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Brief History of the English Language

The Angles came from an angle-shaped land area in contemporary Germany. Their name “Angli” from the Latin and commonly-spoken, pre-5th Century German mutated into the Old English “Engle”. Later, “Engle” changed to “Angel-cyn” meaning “Angle-race” by A. D. 1000, changing to “Engla-land”. Some Old English words which have survived intact include: feet, geese, teeth, men, women, lice, and mice. The modern word “like” can be a noun, adjective, verb, and preposition.

In Old English, though, the word was different for each type: gelica as a noun, geic as an adjective, lician as a verb, and gelice as a preposition. West Germanic invaders from Jutland and southern Denmark: the Angles (whose name is the source of the words England and English), Saxons, and Jutes, began populating the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. They spoke a mutually intelligible language, similar to modern Frisian–the language of northeastern region of the Netherlands–that is called Old English.

Four major dialects of Old English emerged, Northumbrian in the north of England, Mercian in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the Southeast. These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland, leaving behind a few Celtic words. These Celtic languages survive today in Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland and in Welsh. Cornish, unfortunately, is now a dead language. The last native Cornish speaker, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777 in the town of Mousehole, Cornwall. )

Also influencing English at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions, beginning around 850, brought many North Germanic words into the language, particularly in the north of England. Some examples are dream, which had meant ‘joy’ until the Vikings imparted its current meaning on it from the Scandinavian cognate draumr, and skirt, which continues to live alongside its native English cognate shirt.

The majority of words in modern English come from foreign, not Old English roots. In fact, only about one sixth of the known Old English words have descendants surviving today. But this is deceptive; Old English is much more important than these statistics would indicate. About half of the most commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Words like be, water, and strong, for example, derive from Old English roots. Old English, whose best known surviving example is the poem Beowulf, lasted until about 1100.

This last date is rather arbitrary, but most scholars choose it because it is shortly after the most important event in the development of the English language, the Norman Conquest. In spite of the fact that the Romans built cities with walls around them and magnificent roads all over the country, they did not influence all of Britain because outside their walls   and camps the old Celtic language was spoken and their language, Latin, never became a spoken language throughout the whole of the country.

The real story of English in England begins in the first half of the fifth century: when the Goths attacked Rome in A. D. 410, the Roman soldiers had to leave Britain in order to help their countrymen; and the undefended Britain was attacked and seized by the Angles from Schleswig, the Saxons from Holstein and the Jutes from Jutland. Once more the Britons were driven to the mountains of Wales and Scotland.

When the Romans came to Britain in 55 B. C. hey found a race of Celtic people called the Britons, and during the four hundred years that followed the Roman invasion, Britain became a Roman colony. The language spoken by those people developed into Welsh and Gaelic and nowadays an Englishman wouldn’t understand a single word of those languages because the language he speaks does not come from the Britons who fought the Romans, and fled from other invaders, but from the Angles who made England into ‘Angle-land’.

The language the new invaders spoke belonged to the Germanic speech family, which we can separate into three main families: East Germanic, which disappeared with Gothic in the eighth century, North Germanic, which developed into Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic, and low and high West Germanic, the low developed into Dutch, Flemish and English and the high into German. The language that the above mentioned invaders spoke was a west Germanic member of the Indo-European languages.

Although it is generally called Anglo-Saxon there were, in fact, four dialects, the dialect of the Saxons was called West Saxon, that of the Jutes was called Kentish, the other two were called Northumbrian (north of the Humber) and Mercian. The ‘English’ they spoke was an inflicted language and there were five cases of nouns (Nominative, Vocative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative), ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ forms of adjectives (each with five cases); there was a full conjugation of verbs – complete with Subjunctive – and there was a system of grammatical gender.

Fortunately, in modern English most of that has changed, grammatical gender of nouns has completely disappeared, adjectives no longer agree with their nouns in number, case or gender, nouns have only two cases (singular and plural), verbs have very few forms and the subjunctive has almost disappeared. Most of these changes were caused by two other invasions of England.

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