The History of English

The first language in Britain was Celtic. The Celts were one part of the original indo-Europeans (about 6000 BCE to 4500 BCE) who went west, also known as Galatians and Gauls, and their place is marked today in Britain by the large number of Barrows, as in the origin of Barrow on Humber. What became Welsh was originally the British celtic tongue, as was the Cornish language. Somewhat different are Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. Then came the Romans, up to Hadrian's Wall in England (and so not Scotland), but into Wales, who gave stability to the local Celtic language.

However, with the Romans gone, the often barborous and terrifying Germanic peoples across the sea were able to invade. The Germanic element produced the Norse tongues of Scandinavia and the High German and Low German of the West Germanic languages. The Angles (Germany-Denmark, probably of Schleswig-Holstein), Saxons (North Germany) and Jutes (North Denmark or Fresia) invaded England during the fifith century CE. The Angles invaded the east (East Anglia), the Saxons invaded the south and west and the Jutes invaded Kent. Welsh retreated to behind the Cambrian mountains with the onslaught of these and all the subsequent invaders.

The new English, the Anglo-Saxons as later understood, never bothered to learn into that local language: they either bastardised the local celtic names or replaced them, and their language as spoken removed that native tongue. Thus began what has become the nationalism today of all the Celtic parts of Britain; it was also the first wave of Old English.

This earliest form of English, after the Romans, unrecognisable today, was spoken by a tiny population, the very beginnings of a language that now dominates the world.

The basic words and building blocks of English today are Anglo-Saxon. These are sharp, brief words, usually, although there were regional differences. Like today in England, the Old English spoke with understatement, using some riddles, ambiguity, word-play and circular poems, producing a particular combination of devious yet plain speech.

 Augustine's Christianisation from 597 CE in the south of England brought much of the Latin language into the Anglo-Saxon arena whreas Aidan's language from 635 CE in the north was Celtic. The spread of Latin allowed more abstract thought, whereas the original language was, of course, more earthy and about real experiences. The new Latin and Germanic input in fact drew words from right across Europe (Mediterranean) and Asia (India - Sanskrit) and specifically biblical and Church words contained Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin. These were rapidly taken up by the English into common use. As a result existing Old English words acquired new layers of abstract meaning.

Then from 793 CE came the warriors invading from the north - the Vikings. Parts of England were colonised by people from Norway, whilst Danish Norsemen created Normandy after which they came over to England. By 850 half of England was under Viking rule. After this peaceful settlement the two languages of Saxon and Norse with similar roots were able to merge over time, because by and large their main words could be understood one by the other. However, the need to communicate across language structures bastardised and then simplified word endings. This spoken change, with its new use of convenient prepositions, would be the basis for Old English becoming Middle English in terms of writing and offical use hundreds of years later.

Norse may have become the new language of the north. It did not. Just a hundred years or so after the Norse settlement Old English was the victor. The victory of Alfred of the Kingdom of Wessex at Ethandune, keeping the Vikings to the north beyond The Danelaw (approximately the Romans' Watling Street) and his drive for literacy and learning in English rather than Latin maintained the importance of Old English which the locals north and south continued to recognise and speak. Aelfric was a Benedictine monk who lived in Winchester in the 900's, out of the Viking area and in the area that so promoted English. He put the Old English translation above the Latin he was teaching to pupils and thus produced the first standard written English.

The overall result of the merging of the two language resources, Old English and Norse, was more variety to English.

In 1000 CE Cnut, King of Denmark, took the English throne, conquered Norway and ruled Scandinavia, but 66 years later the Normans conquered here. This French victory was the last successful takeover of England and therefore this form of influence over the language. And it was a huge influence, shifting English from what would otherwise have sounded more like Frisian than the present tongue. French speaking Normans took over all aspects of government and the feudal system was theirs. The intellectual language (including of the Church's hierarchy), the language of doing business and making government and law was not the native language: Latin was reasserted and so was French more commonly amongst the elite. For three hundred years the monarch had essentially a foreign tongue, and for a short time up into the 1200's English writing vanished. Even now the use of French phrases, added on to ordinary English sentences, deliberately suggest a sense of superiority and culture.

The English people, however, hung on to their own language, and did so while the French population began to intermarry with the greater number of English. It was the rulers who had to understand the greater number of ruled (who served them). Also the use of Latin for official duties did not bolster the French language spoken here.

In 1204 King John's victory, and the King of France in 1244 demanding allegiance to one King or the other, saw to it that there was a division between northern France and England, cutting this nobility into two. The use of French in England was in terminal decline, which actually had to be learnt in school! As until recent times, Universities pursued the use of Latin, and also tried to uphold French.

The elite also absorbed English nationalism. Edward I, even if an odd one out among monarchs, following the particularly French Henry III, was something of an English nationalist with documents written in English. English also became the language to fight the enemy in the Hundred Years War (1337-1454). Also, in the 1300's, Norman French was in decline and Parisian French was on the rise, actually weakening the continuing impact of Norman French. Therefore whreas the importation of French into English was once due to political power, it becomes later a continuance of higher culture, food and good impressions.

English was known by everyone, and its chances were boosted by the Black Death because people other than the previously educated elite had to run the monasteries and enter into civic life. The status of peasants increased. Richard II spoke in English to Wat Tyler and his peasents revolt.

Henry IV conducted significant ceremonial affairs in English. Henry V used English in his official documents making it the language of government for the first time in a consistent manner from then on (he died in 1422).

With the return of official documents into written English, this English now displayed the changes that had happened in speech long ago and continued to develop in the general population. So Old English became Middle English.

Still, the effect of the development of English was to regionalise it further. Some words developed in some areas that did not in others, and phrasing preferences existed, and so did just the sounds of an area. Geoffrey Chaucer was able, through his written words, to play with the depth of English available, in its regional and inherited (merged in) forms and with wit. It was Caxton (from Kent) and his printing press, introduced to London in his retirement from 1476, that gave London English a significant boost in promoting the language through this technology, as well as making a further use of Latin words. The effect of printing was not so much to standardise spelling as to produce a norm of contradictions. Whilst there was also an expansion in the elite arts in this renaissance of English, the important point is that books circulated among more people, and this meant they had to be in English. By 1600 about 50% of the population had some level of literacy. This English was becoming ever more sophisticated.

The renaissance was not just about the arts. It involved science too. This meant a raid as well as Latin and Greek for terminology, rather as happens today, and into European languages. The increase in world trade and expeditions to new lands also brought in a greater variety of expressions, either from existing languages or the need to describe new experiences. All these borrowings were of some concern due to the nationalism of the time and the many enemies abroad. But the language was getting more varied.

Shakespeare came at the right time, with the technology to preserve his words. He seemed to introduce words from a large vocabulary as well as play with their meaning and created expressions out of his poetic touch that are now basic to the language. And his words are rooted in the English (Warwickshire) countryside where the main regional dialects came and still come together, and so Shakespeare combined the common touch with high art.

Under James came a new standard Bible. The notion that there could be one standard Bible and in English was once subversive and against the Church's power to interpret the Bible. The Lollards were supressed for producing an English Bible. After Henry VIII broke with Rome there were some Bibles in English, but the King James Bible of 1611 was quite different. The scholars not only set out to rectify religious differences between Anglican and Puritan but to make the Bible sound both poetic and clear when read and read aloud.They did this in a way opposite to Shakespeare, by using an economy of words rather than a wide variety.

In America the first settlers saw many accents merging together, a process which was to continue down the generations and among people speaking pidgin English either from the Indians or the rest of Europe. American English took in Indian words, and from French and Spanish rivals on the North American continent. It had to absorb new flora, fauna and experiences.

Strangely, despite the merging, there are still traces of southern and south east English accent in New England compared with a more south west of England lilt in the rest of the United States (with its own variations of accent, but many not detectable from England). The English are quicker speakers than Americans and sound fewer syllables, Britons have shortened some words and lost archaisms (like gotten whereas we use got) , Britons stress different parts of the words to Americans, and use more tone against American monotony, and of course much later the British retained the contradictions of spelling whereas Americans simplified some but not all English spelling.

It was after the American Revolution that American English started to assert its identity. Language and nationalism again went together. Noah Webster followed on from Benjamin Franklin's ideas to produce a standardised spelling, and Webster also advised on pronounciation and grammar in the 1780's. More immigration and mixing reinforced standardising the nasal drawl across the whole country, more so westwards than the variations to be found in New England.

However, Canada is more homogenious still in terms of its English with its origins in Loyalists going north out of one area of the United States into Ontario, and has become a half way house between American and British styles held in the difficulty of maintaining a national identity alongside the importance of French in Quebec and its large near neighbour. In the United States the regionalism that exists has been added to by ethnic speech patterns and accents and from the continuing impact of Spanish.

In England the standardising of an educated style continued. Whilst English became highly regional amongst common folk, the upper class followed a trend towards creating a standard. This comes from Norman times and the upper class speaking somewhat above and separate from the rest. The place of government and the leading university meant that an area around London and Oxford acquired a superior status in Britain. One method of standardising also came from Dr Johnson. Following Swift's attempt in 1712 to describe a standard English, Dr Samuel Johnson did this more practically by writing a dictionary published in 1755. He defined some 40,000 words and gave 114,000 examples from existing resources.

Scotland had its own renaissance of economics and science developing the language through an educated elite. It is the case, however, that the clearest speakers of English in Britain are Eastern Scots but also Scots in general. It is in places a bitter history. Scotland had a clearance of Gaelic to the outer fringes. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were able to visit this wreckage, and to note how southern English in tone was the replacement English. Yet originally the Angles who moved into the principal towns of the mainly established Celtic area spoke a Northumbrian dialect. Gaelic withdrew from then, and a lowland Scottish culture was born. However, the Scottish court moved south after Elizabeth, and the Scottish royalty aristocracy became attached to the English, and so a London English became the tongue of official Scotland with access into official places and the main towns. The Church of Scotland, the Kirk, also used this standard English, not the Scottish variant, for its Bible, in that it took the English Geneva Bible and then shared in the 1611 Authorised Version. Schools in all of Scotland promoted not Scottish English but southern England English.

Bonskeid is a spot where lowlands English met Highlands Gaelic The end of the nineteenth century still saw some Gaelic spoken there whereas Perth was English. Now Gaelic has gone. Scots English was revived in literature but more as a memorial than something that lives. Thus the Scots speak a standard English, and the Scottish dialect is best found even now mainly within Ulster among the descendents of Protestant settlers.

The original speech of the whole of Ireland itself was Gaelic, but although now it has official recognition it is spoken daily only in its fringes. In 1171 Henry II began the English involvement in Ireland, but the first English adopted Gaelic and were fused into the culture. Gaelic was also promoted as aprt of the counter Reformation in Ireland. By 1600 there was, in effect, no English spoken in Ireland. But then James I confiscated land and gave it to Protestants to break the Irish aristocracy. The English authorities throughout Ireland (Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1803) and the Scots descendents in Ulster forced and promoted English, and the Irish ruling class themselves promoted English to influence the state, so that Gaelic became neglected. However, Gaelic affected the distincitive form of spoken localised English (Hiberno-English). What killed off Gaelic was depopulation and famine as well as neglect, and a new English literature with the creativity of all foreign rootings of a language. Meanwhile standard English has largely replaced the Scots accent in Ulster.

A very regional pattern of English existed throughout the United Kingdom, but the advent of state education and the proprieties of the Victorian middle class promoted standard English in every community. Still, children spoke their local dialect in the playground whatever they were taught. Standard English later became Received Pronounciation (RP) and still it was associated with propriety, prestige and power. Even London dialect declined out of the City of London as it developed into a powerful financial centre for the world. What had been an accent for all people in London became one for the working class and traders alone. Cockney moved east.

Some of the lower class (convict) sense of speech, particularly Flash (a slang of criminals) and some Cockney, affected Australian speech into a vocabulary and twang which gave common root to the monotony of accent across the continent today (not unlike as resulted in Canada, if from a different cause). There are variations of broad (mainly male), general and cultivated (often female) Australian. Broad Australian, rather like English regional accents, was often disguised in wider presentation to be more like the standard English of England. New Zealand was more middle class and cultivated, although it too made the same three general accents, with some influence from Australia and Maori. South African English was even more clipped, becoming a "foreign" language in the BBC style of the past, but also a language of black liberation against Afrikaans. English in India was either cultivated or formed into local pidgins. English began as the language of administration from the East India Company arriving in 1600, but from its place throughout the foreign rule it continued as the one unifying language after the Empire. Indian English formed and has special features: archaisms, added local Indian words, combinations of two words to provide additional meaning, one Indian added to one English word for nouns, and literalised idioms. As well as this there is a movement away from Anglo-Saxon words. Places which trade, like Singapore, attempt to promote standard English, but locals creating English hybrids as in India.

Broadcasting was another generalising tendency, where RP and BBC English were interchangable. It transmitted across the Empire and the World. The locals in this country heard it, and adopted it. The Second World War (with the influx of other allied troops), the decline of Empire and American ascendancy (and the cultural hegemony of their films and alter on television programmes) changed the nature of transmitted English.

English is still not the only language of these islands. Cornish eventually died out in the nineteenth century as did the Gaelic oddity of Manx, but Welsh with its own Bible and services continues with a 20% bilingual population (over half a million) and is a sufficient basis for state assisted and schools based revival. Scots Gaelic retreated with now about 70000 speakers, but now enjoys some media recognition if from a low base. But even English is a variant of the international scene.

The English language became audibly international. There is even a slight variant in the teaching of Business English. In a peculiar way, the English are themselves having to adapt to International English, with the effect of Webster's Dictionary. Youth culture brings in words from the United States (sometimes its ghetto talk) as well as retaining fragmentary local inheritances. People have become more mobile and so accents have had to moderate and individuals change their speech. Now there is the all pervasive Internet with the dominance (but not exclusivity) of American spelling and word-choice English, where European web pages put up a British flag or American flag to give the same web pages in English. A high-tech slang is adding to the language, and English is getting into every major European tongue. It is acting as a Universal Second Language, bringing to reality the dreams of Esperantists but in a language with many complex roots and different plant varieties across every continent.

As a second language for all it is a gender free, but English is awkwardly spelt, inconsistent in pronounciation, annoyingly subtle and flexible, ambiguous in meaning until learnt, but has acquired this status, all from an imported language once spoken by very few in an obscure island open to invasion after the Romans.


BBC Radio 4 Routes of English


McCrum, R., Cran, W., MacNeil, R. (1983), The Story of English, Faber and Faber, BBC Publications.