English, from Olde to new

Around the year 449, England was invaded by Germanic tribes who introduced their language to the Celts whom they conquered. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, recorded the first account of this catastrophe. Bede claims that the conqueror tribes were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, from the Danish peninsula and Germany.

Before 449, the central and southeastern parts of England were a Roman province (the Romans never penetrated Scotland and Wales), and the Romans spoke Latin. Given the advanced technology and comforts introduced by the Romans, like central heating, baths, and advanced plumbing, it is no surprise that at least the mercantile and ruling classes in Britain adopted Latin as their language, while the rest of the populace spoke Celtic languages. Gaelic, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, and Manx are among the original Celtic languages, and some are making a comeback today.

As Rome weakened, its legions left Britain, leaving it unprotected against the invasions of the Germanic tribes who brought along the original forms of English.

Under different circumstances, our language might be called Jutish, or Saxonish, but the Angles became ascendant among the invading tribes. Over the succeeding centuries, the place came to be called “Englalande” (Land of the Angles), and the coalescing languages of the invading tribes were called Englisc.

Olde English, with its Germanic declensions of nouns and adjectives and complicated verb conjugations, lasted from about 450 to 1150. Olde English is dead in that nobody but specialists could either speak or comprehend it today.  It differs from modern English more than, say, old French from modern French, or old German from modern German. Consider this example (taken from The Unfolding of Language, by Guy Deutscher):

Me ofthingth sothlice thæt ic hi worhte (I regret having made them).

This is incomprehensible, right?

Language turned topsy turvy again in 1066, when the French-speaking Normans invaded.  The Norman king and his Court spoke French, and as reward for their victory, Norman lords took over British land and businesses. The servants and townspeople continued speaking English. Gradually, the Latin-based French vocabulary and syntax changed the surrounding English dialects, and by 1600 the above quote became:

For it repenteth me that I haue made them

which is fairly comprehensible.

Nouns dropped their gender in this period, though for some reason we still call ships “she.” Over the centuries, the familiar forms thou/thee were replaced by you in both the singular and the plural. The modern pronoun forms he/him/his, she/her/hers, our/ours/ours, and so on, give us a sense of how to decline nouns, but even these forms are fading. My students regularly use me instead of I in sentences such as, “Me and Mary went to the mall,” thus regularizing the pronoun forms. Without the declensions, speakers identify the function of nouns by their place in the sentence.  Me is the subject (nominative case) because it comes first in the sentence. English has become a more linear language.

When some English people ended up in America, all hell broke loose. The native tribes contributed succotash, chipmunk, moccasin, powwow, and teepee. African slaves gave us the Blues and boogie, mumbo jumbo and banjo. The Irish added hooligan, galore, and whiskey. The Jews brought us oy vey, blintz, chutzpah, glitch, and putz. We recently added quesadilla, hola, and macho to our vocabulary.

The invention of recording devices made it possible at last for us to listen to the accents of peoples’ speech. We cannot hear a 10th century British farmer speaking, but we can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many early movie actors, whose speech sounds almost British. Changes in accent occur gradually, as do changes in syntax. We seem to be eliminating the nominative case and saying, “Me and Mary went to the mall” without the blink of an eye.

English is morphing in Jamaica, India, and Singapore. Perhaps some day these offshoots will be so deeply changed by influences of their own that a native English speaker will not understand them. That’s how modern English moved away from its own Germanic roots.

It all started in 449. Thanks goodness that today our changes occur through immigration, not bloody invasion. The language changes faster that way, and change is more or less voluntary, though many grandparents today mumble, “Over my dead body,” when they hear their grandchildren say “Me and Mary went to the mall.” But I like it better this way.

2 Responses to “English, from Olde to new”

  • Denis T. says:

    And Russians gave you sputnik (who walk with smb) and vodka (just a water until 19th cent.), also to Pittsburgh slang Malkin gave borstch and pirogies. But cavier> isn’t russian word.
    I remember how we spent the time with Italian workers, speaking in Broken English, however, we understood each others.

    Oh… Look at these.
    English – Russian
    Fish – Pischa (a food)
    Bridge – Breg/behreg (a coast, a bank of river)
    Coast – cost’ (a fishbone)
    Flame – Plamya (a flame, a fire)
    celtic’s drw/dru (driud) – drevo, dehrevo (a tree)
    river – revet’ (to cry)
    son – [s’yn] (a son)
    mother – mater’, mama, mat’ (a mother)
    knight – kmet (a horseman)
    to lie (defame) – layat’ ([dog] woof)
    drunk – dranyj (ragged)
    sober – soberis’ (brace up, recollect spirits)
    and etc…

  • Denis T. says:

    In addition…
    wide – vid (sight)
    shire – shir’ (wide)
    -by (in the names of English villiages founded by vikings) – byl (was)
    (I was here – Ya byl zdes’)
    raven – vran, voron (a raven, see scandinavian hrafn/ram/rem/rom)
    shield – schit (a shield)
    wind – wint (a helix)
    Mill – melnitsa (a mill, from melit’ – to grind)
    Bread – brodit’, braga (to ferment/leaven, a home brew)
    Milk – mleko, moloko (a milk)


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