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!