River Wissey Lovell Fuller


April 2004

A look at the history of the English language

The Mixing Starts

When Julius Caesar, later to be Roman Emperor, invaded Britain in BC 54-5, the 'Celtic' tribes lived in the British Isles. Their Celtic languages still survive as 'Gaelic' in Scotland & Ireland, 'Welsh', in Wales, and 'Manx' in the Isle of Man, as well as 'Breton' in France.

The Romans brought Latin to Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire for over 400 years. But early English did not develop mainly from Latin. So it is unlike French, Spanish and Italian, which did come directly from Latin. 'Early English' was the language of tribes who invaded from the East, from what is now Germany. They spoke different dialects of a 'Germanic' language, from which modern German developed. This explains why German and English are often similar, as many of their words developed from the same original language.

In 878 AD, the Vikings invaded Britain from Scandinavia, bringing with them the Norse language, though this was similar to the old English or Anglo-Saxon language already used.

The dramatic arrival of the Norman army from France, led by King William the Conqueror in 1066, and the defeat of the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, brought very big changes to English life. The Normans brought with them the Old French language, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business class.

No More Invasions

By about 1200, the Kingdoms of England and France had ceased to be one unit. The use of Old English came back, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English, the language of the poet Chaucer (about 1340-1400). He has been called the greatest English poet before Shakespeare. It is difficult for even English-speakers to read and understand his writings well.

Can you understand these lines:

"Whan that Aprille with his shoures swote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote..."

In modern English this is:

"When April with his sweet showers has struck to the roots the dryness of March."

i.e. when the April showers of rain have gone right down to the roots of plants which have been dried up during March!

This 'Middle English' was very different in different parts of the country, and of course travel was limited in those days.

But another big revolution was coming - the printing press. Just as radio, television, video, and computers, have changed communication in our time, so did printing after about 1500 AD. Now there was a common language in print, as well as access to the old languages of Latin and Greek.


Now came the 'Renaissance' in Europe - a time of great advance of learning and culture. By this time, English was not very different from the English used today. And the most famous person to write in English in this period was William Shakespeare (1564-1616). His insight into human nature, and his gift for using words, makes him possibly the most famous playwright of all time! Having in his hands such a new rich language must have helped him too.

Shakespeare gave the English language many phrases and sayings, which English speakers still use every day. Often, they do not realise these words came from Shakespeare's plays or poems!

Do you know some of these?

'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet'

"If music be the food of love, play on and give me excess." (12th Night)

"Of one who loved not wisely but too well." (Othello)

"All our yesterdays." "Out, out brief candle." (MacBeth)

"To be or not to be......"

The Best seller of all time

At almost the same time as Shakespeare, came the printing of a book which has had an even greater effect on society and culture - the 'Authorised' or 'King James' translation of the Bible in 1611. For almost the first time, anyone who could read had access to the Bible in their own language, and in words which were easily understood.

The beauty of the language in this translation has never been equalled. Though today, because language has changed, it is difficult in places to understand, even for native English speakers, many people still use it. And like Shakespeare, many phrases and quotations from it have become part of the English language. People often use them without knowing they come from the Bible.

For example:

'turn the other cheek'

'go a second mile'

'Straight and narrow'

'A Job's comforter'

'Don't cast your pearls before swine'

'the love of money is the root of all evil'

Modern English

Since the time of Shakespeare, English has continued to change. Settlers from Britain moved across the world - to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, India, Asia and Africa, and in each place, the language changed and developed, and took in words from other local languages. For example, 'kangaroo' and 'boomerang' are native Australian Aborigine words; 'juggernaut' and 'turban' came from India.

With the increase in communication, travel, radio and television, all these different types of English have mixed. So in Britain now, because of American and Australian TV programming, we use many parts of Australian and American English. And words from many other languages - French, German, Spanish, Arabic, even Nepali - have been borrowed. So English continues to change and develop, with hundreds of new words arriving every year. For better or worse, it has truly become the world's international language.

It has become the language of science, air traffic control, the world of computers, and most of the Internet. And in many countries, where there are other competing languages and people groups, English has been chosen as a common second language. This has happened in Nigeria and Ghana.

This may not seem fair to other important and valuable languages which are also international! For example, those of us who know and love France, realise that the French regret the way their language may not be so much of an international language as it used to be. And it is sad that English people are often lazy, and don't bother to learn other languages!


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