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HISTORY: OLD ENGLISH AND MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIODS

 

English as a separate identifiable language is over 1.200 years old. It all began with the invasion of the island of Britain by three Germanic tribes from northern Europe the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, in the year 499 A.D. Anno Domini. Although the Island has been inhabited since pre-historic times indeed Stonehenge was built by ancient Britons some 3.500 years ago the beginning of English dates from this invasion, when the pagan adventurers from Denmark and the lowlands of the Continent drove the native Celts and Romans out of what is now England, into the mountains and protective regions of Wales, and Scotland. From the tribe of Angles comes the name Englalond, Land of the Angles, and the name of the language but it was primarily the dialect of the West Saxons which became the standard Speech, and developed into Old English. The first written records in English date from 700 A.D. and about this time Britain was invaded yet again by Scandinavian adventures the Vikings.

After some 200 years of fighting with the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings came to an agreement with the Saxon King, Alfred the Great, to divide the island the Saxons in the west the Scandinavians, who were Norse speaking, in the east. England was therefore bi-lingual until the two groups, through intermarriage, became one people. The linguistic blend of Saxon and Norse was also a marriage. In the verb to be, for example, the third person singular he is is pure Saxon, but the plural they are is pure Norse. The word wife is Saxon, but the word husband came from the Norse arm from the Saxon, but leg from the Norse. Duru was the Saxon word for door, but vindu was the Norse word which gave us window so from this marriage, one language which we call Old English.

It was a very complicated language compared to modern English: it was highly inflected that is, it had many different endings for all words as in Latin or modern German and Russian. It also gave grammatical gender to nouns masculine, feminine and neuter like modern German and not only did it have singular and plural, but a third form called the dual form to indicate precisely two no more and no less. For example, in addition to the pronoun I and We in the first person, Old English had wit which means the two of us, both of us, you and me, but not them.

Many words in Old English are still close enough to modern English for us to understand them. See if you can guess what these Old English words mean: thencan, cild, wifman, muth, nosu, god niht.

Perhaps you could hear that thencan is the verb to think, cild in modern English is child, wifman became woman, muth mouth, nosu nose, god niht good night.

But most of Old English is unintelligible today without studying it as a separate language. From the 10th century we have a manuscript of what is probably the first considerable poem written in any modern language. It is the epic poem Beowulf, which is over 3.000 lines long. Here are a few lines from it, read in authentic Old English for you to hear what it sounded like:

Beowulf mathelode, bearn Ecghheowes: No sorga

snotor guma, selre bith aeghwaem thaet he his

freond wrece, thonne he fela murne. Ure

aeghwylc sceal ende gebidan. Worolde lifes:

wyrce se mote domes aer deather; thaet

birth driht guman unlif gendum aefter selest.

And this what these lines mean in modern English:

Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, answered:

Do not grieve, wise Hrothgar! Better each

man should avenge his friend than deeply

mourn. The days on earth for every one of us are

numbered; he who may should win renown before

his death; that is a warriors best memorial when he has

departed from this world.

The next invasion of Britain and incidentally the last foreign invasion of the island in English history was in the year 1066. The invading forces were again Scandinavians, but with a difference these Norsemen, called Normans came from the north coast of France and were French speaking. Their leader William, known as the Conqueror, had a claim on the throne of England, and his forces were victorious. William established himself as king and set about building Londons two greatest tourists attractions: the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. Norman French became the language of the court, the aristocracy of England, and the country once again became bi-lingual. We often say history repeats itself and this is just what happened to the language: in the course of 300 years, Old English absorbed Norman French and emerged as one language, much as happened with Saxon and Norse before.

Norman French enriched the language and gave English its unique blend of Germanic and Latinate structures and vocabulary. This is why today we san say the worlds population or the population of the world and why only English has different words to distinguish the names of animals from their flesh which we eat: from the cow we get beef; from the calf we get veal, from

 

the sheep, mutton, from the pig, pork and from the deer, venison. The names of the animals are Saxon, and the words for the meat are from French. This is not only interesting as a point of language, but as a point of sociology, because it reflects that the animals were raised by farmers who spoke Old English, but eaten by the aristocrats who spoke French.

Because England was bi-lingual, many phrases appeared in the language which contained one word of Saxon origin coupled with a word of the same meaning, coming from French such as law and order. This way everybody knew the meaning, whether they only understood the old English word law or they only understood the French ordre order. Many of these set phrases, dating from the Middle Ages, are just as common today in Modern English. How many politicians in Britain and in the USA call for more law and order at election time! In the US Senate, as in the British Parliament, there is a ways and means committee to find the methods of achieving a goal. The word ways from the Saxon the word means from the French the phrase ways and means still common after some seven or eight hundred years in the language. This merge of Saxon and Norman French we call Middle English. The first great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote in Middle English in the 14th century about the same time as Dante Alighieri and Boccaccio.

His best known work, The Canterbury Tales, was written in 1386 and its vocabulary reflects the blend of a two language sources. Here is a bit from the prologue of The Canterbury Tales, read as it was written and pronounced as we assume Middle English sounded:

A good wyf was ther of bisyde Bathe.

But she was som-del deef, and that was scathe.

Of clooth-making she hadde swiche an haunt,

She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt.

In al the parisshe wyf ne was ther noon

That to thooffring before hir sholde geon;

And if ther dide, certeyn, so wroth was she,

That she was out of elle charitee.

Could you understand any words or phrases? Probably not.

Heres the same passage in Modern English:

A worthy woman from beside Bath city

Was with us, somewhat deaf, which was a pity.

In making cloth she showed so great a bent

She bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent.

In all the perish not a dame dared stir

Towards the altar steps in front of her.

And if indeed they did, so wrath was she

As to be quite put out of charity.

In the following century, the printing press arrived in England and libraries were founded at Oxford, Cambridge and in London. The first printer, William Caxton, began to stabilize the written language and its spelling, when he set up his printing press in the precinct of Westminster Abbey. Even by the 15th century, Old English seemed a foreign language to him and he commented on how rapidly the language was changing even in his lifetime. Here is what he wrote in 1490:

my lorde abbot of Westminster ded do shew me

late certain evydenses wryton in olde englysshe

for to reduce it in-to our englysshe now usid.

And certainly it was wreten in suche wyse that

it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe;

I coude not reduce ne brynge it to be understonden.

And certainly our language now used varyeth

ferre from that whiche was usid and spoke when

I was borne.

(Modern English)

My Lord Abbot of Westminster has recently shown me

certain passages written in Old English to translate into

the English now used. Certainly it was written in such

a way that it was more like Dutch than English; I

could not translate it nor even understand it. And

certainly our language is now very different from that

which was used and spoken when I was born.

The Renaissance in 1500 brought the rediscovery of the classics, and English was greatly enriched by a profusion of words directly taken from Latin and Ancient Greek. It has been said that the greater part of the classical dictionaries was poured into the English language at this time from Latin, words like accommodate, capable, persecute, investigate and from Greek, words like apology, climax, physical, emphasis and so on. The flood of words from Latin and Greek did not end with the Renaissance and whenever we have needed a new word or name, we have tended to look to the classics to provide it from Greek: aerodrome, telegraph and telephone; from Latin: escalator, penicillin and the prefix mini- for cars and skirts, for example.

 

 

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