Definitions

short commons

History of the English language

English is a West Germanic language which originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic settlers and Roman auxiliary troops from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the northern Netherlands. Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate. The original Old English language was then influenced by two waves of invasion: the first by speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language family, who conquered and colonized parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries; the second by the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. These two invasions caused English to become "mixed" to some degree, though it was never a truly mixed language in the strict linguistic sense of the word, as mixed languages arise from the cohabitation of speakers of different languages, who develop a hybrid tongue for basic communication.

Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance languages. This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a "borrowing" language of great flexibility, resulting in an enormous and varied vocabulary.

Proto-English

The Germanic tribes who gave rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and perhaps even the Franks), both traded and fought with the Latin-speaking Roman Empire in the centuries-long process of the Germanic peoples' expansion into Western Europe. Many Latin words for common objects entered the vocabulary of these Germanic peoples before any of their tribes reached Britain; examples include camp, cheese, cook, fork, inch, kettle, kitchen, linen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, pillow, pin, pound, punt (boat), street and wall. The Romans also gave the English language words which they had themselves borrowed from other languages: anchor, butter, chest, devil, dish, sack and wine.

Our main source for the culture of the Germanic peoples (the ancestors of the English) in ancient times is Tacitus' Germania. While remaining quite conversant with Roman civilisation and its economy, including serving in the Roman military, they retained political independence. We can be certain that Germanic settlement in Britain was not intensified until the time of Hengist and Horsa in the fifth century, since had the English arrived en-masse under Roman rule, they would have been thoroughly Christianised as a matter of course. As it was, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived as pagans, independent of Roman control.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern (or Gwrtheyrn from the Welsh tradition), King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles led by Hengest and Horsa) to help him in conflicts with the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast of England. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles and Jutes). The Chronicle talks of a subsequent influx of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. Modern scholarship considers most of this story to be legendary and politically motivated, and the identification of the tribes with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes is no longer accepted as an accurate description (Myres, 1986, p. 46ff), especially since the Anglo-Saxon language is more similar to the Frisian languages than any of the others.

Old English

The invaders' Germanic language displaced the indigenous Brythonic languages of what became England. The original Celtic languages remained in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. The dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxons formed what is now called Old English. Later, it was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Norse, spoken by the Vikings who invaded and settled mainly in the north-east of England (see Jórvík and Danelaw). The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distinct, including the prefix, suffix and inflection patterns for many words. The Germanic language of these Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by contact with Norse invaders, which might have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is a fragment of the epic poem "Beowulf" composed by an unknown poet; it is thought to have been substantially modified, probably by Christian clerics long after its composition.

The period when England was ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings, with the assistance of their clergy, was an era in which the Old English language was not only alive, but thriving. Since it was used for legal, political, religious and other intellectual purposes, Old English is thought to have coined new words from native Anglo-Saxon roots, rather than "borrow" foreign words. (This point is made in a standard text, The History of the English Language, by Baugh).

The introduction of Christianity added another wave of Latin and some Greek words.

The Old English period formally ended with the Norman conquest, when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the Norman-speaking Normans.

The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development. According to Lois Fundis (Stumpers-L, Fri, 14 Dec 2001), "The first citation for the second definition of 'Anglo-Saxon', referring to early English language or a certain dialect thereof, comes during the reign of Elizabeth I, from a historian named Camden, who seems to be the person most responsible for the term becoming well-known in modern times".

Middle English

For about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only one of the langues d'oïl called Anglo-Norman, whilst English continued to be the language of the common people. Various contemporary sources suggest that within fifty years of the invasion, most of the Normans outside the royal court spoke English, with French remaining the prestige language of government and law, largely out of social inertia. For example, Orderic Vitalis, a historian born in 1075 and the son of a Norman knight, said that he learned French only as a second language. A tendency for French-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day; most modern English speakers would consider a "cordial reception" (from French) to be more formal than a "hearty welcome" (Germanic). Another example is the very unusual construction of the words for animals being separate from the words for their food products e.g. beef and pork (from the French boeuf and porc) being the products of the Germanically-named animals 'cow' and 'pig'.

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old Norman or Latin. A large number of Norman words were taken into Old English, with many doubling for Old English words. The Norman influence is the hallmark of the linguistic shifts in English over the period of time following the invasion, producing what is now referred to as Middle English. English was also influenced by the Celtic languages it was displacing, most notably with the introduction of the continuous aspect, a feature found in many modern languages, but developed earlier and more thoroughly in English. English spelling was also influenced by Norman in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters þ (thorn) and ð (eth), which did not exist in Norman. The most famous writer from the Middle English period was Geoffrey Chaucer and of his works, The Canterbury Tales is the best known.

English literature started to reappear around 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, were the first English government document to be published in the English language since the Conquest. Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English when he did so in 1362. By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in limited circles somewhat longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

Early Modern English

Modern English is often dated from the Great Vowel Shift, which took place mainly during the 15th century. English was further transformed by the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardising effect of printing. By the time of William Shakespeare (mid-late 16th century), the language had become clearly recognizable as Modern English.

English has continuously adopted foreign words, especially from Latin and Greek, since the Renaissance. (In the 17th century, Latin words were often used with the original inflections, but these eventually disappeared). As there are many words from different languages and English spelling is variable, the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, most notably in the West Country.

In 1755, Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary, his Dictionary of the English Language.

Historic English text samples

Old English

Beowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately AD 900

! Wē in ,
, ,
.
Oft ,
, ,
.
, hē ,
under , ,
him
,
. þæt wæs !

Which can be translated as:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!

(translation by Francis Gummere)

Here is a sample prose text, the beginning of The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan. The full text can be found at Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader/The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, at Wikisource.

Ōhthere sǣde his hlāforde, Ælfrēde cyninge, ðæt hē ealra Norðmonna norþmest būde. Hē cwæð þæt hē būde on þǣm lande norþweardum wiþ þā Westsǣ. Hē sǣde þēah þæt þæt land sīe swīþe lang norþ þonan; ac hit is eal wēste, būton on fēawum stōwum styccemǣlum wīciað Finnas, on huntoðe on wintra, ond on sumera on fiscaþe be þǣre sǣ. Hē sǣde þæt hē æt sumum cirre wolde fandian hū longe þæt land noþryhte lǣge, oþþe hwæðer ǣnig mon be norðan þǣm wēstenne būde. Þā fōr hē norþryhte be þǣm lande: lēt him ealne weg þæt wēste land on ðæt stēorbord, ond þā wīdsǣ on ðæt bæcbord þrīe dagas. Þā wæs hē swā feor norþ swā þā hwælhuntan firrest faraþ. Þā fōr hē þā giet norþryhte swā feor swā hē meahte on þǣm ōþrum þrīm dagum gesiglau. Þā bēag þæt land, þǣr ēastryhte, oþþe sēo sǣ in on ðæt lond, hē nysse hwæðer, būton hē wisse ðæt hē ðǣr bād westanwindes ond hwōn norþan, ond siglde ðā ēast be lande swā swā hē meahte on fēower dagum gesiglan. Þā sceolde hē ðǣr bīdan ryhtnorþanwindes, for ðǣm þæt land bēag þǣr sūþryhte, oþþe sēo sǣ in on ðæt land, hē nysse hwæþer. Þā siglde hē þonan sūðryhte be lande swā swā hē meahte on fīf dagum gesiglan. Ðā læg þǣr ān micel ēa ūp on þæt land. Ðā cirdon hīe ūp in on ðā ēa for þǣm hīe ne dorston forþ bī þǣre ēa siglan for unfriþe; for þǣm ðæt land wæs eall gebūn on ōþre healfe þǣre ēas. Ne mētte hē ǣr nān gebūn land, siþþan hē from his āgnum hām fōr; ac him wæs ealne weg wēste land on þæt stēorbord, būtan fiscerum ond fugelerum ond huntum, ond þæt wǣron eall Finnas; ond him wæs āwīdsǣ on þæt bæcbord. Þā Boermas heafdon sīþe wel gebūd hiraland: ac hīe ne dorston þǣr on cuman. Ac þāra Terfinna land wæs eal wēste, būton ðǣr huntan gewīcodon, oþþe fisceras, oþþe fugeleras.
This may be translated as:
Ohthere said to his lord, King Alfred, that he of all Norsemen lived north-most. He quoth that he lived in the land northward along the North Sea. He said though that the land was very long from there, but it is all wasteland, except that in a few places here and there Finns [i.e. Sami] encamp, hunting in winter and in summer fishing by the sea. He said that at some time he wanted to find out how long the land lay northward or whether any man lived north of the wasteland. Then he traveled north by the land. All the way he kept the waste land on his starboard and the wide sea on his port three days. Then he was as far north as whale hunters furthest travel. Then he traveled still north as far as he might sail in another three days. Then the land bowed east (or the sea into the land — he did not know which). But he knew that he waited there for west winds (and somewhat north), and sailed east by the land so as he might sail in four days. Then he had to wait for due-north winds, because the land bowed south (or the sea into the land — he did not know which). Then he sailed from there south by the land so as he might sail in three days. Then a large river lay there up into the land. Then they turned up into the river, because they dared not sail forth past the river for hostility, because the land was all settled on the other side of the river. He had not encountered earlier any settled land since he travelled from his own home, but all the way waste land was on his starboard (except fishers, fowlers and hunters, who were all Finns). And the wide sea was always on his port. The Bjarmians have cultivated their land very well, but they did not dare go in there. But the Terfinn’s land was all waste except where hunters encamped, or fishers or fowlers.

Middle English

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century
Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Glossary:

  • soote: sweet
  • swich licour: such liquid
  • Zephirus: the west wind (Zephyrus)
  • eek: also (Dutch ook; German auch)
  • holt: wood (German Holz)
  • the Ram: Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac
  • yronne: run
  • priketh hem Nature: Nature pricks them
  • hir corages: their hearts

Early Modern English

From Paradise Lost by John Milton, 1667

 Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
 of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
 Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
 With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
 Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
 Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
 Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
 That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
 In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth
 Rose out of chaos: or if Sion hill
 Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
 Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
 Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
 That with no middle Flight intends to soar
 Above the Aonian mount, whyle it pursues
 Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

Modern English

Taken from Oliver Twist, 1838, by Charles Dickens

The evening arrived; the boys took their places.  The master, in
his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper
assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served
out; and a long grace was said over the short commons.  The gruel
disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver;
while his next neighbours nudged him.  Child as he was, he was
desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery.  He rose from
the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand,
said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

'Please, sir, I want some more'.

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He
gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some
seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.  The
assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

'What!' said the master at length, in a faint voice.

'Please, sir', replied Oliver, 'I want some more'.

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned
him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

See also

References

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