The Story of English, Part I: Age of Conquest

One presumably drizzly, dreary day in the 6th Century A.D., a boat landed on the shore of southern Britain. Times were not good for the Britons of the day, living in crumbling cities in the early years of the Dark Ages. They were about to get worse.

Several generations earlier, the Roman Empire, which had ruled Britannia for four centuries, had retreated across the Channel as it collapsed. Like most of ancient Western Europe from Spain to the Rhine, Britain was a Celtic country. The Romans had brought high civilisation, administration, and commerce. They also brought Latin, which became the island’s preeminent language, if not that of common parlance (Latin’s penetration was probably similar to that of English in India today). But then they left. All that the Romans had brought started to fall apart as Britain forayed into the Dark Ages.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Roughly a century after the legions disembarked, Germanic invaders washed ashore. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes presumably arrived separately, but distinctions blurred and the conquerors of Britain ultimately became known as the English. The reason why that name prevailed is foggy. “Saxon” was used interchangeably for centuries, and remains as an exonym for the English among Britain’s surviving Celts (e.g. Welsh Saesneg). The compound form also gained currency, most prominently featured in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the great contemporary history of the period. But Saxons remained (and remain) a major group back in Germany, so calling the new land “England” was more distinguishing (there is still an Anglia in Germany, but it is a minor peninsula, as opposed to the multiple states named for Saxons). Jutes, hailing from the Jutland peninsula that came to make up mainland Denmark, were a much smaller group concentrated in Kent, and they assimilated as Englishmen.

The opening lines of the earliest English masterwork- you are a better linguist than I if you can decipher any of it on the first go. One place where a bit of light shines through is the last line: “þæt wæs god cyning” is literally “that was good king,” or modern Dutch “dat was goede koning.” It is worth listening to a bit on YouTube.

Old English is unrecognizable to modern English speakers. The earliest text we have, the Early Medieval epic Beowulf, looks far more foreign than German or French. English has transformed fundamentally compared to other languages- to cite a few random examples, I have heard that modern Russian and Icelandic speakers can readily read texts written in their languages a thousand years ago, and Arabic speakers can read the Quran, written (or revealed) at around the same time as Beowulf, without too much difficulty. The long and turbulent process that made English the language you are reading now is the subject of this post.

Like other insular languages, English drifted away from its continental cousins. Less typically, it borrowed virtually nothing from the native Brittonic languages with which it came into contact. English has shockingly few Celtic loanwords. The few that are in common circulation include loch and whiskey (literally “water of life,” cf. Latin aqua vitae), as well as some that reflect a troubled history. “Vassal” is a Celtic word, and “wealth” apparently gained currency as referring to one’s property in Welsh slaves (“slave” itself likewise derives from the Greek for Slavs). “Welsh” is a Germanic word meaning “foreigner,” which the Britons now were in their own ancestral country. In the debate over whether the Anglo-Saxons displaced native Britons or assimilated them, language offers a potent argument for the former.

(I would like to give special mention to one lesser-known theory about Celtic influence on English. In English, the verb “to do” has a special role in questioning and emphasis: one asks “Do you know him?” while “Know you him?” sounds archaic. Old English, like most other languages, used only the latter. But by the time Middle English resurfaces in the written record, do-support is idiomatic. The only other European languages that have a similar construction are Welsh and Cornish.)

England became a Christian nation in the 7th Century, but deep roots are not reached by the frost. English retains some obvious vestiges of paganism. It is worth noting that the first English king to bear a Christian name was John in 1199, and there have been few since then. Hell transformed from the pagan underworld to the Christian one. The days of the week are named for Germanic gods, e.g. Wednesday for Woden (Norse Odin) and Thursday for Thor (in German it is Donnerstag, “thunder day”). Romance languages have a similar legacy- to use French as an example, mardi, Wednesday, is for Mars, and jovedi, Thursday, is likewise for the thunder god Jupiter. Thor is not native to the Anglo-Saxon pantheon- the reason why we honour him once a week was about to hit England like a lightning bolt.

Make England barbaric again

By the 8th Century, the people of England had settled down and given up their warlike, heathen ways. But in 793, a new wave of invaders arrived to turn the clock back. Viking warriors brutally conquered half the country, plunging the English into the same chaos and terror to which their fathers had subjected the Welsh.

England would not become Norse, but the conquering Danes, unlike the conquered Welsh, made a major impact on the English language. Fittingly, “hit” and “take” are Norse words, as is “law.” Drawing from another language allowed English speakers to express shades of meaning with unique nuance: in English one can be “glad” or “happy,” practice a “craft” or a “skill,” and look up to “heaven” or the “sky,” all English and Norse, respectively. The most interesting borrowing is more fundamental. At the time, Englishmen and Norsemen were not so very far removed from their common ancestors, and could probably understand one another to some extent. The depth of mutual intelligibility is reflected in the fact that English speakers came to conjugate the critical verb “to be” with the Norse “are.”

In yellow is the Danelaw, that part of England ceded to the Danes. The speech of northeast England is still recognizably Scandinavian.

Beyond simple borrowing, the new invaders had an important influence on how English is spoken. Like modern German, Old English had a complex grammar. Nouns had three genders and five cases (changing endings based on their role in a sentence- this survives in pronouns, e.g. “he” vs. “him”). But studying arcane grammar did not appeal to most Vikings. The language simplified as people on both sides strove to make themselves more easily understood. This simplification of English took many centuries, but it was here that it was definitively set in motion. The transformation was so fundamental that a few linguists argue that English is more of a North Germanic language (along with the Scandinavians) than a West Germanic (German, Dutch) one. To this day, people from northeast England speak with a Norse lilt.

Against all odds, England survived the Viking onslaught. King Alfred the Great of Wessex, the last surviving Saxon kingdom, defeated the Danes and became the first king of all England. He fostered an Old English renaissance. While all other European scholars wrote in Latin, English chroniclers recorded the history of their country in their native tongue.

A literal line-by-line translation of the Lord’s Prayer in King Alfred’s English. After the Conquest, Englishmen would not again recite the “Paternoster” in their native tongue until the reign of Henry VIII.

They would not do so for long. On Saturday, October 14, 1066, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy routed the exhausted army of Harold Godwinson and marched on to conquer England. William, now known as the Conqueror (or, to him, Guillaume le Conquérant) spoke the Norman dialect of Old French, which had its roots in Latin. William and his followers (among them my dear ancestor Geoffrey de Mandeville) completely extirpated the Anglo-Saxon nobility and clergy, and with them, the English language.

For more than three centuries, French was the official language of England. It was the first, and usually only, language of the nobility and higher clergy- the latter is even more significant since they were the only ones who knew how to write. English, once a proud language of kings and scholars, was no longer a written language. It retreated into debased, rustic obscurity.

Like Welsh and Norse, the influence of French on English reflects history. Today, most of English’s higher lexicon is Latinate. This is most perhaps most evident in law. Virtually all English legal vocabulary (court, judge, sentence, decision, etc.) is French. Many crimes reflect a dichotomy of French and English. “Breaking and entering” and “assault and battery” are composed of English and French elements (respectively), conveying a nuance of meaning as well as making them broadly comprehensible. Likewise, while most livestock have English names, the dishes made from them are French (cow vs. beef, pig vs. pork, sheep vs. mutton, deer vs. venison, etc.) The most amusing example comes from titles of nobility: all, from baron to duke, are French. The lone exception is “earl”- it seems that Norman counts reverted to the old English title because they were sick of insolent peasants calling them cunts.

Une scène de la tapisserie de Bayeux, une grande histoire artistique de la conquête de l’Angleterre (et de l’Anglais) par le roi Guillaume. It is thanks to William that at least half of the preceding sentence looks familiar to an English speaker.

The Conqueror and his heirs spent most of their time in their true home across the Channel. Few had more than a basic grasp of English. Richard the Lionheart (r. 1189–1199) spent all of few months of his reign in England, winning his name in the Holy Land and living and dying in his true home of Aquitaine. Ironically, the hated Flemish mercenaries the kings used to keep England pacified could probably make themselves understood in the English of the time.

That started to change when Richard’s brother John lost his lands on the Continent and was forced to live in England. The lords of England began to think of the country as their homeland, rather than a colony. English fluency was creeping up the Norman aristocracy: like their descendants today, nobles were mostly raised by commoner nurses, and over generations they grew more comfortable with English. Under the Pleading in English Act 1362, English became the official language of court testimony, though records were still to be in Latin.

In 1399, England crowned her first English-speaking king in 333 years. The ceremony was in Latin.

To rouse patriotic fervour for a war in France, King Edward III (r. 1327–1377) took the extraordinary step of addressing Parliament (whose very name is from the French parler) in English. Edward, whose own first language was French, declaimed on a popular conspiracy theory that the French planned to “extinguish the English language,” which so alarmed the assembled lords and burgesses that they voted him funding for another expensive campaign. A few decades later, Edward’s embattled grandson Richard II was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, a son of Edward’s younger son who spoke English as his first language. For the first time in over three hundred years, England had an English-speaking king.

Part II

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets