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A Brief History of the English Language

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Up until about 450 AD, the language of the common folk in the British Isles was Celtic. It was never a written language so no one can say for sure what it sounded like, but a good guess would be something like Gaelic, Welsh or Cornish, and there would certainly have been a wide variety of regional dialects. The Romans had come and were just about gone by this stage and left no lasting trace on the language.

So around 450 AD a group of tribes from what is now Northern Germany and the Netherlands arrived on British shores with dominion in mind, these were the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. It is thought they were well-organised and drove the unprepared and divided Celtic natives north and west – where their Celtic dialects survive to this day – and set about turning the Romans' 'Britannia' into England.

All the tribes spoke a very similar language and it is believed it was a combination of these which became what we now term 'Old English', which was spoken in England between 450 and 1100 AD. Although Old English is now completely unintelligible to all but scholars of it, around half the words we use today derive from it. They are those down-to-earthy, familiar and well-used words of the every-day such as house, wife and husband. These overlords of England were Anglo-Saxons and created for the first time in its history a united England with a common language.

The Normans, lead by William Duke of Normandy invaded in 1066 and set themselves up as the new ruling class. Old French became the language of power. As the Normans began to replace the Anglo Saxon nobility with their own, so too began a division in the language and is one reason why there are so many synonyms in English. For example where Anglo Saxon commoners tended the livestock of cows, sheep and pigs, when these were brought to their masters' table as food they were beef, mutton and pork – all French words in origin. This era of the language is known as Middle English and lasted until about 1470.

Middle English is far more comprehendible than Old English. The best known text from this time is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales written at the end of the 14th century and is usually studied in England at its most basic level as part of an English Literature course in post 16 secondary education.

Towards the end of this period a peculiar thing started to happen. Pronunciation, particularly of vowel sounds started to change. Between around 1400 and 1600 The Great Vowel Shift occurred. Pieced together through deducing the rhymes in poems and a few scraps of anecdotal writings, it is known that for example 'feet' would have been pronounced 'fate', 'moon' would have been 'moan' and 'house' would have been 'hoos'. No one knows for sure why this happened but a number of theories have been put forward including mass migrations due to the plague and the idea of a 'prestige' accent – people wanting to sound cool.

The Early Modern English era ran from about 1470 to 1650. At this stage English starts become a truly standard language with relatively little dialectic variation. The process of standardisation began when Caxton set up the first English printing press in 1476, but continues for a great many years after. Exploration to the new worlds brought new plants, spices and artefacts back to our shores which needed naming, the expansion in the natural sciences, philosophy and theology required new vocabulary and Shakespeare is credited with single-handedly adding 1,700 words to the language. All told it is believed the English language expanded by about 30,000 words during this phase.

Modern English has not undergone drastic change since the 17th century. Samuel Johnson's dictionary published in 1755 helped standardise spellings, Noah Webster did the same in America in 1828, hence the few variations between the two standards. The expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century followed by the rise and rise of American culture and political power during the 20th century finally saw French dropped and English adopted as the language of international trade and diplomacy. Around 375 million people speak it as a first language, and it is the most studied around the world as a foreign language.

From very humble beginnings English has grown in its richness and ability to communicate subtle inferences. It's not the easiest language to learn but once mastered happily serves as lingua franca - the language of currency. It is a commonly held opinion that language can be 'diluted' or 'spoilt' through sloppy usage, but English has been diluted and corrupted time and time again over its history. English as a global language, as a language of the worldwide web and mobile device communication will change again. I wonder how future scholars will describe this era?


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