A brief history of English part two: Old English
We continue the story of the English language, and we now enter the period known as ‘Old English’.
Around 410AD, what was left of the Roman Empire finally left the shores of Britain, and for those communities that remained – the Celtic-Romano communities – were now defenceless from any attacks from overseas and from those remote parts of the land where many Celtic tribes had been forced to habit during Roman rule.
It was around 449AD that the first major attacks came, and these were the Anglo-Saxons who were from the parts of Europe that are now Northern Germany. And it was their language that formed the basis of what we understand as the English language today. The original English came from mainland Europe! Now I suppose at this point you are perhaps saying, 'wait a minute, so where did that English come from?' Well, if we start discussing that, we will then go back to something called Sanskrit, which is the source of several languages around the world, and it was a very different language. Academics, and me, agree that the starting point(s) are those early Anglo-Saxon invasions.
Anyway, what remained of those Celtic communities were now being pushed back further, west and north into those areas that we know as Cornwall, Scotland and Wales, the result being that the Celtic dialects began developing separately and evolved into the languages that we know today as Welsh and Gaelic. It is assumed that those who chose to stay soon became part of Anglo-Saxon society. Indeed, the influence of the Anglo-Saxons and their language was so great, that what remained of the Celtic languages spoken within these communities were completely lost, except for a small handful of words.
Unfortunately for us as historians, there is very little evidence of the language in those early years, so it is difficult for us to understand what English was like then. The invaders brought an alphabet with them – a Runic inscription - known as the ‘futhorc’, and it was designed by using simple lines that could be easily cut into stone with a blade. Some texts exist from those times and provide us with the first physical evidence of the English language. In those days scribes (people who write books or documents by hand as a profession) would spell words as they sounded; as a result there would be different spellings, suggesting that there were different accents. As far as we are aware, there were two main dialects: the area in the midlands and east of England, and the area covered by the north and into the lowlands of Scotland.
The next event on the language was around the end of the sixth century, when Christian missionaries from Rome introduced literacy, a considerable Latin vocabulary, and of course, the alphabet that we are all familiar with. It became the written language of religious texts, legal documents and science. As a consequence, the church virtually controlled the skills of writing and the first books in English used the Latin model of writing. What texts exist from those times were often colourful and decorative – almost like pieces of art! However, the missionary influence ensured that around 450 new words would enter the English language, many of which are still used today. But Latin would remain a considerable influence and would continue to do so for many centuries to come.
The next invasion – both from an army and into the language – were the Viking invasions from Denmark in 787 AD, and would continue over the next few centuries. Within a century, the Danes controlled most of Eastern England. This effectively became part of Denmark as it was subject to Danish law. As a result, a significant number of place names in present-day England have their roots from Scandinavia; names ending in –by (meaning ‘farm’ or ‘town’) for example: Derby, Grimsby and Corby. Even so, considerable close contact would remain between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, ensuring that English would borrow many words, particularly from Denmark.
At this point the English that you and I know today was, at that time, in a form that we would find difficult to read and understand. Indeed, its structure followed many European modals – not too surprising as its roots were from Northern Europe. Word order was flexible, and there were many ‘endings’ to words that were used to describe their function in a sentence. These endings are known in modern grammar as inflections, and are used in modern English today: we add the letter ‘s’, for example, to make countable nouns plural. This, however, would change, although it is still not clear as to how exactly Old English evolved to having a fixed word order and losing many of its inflections. It is suggested that many English words simply began to put more stress at the start of words and the endings becoming more weakly stressed, and so losing their endings; another is that to ease contact between speakers, whose origins were from invading nations, they simply got rid of the inflections to make it easier to talk and understand each other.
But as all this was happening, a French-speaking dynasty from the dukedom of Normandy was looking across the English Channel. And 1066, led by William of Normandy, saw the Norman Conquest.
This was not only decisive as regards the history of England, but also for the English language itself. For one thing; French would become the official language, William became the first recognised King of England. The other was the fact that the continued existence of the English language was now under threat…