[Glossolalia] Ye Olde Englisc

11Sep12

Whoops, wrong Olde English. Today I shall tell you the (extremely simplified) story of how English came to be. In the 5th century AD during a period called “the Migration Period,” the Roman Empire was waning in influence in Northwest Europe and Germanic peoples started expanding out from their territory. Romans had been already in Britannia, and while it would be easy to think this is the beginning of our Latin-based vocabulary, it’s not (that really comes from the Norman Invasion, which you can read about on my blog). The Britons already named the island Ynys Prydein, meaning “the island of the people of forms” (referring to their tatooing/warpaiting, which the Romans had difficulty colonizing. Romans renamed the land “Brittania,” which was their best attempt at understanding the local toponym, and it stuck (in fact, I’ll be using it throughout as it just seems appropriate).

The map below shows you who was already in the Britannia. Until Germanic tribes started moving over, it was inhabited by Celts (who migrated there in the 3rd century BC). When the AnglesJutesSaxons and some Frisians showed up in Britannia, there was plenty of fighting going on between the current residents. According to tradition, the Britons wanted the Saxons around to protect them from the Picts and Gaels. This no doubt opened the door from all the West Germanic tribes.

The Germanic tribes we care about were all settled on the Jutland peninsula (now divided between Germany and Denmark) and along the shore of what is now the Netherlands. Behold:

By the time that the various Germanic peoples started moving to Britainnia, they already had started to differentiate from one another but spoke what could be considered “dialects.” Various groups melded together, migrating and settling, dominating and being dominated. These forces are what started to split the linguistic groups over time. Scandinavian languages begin mingling with their neighbors, German and Dutch (and Frisian) are left to their own devices and Modern English’s predecessor is born on a Celtic island across the Channel. Germanic languages at this time held a few common linguistic mechanisms, namely:

  • Gender: neuter, masculine and feminine
  • Grammatical cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and instrumental
  • Singular, dual and plural forms
  • Synthetic typology

Many of those attributes still exist in other Scandinavian and Germanic languages, although English has scrubbed out most every grammatical, phonological and syntactic commonality with its relatives over the past several centuries. Change of our typology was sped up by the influence of Nordic. Until this point, English was only written with a runic alphabet, which was replaced with the Latin alphabet as Christianity dominated. Runes were meant for wood and stone, and the Latin alphabet was easy to write. People needed Bibles – Latin wins.

The Vikings swept over sea and land westward starting in the late 8th century AD. The Vikings traveled throughout Europe and the North Atlantic, reach North America by the end of the first millennium. This is important because as they moved around, some of them settled and assimilated their Nordic vocabulary (and physical features) in these new places. When they visited England it was easy to leave behind around 2,000 words from their newly differentiated vocabulary such as drag, thrust, ransack, give and take. (Did you watch History of English in Ten Minutes?) English people with the last names ending in -son are all Viking descendants. The Norse gave English such ordinary words, such as they, their and them and law, leg, husband, egg and ill. So adoptable because they already felt like family.

Viking dude says, “Whoa, North America!”

By the time that the Vikings are in full swing influencing English, the language has developed into what we recognize as that of the first great piece of English literature, Beowulf. It’s also important to note here that the English language at this point had already gone through multiple organic transformations. First, it melded together different dialects of West Germanic. Then, it confronted the Celtic languages of Britannia. Finally, it adopted many of the words that its Nordic cousins transplanted on its soil. Essentially, the influences that together define “Old English” have come and gone and we are left with only a few short years before everything is turn on its head.

At this point we are sitting in the 10th century, facing the ultimate turning point of the English language. The Vikings established the Duchy of Normandy in France in 911, as you can see above and settle there. After just one generation, those Viking descendants were French-speaking like their neighbors. In 1066, the Normans invade Britannia and essentially bring a new era of the English language: Middle English.

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