Sunday, December 30, 2007

An Unauthorized Biography of the English Language, Part One

…and thus the Armchair Philologists burst into the blogosphere! If you haven’t read our little synopsis, our goal here is to take a pedagogical and playful look at the origins of the English language and to explore the delightful tricks of etymology that nearly every English word hides. In order to do this, my esteemed co-blogger suggested I provide a brief history of the development of English. By the time I got through the first third of what I had to say, I realized that “brief” was going to be a relative term. So I split them up, and this week’s installment will cover everything from the beginning of tiiiiime (*insert reverb here*) to the all-important 1066.

Much as English itself cribbed its vocabulary from its various invaders and influences, I have cribbed a good deal of this short history from The Story of the English Language by Mario Pei and Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson. Pei describes the English language as “the sum total of a long series of historical accidents,” and while that’s true of any language, English seems to be even more of a patchwork than most. The first language of the British Isles, whatever it may have been like, was steamrollered over by several varieties of Celtic before it could be recorded. These Celtic languages, ancestors of Gaelic and Welsh, have left only the most basic traces on modern-day English—place names. Thames, Avon, London, Carlisle, and several others are remnants of Celtic, but they are about it.

After the Celts came the Romans, whose first contacts in the British Isles were made around 55 BC (Pei 5) and who withdrew around 410 AD. This occupation left as little behind in the language as had the Celts—“the –chester in Manchester and the –caster in Lancaster both come from the Roman word for camp, but in terms of everyday vocabulary it is almost as if they had never been” (Bryson 49).

Next to have at the British Isles, and probably the most important, were the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, Teutonic tribes which laid the Germanic roots upon which the language would be built. By all accounts the Jutes showed up first, and the Saxons left the largest linguistic mark, so how the language and the country got named after the Angles I have no idea. At any rate, the early Germanic grammar was far more complicated than that of modern English. It had case, declensions, strong and weak forms, a plethora of prefixes and suffixes, twelve different forms of the word “the,” and so on. (It’s a lucky thing that the language has evolved; the generation that spawned txtspk wouldn’t have the patience for any of that.) Old English’s syntactic structure, though reduced, still forms the backbone of Modern English, and the words that survive are the meat and potatoes of everyday language—mann, wif, cild, hus, strang, horn, hearpe, haet, glof, fot, craeft, etc.

The major borrowings in this period of English history were from Latin-speaking missionaries and Scandinavian dialects. The Latin missionaries brought religious words, such as “candle,” “minister,” “shrive,” (‘to confess,’ which Pei indicates comes from the Latin scribere, ‘to write’) and others. There was also a certain amount of trade with the continent, which brought more Latin into the language. These words were few and far between, as the Anglo-Saxons preferred their own, and where they have been adopted they have followed all the general rules of change that the Germanic ones have.

The Scandinavian loanwords, on the other hand, met with little resistance because they were so close to Old English in the first place. Scandinavian tribes had settled the northern half of England, and the two civilizations abutted on each other along the Danelaw. Borrowings filtered back and forth across the border until it became almost impossible to tell which word came from where. To this day there are doublets in the English language that were formed off of nearly identical Scandinavian/Anglo-Saxon word-pairs: “shirt” and “skirt,” for example.

Then, of course, came the Normans and turned everything on its head. As the Armchair Philologists’ professor and mentor Dan Taylor was wont to repeat, “The French ruined everything!” But that’s another installment altogether.