Word Odyssey: The History of English—in 5 Minutes!

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In honor of International Mother Tongue Day coming up on February 21st—and I’m not making that up; the Day is recognized by the United Nations—today’s Word Odyssey is going to give you the history of the English language. No time to tarry….

English derives from the Germanic dialects of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who conquered southern Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. When they arrived, the native Britons spoke Celtic. Latin was also common among upper crust Brits, having adopted it during four centuries of Roman occupation. Surprisingly, though, the Germanic invaders absorbed hardly any Celtic, with the exception of place names. (Such as London, from a Celtic word meaning “wild.” Britain itself is a rendering of the native term for Wales, which was later applied to the entire island). And while English eventually borrowed loads of Latin, that mostly came a millenium later.

As the Anglo-Saxon upstarts settled in, English began to develop as its own language, distinct from the Germanic dialects that begat it. But then along came the Vikings, another Germanic people speaking what we now call Old Norse. Viking raids escalated into full scale invasions until by the 9th century they had conquered parts of the British Isles, including Northern Scotland, and were on the verge of overrunning all of England. But in 871, Saxon King Alfred the Great rallied the locals to defeat them at Ashdown, stemming the tide. By treaty, the Saxons and Vikings established a boundary between them that became known as the danelaw.

The English language thus survived the Viking onslaught. However, commerce across the danelaw boundary infused English with loads of words from Old Norse. A few examples include the pronouns they, them and their, as are skin, sky, smile, and wrong, along with law. Tellingly, husband is also from Old Norse, whereas wife is from Old English, thus reflecting male marauders marrying local women.

During King Alfred’s reign, Christian monks began compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was not only a history of the English, it was the first major work written in English. By this time written English used the Roman alphabet, which was adopted after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Previously, English had been rendered in Germanic runic characters.

In 1066 A.D., the Normans conquered England. As a result, the Duke of Normandy, theretofore known as William the Bastard, became William the Conqueror—a move that immensely improved his posterity. Although the Normans came from France, ethnically they were Vikings— the word Norman meant “northmen”—but they had dropped their own language and adopted the native French.

The Normans brought French with them to England, and imposed it at all levels of government, law and learning. Commoners still spoke English, but naturally began to assimilate French. This began the transition from Old English to what we now call Middle English. Thousands of English words originated as Norman French. By one estimate, Norman French bequeathed 10,000 words to English, of which 75% remain in use. The class stratification between the French speaking nobility and the English speaking commoners is reflected in the fact that while Old English gives us the farm animals cow, calf, sheep and pig, French gives us the equivalent table foods beef, veal, mutton, pork and bacon. Some other words from Old French are army, soldier, duke, peasant, as well as most of English legal language such as plaintiff, defendant, trial, court and jury.

French might have buried English completely, but a war on the continent turned the tide. In 1204, the realm of the English King John also included Normandy and Aquitane on the continent, but he was defeated by a small kingdom known as France. This cost him Normandy, leaving England as the greater part of his realm. As a result, English nobility, which had been French to the core, slowly became less Frenchified and more Anglified. In 1399, when the Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard II, the abdication was written in English. Henry V, who ascended to the throne in 1413 A.D., actually wrote in English. He also spoke English in his rallying cry to rouse the troops against the French in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The English language thus survived, but it survived as a mongrel—what poet Daniel Defoe in 1701satirically called “Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.”

I promised you a history of the English language in 5 minutes, but I can’t do it. So watch next week for the exciting conclusion of The History of English in 5 Minutes—or so.

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