The English Language: History

London Eastend children
Figure 1.--Here are London Eastend children probably in the 1910s. The Cockny accent they had is one of the best known of the many different British accents.

The history of the English language is a fascinating story in itself.  The importance of Internet English as described below is only the latest chapter in the fascinating story of the English language.  Relatively little of the language of the Celtic people entered into the English language.  Latin, preserved by the Church, had an impact.  But English began with the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons.  It was then enriched by the Danes/Vikings and Normans.  It began to take its modern form at the time of Shakespeare, who may have added about 6,000 words to the language.  And with the rise of the United States, immigrants helped add many new words.  All the different sources of English words have created a very difficult spelling.  Americans developed a somewhat simplified spelling system. English is spoken by countries that once opposed the British politically.  There were of course the other people of the British Isles––the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish.  India after achieving its independence from Britain turned to English as a national language that could be used by the different language groups that comprise the country.  America not only fought Britain for its independence, but fought England again in the War of 1812 during the early 19th century.  Language is not just a form of communication.  The cultural importance of language is extremely important.  Most Americans are not of English ancestry.  Yet the Anglo-American relationship became the dominant political fact of the 20th century. No less a figure than Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the late 19th century remarked that one of the decisive facts of the 19th century was that America and Britain both spoke English.  In the 20th century, after the trials of World War II, Winston Churchill, speaking of the relationship of the two great English-speaking countries, said, "Let us be sure that the supreme fact of the 20th century is that they tread the same path".

Linguistic Heritage: The Mother Tounge

The foundation of the English language is Old English, the Germanic tounge of the Anglo-Saxon tribes which invaded England after the departure of the Legions. The most surprising aspect of the development of the Enhlish lanuafe is the suprisingly limited contribution of Celtic--the language of the British population for a millenia. This is largely the result of the war of attrition wahed by the Anglo-Saxon invaders on the Britons. Also surprosing is the limited borrowings directly from Latin which at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion was a much more developed and sophisticated language. Old English proved remarably impervious to Latin. Latin did eventually did contribute to the English language, bu only after the Norman invasion and through the vehicle of French. Norse influenced Old English, but this was a Germanic langiage not unrelated to Old English to begin with. Gradually a fusion between Anglo-Saxon Old English and Norman French created a more complex language, now known as Middle English.  Modern English developed during the 16th century and culminated at its highest level of expression in the works of Shakespeare during the final decade of the 16th century and the first couple of decades of the 17th century.  Shakespeare may have added as many as 6,000 words to the language.  One author estimates that during the six decades of Shakespeare's life more words entered the language than in any other period. Thus modern English was the language brough to America when the English began planting colonies along the coast of North America.

British Celtic

The Celts dominated most of northern Europe at the time of the Roman Empire.  This included the British Isles.  Relatively little of the language of the Celtic people who inhabited England at the time of the Roman invasion, however, has entered into the English language. The Celts were thus Romanized during roughly three centuries of Roman rule.  I am not sure to what extent they adopted Latin.  We know that Latin had largely replaced Celtic in Gaul. The same process was probably underway in Roman Britain. With the departure of the Legions from the islands, the Romanized Celts had to face the Anglo-Saxon invasions.  Historians have for some time debated the fate of the Celts.  Some have argued that they intermarried with the Anglo-Saxons.  The disappearance of the Celtic language, however, suggests a more brutal war of extinction.  And this eventuality has been confirmed by modern DNA studies.  The Arthurian legends are believed to reflect the resistance of the Celts to the Anglo-Saxons.  Some Celts survived in the remote west of Great Britain (i.e., modern Wales) and of course Ireland, but the linguistic heritage is very limited.  There are no literary remnants of the Celts.

Roman Latin (1st-4th Centuries)

Julius Caesar's invasion was a limited foray (55 BC).  The Romans during the reign of the Emperor Claudius began the conquest of Britain (43 AD) and conquered England.  It took several decades to complete the conquest, the invaders facing, among other resistance, the famous revolt of Boudica (60-61 AD).  The Roman imperium extended to the north near the modern border with Scotland.  The Romans decided it would be too costly to conquer Scotland.  Instead Hadrian had a wall built to keep out the Picts and other barbarian northern tribes (122-30 AD).  Rome thus had three centuries to Romanize the Celtic peoples of England.  I am not entirely sure to what extent Latin was adopted, but I assume that it was commonly spoken in the major cities.  When Constantine III was declared Emperor by his troops (407), he returned to the Continent, crossing the channel with the remaining units of his Roman garrison in Britain.  This essentially meant the end of Roman Britain.  The Irish, the northern tribes, and the Anglo Saxons despoiled Roman Britain.  Latin was preserved by the Church, continuing to have some impact, and for centuries was the language of intellectual discourse throughout Europe.

Anglo-Saxon Old English (6th-11th Centuries)

English essentially began with the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons.  The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain constituted part of the wider Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire.  The Anglo-Saxons, after the departure of the Roman Legions, overwhelmed Roman Britain and drove the Romanized Celts into the remote west.  Thus the Anglo-Saxon Germanic tongue became the foundation for the English language.  The Anglo-Saxon language is generally referred to as Old English and was widely spoken once the Romanized Britons had been defeated and driven into the west during the 6th century.  The first English literature comes from this period.  The most important work from this time is the epic poem, Beowulf, based on a Germanic legend that goes back several centuries and was transmitted orally long before it was written down.  Writings of the preacher Wulfstan also survive.  Old English is not understandable to the modern reader.  One author describes it as sounding dark and brusque. [Lerer] Old English words are not easily recognizable, but the influence on modern English can sometimes be seen. The word for throne was "gifstol" (literally “gift seat” or “gift stool”) because it was from his regal seat or throne that a king dispensed tokens (gifts) to his retainers.  Many words are totally lost, such as "uht," which meant something close to “dawn.”  Many words are totally lost, such as "uht," which meant something close to “dawn.” Latin was also an important contributor to Old English during destinct periods.

Danish/Viking Old Norse (9th-11th Centuries)

The Viking invasions began with an attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne (793).  For a time it looked as though the Danes would overwhelm the Anglo-Saxons, but King Alfred the Great was able to stop the Danish encroachments.  The Vikings are often depicted as simply barbarian raiders. They surely did their fair share of plundering, but they were much more. They settled lrge areas of eastern England and turned to farming. The Viking heritage is very important and played an important role in the development of English democracy. The English jury system, for example, is based on the Danish rather than Anglo-Saxon tradition. English was also enriched by the Danes/Vikings. The Vikings spoke Old Norse. This was a language related to the Old English the Anglo Saxons spoke. Both languages evolved from the ancestral Proto-Germanic language. The Vikings were actually part of the northern branch of the Germanic Tribes. There were thus similarities between Old English and Old Norse. The two peoples may well have understood each other to some extent. Many Norse words thus entered the developing English language. About 3,000 modern English words have Norse origins. The words with Norse origins are clustered in certain areas such as commerce, family, farming, and of course war and combat. The Danes defeated all but one of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms and overran much of England. We are not entirely sure why then did the basic language remained Old English and not Old Norse. Perhaps it was the greater weight of the Anglo-Saxon popularion. The Church which was presumably almost all Anglo-Saxon was probably another factor. There may have been other reasons. A reader writes, " I'm not sure about the answer to this one since I'm not a specialist in that early period. I suspect that even though the invaders conquered, they were not necessarily superior in numbers and that the extablished language survived because there were more speakers. But this is just a guess. As you know, actual written records from this very early period are exremely rare, so most historians, even the specialists, are to some extent in the guessing game with us."

Norman French (11th Century)

The Normans were essentially Vikings, but they were Vikings that had acquired the Romanized Gallic (i.e., French) language.  With Duke William's victory over King Harold at Hastings (1066), another major linguistic influence was added to the developing English language.  William soon extended his sway over most of modern England.  William made French the language of the aristocracy, but the common people continued to speak Anglo-Saxon German.   Certain patterns of language usage begin to become clearer in Norman England.  A kind of linguistic duality developed.  The Anglo-Saxon peasantry raised the food, so the Germanic Old English words for meats are the same as the names of the relevant animals (calf, cow, deer, hog, sow, sheep).  It was the Norman aristocrats, however, who consumed the meats so that different words for the actual foods were introduced (beef, mutton, pork, veal, and venison).  Words associated with intellectual discourse commonly had Latin roots, either directly from Church Latin or indirectly from Norman French.  These differences illustrate the point that language is much more than a form of communication, having important class, cultural, and political connotations [Lerer].

Middle English (12-15th Centuries)

Gradually a fusion between Anglo-Saxon Old English (enriched by Old Norse) and Norman French created a more complex language, now known as Middle English.  The greatest representative of Middle English is of course Chaucer (who was based in the south and at court), but there were other writers of the 14th century who were contemporary with Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote in different regional dialects that are almost unrecognizable.  In Middle English, unlike Old English, we can make out a number of the words, although the meanings are not always entirely clear.  A "boochhouse" (= book house) is obviously a library.  "Yeldings" (= yieldings), meaning sins, is more obscure.  And there were many regional differences.   Geoffrey Chaucer played a huge role in the development of theEnglish language. He is seen as the father of English literature. It was Chaucer was buried in Westminster bbeym bgin the traditin of Poet's Corner. And it is Chaucer's London-Kentish dialect is the easiest to read because it was the London speech that dominated and that therefore survived.  Many other dialects can only be deciphered by scholars today.  For example, the great poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," is almost as difficult to understand as Old English even though it was written by a contemporary of Chaucer. It was Chaucer who began the process of legitimizing the vernacular for scholarly and literary work.

The Reformation

The Reformation was intrinsically tied up with language.  The Roman Catholic Church did not want the common man to read the Bible for fear that heresy and misinterpretation would develop.  The Church wanted the more learned priesthood to interpret the Bible for the unlettered.  Thus the Bible was only available in Latin.  And the Mass was celebrated only in Latin so that the common man did not understand the details of what was being said although many persons would have had a vague sense of the larger significance taught to them by their local clergy.  Reformers such as Hus and Wycliffe who translated the Bible into the vernacular were suppressed.  Wycliffe completed the first English Bible (1360s).  He escaped execution, but after his death, his remains were dug up and burned.  One of Luther's early steps was to translate the Bible into German (1520).  In England, as the Reformation unfolded, Wycliffe's Bible resurfaced as well as new translations that drew heavily upon it.  Surely the most poetic and beautiful translation proved to be the King James Bible (1611), officially referred to as the Authorized Version because it was the only translation allowed to be used in English churches.  Given the fact that the Bible was often the only book in many homes, the English used in the book profoundly affected the language generally.

Modern English (16th Century)

Modern English developed during the 16th century and culminated at its highest level of expression in the works of Shakespeare during the final decade of the 16th century and the first couple of decades of the 17th century.  Shakespeare may have added as many as 6,000 words to the language.  One author estimates that during the six decades of Shakespeare's life more words entered the language than in any other period. [Lerer]  HBC has done some work on Shakespeare's plays. The King James Bible (1611) is a great monument of English and had a tremendous impact on the language, but it was only one of many English translations of the Bible.  Shakespeare used both the Geneva translation of the Bible as well as the so-called Bishops' Bible (the standard translation used in Anglican churches before the King James Bible), both of which were consulted by the translators of the Authorized Version (the official name for the King James Bible).  Another important influence on the English language was the Book of Common Prayer, originally put together by Henry VIII's Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1549).  This was, among other things, an adaptation in English of the Roman Catholic Mass (according to the Sarum rite used at Salisbury) and went through many different revisions and changes.  It is still in use today all over the world in the Anglican Communion. Its impact on the language ranks with Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Orthography

Spelling or orthography in English didn't become standardized until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  One problem in English spelling is the diverse origins of the language.  Up to the 18th century (including the time of Shakespeare of course), English was spelled phonetically and with great variation.  Words were spelled according to how they sounded and also according to what letters printers happened to have in their fonts at a given moment.  Thus it is typical in English books of the 16th century to have the same word spelled differently even on the same page.  Shakespeare even spelled his own name differently in the six signatures that survive.  Interestingly, American spelling tends to be more conservative than British spelling.  When spelling became standardized in Britain, for instance, "colour" and "honour" became the correct spellings.  But in the United States, the earlier spellings, "color" and "honor," became the "correct" way to spell these words.  Noah Webster helped to standardize simpler spellings in American English. Verb forms also evolved differently in Britain and the United States. For instance the past participle of the verb to get was originally gotten. This form has survived in America, and we hear educated people say, “He has gotten sick.” But in Britain the form of the past participle was shortened to got so that a modern Brit would say, “He has got sick.”

Pronunciation and Spelling

Consider words spelled with the letters ough such as tough, bough, ought, though, and through. These spellings give the reader no clue at all about the proper pronunciation because different vowel sounds are represented by the same combination of letters. In French or German or Italian, for instance, the reader generally knows how to pronounce a word from the spelling. But in English the spelling is often little help in pronunciation—a great difficulty for foreigners. Also in English there is sometimes more than one correct way to pronounce a word. In Britain one often hears educated people say distribute and contribute as well as distribute and contribute (emphasis on the second syllable . In America only the second pronunciations are considered correct. In Britain people say “tomahto” for tomato whereas most Americans say “tomayto”; but everyone in both countries says “potayto” for potato. There is no logic to such differences, only custom. The co-author of this paragraph was brought up in a family in which the mother said “tomahto” and the father said “tomayto” even though both were college graduates.

British Isles

English today is spoken by countries that once opposed the English politically. There were of course the other people of the British Isles––the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish.  Part of the English assault on these people was the suppression of their languages.  In the matter of linguistic domination, the English succeeded almost totally in Scotland and largely succeeded in Wales and Ireland.  Interestingly, the Scots-Irish had an important impact on the development of American English.

American English

Modern English was the language brough to America when the English began planting colonies along the coast of North America. During the rise and expansion of the United States, immigrants helped add many new words.  The many different sources of English words have created a very difficult, even unsystematic, spelling. America has tried to develop a somewhat simplified spelling system, but English is still the most difficult language to spell of all the major modern languages. Britain and America also developed different vocabularies for many areas of life.  Some examples are the vocabularies having to do with clothing, automobiles, and food.  The British refer to "hose supporters" or garters for long stockings as "suspenders" and to suspenders for holding up trousers as "braces."  "Knickers" in England refers to ladies' panties, whereas in America the term means knickerbockers (= trousers for boys or men buckled at the knee). What Americans call the hood and windshield of a car the British call a "bonnet" and "windscreen." Americans adopt the Italian word for zucchini while the British adopt the French word, "courgettes".  This presumably reflects the fact that while many Italians emigrated to America, few French did so.  Americans say “eggplant” but the British use the French word, "aubergines," for the same vegetable. A “closet” in America is an enclosed space for hanging clothes while in England a "closet" is a water closet or toilet.

Regional Dialects and Public School English

A late as the early 20th century, the British people spoke an amazing mix of English dialects. Americans may remember Professor Higgans complaining about the cockny dialect in London. There were, however, many more regional based accents. Some such as in Yorkshire, Scotland, and Somerset were very difficult for Americans and some English people to understand. A Lancashire reader writes, "Tha's rote a reht gradely page aboot istoory ov th Inglish language. This is my my best attempt to express in the Lancashire dialect about this page being a very good one." The dialects and accents in Britain were much more pronounced than regional American accents. The upper-class spoke a less-regional dialect which came to be called public-school English, because of the standardized pronubciation promoted at the private schools the children of the upper-class attended. Many boys when they first arrived at school would be teased about their accents which they then made aoint of losing. A major shift in British English occurred with the advent of broadcast media, first radio and then television. These regional accidents are today much-less pronounced and gradually disappearing.

India

After achieving its independence from Britain, India adopted English as a national language that can be used by each of the different language groups making up the country. Some of the most interesting questions about the future of English concern India. Most Indians learn English as a foreign language. I am not sure about linguistic tremds among India's developing middle class. Many may be now speaking English at home. At the present time India has mostly been affected by English language trends in America and Britain. As India develops and becomes more prosperous, it is likely That Indian English will begin to have an important impact on the history of the English language.

Technology

Germany in the late-19th centuru after unification was the dominant industrial and technological country in Europe. Students persuing careers in science and technology would commonly study German. American and Eyropeans studued in German universities. (Franklin Roosevelt's father brought the family to Germany so Franlkin's older brother could study there. Franklin himself spent a few months in a German primary school.) In American schools before World war I, German was the most importnt foreign language. German scientists doiminated Nobel prize awards. This changed after Germany's two disasterous military efforts to dominsate the Continent. English because of the importance of the American and British industry and scientific community became the international technological language. Foreign scientists now commonly learn English and many study in American and British universities.

Internet English

The basis language of HBC is of course English as most HBC contributors are American, English, and Australians. HBC is aware that many readers have accessed HBC using English as a second language. There are of course differences between American and British English, although we cam usually figure out the differences. (I was once told my a Pakistani Brit-Rail employee that I spoke very poor English.) HBC's policy (although imperfectly implemented to date) is to seek internet English as a standard. Internet English is a form that all English speakers can understand, where ever they come from and whether they are native English speakers or speak language as a secondary language. Internet English also translates better on the various on-line translation services. HBC readers are encouraged to inform HBC is they encounter sentences that thery can not understand. We will then work on those pages and provide any foreign langauge explanations provided.

Anglo-American Relationship

America not only fought Britain for its independence, but fought England again in the War of 1812 during the early 19th century.  Language is not just a form of communication.  The cultural importance of language is highly significant.  Most Americans are not of English ancestry.  Yet the Anglo-American relationship became the dominant political fact of the 20th century.  Often quoted is the famous quip, attributed to George Bernard Shaw (and sometimes also to Oscar Wilde), that "England and America are two countries separated by the same language."  Wilde’s wording is supposedly “divided by a common language.” This is of course often amusing to Americans and Brits who have traveled in each other's countries and have negotiated the various semantic differences.  Shaw and Wilde of course were merely being witty, but their joke misses the important larger point that the course of events in the 20th century turned on the shared linguistic and cultural traditions of America and Britain.  No less a figure than Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the late 19th century predicted this when he remarked that one of the decisive facts of the 19th century was that America and Britain both spoke English.  (Of course this was the same Bismarck who helped shaped Kaiser Wilhelm II who both fired him and led Germany to war with both Britain and America.) In the 20th century after the trials of World War II, Winston Churchill, speaking of the relationship of the two great English-speaking countries, said, "Let us be sure that the supreme fact of the 20th century is that they tread the same path".

Sources

Lerer, Seth. Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 305p.







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Created: 7:01 AM 6/12/2007
Spell checked: 7:00 PM 6/12/2007
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