The Story of English, Part II: A Language Reborn

Here beginneth the tale…

In the 14th Century, after centuries in the darkness, English resurfaced in the historical record. But the language that emerged in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is one fundamentally different from that in Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Middle English had borrowed heavily from French: Chaucer’s language is still mostly Anglo-Saxon, but it was becoming harder for English speakers to express themselves without at least some Latinate vocabulary. The process of simplification, by which English lost noun genders and cases (except in pronouns, where they are alive and well today), was more or less complete. Disappearing too are the old letters Þ and ð (thorn and eth, representing voiced and unvoiced versions of “th”), which so bedevil those who try to read Old English.

Chaucer’s English is strange, but at least it is identifiably English.

As English regained ascendance, the East Midlands dialect, that of London and the budding universities of Oxford and Cambridge, became the national standard. West Saxon, which had been the standard before the Conquest, faded into bucolic obscurity. A notable exception to Southern preeminence is the definite article “the,” which was originally characteristic of Northern speech, but ultimately displaced the Southern se.

The Romance plural construction “-s” had taken a decisive hold. Virtually all English plurals took the “-s” in a process that has also transformed about half of Dutch nouns and a smaller share of German ones. Around 1450, a Londoner down in Kent asked to buy eggs- the perplexed shopkeeper explained that “I speke no Frenshe,” but would be happy to sell him eyren. Today, only children, oxen, and brethren still go the old way.

Around the time that Chaucer was writing his stories of pilgrims from all walks of life making their ways to the cathedral city of Canterbury, a seismic shift was beginning in southern England. The Great Vowel Shift transformed virtually every word in the English language. “Beet” became bite, “boot” became boat, and “mate” became meet. The shift took place gradually between roughly 1400 and 1700, the same period in which English orthography was standardised, which helps explain why so many words are not spelt the way they are pronounced. The wave rolled northward slowly, and never quite submerged the North. Modern dialectal differences between regions of England, and especially between English English and Scottish English, substantially date from the vowel shift.

If only we had listened to the Northerners, English would be easier to learn.

The earliest English writer to whom most of us are exposed, and indeed the one whose language most English speakers think of as “Old English,” is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare did most of his writing from 1589 to 1613, by which time, of course, real Old English was in the distant past. And although he was a masterful writer, his work is a problematic linguistic source since it is poetry. But it is still valuable, particularly because it crystallises a moment in English history, preserving fossils of words, jargon, and rhymes, and conversely because Shakespeare casts such a long shadow over modern English. To take one odd example, the reason why “weird” today means strange or unsettling comes from the Weird Sisters of the opening of Macbeth, whose name came from a Germanic root referring to destiny (e.g. German werden, “to become”), but who most struck audiences as strange and unsettling.

A better source for early modern English, from about the same time, is the King James Bible. This was not the first English translation: William Tyndale had published his translation nearly a hundred years earlier, and John Wycliffe over a century before that. But for their efforts Wycliffe and Tyndale were run out of Oxford and burnt at the stake, respectively- the 1611 KJV was commissioned by the king himself.

From heresy to compulsory in four generations

The language had changed rather a lot between Wycliffe’s time (the 1380s) and the reign of James I (r. 1603–1625). To Wycliffe, the world began thus:

“In þe firste God made of nouȝt heuene and erþe. Forsoþe þe erþe was idel and voide, and darkneſsis weren vpon þe face of þe see; and þe spiryt of God was borun vpon þe watrys. And God seide, liȝt be maad; and liȝt was maad.”

To James, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the depths. And the spirit of God moved upon the waters. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.”

It is worth noting that the vast majority of the words (eighty-seven percent, compared to sixty-nine percent in this paragraph; for reference, I have put French loans in Italics) are native English- this may have been a conscious choice by the scholars of Corpus Christi, Oxford, to make the Word of God feel familiar.

The English of the 17th Century (at least, in some accents) would have been intelligible to modern speakers. But it was still rife with vestigial archaisms. The original King James Version spelled “the” as “ye (with the e in superscript), a descendant of the old letter thorn that one still sees on some very old gravestones. In his 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton sometimes refers to inanimate nouns by their old genders (“If chance the radiant Sun with farewell sweet/ Extent his ev’ning beam…”). Some words had different meanings than they do today. When James II (r. 1685–1688) first saw the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, he found it pleasing to the eye, awe-inspiring, and a masterwork of human craft: it was “amusing, awful, and artificial.”

Can you imagine anything so amusing, awful, and artificial?

English was firmly established as the main language of law, having adopted virtually its entire legal lexicon from French. But to read the precedent cases so critical to the common law, a lawyer had to know French. Astonishingly, “Law French” still had an living role, albeit in an amusingly degraded form. In 1631, Sir George Treby wrote a report on a case:

Richardson Chief Justice de Common Banc al assises de Salisbury in Summer 1631 fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony, que puis son condemnation ject un brickbat a le dit justice, que narrowly mist, et pur ceo immediately fuit indictment drawn per Noy envers le prisoner et son dexter manus ampute et fix al gibbet, sur que luy mesme immediatement hange in presence de Court.”

(To summarise: Chief Justice Richardson was assaulted by a prisoner condemned for a felony, who upon his condemnation threw a brickbat at the justice, which “narrowly mist,” for which an associate named Noy helpfully drew up an indictment, and the prisoner had his right hand (dexter manus) chopped off and was hanged before the court.)

Legal jargon that looks like something out of a year seven rubbish bin aside, English had arrived. The language that came out on the other side of a uniquely traumatic first millennium was unique in many ways. It is not even clear what kind of language English is. Ancestrally, it is West Germanic, related to Dutch and German. But the Norse invasion, military and linguistic, rocked English to its core, shaking up the vocabulary and transforming its grammar. Thanks to the Normans, English is the only Germanic language whose vocabulary is mostly Romance- an English speaker can typically glean more from a French sentence than a German one.

The breakdown of English vocabulary- for most languages, one wedge would take the lion’s share.

The closest living language to English is Frisian, a minor tongue on the northeast coast of the Netherlands. Supposedly, Frisian television signals sometimes drift to the Kentish coast, where people can more or less make out what sounds like a very strange weather report. A well-known rhyme palpably demonstrates the basic similarity between the two languages: Bûter, brea en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk, which is pronounced almost exactly the same as “Butter, bread, and green cheese is good English and good Frisian” (Friesh?). Not so very long ago, English was a minor language, perhaps most interesting to foreigners as a peculiarly mongrelised version of German. For hundreds of years, English had been the language of the conquered. It was about to become the language of conquerors.

Part I

Part III

Former economist at Magdalen College, Oxford; current investment bank analyst writing to stay sane

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store