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.