Sunday, May 24, 2015

English history

How English got started. After the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, three Germanic peoples — the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — moved in and established kingdoms. They brought with them the Anglo-Saxon language, which combined with some Celtic and Latin words to create Old English. Old English was first spoken in the 5th century, and it looks incomprehensible to today's English-speakers. To give you an idea of just how different it was, the language the Angles brought with them had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neutral). Still, though the gender of nouns has fallen away in English, 4,500 Anglo-Saxon words survive today. They make up only about 1 percent of the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, but nearly all of the most commonly used words that are the backbone of English. They include nouns like "day" and "year," body parts such as "chest," arm," and "heart," and some of the most basic verbs: "eat," "kiss," "love," "think," "become." FDR's sentence "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" uses only words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

The next source of English was Old Norse. Vikings from present-day Denmark, some led by the wonderfully named Ivar the Boneless, raided the eastern coastline of the British Isles in the 9th century. They eventually gained control of about half of the island. Their language was probably understandable by speakers of English. But Old Norse words were absorbed into English: legal terms such as "law" and "murder" and the pronouns "they," "them," and "their" are of Norse origin. "Arm" is Anglo-Saxon, but "leg" is Old Norse; "wife" is Anglo-Saxon," but "husband" is Old Norse.

The real transformation of English — which started the process of turning it into the language we speak today — came with the arrival of William the Conqueror from Normandy, in today's France. The French that William and his nobles spoke eventually developed into a separate dialect, Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman became the language of the medieval elite. It contributed around 10,000 words, many still used today. In some cases, Norman words ousted the Old English words. But in others, they lived side by side as synonyms. Norman words can often sound more refined: "sweat" is Anglo-Saxon, but "perspire" is Norman. Military terms (battle, navy, march, enemy), governmental terms (parliament, noble), legal terms (judge, justice, plaintiff, jury), and church terms (miracle, sermon, virgin, saint) were almost all Norman in origin. The combination of Anglo-Norman and Old English led to Middle English, the language of Chaucer.

If you think English spelling is confusing — why "head" sounds nothing like "heat," or why "steak" doesn't rhyme with "streak," and "some" doesn't rhyme with "home" — you can blame the Great Vowel Shift. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, the pronunciation of long vowels changed. "Mice" stopped being pronounced "meese." "House" stopped being pronounced like "hoose." Some words, particularly words with "ea," kept their old pronunciation. (And Northern English dialects were less affected, one reason they still have a distinctive accent.) This shift is how Middle English became modern English. No one is sure why this dramatic shift occurred. But it's a lot less dramatic when you consider it took 300 years. Shakespeare was as distant from Chaucer as we are from Thomas Jefferson.

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