The history of the English language began with the arrival of certain Germanic tribes onto the British shores from mainland Europe (mainly from Northern Germany and where we now call, Denmark) in the 5th century. Before these tribes stepped down onto British land, the language spoken by natives was Celtic. However, these inhabitants were pushed back to the west and north (primarily Wales and Scotland but Ireland also). The tribes were known as the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The Angles coincidently came from ENGLALAND and their language was ‘Englisc’ – sounds very similar to what we call England and English. These tribes did indeed mark the beginning of a complex linguistic transition of the Englisc language to what would eventually become the English we know today. This blog takes you back in time through history so that you can understand the language that torments you so with its various complexities and grammatical exceptions:
OLD ENGLISH 450 – 1150
Old English is also know to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ English because it was the mixture of the similar languages that the individual tribes spoke at the time. Old English looks and sounds nothing like the English we speak today, and every native speaker would have difficulty in trying to understand English language. Check out the following extract from the Aelfric’s “Homily on St. Gregory the Great”, a famous story about how the pope sent missionaries to help convert Anglo-Saxons to Christianity after seeing them sell young boys as slaves in Rome.
“Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, “Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon.”
Did you understand any of that? Sure, you can still find some words that are identical in spelling to their modern equivalents such as: Of, he, him, for, and, on etc. but the rest looks more like ‘elfish’ language from the Lord of the Rings or something. Although, modern English looks nothing like the above, many words still have Old English roots. For instance, the words: habbað (have), swilcum (such), heofonum (heaven), and beon (be).
The modern English version of the above extract for anyone who wants to understand what it actually says is as follows:
“Again he [St. Gregory] asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, “Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be the angels’ companions in heaven.”
MIDDLE ENGLISH 1150 – 1500
Possibly the best time period of the English language (in my opinion, ed.). This time period was largely influenced by the French and the Latin brought over by the French. This made some significant changes to the phonology and grammatical structure of the English language, including the loss or reduction of some inflections. This was a period when Chaucer brought back the English language through his literature in a country where French and Latin were the languages adopted by the upper classes and educated. He is known as the father of English Literature and we can thank him for legitimising vernacular Middle English – without him we could all be speaking French. Read some of Chaucer’s work below and you will notice that much of our sentence structures still mirror those of Chaucer’s time:
Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
- Befelle, that, in that seson on a day,
- In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
- Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
- To Canterbury with devoute corage,
- At night was come into that hostelrie
- Wel nine and twenty in a compagnie
- Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
- In felawship, and pilgrimes were they alle,
- That toward Canterbury wolden ride.
- The chambres and the stables weren wide,
- And wel we weren esed atte beste.
- And shortly, whan the sonne was gon to reste,
- So hadde I spoken with hem everich on,
- That I was of hir felawship anon,
- And made forword erly for to rise,
- To take cure way ther as I you devise.
So, it’s not as indistinct as Old English but it’s still not easy for a native English speaker to completely grasp nowadays. Still, we’ve got to love a bit of Chaucer.
EARLY MODERN ENGLISH 1500 – 1800
Towards the end of the Middle English period, there was a sudden change in pronunciation, where vowels were pronounced shorter and shorter (otherwise known as the Great Vowel Shift). The influence of Latin also had a stabilising effect on the English spelling. Furthermore, from the 16th century onwards, the British came into contact with people from around the world through colonialism; this added some new interesting words to the English lexicon. In fact the first English dictionary was first published in 1604. With the increased printing standardising the language and making books readily available to the public, people became more literate. The greatest English language writer wrote in Early Modern English – yes, twas Shakespeare!
LATE MODERN ENGLISH 1800 – Present
The main difference between early and late modern English is the increase of vocabulary that came about was due to the Industrial Revolution and invention of new technology. In addition to this, at the beginning of the Late Modern English period, the English empire covered around a quarter of the world meaning that we got some more fancy foreign words from other countries to add to our language. The English language continues to change and develop every day, some might say that the standard of English is changing for the worse and that somehow we are seeing deterioration in the standard of modern day English that is vastly influenced by technology and laziness. Can we safe the sophistication of the English language? Or will we all be speaking like Vicky Pollard clones in years to come?