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Heritage - 41: Understanding English, a Language Still Unfolding - Like a Rose

Beginnings: a language culture established and growing

The introductory page to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the grandfather of English writing and thinking

The introductory page to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the grandfather of English writing and thinking

A scribe sets down the year's events. Entries were made at five religious houses across the  several kingdoms that became England by Aethelstan's reign (mid-late 10th Century), relating events fraught with the difficulty of uniting disparate peoples

A scribe sets down the year's events. Entries were made at five religious houses across the several kingdoms that became England by Aethelstan's reign (mid-late 10th Century), relating events fraught with the difficulty of uniting disparate peoples

Over the past fifteen hundred years or so, the English language has developed apace

The nature of the 'beast' can be assessed easily, but here are a few pointers to hep understand how the language came to the stage of development reached to date. The course the language has taken may help navigate the channels and eddies. Outside influences have smoothed its edges, broken off a few corners and submerged some of the harder surfaces in the following manner.

ORIGINS: Belonging to the Indo-European flow of languages, English is one of a myriad strain evolved from a common tongue we are told was 'Proto-Indo-European'. Words we use have come from a broad stream of sources, although largely within a common pool.

Earliest known sources are Northern European, in brief Norse and mainstream Germanic with a veneer of Latinised Frankish - itself a hybrid developed before and since AD 1066. With the growth of the British Empire, latterly Commonwealth, in the east words have been drawn from different sources in Asia. We can't see our way clear sometimes, to distinguish English words from loan words. Plainly there are words that have Germanic connotations from the swell of Anglian, Jutish and Saxon settlers in the 5th Century AD. Words we can identify from this era are the 'building blocks' of modern-day English, such as eat, drink, speak, house, door, woman and wife.

The newcomers, who swept in from the east displaced some Celts, whose speech can be traced to Welsh or Cornish (Brythonic or Gallic). Little of this can be found in modern English, although there are a few elements that relate to the lie of the land and features on the high ground such as tarn, a small, glacial lake in the mountains, and col, a pass between higher ground or peaks. Some dialects have Brythonic words linked to animal husbandry such as counting sheep into the pen, yan, twa, tethera, methera, pimp (one, two, three, four, five) and on to crackerbuck, (fifty). Some place names reflect original Celtic importance, such as Catterick in North Yorkshire, that comes from Cadraig, then a hill fort taken over by the Romans, and now an extensive army base near Richmond.on the River Swale (itself an O.E.. version of swallow, the bird). There is the old Celtic kingdom of Elmete, celebrated by the modern towns Sherburn-in-Elmet and Barwick-in-Elmet between Selby and Leeds in Yorkshire, either side of the A1(M).

These Angles and Saxons maintained links with the Continent, in specific what had become the Holy Roman Empire of the Franks, also a Gemanic confederation of tribes who adopted the Latinisation of their language in the days of Charles 'the Great' or Charlemagne. Following the mission of (Saint) Augustine of Hippo (a former Roman colony in North Africa, now in Tunisia) to Kent in AD 597 churches sprang up in the Roman style of architecture, with special attention given to learning. English began to adopt some 'Latin edges' in Kent, Mercia and Wessex. In Northumbria the church that was founded by Paulinus and followed Roman edicts was revived by the Irish monk Aidan. Invited by King Oswald, he introduced customs from the Celtic church of iona on the Irish Sea and established his base of operations on Lindisfarne off the coast near Bamburgh. The greatest point of dispute was the placing of the Easter Festival at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. Oswald's younger brother Oswy saw it politically expedient to adopt Roman practices against the interests of his sister, the Abbess Hilda.

This saw Latin revived as the language of learning in place of Aenglish (English) north of the Humber, although laws and title deeds were still written in the vernacular. The Synod of Whitby set the course for unification by Theodore, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and a shift in accent for the language of the three main kingdoms - Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. The Mercian king Offa in the 8th Century modelled himself on Charles 'the Great', yet struck his coins in the Byzantine style. Some words that entered English from Latin at the time were martyr, angel, shrine and disciple. Other words brought in by way of 'Anglicisation' were pound (weight), sack, tile, copper and mint (striking coins). Other words came from further afield, such as camel and pepper.

In the 9th Century a new influence on English would come from Old Norse, from the Danes (East Norse) and the Norweyans (West Norse, now Norwegians) via the Northern Isles, Ireland and Isle of Man. Norweyan settlement would come to the north-west after defeats in Ireland, and to the north-east and east with the Danes under Ubbi Ragnarsson and Guthrum. Under these and later Knut in the 11th Century, the kingdom would see a veneer of East Norse terminology in replacing the older Ealdorman with Earl (from Jarl) and the introduction of carucates as land measures, wapentakes (weapon-takes) as local government sub-divisions and Thrijungar (Ridings) in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Although Knut promoted the use of English as the national language and mainly ruled his 'empire' from here, some Norse words can be discerned, such as call, husband (husmand), queen (kvinde), take, law (lag) and freehold. Names of body parts such as leg, egg, root and window (vindue) co-existed with their English counterparts in the north and east. A great number of Norse words can be found in dialect between the Tweed and the Wash, as well as place name pre- and suffixes like kirk (church), thwaite (woodland clearing), toft (farm), by (town), thorpe (hamlet) and carr (marsh).

Meanwhile in Wessex King Aelfred and his successors kept the Old High English (only understood by courtiers, churchmen, kings and nobles) in ecclesiastical, state and educational matters. Latin was only used for purely academic purposes in contrast to Mainland Europe, where Latin was used in all governmental and educational matters. By the 10th Century there was a large amount of English prose and verse literature. Word games were popular amongst the English, with riddles and puzzles high on the agenda in leisure times. Anglian, Saxon and Anglo-Danish kingdoms co-existed for several generations, along with linguistic 'cross-fertilisation'. An important effect on English was the gradual disappearance of inflections, thus lending a smoother flow to the language. This was due partly to English and Norse stems being close in form, e.g, stan in English and sten/steinn in Norse for stone. Saxon Wessex held on stubbornly to the inflections that exist in current High German, whereas Mercian and Northumbrian Aenglish were simpler and therefore more easily understood by their Norse neighbours. A progress of assimilation continued into Middle English, modified by Norman Frankish (French) influence .

Norman Influx

With William's coronation at Christmas, AD1066 came an influx of Norman Frankish (French).

As I've already mentioned, the Germanic Franks adopted a large degree of Latinisation of their language, that led to - at the time of William's invasion - a language used by their Norman vassals. French had its roots in the spoken or 'vulgar' Latin used until around AD 600. For two hundred years after the Norman administration took over the running of England, the Norman strain of French became the coin of the nobility and Church. The laws of England did not change a lot, although new rules were introduced (in ownership). New words added were council, justice and tax, and some abstract terms such as liberty, charity and conflict.

Building and food terminology were added to the language, giving rise to the animal - bull calf, sheep or pig - becoming beef (from boeuf), mutton (mouton) and pork (porc). The spelling of English words underwent a shift too, with standardisation and simplificaton ushered in to ease the Normans' understanding. cwen became queen, cwic turned into quic (later quick). The English silent 'g' in mid-word or word-end was ignored altogether.

The admixture of peoples thrown together, first Celtic, then Jutish, Anglian and Saxon, Danish and West Norse with the new Norman (who had until a century-and-a-half earlier still spoken Danish Norse) had a lasting effect on English, although little uniformity of spelling existed until the standardisation of the written language in the 18th Century helped pinpoint the words on paper. The three sources - English, Norse, Norman - of vocabulary and varying speech forms are seen in modern English. Grammar varied as well. Word-endings co-existed in parallel form such as -ant, -ent, -er, -or, -able and -ible because the Latin words they were based on belonged to different classes of verbs and nouns, each with a different ending. For instance important comes from the Latin verb portare (to carry or bear) which belongs to one class of conjugation, while repellent comes from Latin pellere (to drive) belongs to another. Capable comes from Latin ending -abilis, while sensible comes from -ibilis and so forth.

Middle English: From Geoffrey Chaucer in the reign of Edward III (14th Century) to Shakespeare in the 16th-17th

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of 'Canterbbury Tales', chronicled the bringing together of several characters on their pilgrimage quest for salvation at Canterbury Cathedral

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of 'Canterbbury Tales', chronicled the bringing together of several characters on their pilgrimage quest for salvation at Canterbury Cathedral

Text from Chaucer in the Middle English of the day. Norman lords who spoke an archaic form of French were ridiculed when they visited their kin and lands. A form of court English developed that harked back both to Norman French and Old English

Text from Chaucer in the Middle English of the day. Norman lords who spoke an archaic form of French were ridiculed when they visited their kin and lands. A form of court English developed that harked back both to Norman French and Old English