Sunday, December 10, 2006

English through the Middle Ages

Over the past few weeks it seems that I’ve been writing a lot about the English language of our ancestors, but not really looking at it. Now, this might be understandable, if we remember that our tongue, as it was back in the Middle Ages, was rarely used for the purposes of documentation. Latin and French were the preferred modes for making records, and in fact, administrative documents did not come to be written in English in any great number until the 14th century. This might well lead the sharp-witted amongst you to cry out “Well, how do we know what the language was really like, then, if it was never written down?” Good point, I must defer.

Let’s put this another way. If Latin was the language of science and culture, and Norman French that of law and administration, what was there left to write about in (Middle) English? Well, in fact there was plenty, and we have the Church to thank for this, to some degree. Let me try and explain.

History tells us that towards the end of the 12th century the Church began losing its virtual monopoly on the production of texts. Please bear in mind that at this time there was no printing press, and hard-working monks had to copy out all texts by hand. However, demand had become so great, no doubt partly due to King William’s zest for law and order, and for getting everything documented, that so-called ‘secular scribes’ were being employed to cope with the increasing workload.

In time, these lay copyists began forming their own workshops and guilds, as demand increased further still due to the emerging merchant classes. Soon works were appearing in various varieties of the English language on subjects such as cookery, education, medicine, and even literature - Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” being one of the first ‘works of art’ to be published in this way. By looking at these texts, we can trace the development of the language over this period, in which English was essentially a third class language, and subject to few rules and efforts at standardisation.

We can see, for example, that our tongue soon adopted the French tradition of verse using rhyme instead of the Anglo-Saxon’s preferred stress and alliteration. Take a look at the following poem, “The Owl and the Nightingale”, produced somewhere in the south of England during the late 12th century.

Ich was in one sumere dale, In one suthe dizele hale, Ihered Ich holde grete tale, An hule and one niztingale, That plait was stif and starc and strong, Sumwile softe an lud among.

Understandable as modern English? Well, the word order is recognisable, but there is still evidence of Old English-style alliteration in places, and the only French word used is ‘plait’. So a translation might be helpful!

I was in a summer valley, In a very hidden corner, I heard a great tale held, An owl and a nightingale, Whose pleading was stiff and firm and strong, Sometimes soft and loud in-between.

Personally, I prefer the original myself. Moving on a few years, to the year 1230 in fact, a text produced in the West Midlands region gave other insights into the language of the period. The words ‘sustren’, ‘habben’, and ‘housen’ were used, indicating that the variety of English used around those parts had yet to lose the Germanic-Scandinavian habit of using -n to indicate plurals. In modern English those words would be ‘sisters’, ‘have’ and ‘houses’. Other items such as ‘’Ich segge’, ‘nawt’, and ‘hwet’ inform us about the local pronunciation back then of modern ‘I say’, ‘not’, and ‘what’.

The following poem, written in York around the end of the 13th century, further shows the influence of French versification, but contains no French words at all, an indication of the difference mentioned in previous articles between the ‘barbarian’ north and the ‘sophisticated’ south. Another thing you might notice is that, in common with the poem above, there were variant spelling of one word. In fact, this was not seen as a problem at the time, as, unlike French or Latin, the good old English felt no pressure to standardise from any quarters.

Wel awa sal thir hornes blau, Holy Rod thi day, Now he is dede and lies law, Was wont to blow thairn ay.

A modern version might look something like the following, but again looses something during its translation.

Alas, who shall these horns blow, Holy Cross (on) your day, Now he is dead and lies below, He who was wont to blow them always.

However, those allegedly noxious imports from across the channel had become far more pervasive by the following century. A text of the late 14th and early 15th century shamelessly displayed such recognisable interlopers as ‘corrupcioun’, ‘famylyar’, and ‘processe’, as well as ‘nacyons’ and ‘nobyll’. Less immediately recognisable, but equally foul no doubt, were ‘conmixtion’ (mixing), ‘consuetude’ (practice), and ‘construyn’ (interpret).

And so to the period of Early Modern English, which ran from 1450 to 1750, approximately. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, by the mid 15th century English was becoming the first choice for official documents. As the Crown resided in London, it was this variety of the tongue that found its way into print and official favour. The first written form of the language was in fact devised by scribes in the Chancery, and as a result the term ‘Chancery English’ was given to this original standard.

The forms and spellings used back then are therefore much the same as today’s, although our pronunciation of the words has changed. This has caused nightmares for generations of students, as the modern way of pronouncing a word has little or even nothing to do with the way it is spelt! For example, the -ou- and the -gh in ‘cough’, ‘plough’, ‘through’ and ‘enough’ can be pronounced in several different ways. Only English can do this!

However, let’s not lose the plot here, as were getting close to the end. Because all documents were still hand-copied even in the early 15th century, irregular spellings still crept in from time to time. However, ‘the lordes spirituell and temporell’ is, despite its odd apearance, immediately recognisable, as are ‘Kynges’ and ‘lettres’, unlike words such as ‘sal’ and ‘suthe’ mentioned above. In fact, real standardisation of the English language was to come only with the arrival of Caxton and his printing press in the 1470s. So, next week I really will leave behind the period of Middle English, and focus squarely on Early Modern English - I promise (or should that be ‘I swear’?).

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Return of English: from the Shadows to the Sunshine.

In my previous two articles I’ve spent a good deal of time harking on about the vices and the virtues of King William , Duke of Normandy, the man with a thousand archers. We’ve seen that he was responsible for the English language becoming virtually an exile in its own country, as Norman French became the language of authority and the landed classes.

Moreover, he caused thousands of flowery French and Latinised words to infiltrate the English language, and thus changed its appearance for good (but not for the good, according to the Anglo-Saxon purists). And, perhaps most importantly, he led English into other foreign parts, where it began its gentle but sturdy stroll towards the status of world language (OK, this point might be stretching the truth a little, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story, eh!?). So was he villain or victim, saint or sinner?

Well, let’s withhold our judgement on the dastardly Duke a little longer, as we examine the progress that English made over the two or three hundred years after his first arrival on the shores of southern England. So, what I’d like to do is look at a couple of things this week. Firstly, there’s the fact that the Duke actually helped to create the linguistic diversity that exists today in the British Isles. From there, I’d like to go on and look at some of the uncomplimentary remarks made about that variety way back then. And finally, I’ll offer a brief glimpse at the subsequent years, as English crawled its way back into the higher ranks of public usage.

The first thing to realise is that partly as a result of English being reduced to the hedgerows and gutters as a largely spoken language, rarely written down, it failed to develop a standard. Instead, dialects flourished in the British Isles during the 12th and 13th centuries, although there was a good deal of ‘mutual intelligibility’ between them.

Some of you might remember that good old King Alfred had made an early attempt to standardise the spelling of English, and thus the language itself. However, the ‘Winchester Scriptorium’ that he had set up centuries before (responsible for producing books written in English) was promptly closed down by King William. This in turn led to a collapse in the standard, and a return to the regionalism of earlier times. Linguistic historians have noted that consequently “English developed striking dialect differences, as northern parts of the country continued to be influenced by Scandinavian languages, while parts of the south became affected by intimate contact with French”.

In fact, travellers of those times often noted just how different the English spoken in the north of the country was from that spoken in the south. John Trevisa, an adventurous wandering scribe of the early 14th century, noted how the tongue spoken north of the river Humber and around York was “scharpe, slitting, frotynge and unchape”. By this he apparently meant that it was quite shapeless in its sound, and grated like the sound of ripping cloth.

Ripping yarn or not, toffee-nosed southerners like Mr Trevisa often made these comments out of a sense of cultural, and not merely linguistic, superiority, as not only had his version of the tongue absorbed more of the apparently ‘civilising’ features of Norman French, the south was more affluent and populous than the north. Personally, having lived myself just a few yards from the banks of the river Humber, and being a jessie-boy Londoner to boot, I can say that little has changed.

Anyway, what about the ‘standard’ version? How long did it take for standard English to make its comeback as the language of administration? Well, look at things this way. King Henry the 4th was the first English monarch in over 300 years to speak English as his first language, and his arrival in 1399 was preceded by almost a century of consolidation. The fact that England and France were at war for 100 years from 1337 might have had something to do with it, of course. There were, however, more pressing reasons.

One interesting example of the justification given for using English in law proceedings was the widespread ignorance of French amongst the criminal classes. Moreover, in 1364 in York, that place of the jarring vowels and cutting consonants, a judge dismissed the testimony of a witness on the grounds that his constant shifting between different dialects made things impossible to follow. Better to insist on one standard language, then, that everybody could understand.

A similar turnabout happened in education, where, according to John Trevisa (yes, it’s that uppity southerner again), some time around the 1360s English was introduced as the medium of education in Oxford grammar schools, replacing French. Latin remained on the curriculum, however, as it was, after all, still the language of science and learning.

And finally, in 1380 two important events happened in the literary calendar: the New Testament was translated into English for the first time, and Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ was written and published, not in French or Latin, but in English. The English language was back in the saddle, wagging its tail happily no doubt, and starting its gentle trot towards the period known as Early Modern English, lasting from 1450 to 1750: of which there will be more in my next entry.

Next week’s taster: 1. What was The Great Vowel Shift? Was it (a) a change in the nation’s toilet habits, or (b) a progressive development in the English phonetic system? 2. True or False: ‘Canterbury Tales’ was a story about a group of randy vicars in Kent. 3. William Shakespeare was (a) a Zulu warrior who had trouble aiming correctly, or (b) probably England’s finest writer? Please don’t bother to e-mail me and tell me the answers, just hang on until the next entry, please!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

King William: from Tyrant to Saviour?

I was reading over the article that I wrote the other week (these long Abu Dhabi weekends can be so tranquil), and it occurred to me that perhaps I did poor old Duke William of Normandy an injustice by misinterpreting his contribution to the English language. So this week I hope to rectify that and award him his place in linguistic history, alongside King Alfred.

For starters, I mentioned that some of our more ‘nationalist’ scholars have tended to view the Norman invasion with great dismay, seeing it as an attempt to destroy our traditional Anglo-Saxon heritage. Now let me try and put some flesh on that statement. Even today some people still feel very strongly about this apparent vandalism, and one modern critic has gone to great lengths to try to distinguish the ‘pure’ Saxon word “freedom” from the plainly unwanted interloper “liberty”. Take a look at the following to see how mad some people can get about mere words.

“The contrast between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ expresses the difference between the ideas of revolutionary change and established self-reliant discipline. Awful crimes are committed in the name of liberty, whereas one would only strive to defend in the name of that good English thing, freedom”. Strong stuff, eh? The writer then goes on to illustrate, or rather, show (better use the Anglo-Saxon word), how liberty is a foreign and inappropriate term, associated with extreme notions of rights rather than responsibilities. Freedom, however, is a solid Anglo-Saxon term related to independence and honest judicial and property rights. So, now you know.

In fact there are many alternative words that we can choose to use in our English language, which is exactly what makes it such a rich language; and also, of course, so difficult for students to learn. Whereas most languages seem to get by on around 250,000 words or so, English has, because of its mongrel pedigree, in excess of 600,000. Take a look at the following pairs of words and see if you can guess which are the ones of traditional Anglo-Saxon origin, and which the Norman-French refugees. Take off, and remove; strength, and power; stretch, and extend; fake or sham, and pretend or simulate.

Not too difficult, was it? The words of dastardly foreign origin are typically two syllables at least (remember ‘surrender’ from last week?), whereas the solid Anglo-Saxon terms are usually short, one syllable only, and curiously ‘hard’ in their sound. As you can see, if William had stayed back home at the manor in 1066, the English language today would be greatly impoverished. In short, we all owe a great debt of thanks to this adventuring foreigner from the shores of northern France.

But that’s not all. Let’s pick up now on another equally important point, and what could perhaps be called a ‘beautiful paradox’. For if it wasn’t for William the Conqueror and his archers, the English language might well have never even progressed beyond England itself. This is because the Norman monarch and his mates were not the type to sit at home and just count their blessings, neither in French nor English nor Latin. Remember last week I mentioned how keen they were to establish their control over the lands they had conquered, and this was evidenced by the ‘Doomsday Book’ of 1086, in which King William had all property surveyed for ‘taxation’ purposes (nice euphemism there!) and the results recorded.

In fact the Normans encouraged the colonisation of both Wales and then Ireland, and this they did by awarding land to knights in return for their subduing the local population. These colonists came from many parts of the country, and the linguistic upshot was the introduction of many varieties of English into these formerly Celtic territories in the 11th and 12th centuries.

In the case of Wales, the result was the division of the territory into earldoms and lordships, all subject to the English Crown. As for Ireland, Anglo-Norman influence only began in the mid-12th century, with ‘settlers’ arriving from the south-west of England and newly-conquered Wales. However, the Irish eventually regained control of the whole country, except the small area around Dublin known as ‘the Pale’, which remained in English hands; and from which the phrase ‘beyond the pale’ is taken.

Moreover, the Gaelic-speaking monarchy in Scotland offered sanctuary to English refugees fleeing from the Norman tyrant, and later even offered land to Anglo-Norman families. New towns were established and populated with English-speaking merchants. As a result, the English language began to spread northwards, not to mention the English themselves, who attempted to conquer the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. Even to this day we are still unsure as to whether the Scots were ever truly conquered; also up for debate is whether they have ever managed to learn to speak English properly.

One view of this ‘colonisation’ of the British Isles is that a model was established for later English colonisation overseas, notably the colonies in North America at the end of the 16th and in the early 17th centuries. I’ll write more on this aspect at a later date.

However, there is no doubt, in my mind at least, that the nippy Norman and his eye-catching archers brought two most important characteristics to the British Isles. Firstly, his language served to enrich our vocabulary, of that there can be no dispute. Secondly, he brought with him the imperialist and colonising mentality which has stood behind its propensity to spread out and reach parts of the world that other languages can not reach. Well, it’s just a hypothesis.

As for next week, try this question first:

What do the following Middle English words mean in Modern English?

Ich, hale, hule, starc, sumwile, and lud.

Answers next week!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Norman Conquests, but English Survives.

In my previous article on the idiosyncrasies of the English language, we left things in the middle of the 11th century, noting that way back then the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons shared a predominantly oral culture. One other thing that they had in common was the fact that the two tongues were ‘cousins’, meaning they were relatives from the same tree of languages, the Germanic one. However, in 1066 all that became history, as once again the English language suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of foreign invaders - this time from the north of France.

The date 1066 is probably indelibly etched into the minds of every British schoolkid. On October 14th of that year the Norman-French, under their Duke William, defeated the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, thus bringing Saxon rule to a bloody close. I myself can still remember our class producing a series of posters depicting on one side the Norman archers, and on the other the unfortunate King Harold with a large arrow in his left eye. But then, maybe I was just lucky in having a good teacher.

So why is it such an important historic moment? Well, the arrow that struck down poor old King Harold actually pierced to the heart of English society and its language, to such a degree that even today savants are disputing its relevance. The pro-Saxon camp interprets the events of the Norman Conquest as a decline, “a destruction of a relatively sophisticated Anglo-Saxon culture by an alien and tyrannical Norman one”. However, the alternative perspective is that the conquest represented “a milestone on the road to civilisation, playing a key role in the development of modern English”.

Whichever view you hold, the fact remains that the Normans ushered in the fourth of the Seven Ages of English, the period of Middle English from around 1100 to 1450. This stage was without doubt the modern language’s most defining period, so let’s have a closer look at the detail, and see what all the fuss was about.

During this time both the vocabulary and the spelling of the English language became affected by Norman French, which became the ‘official’ language in England. In fact, educated citizens of that time were expected to be proficient in no less than three languages - English, French and Latin!

But let’s stay with Norman French a while longer. The invasion of 1066 caused a startling linguistic division to take place, between ‘low’ Anglo-Saxon and ‘high’ Norman French. French became the language of Courts and Kings; the language of honour, justice and chivalry. Poor old Anglo-Saxon English was relegated to ‘commoner’ status, the language of ‘the people’. In fact, legend tells us that William the Conqueror tried to learn English but failed, and for 300 years afterwards the Kings of England spoke French as their first language.

Moreover, quite soon after the invasion, English landowners became so ‘Frenchified’ that a sub-class called ‘latimiers’ arose. They were interpreters whose sole task was to mediate between the Norman-speaking landowners and their Anglo-Saxon-speaking labourers. In this social division we can partly explain the differences that exist today in modern Britain between the upper and lower classes and their greatly varying accents. Think Prince Phillip, and think Oasis: hardly the same language, is it? Well, at one time it wasn’t!

So just how and why did this linguistic divide along social lines take place? To answer this we need to look at how King William went about his conquering. After reducing the country to submission, he set about building a strong Norman state on the existing Saxon institutions. Therefore the Crown retained great powers over military, legal, economic and church matters: but it was now a Norman Crown, speaking Norman French. Moreover, the Normans’ enthusiasm for keeping records, preferably in Latin, meant that the Saxons’ oral traditions were soon replaced at the cultural and administrative levels too. In short, Saxon English got turfed out into the fields and the gutters. However, here it slowly began to pick up bits of the language that had thrown it there, and in this way English began its progress back towards dominance.

In fact, many words of French origin soon came to be assimilated into English usage. The earliest adoptions were, unsurprisingly, words such as ‘duc’, ‘cuntess’, and ‘curt’ (now duke, countess. and court). Other words like ‘messe’ (mass) and ‘clerc’ (scholar) also reflected the Normans’ dominance in the state institutions of court and church.

Interestingly, as the Dukedom of Normandy fell under the control of the French King in Paris, the Norman-French words were followed by words imported from central France. This serves to explain why in English we have two variants for ‘warden’ and ‘guardian’, ‘convey’ and ‘convoy’, as well as ‘gaol’ and ‘jail’. Estimates put a figure of 20% on the amount of French words that had wheedled their way into Saxon English by the 14th century, although the highest frequency words in the language were still those of Germanic origin.

We can see evidence of the ‘class-division’ of the language in relatively modern times. When Winston Churchill wanted to appeal to the hearts and mind of the common Englander during the last war, he used words of almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon stock. The bare statement “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” contains only one word of French origin - ‘surrender’. Had he chosen to use ‘give up’ instead, he would have been 100% pure Anglo-Saxon!

And with Winston we’ll have to leave things for this week. Sadly, we’ve only really been able to take a quick look at the state of things soon after the arrival of William the Conqueror, his archers, and his language. So next week we’ll see how the two languages developed over the following couple of centuries or so.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Impact of King Alfred and Later Old English (AD 850 to 1100)

Last week’s article mentioned King Alfred a great deal, and just before we move on to see how English developed under the Vikings and the Norsemen, let’s stay with the wily Anglo-Saxon leader a while. Please forgive me this indulgence, but as an English teacher I have a good reason for wanting to keep him on the page. In fact, he has been considered by some people to have been the very first teacher of English, and perhaps if it wasn’t for his efforts our language would not be quite what it is, or even where it is, today.

However, let’s keep everything in perspective and not exaggerate his achievements. The first thing to bear in mind is that our dear King Alfred was only a part-time teacher (as presumably full-time contracts were hard to find even in the ninth century!). He spent most of his time feuding with the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and fighting off Norse invaders, so it was only in his later years that he got round to developing a system of education in which Old English, as opposed to Latin, played an important role.

As we noticed last week, King Alfred himself made a personal commission of many translations from Latin to his version of Old English. But perhaps more importantly he also had books written in Old English, and set up schools for the children of all those he depended on for his power and security. So the families of noblemen and his sheriffs and bailiffs attended, as did those high-ranking statesmen themselves who were illiterate. Moreover, it wasn’t just a voluntary thing: truancy was frowned upon, and those who failed to take part in his educational plans faced losing their official duties and privileges. So, in fact, Alfred was perhaps one of the first to perceive both the political and the enlightening power of education. Moreover, he was also the first to coin the use of the word ‘Englisc’ to indicate both the language and the people under his authority.

Legend tells us that Alfred’s mother helped him learn to read in his native West-Saxon dialect of Old English, and this might well have been a novelty in the predominantly oral Anglo-Saxon culture of the times. Most Anglo-Saxons were fond of performing highly alliterative poems and songs, but Alfred actually learned to read them as well. In fact, the story goes that he was once awarded a book of poems by his teachers for his eloquence in reading aloud to his Mother.

Whether the above legend is true or not, it does serve to illustrate that King Alfred helped to drag a predominantly oral language into a written form. However, although his written version of Old English came to be used in other northern kingdoms, the pronunciation of the words remained quite local. This queer paradox survives even to this day, as many of our words are currently written in a way that hardly reflects their modern pronunciation. Examples such as ‘through’, ‘borough’ and ‘Leicester’ spring to mind.

Anyway, what about these Vikings and Norsemen that we glimpsed towards the end of last week’s piece? In fact the first invasion of Scandinavian scallywags came as early as AD787, and by the end of the ninth century the Danes had won control of most of Eastern England. However, King Alfred (yes, it’s him again) managed to hold them back for 100 years or so by means of a treaty, in which the Danes agreed to settle in only the eastern part of the country. This area was actually quite large, stretching from the Thames estuary in what is now London to North Wales. Everything to the east of the line was under Danish sovereignty, and everything to the west was Anglo-Saxon territory.

But this truce lasted only 100 years or so, and in AD991 a further invasion of Scandinavian warriors brought complete victory to the Danish armies. Poor King Aethelred, the Anglo-Saxon king of the time (and whom history has cursed with the handle ‘Aethelred the Unready’), was forced to abandon his throne and flee into exile. Old King Alfred probably turned in his grave at this spectacle, as Danish kings by the names of Harald Bluetooth and King Cnut (careful with that spelling, please) lorded it over the once proud Anglo-Saxons.

Well, so much for the history lesson, but what has this got to do with the development of our English language? Quite a lot, really. Firstly, many place-names survive from that era, and reflect the former Viking ‘occupiers’. The Danes were predominantly settled in the north-eastern part of England, while Norwegians dwelt in the north-west of the country plus southern Scotland. So we still have modern place-names such as Grimsby, Rugby, etc, in which the ending ‘-by’, originally meant farm or town. The ending ‘-thorp’ indicated a village (Althorp, Linthorp) and both ‘-thwaite’ (isolated area) and ‘-toft’ (piece of ground) can still be seen in Braithwaite and Lowestoft.

But perhaps their most important contribution to English is the fact that there are a lot of very common words still in use that owe their provenance to the Danes and the Norsemen: simple everyday verbs such as ‘to get’, ‘to give’, and ‘to take’. Could you imagine life today without those three little tinkers?

Moreover, linguistic historians believe that a fusion of the two languages took place, which is evident in a word such as ‘heaven’, for example. Its existence apparently came about due to an amalgamation of two earlier words, the Anglo-Saxon ‘heefon’, and Scandinavian ‘himinn’.

Actually, this last point is the one that the know-all linguists dispute most, purely because the Norsemen’s culture was, like the Anglo-Saxons’, predominantly oral. Therefore few records were left. However, the two tongues were, after all, related branches from the Germanic tree of languages, so it would not be an entirely wild speculation to suggest that the two languages fused after a period of time. Moreover, logic might inform us that two ‘nations’ living in such proximity to each other on a small island and speaking similar tongues would eventually come to ‘simplify’ their speech in order to understand each other better. Wouldn’t they?

However, whether present-day Geordies and Cockneys can understand each other is another matter. Maybe complete fusion is still yet to take place?

Next week: as promised last week! 1066 and all that.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Of Anglo-Saxons and Venerable Bede

In my previous article we finished with the Anglo-Saxons, and noted that their arrival and settlement in the British Isles mysteriously coincided with one of the darkest periods in the history of our language. Apparently they had little time for writing things down, so busy were they fighting each other and the native Celts. Therefore it wasn’t until a period of relative stability had descended on the country that they got round to putting pen to paper. But which language did they use to record their thoughts and deeds?

When the first texts started to appear in the seventh century the English language was still very far from a single, unified system. If you remember, our shores had been invaded in the fifth century by boatloads of fiery foreigners from various parts of what is now Holland, Germany and Denmark, and each had brought their own dialect with them. The kingdoms that they then went on to establish reflected these linguistic differences. So we had varieties of Saxon English in the south western kingdoms of Wessex and Sussex, the Jutes version of it in Kent, and the Angles’ English in the northern kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, not to mention other variants in East Anglia and beyond. As you can imagine, all of this was quite confusing for the hapless traveller in the British Isles of the seventh and eighth century.

However, our shores were blessed with one notable scribe of the times, a church man called the Venerable Bede. In fact, so distressed was he with the apparently conflicting dialects of the eighth century that he wrote his “History of the English People” in Latin, which was still the language of culture and the church in those times. Anyway, few battling Anglo-Saxons would have taken the time out from fighting to read it in their native dialect, presuming they could actually read, that is. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t until a full century later that his book was translated into Old English, the official name given to the ragbag of competing dialects that were present at the time.

The Venerable Bede went on record (presumably in Latin) as saying that the principal dialect divisions of the British Isles at that time were a reflection of the original invading tribes and their differing linguistic backgrounds. What this means in simple English is that they still spoke the tongues that they had brought with them when they had first arrived, as we noted above. Moreover, they were not entirely ‘mutually intelligible’. This is a term that linguists use to mean that the speakers of one language can not understand the speakers of another, despite the languages having similar roots (rather like Geordies and Cockneys today).

Yet modern linguistic historians disagree, claiming that after the initial migrations, the inhabitants’ social, economic and cultural development would have thrown them together and obliged them to try and communicate in some form of common tongue. Although they do not know this for sure, they have studied what happened in America and Australia, where many differing dialects eventually fused into one broadly recognisable language. If that had not happened, current American English would probably be an accurate reflection of British dialects in the 17th and 18th centuries.

One more key point to bear in mind, back in the dark days of our language, is that there was a force for political and linguistic unity in the British Isles of the ninth century: King Alfred. Not only was he keen to win all the wars between the competing Anglo-Saxon tribes at that time, but he also had the Bible translated from Latin into his West Saxon dialect. What this in fact meant was that his version of the tongue was one of the first into print, and thus led to the establishment of a standard Old English. However, multiple spellings still survived, depending on where the texts were written, and tended to reflect local pronunciation. For example, our current word ‘guardian’ has evolved from ‘uard’ in Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon and ‘weard’ in King Arthur’s version. And the northern pronunciation of ‘water’, to rhyme with ‘fatter’, gave way to a pronunciation as in ‘daughter’. So things were starting to get together.

Finally, we should not forget the pervasive influence of the Celtic tongue, not to mention the resistance of the Welsh to any domination by the Anglo Saxons. The fact that they were able to resist enslavement meant that their language managed to survive intact. But many Celtic words still exist in modern English, notably placenames and geographical references. Strangely perhaps, the word ‘welsh’ itself is of Old English origin, meaning both ‘slave’ and ‘foreigner’. Curiously, the Welsh name for themselves, in Welsh of course, is Cymraeg, which is related to ‘cwm’ or ‘cym’, the Celtic word for valley. This word often appears in its anglified version in many place names in modern English, typically as ‘combe’ and ‘compton’: Ilfracombe, Old Compton, etc.

However, just when you thought the dialects of the language might have been settling down to form some sort of recognisable version of unified English, another tragedy struck. A new tide of invasion came, once again from the East, in the form of Scandinavian raiders. The first boat arrived around the end of the eighth century, and they didn’t stop coming for around/almost 300 years. These brutes were known as Vikings, or Norsemen, and they made their most significant settlements in the north of England and southern Scotland. Fortunately for the language, they spoke a tongue that was not too unlike the Anglo-Saxon dialects of their predecessors. Thus began the period of Later Old English, from 850 to around 1100, and we’ll have more about this next week.

Until then, one simple question: Who invaded the British Isles in 1066?

Here are the answers to last month's questions:

1) Apparently they were invited by the King (according to the Venerable Bede).
2) Not much: they sent back word that the Brits were cowardly.
3) They didn’t integrate, they just subjugated!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Five Events that Shaped the History of English

As I am currently on holiday, I'd like to leave you in the very capable hands of a true expert on the history and development of the English languuage, Mr Philip Durkin, Oxford scholar and all-round boff. I'll be back at the end of August to continue the saga.

History of English

Five Events that Shaped the History of English

Philip Durkin, Principal etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, chooses five events that shaped the English Language.

The Anglo-Saxon Settlement

It's never easy to pinpoint exactly when a specific language began, but in the case of English we can at least say that there is little sense in speaking of the English language as a separate entity before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Little is known of this period with any certainty, but we do know that Germanic invaders came and settled in Britain from the north-western coastline of continental Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders all spoke a language that was Germanic (related to what emerged as Dutch, Frisian, German and the Scandinavian languages, and to Gothic), but we'll probably never know how different their speech was from that of their continental neighbours. However it is fairly certain that many of the settlers would have spoken in exactly the same way as some of their north European neighbours, and that not all of the settlers would have spoken in the same way.

The reason that we know so little about the linguistic situation in this period is because we do not have much in the way of written records from any of the Germanic languages of north-western Europe until several centuries later. When Old English writings begin to appear in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries there is a good deal of regional variation, but not substantially more than that found in later periods. This was the language that Alfred the Great referred to as ‘English’ in the ninth century.

The Celts were already resident in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but there are few obvious traces of their language in English today. Some scholars have suggested that the Celtic tongue might have had an underlying influence on the grammatical development of English, particularly in some parts of the country, but this is highly speculative. The number of loanwords known for certain to have entered Old English from this source is very small. Those that survive in modern English include brock (badger), and coomb a type of valley, alongside many place names.

The Scandinavian Settlements

The next invaders were the Norsemen. From the middle of the ninth century large numbers of Norse invaders settled in Britain, particularly in northern and eastern areas, and in the eleventh century the whole of England had a Danish king, Canute. The distinct North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had great influence on English, most obviously seen in the words that English has borrowed from this source. These include some very basic words such as take and even grammatical words such as they. The common Germanic base of the two languages meant that there were still many similarities between Old English and the language of the invaders. Some words, for example give perhaps show a kind of hybridization with some spellings going back to Old English and others being Norse in origin. However, the resemblances between the two languages are so great that in many cases it is impossible to be sure of the exact ancestry of a particular word or spelling. However, much of the influence of Norse, including the vast majority of the loanwords, does not appear in written English until after the next great historical and cultural upheaval, the Norman Conquest.

1066 and after 1066 and all that

The centuries after the Norman Conquest witnessed enormous changes in the English language. In the course of what is called the Middle English period, the fairly rich inflectional system of Old English broke down. It was replaced by what is broadly speaking, the same system English has today, which unlike Old English makes very little use of distinctive word endings in the grammar of the language. The vocabulary of English also changed enormously, with tremendous numbers of borrowings from French and Latin, in addition to the Scandinavian loanwords already mentioned, which were slowly starting to appear in the written language. Old English, like German today, showed a tendency to find native equivalents for foreign words and phrases (although both Old English and modern German show plenty of loanwords), whereas Middle English acquired the habit that modern English retains today of readily accommodating foreign words. Trilingualism in English, French, and Latin was common in the worlds of business and the professions, with words crossing over from one language to another with ease. One only has to flick through the etymologies of any English dictionary to get an impression of the huge number of words entering English from French and Latin during the later medieval period. This trend was set to continue into the early modern period with the explosion of interest in the writings of the ancient world.


The late medieval and early modern periods saw a fairly steady process of standardization in English south of the Scottish border. The written and spoken language of London continued to evolve and gradually began to have a greater influence in the country at large. For most of the Middle English period a dialect was simply what was spoken in a particular area, which would normally be more or less represented in writing - although where and from whom the writer had learnt how to write were also important. It was only when the broadly London standard began to dominate, especially through the new technology of printing, that the other regional varieties of the language began to be seen as different in kind. As the London standard became used more widely, especially in more formal contexts and particularly amongst the more elevated members of society, the other regional varieties came to be stigmatized, as lacking social prestige and indicating a lack of education.

In the same period a series of changes also occurred in English pronunciation (though not uniformly in all dialects), which go under the collective name of the Great Vowel Shift. These were purely linguistic ‘sound changes’ which occur in every language in every period of history. The changes in pronunciation weren’t the result of specific social or historical factors, but social and historical factors would have helped to spread the results of the changes. As a result the so-called ‘pure’ vowel sounds which still characterise many continental languages were lost to English. The phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were also lost, which gave rise to many of the oddities of English pronunciation, and which now obscure the relationships between many English words and their foreign counterparts.

Colonization and Globalization

During the medieval and early modern periods the influence of English spread throughout the British Isles, and from the early seventeenth century onwards its influence began to be felt throughout the world. The complex processes of exploration, colonization and overseas trade that characterized Britain’s external relations for several centuries became agents for change in the English language. This wasn’t simply through the acquisition of loanwords deriving from languages from every corner of the world, which in many cases only entered English via the languages of other trading and imperial nations such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, but through the gradual development of new varieties of English, each with their own nuances of vocabulary and grammar and their own distinct pronunciations. More recently still, English has become a lingua franca, a global language, regularly used and understood by many nations for whom English is not their first language. (For further information on this see the pages on Global English on this site). The eventual effects on the English language of both of these developments can only be guessed at today, but there can be little doubt that they will be as important as anything that has happened to English in the past sixteen hundred years.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Birth of English

My previous articles on English have looked at the language in present times, with the focus on the diversity and the differences which exist within the language. But all of this seems to beg the questions “Why is there so much diversity?” and “Where has it all come from?” Exactly. And to answer these profound questions we have to take a long look back at the very roots of the language. Only then can we see precisely what has caused it to develop into so many different forms.

In fact, the history of the English language can be rather neatly divided into two easy compartments. Firstly there’s the period of formation, during which English was born and grew up, but still remained confined to the chilly old British Isles. This accounts for the first 1000 years or so. Then there’s the period of consolidation and expansion, in which the language spread its wings, flew the nest, and began to colonise the world. This covers the latest 500 years.

However, despite the neat division, there’s a lot of material to cover. So, this week we’ll just try and make a rapid tour of the first of the above sections, before English was recognisable in its modern form. But fasten your seat belts anyway, because this could be very quick, and might even take your breath away!

Every British schoolboy should be able to tell you that the Romans first invaded Britain in 55BC. Quite why they wanted to come to our cold and uninviting shores remains a mystery to me, especially when they had practically the whole of Mediterranean Europe to play around in, but bad weather is usually no deterrent to a bunch of determined imperialists, I suppose.

At that time English as a language did not even exist, and this period, from 55BC to around 450AD, is called the ‘pre-English’ period, a pre-gestation period before the first seeds of our beloved English language were sown. In fact, the people who inhabited the British Isles at that time spoke a Celtic tongue called ‘Brythonic’, from which the modern name of Britain is derived. This language no longer survives, although Welsh is its nearest relative, with Irish and Scots Gaelic also part of the family.

The Romans brought with them law and order, proper roads, and the Latin language as well. Which of these was the most useful for the uncultivated Brits of the time is not up for debate here: but their language soon became the dominant one in cultural, commercial and administrative circles. As a result of this colonisation, many communities in Britain became bilingual in Celtic and Latin. Now, can you imagine that, a bilingual British population!? Well, I said you’d have your breath taken away, didn’t I?!

For some reason the Romans chose to stay in Britain for almost 500 years: maybe they took a fancy to the warm beer? However, in the early part of the fifth century they started pulling out, in order to defend the arguably more interesting bits of the Roman Empire that were falling apart back home. So, off they went, leaving behind them a nation of Brits that could neither administer nor defend itself.

Obviously, when word of this largely undefended tribe of primitives reached mainland Europe, via the retreating Romans, it was only a matter of time before a new pack of aliens would descend upon the islands. But this time they came from what is now north-western Germany, Holland, and probably also Denmark, and were known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons.

These invaders, or ‘settlers’ if you prefer, brought with them a variety of dialects of the Germanic tongues that they spoke. As they began to settle along the east coast of Britain, and pushed deeper into the heartlands of southern, middle and northern England, so began the period known as Early Old English (450AD to 850AD). In simpler terms, what we had was the birth, albeit somewhat violent and painful, of the English language as we now know it.

Unfortunately this period was a rather dark one for the British Isles in many respects. Unlike their predecessors, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons left few written records of their achievements, and it is not until 200 years later that some inscriptions and manuscripts emerged. What they revealed though, was a language that had evolved from its early Germanic roots, but with internal dialectical variations between its northern and southern variants (a situation that still exists today, albeit in a milder form). The language of English had been born, in darkness and obscurity, and in a twin form.

Well, I said that I’d try and get through the first 1500 years in these few paragraphs, but it’s proved impossible: we’re still only halfway there! So next week we’ll continue the story, or as much of it as we can.

Meanwhile, here’s a few questions for you to ponder until then.

1) Why did the Anglo-Saxons come to Britain anyway?
2) How much resistance to their presence did they find?
3) How well did they integrate into the Britain of the 5th and 6th centuries?

Answers to Last Week’s True/False Questions: they are all true, except number four!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

World English or Worse English?

A recent estimate put the number of speakers of English at more than one billion worldwide. However, less than half of these people actually speak English as their first or ‘native’ language. Let’s try putting this another way: more foreigners speak English than ‘native’ speakers do.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As one notable expert (David Graddol) said, English at the beginning of the 21st century “is more widely scattered, more widely spoken, and more widely written than any other language has been”. Compare this with the situation at the end of the 16th century, under that other Queen Elizabeth, the first. Then there were only around six or seven million of us English speakers, most of them squeezed uncomfortably into that tiny cold place, the British Isles.

So, getting back to current times, where do these other speakers of English live, and just why do they use English? Perhaps more importantly, do they like using English?! Let’s take a look at some of these places which are scattered around the globe, and which use English for a variety of different reasons. In fact, we can find some interesting examples in Africa, North America, and even Europe itself (The status and use of English in the Emirates is, of course, equally interesting, but let's leave that one for another day).

First stop Africa, where in Nairobi, Kenya, English is used in tandem with several native tongues. In fact, there are around 40 local languages spoken throughout Kenya, so English is used as a sort of ‘lingua franca’ between people from different parts of the country. More importantly, it is still the language used in most of the education system, and in the country’s legal and administrative setups, and is therefore seen as a high status language associated with social prestige and economic success.

Obviously here English is a legacy of Britain’s colonial past, and as such is not universally welcome. But to adopt one of the local tongues as the country’s main language would perhaps lend too much weight to just one of Kenya’s tribes, and might upset the balance that exists in the country. So here we have what might be referred to as a ‘beautiful paradox’: the language of a former oppressor now apparently serving to hold a nation together. Curiously, a slang variety of English has now arisen, which is in fact a mixture of English and Swahili – Swahinglish?

Now let’s jump across the ocean to North America. “But doesn’t everybody there speak English as their mother tongue?” I hear you ask. Well, not really. In some parts of Canada, English and French are fighting each other almost as much as the English and French people used to in years gone by. In fact, the province of Quebec was originally settled by both the French and the English way back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, in 1759 there was a mother of a battle to win Quebec city, and the French (as usual) lost. Ever since then they’ve been trying to kick out the English language, and in 1977 French was made the obligatory language of the workplace, despite huge objections from anglophones. So, here we have some people who don’t really like using English at all, and who will even pretend that they can’t speak or understand the language just to antagonise someone! Sounds incredible, but it’s true.

Finally, let’s move back to Europe, but keeping the French perspective. In France the English language has no official status, unlike in Kenya and Quebec, but it is being used with increasing frequency, although mostly at an unofficial level. However, many French people have come to resent and fear this growing linguistic (and cultural) domination, and there is now talk of excessive ‘contamination’ of French life by the Anglo-American tongue and all it represents.

Examples of this ‘poisoning’ of the French way of life can be seen in the way that English words are driving out French ones, especially amongst the young. Un scoop, un squat, and un one-man show have already worked their way into the language, and probably every teenager possesses un walkman. Way back in the 1960s the term 'Franglais' was invented to cover this fashion for English words, and partly as a result of this trend the French state started to fight back. In 1995 a law was passed which ‘outlawed’ specific English words, prescribed more ethnic French alternatives, and insisted that when French and English appear together, the French is always the most prominent.

Of course, whether the French can win this battle against the English remains to be seen. A bientot!

This Week’s Questions: Try the following statements, and decide if they are true or false. Answers next week!
1) Two boys were kicked out of a party in Nairobi for speaking English in front of their elders.
2) A man tried to secure the release of his brother from a Kenyan prison. Using the local language, he had no luck. But when he addressed the police chief in English, he was successful.
3) In Quebec, members of certain professions must now pass a French language test if they are to be allowed to stay in their jobs.
4) It is illegal to teach in English in any state school in Quebec city.
5) 'un boulingrin' is the French for ‘bowling green’.
6) All IBM staff in France use English as their official ‘working language’.

Answers to Last Week’s Questions:
A) Scottish English, albeit the ‘literary variety’.
B) Indian English

C) Geordie English, a dialect from North East England. The translation is as follows: “Same again please, barman. Brown ales all round (= for all of us). The table's rather messy (= so please clean it)”.
D) Pidgin English from Papua New Guinea, from a carpenter’s manual. Translation: Before striking a little nail you should hold the shaft of the hammer close to the head and hit it gently.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Whose English Is It, Anyway?

So, you think you speak English, do you? But which English do you speak? American English? Scottish English? Abu Dhabi English? The fact is that there are more varieties of English in existence than there are brands of honey available at your local supermarket. So which one is the real thing, the one you can trust?

Some people see this great diversity as a problem and insist that only their English is the definitive version. For example, many Americans claim that their English is the only one that matters, as America leads the world in technological and economic matters. Therefore, American English should be the world standard. However, others might equally claim that British English is the sole heir to the throne, as it is somehow ‘purer’ and ‘better’ than other variants, especially transatlantic ones. In fact, this curious tradition of diversity and challenge within the English language has always existed, since the very beginning of the language, some 1500 years ago.

So let’s take a brief look at this English of ours, and see just how it’s got on over the years. In truth, even just a few centuries ago, no single standard of English existed. Back then, the English language consisted of a wide variety of dialects, spoken only by a small monolingual population within the shores of a small island off the coast of mainland Europe. Contrast this with the present situation, with English being the international language of a world community!

But let’s stay in the past a while. Back in those days, long before the Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries, there were many variant spellings and pronunciations of even a single word. Anyone who has tried to read Shakespeare in its original English will remember coming across words that looked like a modern recognisable thing, but which differed somewhat in their spelling and often needed translating. Examples such as ‘idoll’ spring to mind: could it be ‘doll’, ‘idol’, or even ‘idle’? Or just the wordsmith Old Bill playing with words?

Moreover, Londoners of the sixteenth century were particularly snobby about informal regional dialects then. How Shakespeare must have suffered for his Midlands burr - no wonder he gave up acting! A group of school inspectors noted, upon inspecting a school in London, that the school’s northern teachers were at fault for “failing to teach their children to speak distinctly and to pronounce their words properly”. Such prejudices still exist today, of course, whether it’s a cosmopolitan New Yorker laughing at a simple Texan’s drawl, or a (half-)educated Englishman aping an Irishman’s tuneful dialect.

Around the same period of time, the following notes on social etiquette appeared. How many non-standard spellings can you detect in the following piece of advice? “If we speak to ower inferior, we must use a certayne kind of modest and civill authoritie, in giving them playnely to understand ower intent and purpose” (from The Enimie of Idelness, by Sir Thomas Fulwood). In fact, ‘ower’ Sir Thomas was debating whether to use ‘you’ or ‘thou’ when addressing (not undressing, mind) the lower orders. “Who’s ‘thou’?” I hear you exclaim. Well, it’s the same as ‘you’ actually, except we don’t use the word anymore, save in a few of the more obscure and colourful dialects of the tongue.

Moreover, the common word ‘such’ had at one time no less than a dozen different spellings, and probably just as many varieties of pronunciation! There was such, soch, sich, swich and sech in common use in London and the south of England, whilst in the Midlands swilk, swech, swich, sich, such and soch were being used. As for the north of England and Scotland at that time, don’t even ask! In some cases there were several different spellings to accommodate a single pronunciation. Even our most revered word ‘queen’ was spelt variously as cwene and quene, in recognition of our Germanic and Latinate roots.

So why exactly did and does so much diversity exist? And how did this ragbag of peculiar dialects evolve into the international language of modern times? All these questions I hope to answer over the coming months ... so watch this space!

Just to keep your appetite whetted for the next issue, take a look at the following examples of non-standard Englishes, and try two little exercises. Firstly, can you identify the particular dialect; and secondly, can you give a reasonable translation into modern English? Good luck! Answers in the next entry...

A) The X Language Society offers prizes for scrievin in the X tongue. Entries maun be original and ne’er afore prentit. Ilk entry maun be signed wi a byname, and the byname should be prentit on the outside o a sealed envelope.

B) Our religion so many different kinds of God. Shiva was destroy god, and Vishnu was power, and Brahma was creator. But that is only for totally bluff. This is not so many God. God is one.

C) Syemagen kidder! Broonsalroond! The tyebel’s claggy!

D) Bilong paitim liklik nil yu ken holim han bilong hama klostu long het bilong hama na paitim isi.

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