Brief History of the English Language

Back when I used to tutor, not that long ago, somehow or another I ended up giving a lecture on the history of the English language to a couple of students, and they told me it was really interesting.  I thought they were being nice, but the next time I subbed in their class, (yes, that’s why Ella is a sub) they asked me to tell the class the story and the class was interested too.   So, since I need a blog post, here it is.

Act I: Old English.  English began with the Germanic tribes from the area around Denmark and oddly enough Germany attacking and settling the island, mainly the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes.  (When I learned this, my History of English Language professor told us her professor had told them to remember it as “Angles and Saxons and Jutes, oh my” to the tune of “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” from Wizard of Oz.  Kind of silly, but as she pointed out, we did remember it.)  In any case, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes (oh my!) took over and, pushing the Celtic tribes they found to the edges of the Island – Scotland, Ireland and Wales.  The Jutes sort of fade out, and the Anglo-Saxons take and form a language from their native Germanic dialects.

So what did Old English look like?  The bit of Old English poetry most people know (no, not Shakespeare or Chaucer, although someone always guesses both of those) is Beowulf.

“Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,  þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.”

The only bit of that I remember is “Hwæt”, which means “listen” or “hear me” and is a traditional way to start a story.  They’re talking about the great history and kings of the Spear-Danes to set up the story.

Act II: Middle English.  In 1066, William the Conqueror (or Guillaume le Conquerant if you’re in French class), the Duke of Normandy, became the last to successfully invade England at the Battle of Hastings.    When he became king, he brought his own court, and, being from Normandy and therefore French, they spoke French.  (If this sounds familiar, King John was a Norman king, Robert of Locksley, aka Robin Hood, is frequently described as Saxon lord.)  Eventually, the Old English of the Anglo -Saxons and French of the Normans blended together and became Middle English.

This is where Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales belong.

“When that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,/The droght of March hath perced to the roote/ And bathed every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour”

Translated “When in April, with its short showers/ has pierced the drought of March to its root/ and bathed every vein in sweet liquor/ the virtue of which creates the flower”

Since I speak French, I can do a fair job of translating Middle English if I concentrate.  (I have been told you can do the same with Old English if you speak German, but apparently to do that, you need to know more than numbers and “I’d like a train ticket, please.”)  I used to have the prologue to the Canterbury Takes memorised all the way up to “A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man” because I like saying “knyght.”  You pronounce both the “k” and the “n” and the “gh” is rather like the German “ch” sound.

Act III Modern English.  Yes, this is what we speak.  There isn’t as clear a break as in the other two, no more conquering England.  One change is called the Great Vowel Shift, which is a shift in how and where in the mouth vowels are pronounced.  This is why English pronounces vowels differently than most other European languages (think “e” and “i”).  One theory is that modern English was a dialect, probably from around London, that became standard through the increase in writing and traveling, particularly of players (actors).

So, yes, Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, although he and Marlowe and the rest of the Renaissance speakers are sometimes called Early Modern English.  Clearly they’re writing modern English, after Chaucer “To be or not to be” seems pretty easy to understand, but there were a few shifts beyond just vocabulary and word meanings evolving.  One is the use of the 2nd person informal.  We don’t use it anymore, but in Will’s time, “you” was the formal and plural (the “vous” in French) and “thou” was the informal; it just sounds formal to us because we associate it with old texts, and old always seems stuff and formal. 

So there it is, a brief history of the English Language.

my web page is copyright 2010, 2011 Lisa Anne Nisula
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