History of the English language


History of the English language

English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic invaders from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the Netherlands. Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate.

English changed enormously in the Middle Ages. Written Old English of 1000 AD is similar in vocabulary and grammar to other old Germanic languages such as Old High German and Old Norse, and completely unintelligible to modern speakers, while the modern language is already largely recognisable in written Middle English of 1400 AD. This was caused by two further waves of invasion: the first by speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language family, who conquered and colonized parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries; the second by the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. A large proportion of the modern English vocabulary comes directly from Anglo-Norman.

Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English. However, this had not reached South West England by the 9th century AD, where Old English was developed into a full-fledged literary language. This was completely disrupted by the Norman invasion in 1066, and when literary English rose anew in the 13th century, it was based on the speech of London, much closer to the centre of Scandinavian settlement. Technical and cultural vocabulary was largely derived from Old Norman, with particularly heavy influence in the courts and government. With the coming of the Renaissance, as with most other developing European languages such as German and Dutch, Latin and Ancient Greek supplanted Norman and French as the main source of new words. Thus, English developed into very much a "borrowing" language with an enormously disparate vocabulary.

Contents

Proto-English

The languages of Germanic peoples gave rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxons, Frisii, Jutes and possibly the Franks, who traded and fought with the Latin-speaking Roman Empire in the centuries-long process of the Germanic peoples' expansion into Western Europe during the Migration Period). Some Latin words for common objects entered the vocabulary of these Germanic peoples before their arrival in Britain and their subsequent formation of England.

The main source of information for the culture of the Germanic peoples (the ancestors of the English) in ancient times is Tacitus' Germania, written around 100 AD. While remaining conversant with Roman civilisation and its economy, including serving in the Roman military, they retained political independence. Some Germanic troops served in Britannia under the Romans. It is unlikely that Germanic settlement in Britain was intensified (except for Frisians) until the arrival of mercenaries in the 5th century as described by Gildas. As it was, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived as Germanic pagans, independent of Roman control.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern, King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles allegedly led by the Germanic brothers Hengist and Horsa) to help him in conflicts with the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast of Britain. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles and Jutes). The Chronicle talks of a subsequent influx of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. However, modern scholars view the figures of Hengist and Horsa as Euhemerised deities from Anglo-Saxon paganism, who ultimately stem from the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.[1]

Old English

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

The invaders' Germanic language displaced the indigenous Brythonic languages in most of the areas of Great Britain that were later to become England. The original Celtic languages remained in parts of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (where Cornish was spoken into the 19th century). What is now called Old English emerged over time out of the many dialects and languages of the colonising tribes.[2] Even then, it continued to exhibit local language variation, the remnants of which continue to be found in dialects of Modern English.[3] The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is the epic poem Beowulf composed by an unknown poet.

Old English did not sound or look like the Standard English of today. Any native English speaker of today would find Old English unintelligible without studying it as a separate language. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English; and many non-standard dialects such as Scots and Northumbrian English have retained many features of Old English in vocabulary and pronunciation.[4] Old English was spoken until some time in the 12th or 13th century.[5][6]

Later, English was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Old Norse, spoken by the Norsemen who invaded and settled mainly in the North East of England (see Jórvík and Danelaw). The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distinct.

The Germanic language of these Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by contact with Norse invaders, which might have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). English words of Old Norse origin include anger, bag, both, hit, law, leg, same, skill, sky, take, and many others, possibly even including the pronoun they.

The introduction of Christianity added another wave of Latin and some Greek words. The Old English period formally ended some time after the Norman conquest (starting in 1066 AD), when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the Normans, who spoke a French dialect called Old Norman. The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development.

Middle English

For about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only one of the French langues d'oïl, that we call Anglo-Norman, which was a variety of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period and originating from a northern dialect of Old French, whilst English continued to be the language of the common people. Middle English was influenced by both Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French (see characteristics of the Anglo-Norman language).

Even after the decline of Norman-French, standard French retained the status of a formal or prestige language - as with most of Europe during the period - and had a significant influence on the language, which is visible in Modern English today (see English language word origins and List of English words of French origin). A tendency for French-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day; most modern English speakers would consider a "cordial reception" (from French) to be more formal than a "hearty welcome" (Germanic). Another example is the very unusual construction of the words for animals being separate from the words for their meat: e.g., beef and pork (from the French bœuf and porc) being the products of 'cows' and 'pigs', animals with Germanic names.

English was also influenced by the Celtic languages it was displacing, especially the Brittonic substrate, most notably with the introduction of the continuous aspect—a feature found in many modern languages but developed earlier and more thoroughly in English.[7]

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old Norman or Latin. A large number of Norman words were taken into Old English, with many doubling for Old English words. The Norman influence is the hallmark of the linguistic shifts in English over the period of time following the invasion, producing what is now referred to as Middle English.

The most famous writer from the Middle English period was Geoffrey Chaucer, and The Canterbury Tales is his best-known work.

English literature started to reappear around 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, was the first English government document to be published in the English language since the Conquest. In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English. By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in limited circles somewhat longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

English spelling was also influenced by Norman in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters þ (thorn) and ð (eth), which did not exist in Norman. These letters remain in the modern Icelandic alphabet, which is descended from the alphabet of Old Norse.

Early Modern English

Modern English is often dated from the Great Vowel Shift, which took place mainly during the 15th century. English was further transformed by the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardising effect of printing. By the time of William Shakespeare (mid 16th - early 17th century),[8] the language had become clearly recognisable as Modern English. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published, the Table Alphabeticall.

English has continuously adopted foreign words, especially from Latin and Greek, since the Renaissance. (In the 17th century, Latin words were often used with the original inflections, but these eventually disappeared). As there are many words from different languages and English spelling is variable, the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, most notably in the West Country.

Modern English

In 1755, Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary, his Dictionary of the English Language.

The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the Earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

Phonological changes

Grammatical changes

The English language once had an extensive declension system similar to Latin, modern German or Icelandic. Old English distinguished between the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases; and for strongly declined adjectives and some pronouns also a separate instrumental case (which otherwise and later completely coincided with the dative). In addition, the dual was distinguished from the more modern singular and plural.[9] Declension was greatly simplified during the Middle English period, when accusative and dative pronouns merged into a single objective pronoun. Nouns in Modern English no longer decline for case, except for the possessive, and for remnants of the former system in a few pronouns.

Evolution of English pronouns

"Who" and "whom", "he" and "him", "she" and "her", etc. are remnants of both the old nominative versus accusative and also of nominative versus dative. In other words, "her" (for example) serves as both the dative and accusative version of the nominative pronoun "she". In Old English as well as modern German and Icelandic as further examples, these cases had distinct pronouns.

This collapse of the separate case pronouns into the same word is one of the reasons grammarians consider the dative and accusative cases to be extinct in English — neither is an ideal term for the role played by "whom". Instead, the term objective is often used; that is, "whom" is a generic objective pronoun which can describe either a direct or an indirect object. The nominative case, "who", is called simply the subjective. The information formerly conveyed by having distinct case forms is now mostly provided by prepositions and word order.

Modern English morphologically distinguishes only one case, the possessive case — which some linguists argue is not a case at all, but a clitic (see the entry for genitive case for more information). With only a few pronominal exceptions, the objective and subjective always have the same form.

Interrogative pronouns

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Masculine/Feminine (Person) Nominative hwā who who
Accusative hwone / hwæne whom who / whom1
Dative hwām / hwǣm
Instrumental
Genitive hwæs whos whose
Neuter (Thing) Nominative hwæt what what
Accusative hwæt what / whom
Dative hwām / hwǣm
Instrumental hwȳ / hwon why why
Genitive hwæs whos whose2

1 - In some dialects who is used where Formal English only allows whom, though variation among dialects must be taken into account.

2 - Usually replaced by of what (postpositioned).

First person personal pronouns

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Singular Nominative I / ich / ik I
Accusative mē / meċ me me
Dative
Genitive mīn min / mi my, mine
Plural Nominative we we
Accusative ūs / ūsiċ us us
Dative ūs
Genitive ūser / ūre ure / our our, ours

(Old English also had a separate dual, wit ("we two") etcetera; however, no later forms derive from it.)

Second person personal pronouns

Old and Middle English singular to the Modern English archaic informal
Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Singular Nominative þū þu / thou thou (you)
Accusative þē / þeċ þé / thee thee (you)
Dative þē
Genitive þīn þi / þīn / þīne / thy /thin / thine thy, thine (your)
Plural Nominative ġē ye / ȝe / you you
Accusative ēow / ēowiċ you, ya
Dative ēow
Genitive ēower your your, yours

Note that the ye/you distinction still existed, at least optionally, in Early Modern English: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" from the King James Bible.

Here the letter þ (interchangeable with ð in manuscripts) corresponds to th.

Formal and informal forms of the second person singular and plural
Old English Middle English Modern English
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Case Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal
Nominative þū ġē you thou you ye you
Accusative þē / þeċ ēow / ēowiċ thee you
Dative þē ēow
Genitive þīn ēower your, yours thy, thine your, yours your, yours

(Old English also had a separate dual, ȝit ("ye two") etcetera; however, no later forms derive from it.)

Third person personal pronouns

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Masculine Singular Nominative he he
Accusative hine him him
Dative him
Genitive his his his
Feminine Singular Nominative hēo heo / sche / ho / he / ȝho she
Accusative hīe hire / hure / her / heore her
Dative hire
Genitive hire hir / hire / heore / her / here her, hers
Neuter Singular Nominative hit hit / it it
Accusative hit hit / it / him
Dative him
Genitive his his / its its
Plural Nominative hīe he / hi / ho / hie / þai / þei they
Accusative hīe hem / ham / heom / þaim / þem / þam them
Dative him
Genitive hira here / heore / hore / þair / þar their, theirs

(The origin of the modern forms is generally thought to have been a borrowing from Old Norse forms þæir, þæim, þæira.
The two different roots co-existed for some time, although currently the only common remnant is the shortened form 'em.
Cf. also the demonstrative pronouns.)

Historic English text samples

Old English

Beowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately AD 900

Hwæt! Wē Gār-Dena in geārdagum,
þēodcyninga þrym gefrūnon,
ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,
monegum mǣgþum, meodosetla oftēah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ǣrest wearð
fēasceaft funden, þæs frōfre gebād,
wēox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þāh,
oðþæt him ǣghwylc þāra ymbsittendra
ofer hronrāde hȳran scolde,
gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs gōd cyning!

Which, as translated by Francis Gummere, reads:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!

Here is a sample prose text, the beginning of The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan. The full text can be found at The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, at Wikisource.

Ōhthere sǣde his hlāforde, Ælfrēde cyninge, ðæt hē ealra Norðmonna norþmest būde. Hē cwæð þæt hē būde on þǣm lande norþweardum wiþ þā Westsǣ. Hē sǣde þēah þæt þæt land sīe swīþe lang norþ þonan; ac hit is eal wēste, būton on fēawum stōwum styccemǣlum wīciað Finnas, on huntoðe on wintra, ond on sumera on fiscaþe be þǣre sǣ. Hē sǣde þæt hē æt sumum cirre wolde fandian hū longe þæt land norþryhte lǣge, oþþe hwæðer ǣnig mon be norðan þǣm wēstenne būde. Þā fōr hē norþryhte be þǣm lande: lēt him ealne weg þæt wēste land on ðæt stēorbord, ond þā wīdsǣ on ðæt bæcbord þrīe dagas. Þā wæs hē swā feor norþ swā þā hwælhuntan firrest faraþ. Þā fōr hē þā giet norþryhte swā feor swā hē meahte on þǣm ōþrum þrīm dagum gesiglau. Þā bēag þæt land, þǣr ēastryhte, oþþe sēo sǣ in on ðæt lond, hē nysse hwæðer, būton hē wisse ðæt hē ðǣr bād westanwindes ond hwōn norþan, ond siglde ðā ēast be lande swā swā hē meahte on fēower dagum gesiglan. Þā sceolde hē ðǣr bīdan ryhtnorþanwindes, for ðǣm þæt land bēag þǣr sūþryhte, oþþe sēo sǣ in on ðæt land, hē nysse hwæþer. Þā siglde hē þonan sūðryhte be lande swā swā hē meahte on fīf dagum gesiglan. Ðā læg þǣr ān micel ēa ūp on þæt land. Ðā cirdon hīe ūp in on ðā ēa for þǣm hīe ne dorston forþ bī þǣre ēa siglan for unfriþe; for þǣm ðæt land wæs eall gebūn on ōþre healfe þǣre ēas. Ne mētte hē ǣr nān gebūn land, siþþan hē from his āgnum hām fōr; ac him wæs ealne weg wēste land on þæt stēorbord, būtan fiscerum ond fugelerum ond huntum, ond þæt wǣron eall Finnas; ond him wæs āwīdsǣ on þæt bæcbord. Þā Boermas heafdon sīþe wel gebūd hira land: ac hīe ne dorston þǣr on cuman. Ac þāra Terfinna land wæs eal wēste, būton ðǣr huntan gewīcodon, oþþe fisceras, oþþe fugeleras.

This may be translated as:

Ohthere said to his lord, King Alfred, that he of all Norsemen lived north-most. He quoth that he lived in the land northward along the North Sea. He said though that the land was very long from there, but it is all wasteland, except that in a few places here and there Finns [i.e. Sami] encamp, hunting in winter and in summer fishing by the sea. He said that at some time he wanted to find out how long the land lay northward or whether any man lived north of the wasteland. Then he traveled north by the land. All the way he kept the waste land on his starboard and the wide sea on his port three days. Then he was as far north as whale hunters furthest travel. Then he traveled still north as far as he might sail in another three days. Then the land bowed east (or the sea into the land — he did not know which). But he knew that he waited there for west winds (and somewhat north), and sailed east by the land so as he might sail in four days. Then he had to wait for due-north winds, because the land bowed south (or the sea into the land — he did not know which). Then he sailed from there south by the land so as he might sail in five days. Then a large river lay there up into the land. Then they turned up into the river, because they dared not sail forth past the river for hostility, because the land was all settled on the other side of the river. He had not encountered earlier any settled land since he travelled from his own home, but all the way waste land was on his starboard (except fishers, fowlers and hunters, who were all Finns). And the wide sea was always on his port. The Bjarmians have cultivated their land very well, but they did not dare go in there. But the Terfinn’s land was all waste except where hunters encamped, or fishers or fowlers.[citation needed]

Middle English

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century:

Whan that Aprille 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 halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open yë
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Early Modern English

From Paradise Lost by John Milton, 1667:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth
Rose out of chaos: or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle Flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, whyle it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

Modern English

Taken from Oliver Twist, 1838, by Charles Dickens:

The evening arrived: the boys took their places; the master in his cook's uniform stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out, and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared, the boys whispered each other and winked at Oliver, while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger and reckless with misery. He rose from the table, and advancing, basin and spoon in hand, to the master, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity—

"Please, sir, I want some more."

The master was a fat, healthy man, but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder, and the boys with fear.

"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.

"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle, pinioned him in his arms, and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

See also

Lists:

Notes

  1. ^ Examples include Simek (2007:59—60) and Mallory (2005:135).
  2. ^ Origin of the Anglo-Saxon race : a study of the settlement of England and the tribal origin of the Old English people; Author: William Thomas Shore; Editors TW and LE Shore; Publisher: Elliot Stock; published 1906 p. 3, 393
  3. ^ Origin of the Anglo-Saxon race : a study of the settlement of England and the tribal origin of the Old English people; Author: William Thomas Shore; Editors TW and LE Shore; Publisher: Elliot Stock; published 1906 p. 3
  4. ^ "Geordie dialect". Bl.uk. 2007-03-12. http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/geordie/. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  5. ^ "4.1 The change from Old English to Middle English". Uni-kassel.de. http://www.uni-kassel.de/fb8/misc/lfb/html/text/4-1frame.html. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  6. ^ The Oxford history of English lexicography, Volume 1 By Anthony Paul Cowie
  7. ^ Filppula, Markku, Juhani Klemola und Heli Pitkänen (eds.). 2002. The Celtic Roots of English. Joensuu: University of Joensuu, Faculty of Humanities.
  8. ^ See Fausto Cercignani, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981.
  9. ^ Peter S. Baker (2003). "Pronouns". The Electronic Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/resources/IOE/inflpron.html. 

References

External links


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