A Brief History of the English Language
By Brendan Riley
Brendan R. Riley
A Brief History of the English Language
The history of the English language was affected by many important events. Beginning in 55 B.C. and ending in 410 A.D., the Romans occupied most of the South British Isles, driving the disorganized tribes known as the Britons, Gaels, Picts, and the Scots to the North. Many of these self-named native clans were killed off, subjugated, or driven North by the Romans. When the Roman Empire began to weaken around 449 A.D., there were the Germanic “invasions.” These “invasions” were made up of the Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes. Even though the Germanic tribes were unorganized, they had better weapons and warriors who were able to push the native Celts inland and thence to the North.
In 500 A.D., King Arthur united Britain under his Camelot court, which briefly helped the native Britons to beat back the Angles. As a result, the loose shifting organizations settled into the Saxon heptarchy known as Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. Since specific areas of England became divided from one another, the heptarchy gave rise to the first dialects of the Anglo-Saxons. Then, Pope Gregory І sent St. Augustine and other Roman Catholic missionaries to convert the pagan Saxons. Consequently, the Anglo-Saxons incorporated a pagan form of Christianity into their religion, and their conversion began the penetration of the Roman Catholic intellectual community into Britain.
In fact, a Golden Age of English Scholarship occurred from 600 to 800 A.D. During this time, the Catholic Church brought Latin literacy, which is responsible for preserving a great amount of the historical facts from this time period. However, in 787 A.D., the Norse Vikings began invading the Northeast of England, destroying much of the local civilization and drove scholarship into fortified monasteries or to continental Europe. By 871, East Anglia was overtaken by the Vikings, placing Old Norse dialectical influence into the development of the English language. This influence slightly expanded the Old English vocabulary with words like think, ride, over, under, and mine, yet the lexicon was still, at this time, limited, the phonetics pure, and the Old English speaker employed a multiple of declensions.
During the same year, 871 A.D., Alfred the Great, who was King of Wessex, was able to save the English language from extermination in the battles of Ashtown and Edington. In these battles, Alfred the Great was able to defeat the Norse and unify the English peoples. With the defeat of the Norse peoples, Alfred the Great compromised with Viking Guthrum, in 878 A.D., by signing the Treaty of Wedmore. This treaty led to the creation of the Danelaw, which separated the Northeastern area governed by the Danelaw from England. However, the separation was not at all successful, and Old English continued to mix with Old Norse.
The next big event that would greatly affect the development of the English language was the Norman invasion of 1066. Essentially, King William the Conquerer overtook England at the battle of Hasting. As a result, the English speaking nobles were replaced with French speaking aristocrats, reducing English to a lower class tongue for 150 years. Since the heads of all disciplines were French speaking, only the Anglo-Saxons, who made up the bottom 90 per cent of the population, still spoke Old English. Even though about 85 per cent of the Old English vocabulary was lost, many words from the French vernacular have been added.
The Middle English period began around 1100. During this time, most English monarchs resided in Normandy, and few of them spoke English. Thus, English had no prestige, but the lexicon expanded by three times. The phonetics and syntaxes of Middle English were also complex and confusing, being only spoken by the lower classes of English society. However, in 1215, the Magna Carta was written, freeing the Serfs and mobilizing the British population. By mobilizing the British peoples, giving the men more freedom, political rights, and rights to own property, Middle English speaking persons were able to usurp their language prestige back from the Norman French. This is an example of how language changes from the bottom of society up.
The Black Plague, which continued from 1348 to 1351, killed one-third to one-half of the population of Europe, causing the development of languages to be suddenly disrupted. As time went on, England began to have dialectical differences. Somewhere between 1300 and 1500, the London standard began. Also, within the 16th Century, King Henry the Eighth broke England away from the Roman Catholic Church, and the British navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, making England an independent state to become a supreme power in economics, language, and imperialism. Moreover, the steam engine, printing, and the protestant reformation were all things that helped to spread the English language, leveling dialects but, simultaneously, adding to its prestige.
Britain continued spreading its empire all over the world through its superior navy. With its navy, Britain gained many colonies, establishing mercantile economic systems within each colony. Consequently, Britain continued to spread its language and culture all over the world, while the navy also brought different parts, including language, of the world back to Britain. However, in 1775, the American Revolution occurred, separating America from the mother country, Britain. This was another major step in the evolution of the English language. In fact, there were and are many dialects just within American English, which shows how the English language is capable of evolving when moving to different times and places. This period, specifically from 1500 to the present, is referred to as the Modern English period.
In the Modern English period, the lexicon was greatly reduced, syntax became even more complex, and phonology became much simpler. Moreover, rather than the prescriptive standard of English during the Roman occupation, English became descriptive with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1857. An American dictionary was also written in the 1800s by Noah Webster, codifying the American view of the Modern English language in the Webster’s Dictionary. And from 1600 to the First World War, England remained the world power. However, after the First World War, America became the world superpower from 1940 to the present. Thus, whether it comes from the Bird Flu or the failure of American war in the Middle East, the English language invariably awaits another dramatic change.
© Brendan Riley