Ben S. Knowles
Dr. J. Cottle
At the turn of the twentieth into the twenty first century of the Common Era, the English language is a world language. As many as one billion (1 * 10e9) people on Earth know enough English to communicate with it, including four hundred million (4 * 10e8) native speakers, and English has surpassed Greek, Latin, and French to become a global lingua franca (Crystal, 2003, p. 360). English is not a simple language, nor particularly easy to learn, and yet so many people around the world use it in addition to, or instead of, their native languages. English and its pidgins and creoles demonstrate flexibility in working with and absorbing other languages because of how it developed. English’s complexity is attributable to its complex linguistic heritage, and this complexity is the source of the language’s power and flexibility.
The earliest record of language in the British Isles is that of the Britons Celtic tribes who resisted Roman invasion of the islands beginning in the first century BCE. The Roman presence brought some Latin words into the vocabulary of the Britons, but there was little intermingling of the languages. After the withdrawal of Roman support from the province of Brittania, the next round of invasion was by Germanic tribes, named for the areas of Germany from which they came: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. These invaders drove the Celtic tribes to the corners of Britain, and to the nearby islands. The Celtic languages did not interact much with the Old German language of the Anglo-Saxons, and a few Celtic languages have survived to the present day in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Anglo-Saxon Old English is a West German language in the Indo-European family. In comparison to modern English or German, it is fully inflected and had a complex system of at least five cases. Nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adverbs all use suffixes. Although Anglo-Saxon was originally written in the Norse futark runic alphabet, Old English adopted the Latin alphabet. Words were pronounced as spelled, unlike Modern English's complex and often criticized spelling system. Dialects and accents led to many variant spellings. (“Old English” ). The oldest example of English literature is written in Old English. The epic poem Beowulf demonstrates the mixing of Saxon and Danish culture. It echoes many themes from the Eddas, epic Norse historical sagas, but is written in the language and alphabet of Old English.
Around 800 CE, bands of Scandinavians began to raid and then invade Britain. They conquered half of England before the armies of the king of Wessex, Alfred the Great, finally stopped them. In the Treaty of Wedmore a border was established, called the Danelaw, and this border is a significant isogloss in the Old English period. Alfred used the English language to unify the English-speaking people of the southwest against the Danes, and even personally translated works from Latin into English (MacCrum, et al, 1986 p. 69). English's Latin orthography seems to have been much more popular than the Old Norse runes used by the Danes. The Danes' and Saxons' languages share an ancestor in Old German, and started with many words in common, and many more that were similar, but they had different systems of inflection. The blending of the languages led to the dropping of many of these endings, without which the Old English and Old Norse words were nearly the same. Thus begins the simplification of Old English morphology and grammar. Rather than acquiring new words from Old Norse, Old English seems to have absorbed the Norse version of an existing English word and attached a slight change in meaning. The English word shirt was joined by the Norse skirt and similarly ship and skiff developed distinct meanings (Ipsen, 2000, p. 23).
In 1066 CE, William of Normandy invaded and conquered England. As the new French ruling class came into power, so did French language come into power over English. The development of English seems to have slowed in the first few centuries following the Norman Conquest. All government work and most commercial business were conducted in French, and religion and most scholarship in Latin. Many Old French words were added to English outright, particularly those having to do with law and government such as nobility and felony (MacCrum, et al, 1986, p. 72). French was the language of literature and the ruling class, but was not known by the common people. It was the language of high society and social climbers. This resulted in some peculiar word pairings entering English usage. An example of this is the use of one word for an animal and another word for its meat, as in cow : beef, sheep : mutton, swine : pork, all of which have an English word for the agricultural animal and a French word for the menu item (Ipsen, 2000, p. 24). Words with the same Latin root would take on distinct meanings as they were added to English through different languages, as did the adjectives urban, of city geography, and urbaine, of a cultured person (Ipsen, 200, p. 25). French grammar helped to accelerate the simplification of English grammar by encouraging the erosion of inflection and the regularization of verb conjugation. As a part of this simplication of grammar English nouns lost their gender.
The Norman French populace intermarried with the English, and when the Norman French ruler of England, King John, lost the last of his holdings in Normandy, the influence of France began to wane. The Hundred Years War provided further encouragement for the English language by putting French culture and language on the other side of a war. In 1415 King Henry V wrote letters in English from the battlefield in France and became the first king to officially use English since the Norman Conquest. Additionally, the Black Death killed many people, and may have accelerated the advancement of English speakers into positions of power in the Norman government. (“History of the English language” 2004)
The Middle English period is defined by changes in phonology and morphology which occurred before and during the Norman occupation. This Great Vowel Shift changed the ways most vowel sounds were made and thereby how words were spelled. These changes in the spoken language were not reflected in written language until the resurgence of English literature. Written English of this period shows the diverse dialects spoken in the regions of England. This diversity of vocabulary and spelling is found in the works of Geoffery Chaucer. Chaucer wrote in the East Midlands English spoken in London, but had knowledge of many other varieties which he used. In his most famous work, Canterbury Tales, he uses his command of English to entertain, making jokes about the rougher dialects of rural England and mocking the use of Latin and French by aristocrats, as in this description of the Summoner (MacCrum, et al, 1986, p. 81) :
And when that he wel drunken hadde the wyn
Than wolde he speke no word but Latyn
Another defining characteristic of Middle English is that it is generally intelligible to speakers of Modern English.
The introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton in 1476 CE marks the beginning of the Early Modern English period. The printing of books propelled the East Midlands dialect to become the standard for speech and writing. The European Renaissance provided for an increase in scholarship and publishing in English, and the Evangelical Reformation and formation of the Church of England increased the unifying power of English as a national language. While England begins acquiring colonies overseas, William Shakespeare is acting and writing in London. In this time, many new words are coined or brought to English. Shakespeare eagerly used them, and invented many of his own. Accommodation, obscene, and reliance are just a few of the words that appeared first in his First Folio (MacCrum, et al, 1986, p. 798). Shakespeare played upon available parallels in English to enhance imagery, for puns, and to make his work understandable to a larger audience. He often would have a character deliver a line twice, once in plain Germanic English and again with Latinate and French-derived words. In Macbeth after the title character murders Duncan, he declares the seas cannot cleanse the figurative blood from his hands, in both ways:
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the Green one red
He uses first the ornate Latinate words, and then the Anglo-Saxon for emphasis, poetry, and to reach a larger audience (MacCrum, et al, 1986, p. 102). Also in this period, an official English translation of the Bible is commissioned by King James. Shakespeare's works and the King James Bible show English standardized, yet demonstrably rich in flavor and complexity.
As the English nation sailed forth to explore, trade, and establish colonies, the English language spread to many other shores, notably North America, the Caribbean islands, Africa, Australia, and India. New places brought new products and the words to describe them to England, and English to those places. Tobacco is brought to England, as is the word for it. English words took on new meanings to describe unfamiliar geographical features like notch and divide (MacCrum, et al, 1986, p. 122). Traders and colonists borrowed words from the languages of the natives. Alien creatures were called by the Indian name, at least at first. Common usage changed these words, sometimes drastically, as with raughroughouns, aracouns, raccoon (MacCrum, et al, 1986, p. 121). Words were also borrowed from other colonial languages, as with the Spanish barbecue, chocolate, and tomato, all of which were originally Indian words (MacCrum, et al, 1986, p.123).
The language of the each colony was that of the region of England from which the colonists came, such as the Cockney dialect which heavily influenced the language of Australia, settled in part by English convicts. In each case, the distance from England allowed for continued divergence from the standard East Midlands dialect. In addition, the language of the colonies absorbed many more native words which were never integrated into standard English. The differentiation was encouraged by political hostility towards the colonial power, and some colonies broke away from England and formed their own governments. This all resulted in permanent fragmentation of English into several major dialects, that of Great Britain and those of the former colonies in North America, Australia, and India. Many creoles were also formed with English and the language of the natives, and these developed into national languages in many former colonies, as in Jamaica Creole and African Krio.
The English language is made up of German and French languages with influences from Danish, Celtic, Latin, Greek and many others. Despite being a language from a European island, today it’s spoken on every continent. English is a major language of trade, diplomacy and business worldwide. English is even the primary language used in communications sent into outer space. It faces challenges from native tongues and other world languages, but it is equipped with the flexibility to meet these challenges.
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