The Story of English, Part III: Age of Conquerors

Through its first millennium, English was an unimportant language on the edge of the European stage. For a few hundred years of Norman rule, it was marginal in its own country. But as Europe’s age of empire dawned, that was about to change.

Beginning with the settlements of Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1607 and 1620, English settlers put down roots in North America. Colonialism had an important impact on the development of English, beyond the obvious one of simply spreading it worldwide and introducing a few exotic new words. For an intercontinental empire to run smoothly, people had to understand one another: especially in the colonies and England’s international ports, a clear, standard accent and dialect began to emerge.

American independence in 1783 was practically a nonevent for the English language. Trade and cultural intercourse continued apace. Paradoxically, it was around this time that back in England a new way of speaking emerged. What we think of today as the English accent was originally that of late 18th Century London, which slowly spread over the country. Today’s North American English, with its harder vowels and pronounced r’s, is actually closer to that of George III. The new English accent spread via trade to the port cities of Boston and New York, as well as the export-driven American South. It spread too to the new colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (but not Canada). The Australian accent is mostly English, with major Scottish, Irish, and German influences; according to a recent linguistic study, its unique development also owes largely to the fact that Australia’s forefathers were so often drunk.

English speakers consciously shaped the language according to their philosophical tastes. In 1755, inspired by the encyclopaedic zeal of the Enlightenment, Samuel Johnson published the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution also opened the sluice gates to a flood of Latin and Greek, typically as roots to construct erudite new words (e.g. bios (life) + logos (study of) = biology).

Social egalitarianism, driven by nonconformist Christian sects and to a lesser extent by American republicanism, brought down an ancient pronoun distinction. “You” was originally a formal term of address, as opposed to the more informal “thou” (accusative “thee”). Most European languages draw such a distinction today, as in tu/vous, du/Sie, tú/usted, jij/u, etc. The Quakers opened English’s first pronoun war by insisting that everyone address one another as Christian brothers, but ultimately formality prevailed. Thou/thee was common well into the 19th Century, and supposedly survives today in some locales in Yorkshire, but to everyone else it sounds archaic (and thus, ironically, formal).

Strangely, English had conquered North America and Australia before it arrived in the far corners of Wales. The English, and then British, government made a systematic effort to root out Britain’s last Celtic strongholds. Scotland had originally been a Celtic kingdom, becoming Francophone then Anglophone a few generations behind England; but it was the Scot King James VI who, upon taking the throne as James I of England, launched the first isles-wide campaign of Anglicisation. When some Highland clans of Scotland rebelled, James’ government blamed the Gaelic language. The Scottish Privy Council mandated that Gaelic chiefs’ heirs must learn English; the School Establishment Act 1616 was frank in its hope that, “the Irish [i.e. Gaelic] language, which is one of the chief and principal causes of the continuance of barbaritie and incivilitie among the inhabitants of the Isles and Highlands may be abolished and removed.”

Over the next three hundred years, abolish and remove it they did. By the 20th Century, few Highlanders spoke Gaelic. In Ireland, where Gaelic was further demonised for its association with Catholicism, the bottom fell out in the 19th Century: it was the main language of much of the island in 1800, but by the time nationalists tried to revive it in the 1890s, it was a Quixotic effort. Today there are a few villages the Irish government recognises as Irish-speaking, but apparently people there just switch out their shop signs and take care to speak Irish when the inspectors come knocking. Welsh schoolchildren infamously had English beaten into them, but as late as the early 20th Century large areas were monoglot Cambrophone. There is a popular story among English people that, driving through such-and-such a remote area of Wales, my uncle/cousin/friend asked a farmer for directions, to which he responded, “Dwi ddim yn siarad Saesneg.” There are many people in Wales today (around 16%) who speak their ancestral tongue daily. But realistically, one could spend a year in Wales and not learn one word of Welsh.

The process that first played out in the Scottish Highlands would be repeated from the Niger basin to the Himalaya foothills to the port of Hong Kong. Subjects of the growing British Empire enthusiastically learned the imperial tongue. In the benighted three quarters of the world where the Union Jack did not fly, the lingua franca of international trade had potent appeal. English was the language of opportunity.

Bizarrely, among those learning a new language were the British royal family. In 1688, Parliament were so disturbed by James II’s Catholicism that they invited the Dutchman William of Orange to come take the kingdom. Neither he nor James’ rebellious Protestant daughter Anne had children, so the crown ultimately went to the elector of Hannover in Germany, Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. George I and his sons preferred to spend their time in Germany; even Queen Victoria, born in Kensington Palace a century later, had to hire a tutor to help her drop her German accent. England would not have another king who spoke English as his first language until 1901.

By then, victory was nigh. The fact that the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, was penned in English as well as French is often regarded as the death knell for French as the preeminent international language. English had been in hot pursuit at least since Great Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763)- I recently read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and was interested to see the proud Frenchman Pierre Aronnax in 1867 describe English as the “almost universal language”- and this further Anglo-Saxon triumph sealed the deal. The spirit of the day called more than ever for an international language, and it would not be French, Latin, or Esperanto.

It is testament to the power English acquired that, with the disintegration of the British Empire in the mid 20th Century, its stock continued to skyrocket. This was partially thanks to the influence of the new Anglo-Saxon superpower. But as the de facto language of globalisation, English had acquired a power independent from and more robust than any empire.

Learning languages is hard, and most (not all) people would rather limit the time they spend doing it. When one language dominates international commerce and culture, that is the one almost everyone will pick. A Danish holidaymaker addressing a waiter in Ibiza, or a Japanese businessman meeting with clients in Peru, or MEPs of all stripes chatting in Brussels, will all use the same language. Although it is entirely possible to live a full life exclusively in Spanish, French, Mandarin, or Arabic, it is virtually impossible not to come into almost daily contact with English.

In Britain’s former colonies, a significantly greater share of people speak English than ever did under imperial rule. Of course, people in India and Nigeria learn English for the same reasons people everywhere else do, but there is an additional, more interesting factor. With few exceptions, the countries of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are imperial constructs, drawn up by white men concerned with geography, resources, and European power politics rather than the people living there. As such, they have no national language other than English (or French, Portuguese, etc.). Colonial rebels wrote their anti-British manifestos, and then their constitutions, in English. Some regimes have tried to impose their group’s language on everyone else, but most people would prefer a neutral lingua franca that happens also to be the most useful language on earth. Ireland really does not fit into the same category as other British colonies, but it does always amuse me to hear republicans rail against “the English” in English.

Meanwhile, in its home territory, English continued to develop. One side effect of English preeminence was that native speakers lost interest in other languages. There was a time not so very long ago when an educated Englishman would know French and Latin, plus maybe Greek, German, or Italian besides. After the Great War, few non-specialists studied Greek; Italian fluency became less a prerequisite even for Renaissance enthusiasts, and for political reasons rather than economic or scholarly ones German fell out of fashion. By the 1960s, in a development that would have horrified eight hundred years’ worth of scholars (and no doubt delighted generations of pupils), it became possible to graduate from Oxford without Latin.

In a somewhat related trend, doyens of the language reversed a thousand years of preferring French, Latin, or Greek vocabulary and sought to bring English back to its Anglo-Saxon roots. (Back by popular demand from Part II, I am italicising foreign loans in this paragraph). One can still write using only English words, (as I am doing right now), though it is much harder to get the many meanings one gets with the words we have borrowed from other tongues. A noted champion of pure, earthy English was Sir Winston Churchill: in the peroration to his most famous speech,

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The only French word is the last one.

Part II

Part IV

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