The English Language is Rich in its history. Studying the events that formed our language is vital to understand not only why we speak the way we do, but it also enables us to understand who we are. It comprises French, Latin, German, Norse, and a few lesser known tongues. Before there was written English, our texts were primarily written in Latin, and were reserved to be read by only the Pious and Royal.
We also have historical landmarks such as Stonehenge that can guide us in understanding our English heritage. The language we speak today was formed only after Centuries of fierce battling, governments being overthrown, and a period of time known as the Dark Ages. During this time, the language began as Old English. Later it was simplified into Middle English and finally refined into Modern English.
Old English is concentrated between the years 450 and 1150ad. In the year 449 Germanic Tribes known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded England. This is after the Romans had already built a thriving civilization, complete with a massive road system. It is thought that the tribes terrorized the natives and forced many out of their homeland. Their German language blended with those Celtic and Welsh residents who decided to stay. This is where the meld of Old English began.
In the year 697 St. Augustine and other Roman Missionaries came to spread Christianity to the savages. Latin, one of the oldest known languages, was used for all the religious ceremonies and in all of the hierarchies.
St. Augustine and these missionaries introduced the technology of writing. Within a century of Augustine’s landing, primitive works of history and deeply seeded religious poetry began to surface in a language that we now consider as Old English. Bede (c.672-735) is remembered as a great historian and theologian. His Old English works provide us with a glimpse into an otherwise mysterious period known as the “Dark Ages.” There were many invasions from 787 – 1042 primarily the Vikings or Danes. Due to them The English Language began to be simplified along with its vocabulary. The inflected endings common to Old English were dropped off and prefixes like sc, sk, and sh were added to the melting pot.
Nennius, a Welsh antiquary and self described “disciple of Elvodugus,” is credited by some the Historia Brittonum. The manuscript is a collection of historical information including descriptions of the inhabitants and invaders of Britain and provides the earliest known reference to the British king Arthur.
Sometime between 900 and 1000ad an epic known as Beowulf was written. Although the author of this work is unknown, we see that the language although primitive in its range could be manipulated by a masterful hand. And the product could be an intellectual and vivid display of the Authors’ talents. Beowulf is truly a gift when ascertaining the history of the English Language. Take for example the following line. Oft Scyld Scefing scepena preatum,
Notice the first word, “Oft.” It is remarkably similar to the Modern English word often. After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Old English starts to shift. William the Conqueror brought great reform to England and also the French language. It was originally spoken primarily by members of Parliament and their chosen Religious leaders but when William divided the land taken from the English and gave it to his faithful Norman followers, the French language seeped into the commoners dialect. The changes that take place during this time are best reflected in Middle English.
Middle English has been dated from 1150 to 1500ad. During these years, the influence from the Norman Invasion becomes evident in both the speaking and writing of that era. “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, written between 1344-1400 is a perfect demonstration of Middle English. Take note how much more similar to Modern English his writing is. “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
the droghte of March hath perced to the roote,And bathed every veyne in swich licou.
Of which vertu engendred is the flour”; During the years 1400 to 1500ad; the Great Vowel Shift occurred. History is uncertain as to the reason why this happened. Some feel that when William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, he and other users of this new technology dictated the future of our language. While mixing four unique dialects, they started printing before a standardized spelling was settled on therefore giving us a product that is less apt to follow rules and structures normally associated with Language and Grammar. This transition to a standardized spelling and new pronunciation of vowels brings us to Modern English.
Modern English began in early form in the year 1500. Today, we continue to use the same rules and much of the same spelling. A well-known example of early Modern Writing is “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare in 1610. Our Revels now are ended. These our actors (As I foretold you) were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air, Now listen to a portion of “Walden” by Thoreau in 1854.
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches to-day to save nine tomorrow. Although these pieces were written nearly 250 years apart, they are still dramatically close in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. We can see that it wasn’t long after the printing press was introduced to England that there were changes in the overall thinking of the common people. They now had a technology where their beliefs could be spread to many others. Political ideas were changing as illustrated in “Two Treatises of Civil Government” by John Locke in 1787.
The English Language is an empire of knowledge. It spells so clearly the history of our world, if we only choose to read between the lines. From Old English, including the Dark Ages, to Middle English and the introduction of the printing press, and finally to Modern English where all of these technologies are used to their peak, our language is a lesson in World History. In it, the tribulations as well as the triumphs of our ancestors are well reflected. It does us well to consider this from a historical standpoint. How can we trust our beliefs if we know not their origins? How can we know ourselves if we know not the reason we speak?