As languages go, English is a comparatively new kid on the block.
Greek was spoken in 1500 BC, Sanskrit dates back to at least 2000 BC, and Hebrew is estimated to be 5000 years old1. However, English began to develop following the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and only became recognizable as the language we speak today about 400 years ago.
Before the Norman conquest, people spoke Old English, a West Germanic language brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons in the mid 400s after the fall of the Roman empire2.
Old English was nothing like modern English. If you listen to the reading of the Lord's Prayer in the video below, you will probably find it strange, harsh-sounding and totally incomprehensible.
Old English grammar had a complex system of word endings. Verb endings, for example, showed person, number and tense, as in these forms of the verb to kiss:
ic cysse (I kiss)
thu cyssest (you kiss - singular)
he cysseth (he kisses)
we cyssath (we kiss)
ic cyste (I kissed)
thu cystest (you kissed)
he cyste (he kissed)
we cyston (we kissed)
Nouns, adjectives and articles also had different forms which reflected whether they were singular or plural, masculine, feminine or neuter, and their case or grammatical function. For example, the noun stan (stone) is masculine, the noun glaf (glove) is feminine, and the word bedd (bed) is neuter. The three words in the modern English phrase "of the people" translates into Old English as two words, ðeode (the) ðære (people). These words have grammatical endings which indicate that ðære is a singular noun and that its grammatical gender is feminine. Also, instead of using "of" to indicate belonging it shows possession grammatically with the dative ending "e".3
The Norman Conquest
So how did Old English develop into the English we speak today?
Languages are always changing and developing. Changes in Old English were due both to this natural process of evolution and to the influence of other languages. One major influence was Latin, which the Anglo-Saxons encountered when they first arrived in Britain, and again when they were converted to Christianity. Other linguistic influences were Norse, brought to Britain in the 9th and 10th centuries by Viking invaders, and the Celtic language spoken by the native Britons.
The greatest influence on Old English, however, was the conquest of England by William the Conqueror and the French speaking Normans in 1066.
1066 is considered one of the most important dates in English history because the Norman conquest marked the beginning of revolutionary changes in English society as well as crucial changes in the English language.
After defeating the English king Harold at the Battle of Hastings, William solidified his position by crushing all resistance. His cruelest campaign was the Harrying of the North. In order to pacify the northern regions, William laid waste to the land and salted the earth so that no crops would grow. It is estimated that 100,000 people died of starvation as a consequence.
To consolidate his power, William created a strong central government. He replaced the former Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, senior government administrators and church leaders with his own Norman lords.
As a result, the Old English speaking people became subject to the harsh authority of their French speaking rulers. French became the language of the ruling class, and a two-tiered society emerged. The Norman conquerors formed a new elite that controlled major landholdings and occupied all the important administrative positions in the country, while the English survived as an underclass, with only a few of their members retaining minor landholdings. Most Anglo-Saxons were reduced to a lower position in the social hierarchy with no access to positions of power.4
Under the Normans, the Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons continued to change and develop.
The grammar became simpler. The number of verb forms were reduced, as were grammatical endings on nouns, articles and adjectives, with noun gender disappearing altogether5. In contrast, the vocabulary became much more complex as it absorbed countless words from Norman French.
The pattern of how words entered the language from Norman French explains why English vocabulary is so complex. At the same time it provides interesting examples of the power relationships between the two languages in medieval Britain.
The language of official documents changed from Old English to Latin, and Norman French replaced Old English as the language of government, the law and the church. Consequently, words used in these areas (such as the word "government" itself) came from French, while the common people continued to use Old English for common everyday words such as "bed" and "sun".
In some cases there might be two words with the same or similar meaning depending on who was speaking. English peasants looked after Anglo-Saxon sheep (modern German Schaf) in the fields, but when their meat was served to their masters, it became Norman French mutton (modern French mouton). While a Norman lord would sit on a chair (modern French chaise), his serfs sat on humble stools (modern German Stuhl).
But Middle English was still not the language we speak today. if you listen to the Lord's Prayer in Middle English at the end of this article, you might recognize more of it than the Old English version but you will still find it difficult to understand.
Middle English continued to evolve. The grammar became even simpler and the pronunciation changed. By the time Shakespeare was writing in the sixteenth century the language was much more recognizable to modern English speakers.
As English spread around the world, first as the colonial language of the British empire and then as the international language of science and business communication, it continued to borrow words from other languages. As a result, modern English now boasts the ability to express every possible shade of meaning with a mind-boggling three quarters of a million words6.