The History of English

The late Sir Winston Spencer Churchill wrote a contentious account on The History of the English-Speaking World. For that and other literary matters, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

churchill portrait

Years later I wrote my own account on the history of that language, still widely-spoken today. Dr L Hlongwane remarked at the time that it was “a very well researched essay.” Somehow, we were unaffected by Jacob Zuma’s inauguration as our country’s third democratically-elected State President. His associate, Kalema Motlante did not fit that description as he had merely been appointed by the ruling African National Congress as caretaker while Zuma was in court on the charge of rape. Jokingly, while Thabo Mbeki was still in power, I had announced that I would leave South Africa if Zuma ever came to power. Today, Julius Malema acts as heir-apparent to Zuma while Cyril Ramaphosa attends the proverbial barbie down under in Australia where thousands of South African expatriates have seemingly vowed to remain, never to return, and never to vote for the African National Congress in the forthcoming South African general elections.

I am still here. En nog ‘n ding (and another thing), I am extremely proud of my roots, whether I speak English, Afrikaans, or try my hand at Dutch, German or Xhosa, Zulu, or even !Xû, Someday I will travel to those foreign lands that I dream of, but I will always return to the Cape Flats, the Cape of Storms and the Cape of Good Hope, because I am rooted in this soil as a South African.

cape town

Klaar gepraat (enough said).

The history of the English language was influenced by different invasions of the British Isles from the sixth century to the eleventh century, AD. These invasions brought different influences during this period.

Through repeated invasions and conquests, the evolution of an inherently Germanic language was encouraged by the various invaders, namely the Celts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Scandinavian Vikings.

The Norman Conquest of Great Britain in 1066 AD brought a strong French influence.

bayeaux_tapestry of norman conquest

Regionalism within the British Isles led to the concretisation of different dialects brought by the British invaders. For instance, the Jutes centred in and around Kent, while other invaders made their dialectical influence in regions such as East Anglia, the Midlands and Sussex after occupation.

Significantly, the development of Old English essentially originated from the Romans, Celts, Anglo-Saxons and the Christian missionaries.

It is argued that owing to the enormous prestige that their culture brought to Britain, the development of the English language was mostly influenced by Scandinavian speech patterns and Normandy French.

The French linguist Raymond de Saussure posits that mention be made of the relations between languages and political history. Major historical events such as the Roman Conquest are linguistically important. Colonisation transports languages into new environments, bringing changes in language.

A possible early influence from the Normans who descended from France, was that of the Goths and Gauls:

“Chronicles record that Goths broke into Rome.”

asterix vs romans

Roman power declined. After 409 AD Roman rule in Britain ended and the Britons could not maintain and develop the Roman economic and political structures. The Britons survived the invasions of Scots and Picts in the early decades of the fifth century. Fascinatingly it is here that we can recall and wonder at the legend of King Arthur who appealed to the Romans for help before gallantly defending his country against the Scots.

According to Bede the Britons then asked the Saxons to help, but the true purpose of the Angles and Saxons was to invade the islands. Barber mentions three groups who settled in different parts of Great Britain, the Jutes settled in Kent, while other invaders dispersed through East Anglia, the Midlands and Sussex.

king arthur

When the distinctive Anglo-Saxon England emerged, the foundation was laid for the emergence of the English language. The different invaders brought their own unique differences in dialect from the Germanic language system which led to the development of the four main dialects of the Old English language, namely Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish and West-Saxon.

Under the leadership of King Alfred a second Normadic invasion was defeated, education revived and importantly, the policy of translating important books from Latin into Old English initiated. The West-Saxon dialect was developed into the literary standard, and by the time of the Norman Conquest, it was far more developed for the expression of prose and poetry than any other European vernacular. According to Barber, the vocabulary of the English was greatly enhanced since the Anglo-Saxon settlement through adoptions from other languages. The borrowed words brought about the spelling conventions of these languages. Similarities from those languages still exist. For example, the Old English word ‘tide’ meant ‘time’ and later came to denote a particular time, or occasion, for example, “Whitsuntide”. We mention two further good examples, namely, ‘Geyrde’ which means ‘Heard’, and ‘Spreconde’ which means ‘Speaking’.

The Old English structure allowed for greater freedom in word order, because relationships between words were indicated by the ‘shape’ of individual words. Evidence from the tenth century Northumbrian texts, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospels, suggests that by this time the famed inflectional system was in a process of change.

External reasons suggest that a variety of nonlinguistic factors led to the change in language.

As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest the West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation was, in time, no longer used.

In 1066 Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold at Hastings and became King William of England. This event had the most profound effects on the country and its language. When we read English texts from the twelth century onwards we notice changes at every level of the language, namely in spelling, grammar, word form and vocabulary.

the battle of hastings

The Vikings settled in Northumbria, the North-eastern half of England. Here it is believed that a poet was responsible for threading together ballads, a formation which eventually led to the creation of the epic “Beowulf”.

After the Norman invasion, Norman French long continued to be the only recognised official language and language of fashion, but by the beginning of the fourteenth century it had lost hold upon English life.

The complete triumph of the English was signalled through the statute of 1362 where all proceedings in law courts had to be conducted in English instead of French.

While French was disappearing, no standard form of any new language replaced it. The newly formed English language, however, was broken up into dialects dependent on different regions of England, namely; Northern England, Midland England and Southern England, which in turn were all subdivided into minor varieties of dialects.

East Midland England English gained ascendancy. It became the speech of the country’s capital and of its two centres of learning, Oxford and Cambridge.

After the Norman Conquest and union with Norman French it became common practice amongst historians to distinguish a “sharp dividing line” between Anglo-Saxon and what was called new speech (Hudson). It was not recognised by modern writers who insisted that the origins of English arose from the Teutonic (Germanic) languages.

English of the fourteenth century arose out of the Anglo Saxon language of the fifth century through a course of evolution. Eventually the term Angle Saxon was dropped and replaced by the term Old English.

Anglo Saxon influences on the development of the English language were strong, and following the Anglo-Saxons’ conversion to Christianity, some of the best known literary influences came from Caedman and Cynewulf.

It is believed that Caedman’s poetic power of verse came as a divine gift. These two writers’ poetic form differed radically from modern English versification, for example ‘beginning rime’ was employed in place of ‘end rime’. Each poetic line consisted of two dimensions, namely; the first division contained two accented syllables while the second contained at least one.

Accented syllables began with the same letter. We take a good example from “Beowulf”;

“Grendel g ongan, Godes yre baer”

(Translation: Grendel going God’s anger bore).

I am inclined to support the view that there were universal tendencies which made all languages evolve in similar ways.

According to Graddol, the stress in English speech tended to fall increasingly on the first syllable of words. Consequently inflected syllables at the end of words were more weakly stressed and the vowel was likely to be reduced to what linguists called a ‘schwa’ sound.

Language was seen as a system. Part of this approach focused on the way knowledge about language was stored in the minds of speakers. Part of that knowledge in Old English concerned patterns of inflection. Some noun paradigms did not have distinctive endings in all cases. This suggested that the Old English inflectional system was inefficient and ripe for ‘analogical re-modelling’, as suggested by the linguist Roger Lass.

According to de Saussure, the social status attached to the particular English dialect and the idea of Standard English became highly politicised.

Graddol explained that any answers to the question of language change must take account of the social relations between speakers. In recent years sociolinguists have shown that linguistic changes are often associated with particular groups in society and that people tend to adopt changes introduced by more powerful, or prestigious groups. He said that any account of linguistic changes must make some reference to the different groups within society, their relative status and the patterns of contact existing amongst them (Byrne).

During the latter eleventh century Scandinavian speech was quite prestigious. The King of England between 1016 and 1042 was in fact, Danish.

Through Old Norse, Old English and related Germanic languages, it was possible that a number of speakers became bilingual. There was greater pressure on the English inhabitants to learn Scandinavian than for the Viking invaders to learn English.

After the conquest of the English by William I in 1066, Norman French, not English, became the language of the ruling classes and servants. Almost all former English nobility were dispossessed of their lands. Due to these and other socio-political factors French became the prestigious language of the commoners.

To conclude, we reiterate that the English language was influenced by different invasions of Great Britain from the sixth century to the eleventh century. We looked at the different influences of the people who invaded Britain during this period.

scotland coat of arms

A significant influence emanating from these invasions was the encouragement of the evolution of a Germanic language. The Norman Conquest also brought a strong French influence.

Regionalism brought a coming together of different dialects. It was noted that importantly the Old English development originated from the Romans, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and the Christians. Owing to prestige the development of the English language was influenced by Scandinavian speech patterns and Normandy French.

De Saussure advised that historical events starting with the Roman conquest were linguistically important. After Rome rule ended, England survived invasions from Scots and Picts. asking the Saxons to help them.

celtic crest

The English language arose out of the distinctive Anglo-Saxon England emergence. Different invaders brought uniquely different dialects from the Germanic language system which led to the development of the four main dialects. Barber advised that the vocabulary of English was improved since the Anglo-Saxon settlement through adoptions from other languages.

The Old English structure allowed for flexibility. The battle of Hastings was one of the most significant historical events in Great Britain. The complete triumph of English was celebrated with the institution of the statute of 1362. The English language was splintered into dialects dependent on the different regions of England, however, East Midland England English dominated. Anglo-Saxon influences on the development of the English language remained strong. Finally, Norman French, due to various socio-political factors, became a prestigious language even among commoners.

whelan family crest

The English language today, still a prestigious language, is widely-spoken in different accents, and well-worth treasuring.


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