A Micro-History of the English Language
by Sara SelbyIn the family tree of world languages, English descends from the Indo-European branch, which can be traced to ca. 2500 BC. When the Romans arrived in the British Isles in 55 BC, they discovered a Celtic people (henceforth called Britons) already there. By 410 AD, the Romans were leaving the British Isles, but they were leaving behind their Latin influence on the Celtic language.
With the withdrawal of the Romans, the Britons were attacked by Picts from the north and Scots from the west. Germanic sea raiders (Jutes, Saxons, Frisians, and Angles from the North German plain) came to the Britons’ aid. The Germanic raiders not only defeated the Picts and the Scots, but they also dominated and subjugated the Britons, sending those who were not assimilated or killed fleeing into Wales, Cornwall, and across the English Channel into Brittany. Thus begins the period of language development known as Old English. The language of the Old English period is sometimes called Anglo-Saxon.
In 597 AD, Pope Gregory I sent a band of missionaries led by St. Augustine to convert the Angles. Augustine was successful in his mission and within four years became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Once again, the language was under Latin influence.
Viking raids commenced during the eighth century. The Danes (as the Vikings were called by the English), though not successful in conquering the isle, influenced the language’s vocabulary and grammar. King Alfred the Great unified England in 886 and fostered learning, establishing an English prose style.
Towards the end of the tenth century, however, the Danes launched a new and more successful series of attacks. Their language shared a common ancestor with English, and as the Danes colonized and assimilated into English culture, so too did their language. Thus, some early Anglo-Saxon literature contains references to Scandinavian legends and history.
Anglo-Saxon speakers in England for the most part spoke one of four principal dialects: Kentish, West Saxon, Mercian, or Northumbrian. Most of the surviving Old English manuscripts are West Saxon writings from around 1000 AD. The Anglo-Saxons used some letters no longer used (such as aesc, thorn, eth, and wynn) and the writing is difficult for modern readers to read, though the sound of the language holds some similarities to our own.
While no clearly distinguishable date for the beginning of the Middle English period can be determined, that the Norman Conquest of 1066 heralded it is indisputable. William the Conqueror and his minions spoke a dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman. When William conquered the British Isles, Anglo-Norman became the language of the court and greatly influenced the “English” spoken by the majority of the populace.
After King John lost Normandy in 1204, ties with the French were rendered and by 1362 a modified English which we know as Middle English was adopted as the official language. Middle English is more codified in terms of syntax and more expansive in terms of vocabulary than Anglo-Saxon. Most Middle English speakers spoke one of five main dialects (Northern, East Midland, West Midland, Southern, or Kentish), and their writing is a bit more similar to Modern English than Anglo-Saxon.
The Modern English period begins with the Renaissance revival of classical scholarship, when English saw an influx of Greek and Latin words. A change in pronunciation known as the Great Vowel Shift began around 1400, further contributing to the evolution of the language. With the advent of the printing press, the language became more standardized in terms of grammar and spelling.
Sara Selby is currently the campus director of the Waycross campus of South Georgia State College and was a professor of English at Waycross College (GA). She holds a BA and MA in English from the University of Mississippi, where she also completed additional graduate studies in English. She is the Deep South regional representative for the American Chapters of the Brontë Society and publishes a quarterly newsletter for regional members.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Sara Selby for giving us permission to reprint this piece, which was originally published on her website.
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.