(A very, very short) Story of the Origins of English

By Angela Dold, Convenor – U3A Creative Writing


I’d like to start with a little Medieval lyrical poem called the Cuckoo Song:

Sumer is icumen in;
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med.
And springth the wude nu.
Sing cuccu!

(Summer is a –coming in
Loudly sing, Cuckoo
The seed grows, the meadow blows,
The wood spings up anew,
Sing, Cuckoo.)

The earliest invaders of the British Isles, the Celts, gave us two main languages, Welsh and Gaelic, but they contributed very little to the English language itself. Our language is basically that of the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes and the Danes who began a long exodus to Britain from the low, marshly northern Europe, after the Romans left in AD 410.

Over several generations these tribes settled in different parts of Britain, each bringing its own variations in speech. They established seven small kingdoms and dominated most of the island except for Scotland, Wales and Cornwell, which remained Celtic.

The Saxon Britons were the dominant tribe but for some strange reason the new nation gradually came to be known as England, and its language as English, after the rather obscure Angles. No one knows quite why this should be as the Angles had simply disappeared from Europe. They left no account of these events simply because they were illiterate. They could scratch inscriptions on stones called runes, but they never saw these markings as a way of communicating thoughts.

In 1982 a gold medallion was found in Suffolk dropped or buried by one of the very earliest intruders sometime between AD450 and 480. It is thought to say “The she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman’. It is the earliest example of Anglo-Saxon writing in Britain. It is, in other words, the first recorded sentence in English.

Strange to say, even though the Romans lived in Britain for 400 years they didn’t give us many words either: the words they did give us were mainly trade words, such as wine, oil, mile and pound. It was later, first through the Church and then, long after the Norman Conquest, through Renaissance, that Latin greatly influenced our language.

You would not recognise Old English today. The spelling was very different, several letters of the alphabet have since disappeared and many words have ceased to exist or have changed their meanings substantially. Old English grammar was vastly more complicated than modern English grammar. But regardless the majority of the 800 most commonly used words – man, woman, dog, walk, write, in, over, come from Old English roots.

When St Augustine landed in Kent in AD 597 and converted many to the Christian faith, he brought not merely a change of worship, but new language needs. Bishop, altar, cross and priest are but a few of the hundreds of religious words introduced into the Old English language at this time.

The coming of Christianity opened up, through the Church, paths of contact with the peoples of Western Europe so Latin, the common means of communication slowly started to enrich the native language.

For three centuries after the coming of Christianity, the growth and development of Old English languished but in AD885, Vikings from Norway and Scandinavia sailed up the River Thames and set off a series of battles for control of territory. But, finally, in 886 King Alfred re-took London and a treaty was signed establishing The Danelaw, a line running between Chester and London dividing control of Britain between the English in the south and the Danes in the north. The Danelaw slowly became smaller over time. By AD918 the southern Danelaw was back under Anglo-Saxon control in the north and Viking power collapsed in about AD937. To this day, it remains an important linguistic dividing line between the northern and southern dialects.

A great many Scandinavian terms were adopted: freckle, leg, skull, meek, rotten, clasp, crawl, dazzle, scream, trust, lift, take, husband, sky. Sometimes these replaced Old English words, but often they took up residence alongside them, so today we have craft and skill, wish and want. Sometimes, the word had a slightly different pronunciation, no and nay, shriek and screek or slightly different meanings scatter and shatter, skirt and shirt. The pronouns they, them and their are Scandinavian.

Another shock awaited the English language: the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Normans were Vikings who had settled in Northern France 200 years before but had abandoned their language and much of their culture and become French in manner and speech.

The Normans considered Old English a barbaric, guttural tongue, and would not demean themselves to learn it although William the Conqueror who became William I of England tried to learn it, but without success. No King of England spoke English for the next 300 years. All business was conducted in French, all writing was in French or Latin and the law was administered in French Law.

Nevertheless, the English lower classes clung stubbornly to their own language. Pig, cow and sheep, for example are Old English words. Cook them and they become Norman pork, beef and mutton.

From the highly organised polished Norman society there flowed into our language 10,000 new words. William was a castle builder, a warrior, so words like castle, dungeon, belfry, mason, appeared: of war and chivalry, such as tournament, homage, captain; Of titles and offices, such as duke, prince, vicar; Of law and government, such as justice, felony, judge, assizes, parliament.

It took 300 years from the Norman Conquest for Old English, the language in which the great English epic poem Beowulf was written. to become Middle English where Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales.

Edward III, who definitely spoke French as his primary language, was the king to issue the Statute of Pleading in 1362. This was a law that required English to be spoken in the courts because otherwise the vast majority of the population wouldn't understand what was going on.

It took three hundred years more for Middle English to become the language we speak, the language in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. We can read Shakespeare’s English with very little difficulty, although there are some words that have changed their meaning: nice meant foolish; silly meant innocent; ache sounded like an ‘h’. Simple words which did not exist in his day, like its, for which he wrote his, or it.

“The hedge-sparrow fed the chicken so long
That it had it head bit off by it young.” (From King Lear)

In the period between Chaucer’s days and Shakespeare’s there swept into England from the continent a great tide of learning and enquiry called the Renai-ssance: the rebirth of the learning of the Greeks and Romans. Its full effect was felt during the reign of Elizabeth I when a host of new words derived from Latin and Greek came into our language.

These three great events-the coming of Christianity, The Norman Conquest and the Renaissance-are the most important in the history of the English tongue.

The printing press is undoubtedly one of the most important inventions in history, enabling the written word eventually to be accessible to everyone.

Today more than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest often want to try.

A living language, it is a constantly growing organism, and many languages have added words to English speech until today we have undoubtedly the richest language in the world with over a quarter of a million words and if we add technical to that it is millions more…and still growing….!

If English is your Mother Tongue, be proud. English goes back 2000 years. It is your heritage and it is an important part of your culture.