A Concise History of the English Language
aA Concise History of the English Language In the beginning there was an island off the coast of Europe. It had no name, for the natives had no language, only a collection of grunts and gestures that roughly translated to “Hey! a?? , “Gimme! a?? , and “Pardon me, but would you happen to have any woad? a?? Then the Romans (who had a pretty decent language) invaded it and called it Britain, because the natives were “blue, nasty, br(ua? ‘i)tish and short. a?? This was the start of the importance of u (and its mispronunciation) to the language.
After building some roads, killing off some of the nasty little blue people and walling up the rest, the Romans left, taking the language instruction manual with them. The British were bored so they invited the barbarians to come over (under Hengist) and “Horsaa?? ’round a bit. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought slightly more refined vocal noises. All of the vocal sounds of this primitive language were onomatopoeic, being derived from the sounds of battle. Consonants were derived from the sounds of weapons striking a foe. “Sssa?? and “tha?? for example are the sounds of a draw cut, “ka?? s the sound of a solidly landed axe blow, “ba?? , “da?? , are the sounds of a head dropping onto rock and sod respectively, and “gla?? is the sound of a body splashing into a bog. Vowels (which were either gargles in the back of the throat or sharp exhalations) were derived from the sounds the foe himself made when struck: AAY! EEEEE! III! OH! OOH! and sometimes, “Why? a?? The barbarians had so much fun that they decided to stay for post-revel. The British, finding that they had lost future use of the site, moved into the hills to the west and called themselves Welsh.
The Irish, having heard about language from Patrick, came over to investigate. When they saw the shiny vowels, they pried them loose and took them home. They then raided Wales and stole both their cattle and their vowels, so the poor Welsh had to make do with sheep and consonants. (“Old Ap Ivor hadde a farm, L Y L Y W! And on that farm he hadde somme gees. With a dd dd here and a dd dd there… a?? ) To prevent future raids, the Welsh started calling themselves “Cymrya?? and gave even longer names to their villages. They figured if no one could pronounce the name of their people or the names of their towns, then no one would visit them. The success of the tactic is demonstrated still today. How many travel agents have YOU heard suggest a visit to scenic Llyddumlmunnyddthllywddu? ) Meantime, the Irish brought all the shiny new vowels home to Erin. But of course they didn’t know that there was once an instruction manual for them, so they scattered the vowels throughout the language purely as ornaments. Most of the new vowels were not pronounced, and those that were, were pronounced differently depending on which kind of consonant they were either preceding or following.
The Danes came over and saw the pretty vowels bedecking all the Irish words. “Ooooh! a?? they said. They raided Ireland and brought the vowels back home with them. But the Vikings couldn’t keep track of all the Irish rules so they simply pronounced all the vowels “oouuoo. a?? In the meantime, the French had invaded Britain, which was populated by descendants of the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. After a generation or two, the people were speaking German with a French accent and calling it English. Then the Danes invaded again, crying “Oouuoo! Oouuoo! ,a?? urning abbeys, and trading with the townspeople. The Britons that the Romans hadn’t killed intermarried with visiting Irish and became Scots. Against the advice of their travel agents, they decided to visit Wales. (The Scots couldn’t read the signposts that said, “This way to LLyddyllwwyddymmllwylldd,a?? but they could smell sheep a league away. ) The Scots took the sheep home with them and made some of them into haggis. What they made with the others we won’t say, but Scots are known to this day for having hairy legs. The former Welsh, being totally bereft, moved down out of the hills and into London.
Because they were the only people in the Islands who played flutes instead of bagpipes, they were called Tooters. This made them very popular. In short order, Henry Tooter got elected King and begin popularizing ornate, unflattering clothing. Soon, everybody was wearing ornate, unflattering clothing, playing the flute, speaking German with a French accent, pronouncing all their vowels “oouuooa?? (which was fairly easy given the French accent), and making lots of money in the wool trade. Because they were rich, people smiled more (remember, at this time, “Beowulfa?? and “Canterbury Talesa?? ere the only tabloids, and gave generally favorable reviews even to Danes). And since it is next to impossible to keep your vowels in the back of your throat (even if you do speak German with a French accent) while smiling and saying “oouuooa?? (try it, you’ll see what I mean), the Great Vowel Shift came about and transformed the English language. The very richest had their vowels shifted right out in front of their teeth. They settled in Manchester and later in Boston. There were a few poor souls who, cut off from the economic prosperity of the wool trade, continued to swallow their vowels.
They wandered the countryside in misery and despair until they came to the docks of London, where their dialect devolved into the incomprehensible language known as Cockney. Later, it was taken overseas and further brutalized by merging it with Dutch and Italian to create Brooklynese. The Anglo-Saxon Settlement It’s never easy to pinpoint exactly when a specific language began, but in the case of English we can at least say that there is little sense in speaking of the English language as a separate entity before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain.
Little is known of this period with any certainty, but we do know that Germanic invaders came and settled in Britain from the north-western coastline of continental Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders all spoke a language that was Germanic (related to what emerged as Dutch, Frisian, German and the Scandinavian languages, and to Gothic), but we’ll probably never know how different their speech was from that of their continental neighbours.
However it is fairly certain that many of the settlers would have spoken in exactly the same way as some of their north European neighbours, and that not all of the settlers would have spoken in the same way. The reason that we know so little about the linguistic situation in this period is because we do not have much in the way of written records from any of the Germanic languages of north-western Europe until several centuries later. When Old English writings begin to appear in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries there is a good deal of regional variation, but not substantially more than that found in later periods.
This was the language that Alfred the Great referred to as a? ?English’ in the ninth century. The Celts were already resident in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but there are few obvious traces of their language in English today. Some scholars have suggested that the Celtic tongue might have had an underlying influence on the grammatical development of English, particularly in some parts of the country, but this is highly speculative. The number of loanwords known for certain to have entered Old English from this source is very small.
Those that survive in modern English include brock (badger), and coomb a type of valley, alongside many place names. The Scandinavian Settlements The next invaders were the Norsemen. From the middle of the ninth century large numbers of Norse invaders settled in Britain, particularly in northern and eastern areas, and in the eleventh century the whole of England had a Danish king, Canute. The distinct North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had great influence on English, most obviously seen in the words that English has borrowed from this source.
These include some very basic words such as take and even grammatical words such as they. The common Germanic base of the two languages meant that there were still many similarities between Old English and the language of the invaders. Some words, for example give perhaps show a kind of hybridization with some spellings going back to Old English and others being Norse in origin. However, the resemblances between the two languages are so great that in many cases it is impossible to be sure of the exact ancestry of a particular word or spelling.
However, much of the influence of Norse, including the vast majority of the loanwords, does not appear in written English until after the next great historical and cultural upheaval, the Norman Conquest. 1066 and after 1066 and all that The centuries after the Norman Conquest witnessed enormous changes in the English language. In the course of what is called the Middle English period, the fairly rich inflectional system of Old English broke down. It was replaced by what is broadly speaking, the same system English has today, which unlike Old English makes very little use of distinctive word endings in the grammar of the language.
The vocabulary of English also changed enormously, with tremendous numbers of borrowings from French and Latin, in addition to the Scandinavian loanwords already mentioned, which were slowly starting to appear in the written language. Old English, like German today, showed a tendency to find native equivalents for foreign words and phrases (although both Old English and modern German show plenty of loanwords), whereas Middle English acquired the habit that modern English retains today of readily accommodating foreign words.
Trilingualism in English, French, and Latin was common in the worlds of business and the professions, with words crossing over from one language to another with ease. One only has to flick through the etymologies of any English dictionary to get an impression of the huge number of words entering English from French and Latin during the later medieval period. This trend was set to continue into the early modern period with the explosion of interest in the writings of the ancient world. Standardization
The late medieval and early modern periods saw a fairly steady process of standardization in English south of the Scottish border. The written and spoken language of London continued to evolve and gradually began to have a greater influence in the country at large. For most of the Middle English period a dialect was simply what was spoken in a particular area, which would normally be more or less represented in writing – although where and from whom the writer had learnt how to write were also important.
It was only when the broadly London standard began to dominate, especially through the new technology of printing, that the other regional varieties of the language began to be seen as different in kind. As the London standard became used more widely, especially in more formal contexts and particularly amongst the more elevated members of society, the other regional varieties came to be stigmatized, as lacking social prestige and indicating a lack of education.
In the same period a series of changes also occurred in English pronunciation (though not uniformly in all dialects), which go under the collective name of the Great Vowel Shift. These were purely linguistic a? ?sound changes’ which occur in every language in every period of history. The changes in pronunciation weren’t the result of specific social or historical factors, but social and historical factors would have helped to spread the results of the changes. As a result the so-called a? ?pure’ vowel sounds which still characterise many continental languages were lost to English.
The phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were also lost, which gave rise to many of the oddities of English pronunciation, and which now obscure the relationships between many English words and their foreign counterparts. Colonization and Globalization During the medieval and early modern periods the influence of English spread throughout the British Isles, and from the early seventeenth century onwards its influence began to be felt throughout the world. The complex processes f exploration, colonization and overseas trade that characterized Britain’s external relations for several centuries became agents for change in the English language. This wasn’t simply through the acquisition of loanwords deriving from languages from every corner of the world, which in many cases only entered English via the languages of other trading and imperial nations such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, but through the gradual development of new varieties of English, each with their own nuances of vocabulary and grammar and their own distinct pronunciations.
More recently still, English has become a lingua franca, a global language, regularly used and understood by many nations for whom English is not their first language. (For further information on this see the pages on Global English on this site). The eventual effects on the English language of both of these developments can only be guessed at today, but there can be little doubt that they will be as important as anything that has happened to English in the past sixteen hundred years.