English The Language
Chapter 12


There many stories of English the language. There are innumerable individual stories from the people. Yet, even if we look for broad narrative themes, there are several dimensions competing for our attention. For example, there is the structural story the way the sounds, grammar, and vocabulary of the language have evolved. There is the social story the way the language has come to serve a multiplicity of functions in society. There is the literary story, and there is the chronological story, of a beginning, middle, and ending. We can start with the waves of Angle-Saxon invaders arriving in various locations, and laying the foundations of later dialect differences. The language diverging early in England and Scotland, then taking another path in Britain, on to North America and elsewhere in the world, the Anglo-Saxon corpus of poetry and prose, dating from around the seventh century, provides the first opportunity to examine the linguistic evidence of English. Understanding the outlines and the characteristics of Old English texts, the sounds, spellings, grammar, and vocabulary. The Middle English period, begins with the effects on the English language after the French invasion and then concluded with the Standard English. That’s one way of looking at the history of the English language. (Also see Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales)  

The Early Modern English period begins with the English of Caxton and the Renaissance, continues with that of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and ends with the landmark publication of Johnson's Dictionary. According to the Anglo-Saxon historian, the Venerable Bede, began the letter written to the Roman consul by some of the Celtic people who had survived the ferocious invasions of the Scots and Picts in the early decades of the fifth century.

('The barbarians drive us to the sea. The sea drives us back towards the barbarians. Between them we are exposed to two sorts of death, we are either slain or drowned)

Although the Romans had sent assistance in the past, they were now fully occupied by their on wars with the Kings of the Huns, Attila and Bledla. Bede gives a succinct and sober account of what took place: ‘In the year of our Lord 449...The nation of Angles, or Saxons, being invited by the aforesaid king, arrived in Britain with three long ships, and had a place assigned them to reside in by the same, in the eastern part of he island, that they might thus appear to be fighting for their country whilst their real intentions were to enslave it...Bede describes the invaders as belonging to the three most powerful nations of Germany, the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. The first group to arrive came from Jutland, in the northern part of modern Denmark, and were led, according to the chroniclers, by two Jutish brothers, Hengist and Horsa. They landed at Ebbs-fleet in the Isle of Thanet, and settled in the areas now known as Kent, the Isle of Wight, and parts of Hampshire. 

The Angles came from the south of the Danish peninsula, and entered Britain much later, among the eastern coast, settling in parts of Mercia, Northumbria, and what is now East Anglia. The Saxons came from an area further south and west, along the coast of the North Sea, and from 477 settled in various parts of southern and south eastern Britain. The chroniclers talk about groups of east, west, and south Saxons distinctions which are reflected in the later names of Essex, Wessex, and Sussex. The name Middlesex suggests that there were Middle Saxons too.

English is has a membership with the western branch of the Germanic family of languages. It is closest in structure to Frisian, though hardly anything is known about the ancient Frisians and their role in the invasions of Britain. The Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family is what the Britain historians teach. Yet the Germanic branch comes from Celtic, Italic, Balt-Slavic, Albanian or its upper half and the lower half comes or finds it way from the Greeks, Anatolians, Armenians, Tocharian tribes, and the so-called Ido-Iranians. Therefore Old English plainly relates to the areas in which the invaders settled, but there are too few texts to make serious comparisons possible. The Germanic languages are not the Germany of today, for the Germans speak a language closer to East Gothic more-so than English which is closer to the Frisian languages. (The Manuscripts of Bede's Ecclesiastical History are in the Latin Language)

The fighting imposition of Anglo-Saxon lasted for about a hundred years, and Anglo-Saxon settlements spread to all areas apart from the highlands of the West and north. By the end of the fifth century, the foundation was established for the emergence of the English language with all the influence of the other European languages including the root of English the Latin tongs of Rome.

With scant respect for priorities, the Germanic invaders called the native Celts Weals (foreigners), from which the name Welsh is derived. The Celts called the invaders Saxons, regardless of their tribe, and this practice was followed by the early Latin writers. By the end of the sixth century, however, the term Angli (Angles) was in use as early as 601, a king of Kent, Ethelbert, is called rex Anglo-rum (King of the Angles) and during the seventh century Angli or Anglia (for the country) became the usual Latin names. Old English (Engle) derives from the usage, and the name of the language found in Old English texts is from the outset referred to as Englisc (the sc spelling representing the sound sh). References to the name of the country as (Englaland) (land of the Angles), from which came England, do not appear until circa (c.) (about or around the time of) 1000.

Venerable Bede, born at Monk-ton on Tyne in c. 673, he worked as a writer and teacher, he died in 735, and was buried at Jarrow. His masterpiece, the ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’ (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation) was finished in 731. Its focus is the growth of Christianity in England, but its scope is much wider, and it is recognized as the most valuable source we have for early English history. Written in Latin, and an Old English translation was made in the reign of Alfred the Great.

Before the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the language and or languages spoken by the native inhabitants of the British Isles belonged to the Celtic family, introduced by a people who had come to the islands around the middle of the first millennium BC. Many of these settlers were, in turn, eventually subjugated by the Romans, who arrived in 43BC. After a millennium of settlement by speakers of Celtic, and half a millennium by speakers of Latin, what effect did this have on the language spoken by the arriving Anglo-Saxons? There is, surprisingly, very little Celtic influence or perhaps it is not so surprising, given the savage way in which the Celtic communities were destroyed or pushed back into the areas we now know as Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria, and the Scottish borders. Only a handful of Celtic words have survived into modern English.

Latin has been a major influence on English through out its history, and there is evidence of its role from the earliest moments of contract. Latin words were already used by the Anglo-Saxon tribes on the continent of Europe and were also introduced from within Britain. Vulgar Latin continued in use at least, as an official language for some years after the Roman army left, for some reason about 200 Latin words are present in the English language at the very beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Old English was first written in the runic alphabet. This alphabet was used in northern Europe, in Scandinavia, present day Germany, and the British Isles and it has been preserved in about 4,000 inscriptions and a few manuscripts. The alphabet was developed by the Romans who learned it from the Greeks who in-turn leaned it from Asia-Minor (Africa). The runic alphabet found throughout the area consisted of 24 letters. For the modern, magical sense of rune we are therefore indebted to the Scandinavian and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition. (See the Writings of Tolkien)

It is a considerable overstatement to suggest that St. Augustine brought Christianity to Britain. The religion had already arrived through the Roman invasion, and in the fourth century had been given official status in the Roman Empire. It was a Briton, St. Patrick, who converted Ireland in the early fifth century; and a number of early Welsh saints' names are remembered in place names beginning with Llan. (See the Latin influence before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and the first Old English manuscripts). The Literary age began only after the arrival of the Roman missionaries, led by Augustin, who came to Kent in AD 597. The first texts, dating from around 700, are glossaries of Latin words translated into Old English, and a few early inscriptions and poems. (The standard Old English alphabet had the following 24 letters: a, ae, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, p, dt, u, w, y, it was very similar to the one still in use, though any modern eye looking at the original manuscripts would immediately see the absence of capital letters).

The history of early English vocabulary is one of repeated invasions, with newcomers to the islands bringing their own language with them, and leaving a fair amount of its vocabulary behind when they left or were assimilated. The focus on the next world arrived first, as the Christian missionaries from Ireland and Rome, they introduce literacy, and they brought with them a huge Latin vocabulary. The Anglo-Saxons had already encountered Latin as used by the Continental Roman armies and the Romano-British, many Vulgar-Latin words came into Old English as a result of this mixture. The second big linguistic invasion came as a result of the Viking raids on Britain, which began in AD 787 and continued for some 200 years. Most terms to do with Danish law and culture died away after the Norman Conquest, 1066 ace marks the beginning of a new social and linguistic era in Britain. It was a long time before the effects of the Norman invasion worked their way into the language, and Old English continued to be used meanwhile. A century later, texts were still being composed in the West Saxon variety that had developed in the years following the reign of King Alfred. Middle English runs from the beginning of the 12th century until the middle of the fifteenth century. The gradual decay of Anglo-Saxon traditions and literary practices, overlapping with the sudden emergence of French and Latin literacy, gives much of this period an elusive and unfocused character. Chaucer is seen as a forerunner of Modern English poetry and some would say the climax to Middle English.

The main influence on English is of course, France strictly, Norman-French, the language introduced to Britain by the invader. Following William of Normandy's accession, French was rapidly established in the corridors of power. Within 20 years of the invasion, almost all the religious houses were under French speaking superiors and several new foundations were solely French. Most of the Anglo-Norman monarchs were unable to communicate at all in English though it is said some used it for swearing. Richard the second addressed the people in English during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 ace. The first royal Will to be written in English was Henry's (1413). French continued to be used in Parliament, the courts, and in public proceedings, but translations into English increased in frequency throughout the period, as did the number of handbooks written for the teaching of French. In 1204 King John of England clashed with King Philip of France, and had to give up control of Normandy. The English nobility lost their estates in France, and antagonism grew between the two countries, leading to the Hundred Years War (1337 thru 1453). Then came the Barons' War from 1264 thru 1265. English was not used in Parliament until 1362 and by 1425 English was widely used in England, in writings as well as in speeches. Middle English poetry is influenced by French literary traditions, both in content and style (See The Owl and the Nightingale). French influence also became increasingly evident in the English manuscripts of the 13th century.

French is the most dominant influence on the growth of Middle English vocabulary, but it is by not at all the only one. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries several thousand words came into the language directly from the Latin language by way of the French, belonging to such fields as religion, medicine, law and literature, the effects of the Scandinavian invasions also made themselves felt during this period. The (Wycliff Bible), authorship attributed to John Wycliff (1384), because of the unorthodox nature of Wycliff's opinions, the early manuscripts of his writings were widely destroyed. Wycliff was concerned that lay people should be able to read the Bible in their own language. The first translation, using the Latin version of St. Jerome, was made between 1380 and 1384. Wycliff's method was to rely greatly on glossing the Latin text, seeking where possible to preserve the original style. As a consequence, there are over a thousand Latin words whose use in English is first recorded in his translation. 

Any extract shows the influence of the Latin vocabulary, either directly imported, or known through French influence, (See the burning of John Wycliff's bones, 41 years after his death). The variety which we now call Standard English is the result of a combination of influences, the most important of which do not emerge until the period of Middle English. There is not any direct connection between West-Saxon, Old English and modern standard English.

The political heart of the country moved from Winchester to London after the Conquest and the major linguistic trends during Middle English increasingly relate to the development of the capital as a social, political and commercial centre, the standard English began to emerge in the fifteenth century, following a detailed study of the dialect of that period, it is now possible to isolate several factors which contributed to its identity. Also see William Caxton 1476 the press in Westminster. the King James Bible, published in 1611, exercised enormous influence on the development of the language and it was influenced by several existing versions, all produced during the sixteenth century. The motivations for these bibles lay in the religious controversies of the day such as but not limited too, Luther's protest at Wittenberg in 1517. About 80% of the text of the Authorized Version shows the influence of Tyndall, 1494 thru 1536, the chief sixteenth century translations are, Miles Coverdale of 1535, Matthew's Bible of 1537, the Great Bible of 1539, for Protestant England, the Geneva Bible of 1560, produced by English Protestants in exile during the reign of Queen Mary, it was in roman type, the Bishops' Bible of 1568 and the Douai-Rheims Bible of 1609-10 issued by the Roman Catholic priests in exile in Europe. The Rheims new Testament first appeared in 1582 and the remaining text was produced from Douai in 1609, based on the Latin Vulgate, it was used by English Catholics for the next century.  The period, from the time of Caxton until 1650 is called the Renaissance and includes the Reformation, and the so-called discoveries of Copernicus and the European exploration and colonization of Africa and the Americas. Most of the words which entered the language at this time are Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, North America, Africa, and Asia. The development of the language during the final decades of the Renaissance are of the works of William Shakespeare 1564 thru 1616 and the King James Bible of 1611. By 1860 the American spelling system becomes established. 

Finally we come to the African American presence that also made a substantial have an impact on the English vocabulary up and until this day, starting from 1807 thru 1838, then we see the vocabulary of the 1960 thru 1976 have and even greater influence on American English, also see the teachings of 120 lessons English C lesson number one.