English A Brief History of the Language

A Brief History of the English Language
The English language belongs to the West Germanic branch of the
Indo-European family of languages. The closest undoubted living relatives of
English are Scots and Frisian. Frisian is a language spoken by approximately
half a million people in the Dutch province of Friesland, in nearby areas of
Germany, and on a few islands in the North Sea.
The history of the English language has traditionally been divided into three
main periods:
Old English (450-1100 AD),
Middle English (1100-circa 1500 AD) and
Modern English (since 1500).
Over the centuries, the English language has been influenced by a number of
other languages.
Old English (450 - 1100 AD):Historical Events
During the 5th Century AD three Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, and
Jutes) came to the British Isles from various parts of northwest Germany as well
as Denmark. These tribes were warlike and pushed out most of the original,
Celtic-speaking inhabitants from England into Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall.
One group migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants
still speak the Celtic Language of Breton today. When the Anglo-Saxons first
came to England from northern Germany (Saxony) in the fifth and sixth
centuries, they brought their language with them. It is a Germanic language and
has some fundamental similarities to Modern German
Through the years, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes mixed their different Germanic
dialects. This group of dialects forms what linguists refer to as Old English or
Anglo-Saxon. The word "English" was in Old English "Englisc", and that
comes from the name of the Angles. The Angles were named from Engle, their
land of origin.
Before the Saxons the language spoken in what is now England was a mixture
of Latin and various Celtic languages which were spoken before the Romans
came to Britain (54-5BC). The Romans brought Latin to Britain, which was part
of the Roman Empire for over 400 years. Many of the words passed on from
this era are those coined by Roman merchants and soldiers. These include win
(wine), candel (candle), belt (belt), weall (wall). ("Language Timeline", The
British Library Board)
The influence of Celtic upon Old English was slight. In fact, very few Celtic
words have lived on in the English language. But many of place and river
names have Celtic origins: Kent, York, Dover, Cumberland, Thames, Avon,
Trent, Severn.
The arrival of St. Augustine in 597 and the introduction of Christianity into
Saxon England brought more Latin words into the English language. They were
mostly concerned with the naming of Church dignitaries, ceremonies, etc.
Some, such as church, bishop, baptism, monk, eucharist and presbyter came
indirectly through Latin from the Greek.
Around 878 AD Danes and Norsemen, also called Vikings, invaded the country
and English got many Norse words into the language, particularly in the north
of England. The Vikings, being Scandinavian, spoke a language (Old Norse)
which, in origin at least, was just as Germanic as Old English.
Words derived from Norse include: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window (wind eye),
husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they,
their, them. ("The Origin and History of the English Language", Kryss
Several written works have survived from the Old English period. The most
famous is a heroic epic poem called "Beowulf". It is the oldest known English
poem and it is notable for its length - 3,183 lines. Experts say "Beowulf" was
written in Britain more than one thousand years ago. The name of the person
who wrote it is unknown.
Some Characteristics of Old English
After the Anglo-Saxon invasion, the Germanic language displaced the
indigenous Brythonic languages and Latin in most of the areas of Great Britain
that later became England. The original Celtic languages remained in parts of
Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (where Cornish was spoken into the 19th
century), although large numbers of compound Celtic-Germanic place names
survive, hinting at early language mixing.
Latin also remained in these areas as the language of the Celtic Church
and of higher education for the nobility. Latin was later to be reintroduced to
England by missionaries from both the Celtic and Roman churches, and it
would, in time, have a major impact on English.
What is now called Old English emerged over time out of the many
dialects and languages of the colonizing tribes.
Even then, Old English
continued to exhibit local variation, the remnants of which continue to be found
in dialects of Modern English.[4] The most famous surviving work from the Old
English period is the epic poem Beowulf composed by an unknown poet.
The pronunciation of Old English words differs somewhat from that of
Modern English words. Especially the long vowels have changed a great deal.
Take the Old English word stān for example. The word stān is the same word as
the Modern English word stone, but the vowel is different, The a sound has
shifted to the sound of o in Modern English.
Other vowels have also undergone changes, e.g.
fōt (Old English ) —— foot (Modern English)
cēne (Old English ) —— keen (Modern English)
hū (Old English ) —— how (Modern English)
Old English represented the sound of th by p and ð as in the word
wiρ (O. E.)
— with (Mod. E.), and the word
ðā (O. E.)
— then (Mod. E.), the sound of sh by sc as in
scēap (O. E.)
— sheep (Mod. E.) or
scēotan (O. E.) — shoot (Mod. E.), and the sound of k by c as in
— kin (Mod. E.) or
cynn (O. E.)
nacod (O. E.) — naked (Mod. E.).
The vocabulary of Old English consisted mainly of Anglo-Saxon words.
But when the Norman Conquest in 1066 brought French to England much of the
English vocabulary was replaced by words borrowed from French and Latin. If
we open any Old English dictionary, we find that about 85 percent of the Old
English vocabulary was no longer in use during this period. Of course, the basic
elements of the vocabulary have remained. They express fundamental concepts
of human life, such as:
wīf (wife),
mann (man);
bern (bench),
cild (child),
mete (meat , food) ,
fugol (fowl, bird),
gærs (grass),
hēah (high),
gōd (good),
hūs (house),
lēaf (leaf) ,
strang (strong),
etan (eat),
drincan ( drink ),
slæpan (sleep ),
libban (live ) .
feohtan (fight), etc.
declensions and conjugations.:
Old English was a highly inflected
language. It had a complete system of declensions with four cases and
conjugations. So Old English grammar differs from Modern English grammar
in declensions and conjugations.
There are two classes of languages in the world: synthetic and analytic. A
synthetic language is one which shows the relation of words in a sentence
largely by means of inflections. An analytic language is one which indicates the
relation of words in a sentence by means of word order, prepositions or
auxiliary verbs, rather than by inflections.
Old English is a synthetic language. Old English nouns and adjectives have
four cases: the nominative case, the genitive case, the dative case and the
accusative case. Apart from these four cases, Latin nouns have the ablative and
the locative cases. That is to say, Latin nouns have six cases just like Modern
Russian nouns.
In Modern English, a noun used as a subject and object does not have
different forms. There remain today only two case forms: those of the
nominative case and the possessive case: man, man’s. Modern English depends
upon word order to show the relation of words in a sentence. Different word
order may result in different meaning. The sentence “Nero killed Agrippina.” is
completely opposite to the sentence “Agrippina killed Nero.” in meaning.
(Lin Chenzhang. 1997. An introduction to English lexicology Wuhan
University Press.)