced words related to the arts: art, music, chess, poet, rhyme, dance, joy; to fashion and clothing: dress, boots, robe, fur, garment, veil, wardrobe. Everywhere they extended the language of the ruling classes, introducing names such as Geoffrey, John, Richard, Robert, Roger, Stephen and, significantly, William, all of which we would now consider as typically English names.

They also invaded the home, changing the eating and cooking habits of the native inhabitants. Thus, plate, table and chair. Fry, roast and toast. Pork, beef, veal, sole, herbs and fruit. Although William I had originally, at the outset of his reign, promulgated writs in English, Latin would be the language of the Church and all official documents while French the language used at court throughout this period. It would be more than three hundred years before English would again come to the fore. It is, however, on record that although William made an attempt to learn English towards the end of his life, he gave it up as being too difficult.[4]

But Old English had survived in the general population and certainly continued to be the language of town and country life. Consequently, after the Black Death wiped out between a third and a half of the English population between 1348 and 1375, the 13-year-old King Richard II was obliged to do an unusual thing - address those defeated in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in halting English. It was the first time a monarch had used the language since the Conquest, 315 years earlier. As far as we know, none of the preceding monarchs had been able to speak English. And it would not be until 1399, when Henry, Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard to become Henry IV, that a monarch claimed the crown, not in Latin, the language of state business, nor in French, the language of the ruling classes, but in English, Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Albeit with around 30 per cent of its then 50,000-word lexicon being French in origin.

English had emerged from the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages to develop into what would become the recognisably modern languages of Shakespeare and Swift, Tennyson and Dickens.

The Norman legacy[edit | edit source]

It is interesting to note that, even today, words of Latin origin are regarded as being more sophisticated and formal than those of Anglo-Saxon origin. Furthermore the use of a Latinate vocabulary is usually seen as sign of a good education.

In terms of register Anglo-Saxon phrasal verbs, for instance, are frequently considered to be part of the spoken language - whilst their Latinate equivalents are used for formal documents.

Vocabulary of English[edit | edit source]

(see main articles Number of words in English and Vocabulary)

As we saw above, by the end of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) period the size of the lexicon was around 50,000 different words. By the end of the Middle English period (1100-1500), that figure had doubled and during the Early Modern English period (1500-1700) it doubled yet again to 200,000 lexemes. And just for the record, partly as a result of the Industrial Revolution which started in the late 18th century, and twentieth-century global expansion, it would double once more to the approximately 400,000 lexemes of Modern English (1700 to the present).

References[edit | edit source]

  1. “Old English" Collins Dictionaries. Retrieved 12th October 2012.
  2. Crystal, David The Stories of English Allen Lane, 2004 ISBN 0-713-99752-4
  3. “World of Words" Oxford Dictionaries
  4. Bragg, Melvyn The adventure of English Hodder & Stoughton, 2003. ISBN 0-340-82991-5