A brief history of the English Language 1: Pre-English


As you read this, I am typing these words and sentences off the top of my head; I'm thinking about the vocabulary I should be using, the required grammar that will hopefully make sense of what I am trying to express, and the audience to whom this is intended.


But go back about 1500 years and the English spoken (but rarely written) then would, to you and I, just sound like another foreign language. But it was English. It's just known as Old English.


Now at what point should we begin the story of the English language? Should we begin by talking about the first people on the land we now call Great Britain that used the language (which would be more than 1500 years ago)? And then what evidence do we have as regards the history of the language?


There are odd texts from the early days, odd inscriptions on crosses, Roman sites, ancient grave slabs, even beautiful works of art. But aside from these, what we don't have is any clear evidence as to how the language sounded. We didn't have tape recorders so we can't be always sure on the history of the accents, the dialects, and the vernacular. So much of what we know is based on the available evidence that we do have, and all this is by studying medieval English texts. But even much of this is incomplete to the point that we can only make informed guesses.

So we will begin our story much further back than 1500 years ago – back in a land that was invaded several centuries earlier, probably around 1200 BC – unfortunately, none of the historians can really be certain. Believed to have lived in Eastern Europe and Asia, the Indo-Europeans arrived in the British Isles around 8,000 years ago. and eventually settled into tribes. The language was Celtic (not English) and was spoken in many dialects; this was because these tribes were spread over a large area and were not always in communication with each other. Britain was not even a single nation; the language was not even English. But life was still fine and wonderful, even though they did like to do a lot of fighting in those days. There were even a handful of words that would eventually be carried into the English language such as combe, bin, and cross, along with a few place names, but these examples were few and were ‘borrowed’, that is, these were words that were absorbed into English and was not the start of the English language. In other words, as far as English is concerned, the Celtic languages are foreign. Or to be more accurate, the Celtic languages were the native languages of the British Isles at the time.


But around 55BC the Romans invaded Britain, and in turn brought their language, Latin. This quickly became the dominant language, although Celtic was still widely spoken. Indeed, thanks to the Roman Empire, Britain rapidly became a multilingual society with its connections around the world, but Latin was the language of communication. Again, there are many words in Latin that came into the English language (which came later), but like Celtic, linguistically it was still ‘foreign’, and its words would be borrowed. Many of the Celtic tribes who fought the empire were forced to the more remote parts of Britain: Cornwall, Wales, Scotland. The legacy of these movements remains today: the Celtic languages evolved into Gaelic and Welsh.


For the next four centuries, and supported by the Roman Empire, Britain was a stable country economically. But abroad the Roman territories were under threat and at increasing risk from invasion. In AD 410 the decision was taken to remove the Roman garrisons from the more remote parts of the empire to defend its centre, including Britain. This meant the communities that remained were defenceless from two sides: the Celts from those remote parts of Britain, and the Germanic-speaking peoples from the sea: the Angles and the Saxons.


And it is from this point that the story of the English language really begins.

Introduction    Pre-English    Old English    Middle English    Modern English    World English and the Future

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