A cataclysmic barbarian invasion can change a man’s habits. Left alone, languages tend not to change much. But prolonged political disorder, heavy (especially hostile) engagement with foreigners, and low literacy can catalyse radical shifts. In the late Middle Ages, all three of these befell England like a torrent. Invasions by Vikings and then by their Norman cousins from France transformed English from the Saxon gibberish of Beowulf to the language we know today.
Starting in the 9th Century, Viking invaders overran much of eastern England. For the next two hundred years, the country was a war zone. The Vikings, like other uncouth cosmopolitans before and since, were happy to learn the local language, but they butchered it so badly that it lost most of its grammatical complexity. For their part, the English tried to make themselves understood by peppering their speech with Norse loanwords.
Many of us have visited a country where we know a bit of the language. Imagine a conversation with a local: he may not speak English well, but he can string together a few words. You get the idea, even if his syntax is all wrong. In return, you might indicate what you want by repeating some local word you have learnt. If the two of you met every day, you would eventually arrive at some simplified version of English, with a hearty admixture of foreign vocabulary. There are numerous cases of this in linguistics, from Haiti to Singapore. In England in the Middle Ages, it occurred on a national scale.
I would hesitate to make this point to an Englishman of the time, but the Viking invasions left a wonderful legacy in the English language. English took in a hearty harvest of Norse words, which made our vocabulary uniquely rich. It is thanks to the Northmen that we can distinguish, for example, between “craft” (English) and “skill” (Norse), “throw” and “fling,” “sick” and “ill,” or “house” and “home.”
Another wave of new words crashed over England in 1066, when William the Conqueror and his Normans subjugated the country. English absorbed so much vocabulary from French that many non-linguists think it is a Romance language. To take one example that speaks to the power dynamics of the time, our names for livestock (pig, cow, sheep, deer) are Anglo-Saxon, but the dishes you make with them (pork, beef, mutton, venison) are French. All noble titles are French, with the lone exception of “earl” — Norman counts switched to the old Saxon title after their tenants realised that “count” sounds like a certain ruder word.
Word borrowing is a relatively superficial form of influence. It happens wherever languages come into contact. English, however, was so thoroughly put through the blender that it fundamentally restructured the grammar.
Old English was a synthetic language — words took on a complicated scheme of suffixes and articles to mark their place as a subject, direct object, indirect object, etc. Synthetic languages have remarkable freedom of word order. In German, for example, Der Hund beisst den Mann and Den Mann beisst der Hund both mean “the dog bites the man,” because Germans know der is the nominative (subject) case, and den is the accusative (direct object).
For us, of course, “the man bites the dog” means something different. Modern English is analytic, using word order and prepositions to mark meaning. A shift this fundamental is rare in linguistics. But it also happened not far away in Continental Europe, as synthetic Latin transformed into analytic Romance. The Dark Ages were a chaotic time.
The most peculiar feature English developed was the use of “do” in an auxiliary role, e.g., “do you speak English?” In Old English and almost every other European language, this should be, “speak you English?” It is not clear where this came from. John McWhorter, my former professor at Columbia and something of a linguistics celebrity, thinks the Anglo-Saxons borrowed it from Celtic, and that it is absent from earlier texts because the men who wrote in Old English found it uncouth. But it is likely that this critical feature of our grammar will remain a mystery.
We can also look to Old English for the origins of the biggest controversies in language today. In Old English, the third person singular feminine pronoun was heo. Native speakers had no trouble distinguishing this from “he,” but the invaders found it confusing. English speakers could have simply started calling everyone “he.” After all, they were in the process of levelling out grammatical gender in all other contexts.
Instead, they repurposed seo, the obsolescent feminine article. Many languages are gender-neutral, and ours almost became one. If only the Vikings were less sexist and less creative, culture warriors would have less to bicker over today.
Other key gender terms arose from medieval laziness. A female human being used to be a wif — thus why we still pronounce married couples “man and wife.” But for some reason, we shifted to wif-man, tacking on what was then the gender-neutral term for a human (technically, it still is). Wif-man is a mouthful, so it morphed into “woman.” The old term for a male, wer, simply dropped out of the language, leaving us with men and women.
As in other languages, our terms for children are colloquial in origin. “Boy” was a derogatory Norman term for Saxon street urchins. “Girl” used to be gender-neutral — its cognate in German, Kerl, means something akin to “guy” in English. By the 13th Century, people felt the need to refer to “knave-girls” (boys), suggesting that the common meaning was shifting. Eight centuries later, it confuses people once again. Everything changes.
There is an eccentric movement among some Anglo-Saxon enthusiasts to purge English of all the words it has learnt from other tongues. The American author Poul Anderson even wrote a whole text on “Uncleftish Beholding” (“un-cleft-ish” being a one-for-one calque of the Greek “a-tom-ic”), the basics of “worldken” (physics). In many languages, this would not be unusual. French and Hindi, for example, strive to stay pure. Many peoples have made attempts to “decolonise” their vocabulary of European terms — why should English not snub the Normans?
After its traumatic early history, modern English has taken to borrowing new words with an unusual gusto. This comes at the cost of the purity and authenticity of a language like French. To illustrate, the Old English word for a cannibal was selfæta — “self-eater.” This kind of directness hits you in the gut. But we adopted a new word from Taino, a native language of the Caribbean. The Taino had a low opinion of their Carib neighbours, and shocked European explorers by telling them (perhaps truthfully) that the caribals wanted to eat them. Centuries later, our language keeps an arcane rivalry between two long-forgotten tribes alive on the tongues of billions of people.
English is packed with gems like this. Without Romansh, spoken by a few thousand people in a humble valley in Switzerland, what would we call an “avalanche?” “Ghouls” once haunted a few Arab tribes deep in the desert, but now they are everywhere. Medieval Indians derisively called uncultured invaders from the north “Mongols,” but the British traders who washed ashore there were far more interested in the conquerors’ money — soon enough, rich men around the world were “moguls.” “Robot” comes from the Czech for “worker,” but one obscure science fiction novel later, and the word plays a defining role in the whole world’s future.
The Anglo-Saxons very nearly won the Battle of Hastings. If their king, Harold Godwinson, had not taken a wayward arrow in the eye, the language we speak today would be a lot closer to that of Beowulf. I do not wish King Harold any ill will (though admittedly, my own ancestors fought on the other side). But the linguistic chaos that befell England after that fateful battle made English the wonderfully unique language it is today. Some nameless archer a thousand years ago deserves a lot of credit.