THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

Surely the king's English is the best quality possible? Of course the key is 'possible'. It is also possible that the king did not speak English well (the king in question was born in Hanover Germany and English was not his native language) and allowances had to be made. Consider the following quote attributed to George II."Vell den," the old king said with a growl, "iff Volfe is matt, den I hope he pites some udders of my chenerals."[1] How did the English language evolve?

Introduction

The native Britons did not speak English: this failing was not rectified until after the Germanic invasions had imported a new language, which evolved slowly into a new dialect over the period 850-1050. The English language is essentially Low German; and though it now contains numerous words of Latin or French origin, it only contains a small Celtic element.[2] English and England had began to develop, however, with the arrival of the first Saxons in c449. Prior to that the Angle's continental language is termed proto-, or Old-English.[3] The Venerable Bede's (673-735) language contains recognizably evolving English.[4] However, the Angles and Saxons may have used Latin as a common language with the native Britons.

Aryan-language Celts in Europe c1000 BC

 

So where did the transfer of British power to the Anglo-Saxons leave the development of the English language, England as a nation, and the English people? Britannia had been Celtic, but the later Normans accepted it as Englaland (the Land of the Angles), in 1066. Even earlier, Pope Gregory wrote to king Aethelbert, addressing his letter to Rex Anglorum (King of the Angles) in c595.[5] Bede's book, of 731, is titled Ecclesiastical History of the English People, although admittedly it was written in Latin.[6] The people were the Angelcynn (or the Angle-kin) to the Celts, in c650, and their language was Englisc.[7] There can be little doubt where the source lies for these inspirations.

A warlike tribe called the Aryans (also known as the Proto-Indo-European) migrated out of Central Asia c4000 BC and pushed both south into the Indian sub-continent and west into Europe. The Aryans were apparently fair-skinned and well-built people with a primitive culture. Their language was the root of botht he Eastern Sanscrit and many European languages. Some aspects of their culture are inferred from words reconstructed from their language:

  • they used a kinship system based on relationships between men;

  • the chief of their pantheon was known as the sky father; from which the Greeks named Ζευs; and the Romans Jupiter;

  • they composed and recited heroic poetry or song lyrics, that used stock phrases like undying fame;

  • the climate they lived in had snow;

  • they were both pastoral and nomadic, and domesticated cattle and horses; and

  • although they had carts with solid-wheels, they had neither chariots nor spoked-wheels

Language Growth

When the Saxons arrived in England, the language they brought consisted of ~50,000 words. (These word origins are now termed Old English.) After the Norman invasion and the passage of a century of time, Middle English evolved by adaptation and encorporation of an additional ~50,000 French words. By Shakespeare's day there was a Renaissance vocabulary of ~200,000 as world-travel imported new words. By 1900, the total number of Modern English words had doubled again to 414,825 words in the 1928 Oxford English Dictionary. The next edition may include ~1,000,000 words."[8]

English belongs to the German group of languages and is the second-widest spoken language in the world, used by over 400 million people on all continents. English is the language for international communications and one of the five official UN languages. The modern English language is a direct descendant of that Old English, spoken by the Germanic tribes who invaded Britain in the 5th century. The language acquired its present day form in the 16th century. Later it spread to North America, Africa, Asia and Australia together with British migrants and became the primary language of the USA, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand and 15 countries of Africa. The English language literature is based on the London dialect.

About 70% of the English vocabulary was borrowed from Latin, French, or Scandinavian. As a result of colonial expansion, notably in North America, but also in other areas of the world, many new words entered the English language. From the indigenous peoples of North America, the words raccoon and wigwam were borrowed; from Peru, llama and quinine; from the West Indies, barbecue and cannibal. In addition, thousands of scientific terms were developed to denote new concepts, discoveries, and inventions. Many of these terms, such as neutron, penicillin, and supersonic, were formed from Greek and Latin roots; others were borrowed from modern languages, as with blitzkrieg from German and sputnik from Russian.

Old English

Old English is the name given to the Germanic language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066 (and for about 100 years after the Conquest). This language is the ancestor of the Modern English spoken today, although it is quite different in appearance and sound at first glance. Most records of the Old English language date from the period between c875 and c1100, and there is very little evidence of the precise state of the language before the Christian missionary efforts at the end of the 6th century, nor about the evolution jnto Middle English by c1250. (Considerable disruption was caused to the records of this period by the Viking and Norman invasions.)

Migration from the continent by the German ancestors of the people who spoke Old English probably occurred over a period of several centuries, though there are few written records from the time. The migrants were the Germanic tribes from the Jutland penninsula and nearby areas such as coastal Germany and modern Netherlands. These Germanic migrants displaced, enslaved, or mingled with the Celtic Britons and Englisc gained dominance in Britain except in Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland. The descendants of the German conquerors referred to their ancestors as Angles and Saxons, and there are still some modern references to their language as the 'Anglo-Saxon language', though Old English is now the preferred term. The mediaeval languages most closely related to Old English are Old Frisian, Flemish, and Old Low German.

We have quite a lot of evidence about the nature of the Old English language, due to the survival of numerous contemporary manuscripts. Many of the manuscript texts are religious in nature, but there are also literary texts and historical documents.

Modern English

Old English was last spoken almost a thousand years ago. Languages change, gradually and inevitably, over time, a phenomenon that linguistics has a fairly hard time explaining, and certainly predicting. But there are a couple of factors that affected the English language that tended to hasten linguistic change in English. (In contrast, Icelandic, a language quite similar to Old English in many ways, has undergone very little change. Icelandic children read Viking sagas in school without much adaptation or 'glossing'. NB. Glossing is used to assist in forming concepts of papers. A gloss can be either a single word, phrase or sentence.)

The first factor that tended to make English change rapidly was the arrival in England, over a period of a couple of hundred years from the 850s, of the Danish invasions. The Danes occupied England with a large number of people who spoke Old Norse. After the Danes came the Normans, who spoke Old French. These influxes wouldn't have made much of a difference if the newcomers had simply assimilated into the English-speaking population, but they didn't. The invaders came as conquerors, maintained their own languages, and probably insisted that the British adapted. Moreover, the groups who spoke these languages had prestige: whether locally in the 'Danelaw' in the case of the Vikings who spoke Old Norse; or nationally in the case of the Normans. Because they were conquored, the English were pressured to learn and adopt the other languages. Under these conditions, various kinds of linguistic changes occurred: phonological, lexical, syntactic, and so on. In other words, English took on new sounds, words, and grammer from Old Norse and Old French.

The second important factor causing a rapid English-language change was that until c1250 English was hardly a written language. Almost all writing was either dictated by the Normans in French, or conducted in Latin. Latin was then the international (pan-European and Mediterranean) language of the church, diplomacy, and learning. (In fact, for a further hundred years after that, English was still not a prestigious language.) Writing acts as a brake to language-change, since literate people are influenced not only by what they hear but also by what they read. Once written and committed to parchment, or paper, words don't change. Without written stability, and exposed to the conquering winds of Danish and French, English changed rapidly. By Chaucer's time (late 1400s) when it was reestablishing itself as a prestige language in England, English had adopted hundreds of new words and changes in pronunciation.

Whether as a result of the language mixture, or for other reasons (linguists disagree), there was a lot of sound-change in the English vowel system. During the sixth century, the change called the 'Great Vowel Shift' occurred. This latter change accounts for the quite startling differences in pronunciation between Modern English 'long' vowels and Old English long vowels. Most of the consonants remained the same, and so did the short vowels, but spelling changed considerably.

Modern English is different from Old English because languages do change over time. Linguistic change was accelerated during the Danish and Norman occupations due to contact with their languages. Linguistic change in English was coincidentally exacerbated by the long absence of written English usage. Modern English also evolved because phonological change, especially the Great Vowel Shift, was added to the lexical change (the loan words) and syntactic/inflectional change. The following is an example of Middle English (after the Norman Conquest).

'For this I know, not onelie by reading of bookes in my studie, but also be experience of life, abrode in the world that those, which be commonlie the wisest, the best learned, and best man also, when they be olde, were neuer commonlie the quickest of witte, when they were yonge. The causes why, amongest other, which be many, that moue me thus to thinke, be these fewe, which I will rechen. Quicke wittes commonlie, be apte to take, vnapte to keepe: soone hote and desirous of this and that: as colde and sone wery of the same againe: more quicke to enter spedelie, than able to pearse farre: euen like ouer sharpe tooles, whose edges be verie soone turned.'

Roger Ascham. The Scholemaster, 1571

Roots

Without question our parent language by volume is Latin, although, of course, much Latin can be traced to Greek. The Anglo-Saxons brought many words of Latin origin, adding to 400 years of direct Roman contact, and the later Norman French and continental French impacts. However, our ancestor language is Primitive, or Proto-, Germanic. "Because Germanic was spread over a large area, it developed marked dialectal differences leading to a division into North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic.[9] We share West Germanic with German, Dutch, Frisian, Yiddish, Afrikaans, and Flemish. Words for the body, family, many common verbs, and most of our prepositions come from Primitive German.[10]

Although much of the Old English language relates to farming, giving us derived words like: ox, sheep, plough, and swine; much can almost be read directly in the Anglo-Saxon version of Bede. Bede used words such as: mann, hus, drincan. (The farm language also points to the secondary Saxon status after the Norman invasion.) With care, some modern Dutch can be read with little prior language training. Knowledge of the early settlement areas of these Germanic people can relate modern pronunciation back to the roots in Jutland, Denmark, Saxony, Sweden, etc.

The English language is dependent upon the Greek alphabet, duly synthesised by the Romans and based on the Semitic Phoenician.[11] Although it took some time for our alphabet to stabilise, the joined a and e, ∆, from the Germanic, the reintroduction of Z by the Romans, and the consideration of the Dutch IJ form, in lieu of Y, we now have a stable alphabet. Spelling has been more difficult; and we also have many English synonyms, for example: rise, mount, and ascend. English has been enriched precisely because of the breadth of our linguistic roots. Claiborne notes that many synonyms come from our heritage of triplets. We have separate Germanic/French/Latin words with the same meaning such as: kingly/royal/regal, and ask/question/interrogate.[12] Our resulting English language has created the world's largest vocabulary with over 600,000 words borrowed from many other languages.

World Languages

These data below are taken from a 1999 survey by Ethnologue and are commonly available. Data explanations include: Chinese is primarily Mandarin (836,000,000); the largest Arab users are Egyptian (42,500,000) and Algerian (22,400,000); and French (72,000,000) additionally includes Hatian Creole. Various encyclopaedias note that English is highly favoured as a second-language learned by students worldwide. However, the anticipated English language movement towards a world status may have stalled.

World Use Rank

Language

Primary Use

Secondary Use

World User Totals

1
Chinese 937,132,000 20,000,000 957,132,000
2
English 322,000,000 150,000,000 472,000,000
3
Spanish 332,000,000 20,000,000 352,000,000
4
Russian 170,000,000 125,000,000 295,000,000
5
French 79,572,000 190,000,000 269,572,000
6
Portuguese 170,000,000 28,000,000 198,000,000
7
Arabic 174,950,000 21,000,000 195,950,000
8
Bengali 189,000,000 0 189,000,000
9
Hindi/Urdu 182,000,000 0 182,000,000
10
Japanese 125,000,000 8,000,000 133,000,000
11
German 98,000,000 9,000,000 107,000,000

The Origin of Language

Language has not always been available as a tool and even less so as a widely available communications tool. Sir William Jones lived in India for 11 years, as a British Chief Justice, from 1783 and he introduced to Europe the antiquity and true merits of Indian literature, languages, history and culture. In 1786, while lecturing, Sir William made the following statement which aroused the curiosity of many scholars and finally led to the emergence of comparative linguistics. Noticing the similarities between Sanskrit and the Classical Languages of Europe such as Greek and Latin he declared:

"The Sanskcrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could not possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskcrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family..." (Jones, Collected Works, Volume III: 34-5, Cited at http://hinduwebsite.com/general/sanskrit.htm).

Sir William's statement was both revealing and revolutionary. It shook the smug European belief that Hebrew was the source of all the world languages. Sir William introduced a new concept which led to the comparative study of the origin and evolution of all the Indo-European languages. This study indicated a common Indo-European language source, which is now referred to as the Proto Indo European Language, or simply PIE. PIE was spoken in far eastern Turkey (near Lake Van) and into the Russian steppes by a collection of semi-nomadic clans and pastoral tribes. PIE enabled these people more or less to understand each other in c5000-4000 B.C. The vocabulary of these groups adapted to new environments, but enough "core" terms survived to enable the reconstruction of those terms.

PIE

PIE is usually reconstructed as having had three series of stop consonants (traditionally voiced, voiceless, and breathy-voiced or "voiced aspirated" i.e. /p b bh/) and either four or five places of articulation (labial, dental, possibly palatal, velar and labiovelar).[13] There was at least one fricative: /s/. The sonants /r l m n j w/ had consonantal and vocalic allophones depending on context eg. *bhero "I bear" with consonantal /r/ versus *bhrtos "borne" with /r/ forming the syllabic nucleus. The basic vowel was /e/, which occurred for instance in the present tense of many verbs. The vowel /o/ occurred typically in the perfect tense, and lengthened forms of these two vowels occurred in a few other contexts. There seem to have been three "laryngeal" consonants in PIE also, which may have been fricatives pronounced deep in the throat (often written /h1 h2 h3/). These had an influence on neighbouring vowels, giving rise to the /a/ and remaining long vowels visible in most early descendants of PIE; however, the laryngeals themselves have vanished in all branches except Anatolian.

PIE seems to have been a highly-inflecting language, with eight noun cases, three genders, three numbers (singular, plural and dual), and several tenses, moods and voices (the exact number is disputed). Reconstruction of its syntax is highly controversial. A substantial lexicon can however be reconstructed: typically basic vocabulary (which survives well into the descendant languages) eg. *h1ed- "eat", *gweh3us "cow", *ph2te:r "father", *kwetwo:r "four", *newos "new".

A relatively neutral depiction of the Indo-European family is as follows:

ENDNOTES

1            Although English evolved from German it took some time and subtle influences by other language impacts to sound familiar. George II was a German, but he spoke a later version of German and his own language skills were not tempered by the Celtic, Roman, and Norman French. The result was evidently a quite different king's English. Robert Leckie, "A Few Acres of Snow", The Saga of the French and Indian Wars, p. 333.    

2†††††   ††††For background context see http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=s&p=l&a=c&ID=1850&o=, http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=r&p=i&a=t, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-Europeans.

3            Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, p. 95; and http://historymedren.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?zi=1/XJ&sdn=historymedren&zu=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ucalgary.ca%2FUofC%2Feduweb%2Fengl401%2Ffaq.htm.

4            See Bede's description of king Edwin's peace and security it brought in the original: '.from sæ̀ to sæ̀ ofer eall þis éalond.'

5††††††††††††Robert McCrum, et al, The Story of English, p. 61. http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/glossing.html.

6††††††††††††Bede, translation from the Latin, by Leo Sherley-Price, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Penguin, London, 1955.

7             McCrum, op cit, p. 61.

8††††††††††††See Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything, pp. xxv, 6,11,14, 249.

9††††††††††††Pyles and Algeo, op cit, p. 75.

10††††††††††Robert Claiborne, The Roots of English, pp. 4-5.

11††††††††††Wilfred Funk, Word Origins, pp. 7-9. He notes the derivation of our word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. He goes on to explain that the Greek alpha and beta was based on the Phoenician's letters aleph, and beth. Ultimately, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit words derive from an Indo-European source language root. See also BBC News Report, 'Oldest English words' identified, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7911645.stm, dated 26 February 2009. Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

12          Claiborne, op cit, p. 23.

13         See http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~marisal/ie/pie.html. PIE refers to the putative ancestor of the Indo-European language family, or to our reconstruction of it. There is no clear agreement on exactly where or when the speakers of PIE lived, but a fairly popular theory places them at approximately 3000-4000 BC in what is currently the Russian steppe north of the Black Sea.

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