"I thought Old English was Dead!" - History of the English Language

Canst1 Thou2 Wit3 the History of the English Language?

1“can,” Old English (before 900) 2“plural form of you,” Old English 3“know,” Old English

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___ I am one of the 3 billion people who speak an Indo-European language.

___ I am one of the 300 million native speakers of English, the 2nd most spoken language in the world and the official language of over 45 countries.

___ I am one of the 300 million people who use English as a second language.

___ I am one of the 100 million people who use English as a foreign language.

___ I am one of the many people in the world who want to be able to speak English better.

By now, most of you know that this article is about the history of the English language.  And if you checked any number of the above-blanks, you are included in the increasing number of English speakers laying claim to the most widespread language in the world.  What more is there to the beginnings of this language?  And as the title of this article suggests, ‘Can’ you know the history of the language?' Let’s start with some facts to help you out.

  1. English is a Germanic language of the Indo-European Family. Indo-European is a name given to a large linguistic family that includes most of the past and present languages of Europe. It also includes the languages found in the area extending across Iran and Afghanistan to the northern half of India.
  1. The history of the English language began with the arrival of three Germanic tribes (the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes) who invaded Britain during the 5th century. They came across the North Sea from the land that is now the countries of Germany and Denmark.  When these tribes came to Britain, the British (Celtic language speakers) were pushed into the areas of what are now known as Wales, Scotland and Ireland. One group of British migrated to the Brittany Coast of France.  Their descendants speak the Celtic language there today. The Angles were named from Engle, their land of origin.  Their language was called Englisc. You’re right…this is where the word English comes from.
  1. When you look up the etymology of a word (e.g. history of a word), the entry tells you where the word came from, some information about how the word was first used, the root word and meaning, and what the word means today. At the top of this article you see that first 3 words in the title came from Old English.  The first written words in the English language were dated around 450 AD.  Old English is classified from 450-1100 A.D. Old English did not look or sound like the English used today.  Interesting to note, more than half of the most common used words in the English language today have roots from Old English.
  1. During the next six to seven hundred years, four dialects developed from Englisc. These consisted of Kentish in Kent, West Saxon in the Kingdom of Wessex, Mercian in the Kingdom of Mercia and Northumbrian in Northumbria. Northumbria’s language dominated Britain. During the 9th century, the Vikings invaded England and destroyed the kingdoms except for Wessex.  One hundred years later, the West Saxon dialect became Britain’s official language.  Old English was written down.  This language used the alphabet system known as Runic or Anglo-Saxon which came from the Scandinavian languages.  Some runic inscriptions have been found in parts of England.  These include inscriptions on jewelry, weapons, stones and other objects.  Beowulf is a well-known sample of Old English writing.  It is a heroic poem with a Scandinavian setting about a legendary hero who slays a monster and becomes the king. Then, he tragically dies fighting a dragon.

Vikings most likely didn't wear helmets with horns in them!

Prologue from Beowulf (Author, Unknown)

Beowulf in Hypertext http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/

  1. In the 6th-7th centuries, the Christian missionaries from Ireland brought over the Latin alphabet.  Today, this is the alphabet used for the English language. Many new religious terms were Latin:  abbot, altar, angel, apostle, bishop, candle, clerk, martyr, mass, minister, monk, nun, pope, priest, school and shrive as well as more common words like street, kitchen, kettle, cup, cheese and wine.   Latin words were sometimes translated by finding suitable words in Old English.  Quite often, a Germanic word was adapted and given a new meaning.  For example, the Old English word godspell became gospel for the Latin word evangelium. Approximately 600 words were borrowed from Latin during the Old English period. Many of these words were not commonly used so the majority of these words did not pass on to the Middle English period (1100-1500).
  1. During this time period, the vocabulary of Old English was based on the Anglo Saxon words with borrowed words from the Scandinavian languages of Danish and Norse in addition to the Latin. The Vikings added more words:  sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window, husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they, their, them. Some Celtic words of mostly places and rivers remained (Devon, Dover, Kent, Trent, Severn, Ayon and Thames).
  1. Many of the English words and the Scandinavian words were both used.  This led to an explosion of the number of words in the English language that meant the same thing.  You can see examples of this from the list below.  It has the Scandinavian word written first and then the English word: anger/wrath, nay/no, fro/from, raise/rear, ill/sick, bask/bathe, skill/craft, skin/hide, dike/ditch, skirt/shirt, scatter/shatter, skip/shift.
  1. About 5,000 of these Old English words remain (in our modern English of today) just as they were used some 900-1500 years ago.  These words include everyday words used around the house, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements and certain parts of speech (most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and helping verbs).  

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___ I admit. I learned something about Old English.

___ Okay, I have some time. Tell me more about the history of the English language.

___ I guess that Old English is replaced by Middle English (1100-1500). What happened next?

  1. Around the beginning of the 11th century, the Normans led by the Duke of Normandy conquered Britain so French became the language of the Royal Court, the ruling classes, and the business classes.  This added even more vocabulary words to the English language. Some of these include close, reply, odor, annual, demand, chamber, desire, power and ire. Did you know that the French changed the spelling of the “cw” sound to “qu” so instead of the word cween, the new word became queen?
  2. Did you know that the English underclass cooked for the Norman upperclass?  That explains why most of the domestic animals have English words like swine, sheep, calf, cow and ox.  And the words for the meats are French (venison, bacon, pork, mutton, veal and beef).  Did you know that the French pattern of making plurals by adding the letter “s” replaced most of the ways the Germans made words plural?  Some German plurals remained to include men, oxen, feet, teeth and children.
  3. In the 14th century, English became the dominant language used throughout Britain again.  Many French words were used, too.  This language is called Middle English.  Even if you were a native English speaker, Middle English would be difficult to understand.
  4. Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.  Chaucer was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.  One of his most popular works The Canterbury Tales shows an example of Middle English. These are the opening lines of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales taking place somewhere in England. The imagery is of spring’s renewal and rebirth. April’s showers have penetrated the dry earth of March.  The constellation Taurus is in the sky.  Zephyr, the gentle west wind has breathed life into the fields.  There are birds chirping and flowers beginning to grow.

Prologue to Canterbury Tales

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 halve cours yronne,

And smale fowles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

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­­­___ Wow!  That prologue was something else!

___ I wonder what type of English language is next?

___ I think that Modern English is next.

___ I know that Modern English is divided into two types:  Early Modern English (1500-1800) and Late Modern English (1800-the present).

___ Okay, I have some time. Tell me more about the history of the English language.

You’re right!  Modern English is next. What can I tell you?

  1. Towards the end of Middle English, there was a change in pronunciation.  Vowels were pronounced in a shorter way.
  2. Many new words continued to be added to the English language. The people of Britain were reaching out to people from other parts of the world.  In addition, the Renaissance of classical learning meant that words and phrases were expanding.  Shakespeare (1564-1616) added over 1600 words!
  3. The invention of printing helped with getting a common language.  More people were beginning to read as books were so easily printed.  The more books that were printed, the cheaper they became and more affordable to everyone.
  4. Now, spelling and grammar were uniform. The way people spoke in London, where most of the publishing companies were, dictated how English was to be spoken at this time.
  5. Then, in 1604, the first dictionary Table Alphabeticall became available. It was written by Robert Cawdrey who selected 2,543 words and definitions to help the common person better understand the English language.  Words borrowed from Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French were included.  In this dictionary, he explained the concept of alphabetical order, to which even the most literate people had not heard of before.  The complete title of his dictionary (just in case you are on a game show or you want to drop this tidbit at a dinner party) is:  A table alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, vvhich they shall heare or read in scriptures, sermons, or elswhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.
  6. The first Daily English-language newspaper The Daily Courant is published in London in 1702.  This gives impetus to daily language in the hands of more people.

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___ I’ve heard that title of the first dictionary before.

___ No problem, I’ve got that dictionary title memorized.

___ I think there is one type of English left.

___ Okay, I have some time. Tell me more about the history of the English language.

Vocabulary is what distinguishes Early Modern English from Late Modern English (1800-present).  Late Modern English has tons of words.

  1. Several main reasons behind the explosion of words were the Industrial Revolution and the advent of technology, and the expansion of the British Empire. At its height, Great Britain covered one quarter of the earth’s surface.  So, it little wonder that the English language adopted foreign words from many other countries.  A few samples of borrowed words include names of animals (zebra, tiger and giraffe), clothing (shawl, turban and pajamas), food (oranges, chocolate and spinach), scientific/mathematical terms (species, algebra and geometry), drinks (cider, tea and coffee), religious terms (nirvana, Jesus and Islam), sports words (billiards, checkmate, golf), vehicles (chariot, coach, car), music/art (piano, theater, easel), political/military terms (parliament, admiral and commando), and astronomy names (Saturn, Leo and Uranus).
  1. Many languages continued to contribute words to the English language.  Now, the English vocabulary is the largest vocabulary of any language.  In addition to the languages already mentioned (i.e. Latin, Greek, French, German), Arabic, Hindi, Italian, Malay, Dutch, Farsi, Nahuatl, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Tupi and Ewe among others have impacted the English language.
  2. To this day, more and more words are added as the world undergoes advances in learning and technology, and as the world becomes more global. The cinema, television, popular music and trade all impact language.  From idioms to slang, the English language continues to expand.
  1. There are many varieties of the English language throughout the world.  Canadian English is different from American English. Australian English and New Zealand English are different from each other, and different from South African, Indian and Caribbean English.

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___ I understand more about the history of the English language.

___ I can better see the importance of learning English.

___ If 700 million people throughout the world know English, I want to be one of these people who not only speaks English, but feels more confident in speaking English.

___ I know it’s time to check out TalktoCanada.com for their online English programs.

I hope you learned some new things about the origin and the history of the English Language.  I know I sure did.  Feel free to follow my upcoming series of articles about the origin and history of the English Language.  Just come hither and check out TalktoCanada.com so your goals are not thwarted and that you, as a wight can quench your yearning for more language information.

Check all that apply (for the author only):

_X__ I am finished now.  I’ll check back oft to see any feedback that you may offer.

Old English Glossary (for the reader):

Hither – to this place

Oft – many times at short intervals

Quench – satisfy a thirst for

Thrwarted – hindered or prevented the efforts, plans or desires of

Wight – a human being

Further Reading Resources

If you are interested in learning more how English became what it is today, you can go to a number of sources.  These are some of the resources I used in tracing English from before Shakespeare to Tweets. Let me know what you find helpful, interesting or funny and if you L-edOL (laugh-ed out loud).  Until my next post about the English language, I am still SMYH (still shaking my head) over what I have learned. www.ibequeaththee.com/oldenglish.html a list of Old English words and meanings from art to yore http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/the-history-of-english five events that shaped the history of English http://www.englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm a short history of the origin and development of English http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_English_language a complete history of the English language from Old English through Modern English http://www.merriam-webster.com/help/faq/history.htm the origin of the English language http://pages.towson.edu/duncan/helhome.html the English language using the past to predict the future http://www.anglik.net/englishlanguagehistory.htm a brief history of global English http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3r9bOkYW9s the comical approach to the history of English in 10 minutes of video    

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