The Story Of English, In Its Own Words
Illustration by Vivien Mildenberger, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
The closer you get to the origins of English words, the more you realize how convoluted the story of this strange language is.
Consider, for example, the English word “jacket” and then compare it to the German Jacke. See any resemblance? Since English is a Germanic language, it would be reasonable to assume that “jacket” evolved from Jacke — but, au contraire, the Germans and English got their respective Jacke and “jacket” from the Old French jaquet!
So, how did a Germanic language get all of these French words? And why is English spelling so inconsistent? Here’s an in-depth guide to the history of the English language.
Pre-English Period: A Gobful Of Common Crumpet
“Pray tell,” I hear you ask, “in what language did Brits clothe themselves before English “jackets” came along?” Well, during the Iron Age and Roman period, the British Celts spoke Common Brittonic, which evolved into Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Cumbric (of these, only Welsh and Breton still exist).
When the Romans showed up, Latin was thrown into the mix. But after 400 AD, as the Western Roman Empire began to collapse, the Romans left both the cultured Celts and their languages to take a beating from the Anglo-Saxon heathens. Aside from town names, there are few traces of Brittonic (or late British Celtic) in Modern English. Rare examples might include hubbub, peat, crock, crumpet, and gob, but with few written records it’s mainly guesswork.
5th-11th Centuries: ǷILCUME on þā Engliscan Ƿikipǣdie!
Did you know that there’s a version of Wikipedia in Old English? Which presumably not many people can actually read since it hasn’t been spoken in roughly a thousand years.
Old English is, in fact, Anglo-Saxon, which was spoken in parts of Scotland and across England from the early Middle Ages until the Norman invasion in 1066. It was originally written in Germanic futhorc runes, which were slowly replaced by the Latin alphabet as missionaries Christianized the British Isles. Latin alphabet or not, a native English speaker today would be hard-pressed to understand it.
Nevertheless, a statement such as “My brother is strong and swift” is still essentially eald (old) English, since “brother” is brodor, “strong” is strang, and “swift” is, well… swift! It’s been proposed that around 90% of our 1,000 most commonly-used words come from Old English, including the days of the week, numbers, and other staples like “dog” (docga), “house” (hus), and “twilight” (twéoneléoht). Puzzlingly, uhtcearu — meaning “pre-dawn anxiety” — is no longer in use.
Viking Invasions: They Angry Bags
So what happened next? Well, of the four main Old English dialects — Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish and West Saxon — Mercian came out on top. What’s more, from the 8th century, invading Vikings brought Old Norse with them, leading to an influx of roughly 2000 new words. Norse gave us anger, bag, leg, sky, window, and the most fluid of pronouns, they.
They also did us a huge favor by simplifying English grammar, which was extremely complex (and similar to modern German). When Scandinavians settled in the Danelaw — a huge area in Northern and Eastern England — it was bye-bye grammatical case endings and a slow sayonara to gendered nouns and adjective agreement (the only surviving gendered adjective in English today is blond/blonde). It’s also likely that Norse sped up the development of English phrasal verbs, replacing Old English inseparable-prefix verbs such as forbærnan (to burn up).
11th Century: Vanguard Nouvelle Cuisine
The next big event was the Norman Conquest — a vanguard of French-speaking invaders bringing linguistic innovation in their wake. Alongside Norse, Anglo-Norman catalyzed the transformation of Old English into Middle English. The new ruling class introduced approximately 10,000 new words relating to law, government, the military, church, cuisine and haute couture — the majority of which are still in use today!
Heavily inflected Old English was a synthetic language, but as grammatical endings were dropped, Middle English emerged as an analytic language: Spelling, capitalization, punctuation and the like began to be standardized during this period. Finally, around 1200 the definite article þe starts to pop up, which would later (due to continental printing presses) be spelled ye and finally in its current form — the.
16th Century: Thine Own Sophisticated Hose
Moving on to the 16th century, we finally come to the great flowering of Early Modern English. Countless Latin and Greek terms, such as democratic, enthusiasm, juvenile, and sophisticated found their way into English during the Renaissance. This is also the era when Mr. Shakespeare and co. clad themselves in doublet and “hose” (Dutch/German hoos/Hosen) – what we would now call breeches – and pen some of the most memorable phrases in the English language. In Act I, scene 3 of “Hamlet,” Polonius advises Laertes:
- This above all: to thine ownself be true,
- And it must follow, as the night the day,
- Thou canst not then be false to any man.
As you can see, Early Modern English is easy enough to understand, even when you take into account that Shakespeare was writing in a stylized form. But there are also clear differences: The pronoun “ownself” isn’t heard much these days (aside from in certain parts of the US and the Caribbean), the second-person pronouns thou, thee, thine/thy have been simplified to “you” and “yours,” and the archaic canst, shouldst, wouldst, etc. have lost their Germanic –st.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the dramatically-named Great Vowel Shift took place. This is when the pronunciation of long English vowels changed radically — but spelling remained unchanged. To make matters worse, the lazy English also started dropping certain consonants in speech… all of which explains why written and spoken English have such a tenuous connection!
Then, in 1755, Samuel Johnson published his famous Dictionary of the English Language and that was that — Modern English came into being! Well, kind of. The standardization of spelling, usage and grammar was pursued by a number of pedantic scholarly gents over the years, with varying degrees of sense, sensibility, and success. Nevertheless, the difference between Modern and present-day English is, essentially, vocabulary.
English Today: Wetin Dey ‘appen?
As with any living language, English continues to evolve. British colonialism shipped the language to all corners of the globe, and English creoles and varieties sprung up that continue to keep things lively: Take a stroll through South London and you’ll inevitably hear Jamaican, Indian and West African mixing with plain old Estuary English. Don’t be surprised if you go to Japan and a market-trader asks you “How much you speak, papa-san?” (Name your price), or a West African colleague greets you with “Wetin dey ‘appen?” (What’s happening?).
The BBC has even launched a service for the millions of speakers of West African Pidgin English in Nigeria, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. There are at least 25 recognized forms of pidgin English and as these become established creoles, the diversity of World Englishes flourishes. It remains to be seen if these creoles develop into independent languages or fuse into one dominant “international” form, but whether you say “I no no” or “I don’t know” — it’s all part of the ever-changing story of English!