by Donald D. Erwin
“The English language,” observed Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven.” It is doubtful that anyone could have said it better, for today the spoken language called English has bits and pieces of hundreds of both ancient and modern languages, and it continues to evolve.
The rise of English is a remarkable success story. When Julius Caesar and his legions landed in Britain in 55 BC English didn’t exist. Five hundred years later, Englisc, incomprehensible to modern ears, was probably spoken by about as few people as those who speak Navajo today. But by the end of the sixteenth century, when William Shakespeare was in his prime, English was the native speech of about six million Englishmen.
Almost five hundred years after that, the contrast is mind-boggling. Between 1600 and the present, as the result of a combination of things, such as the colonization of various lands by the British, several wars in which many armies and navies participated, the commercial efforts of international companies, as well as scientific expeditions, the speakers of English—primarily Americans and British
Commonwealth citizens—traveled to every corner of the globe, taking their language and their culture with them. Today English is used by at least 750 million people—some estimate as many as one billion—and barely half speak it as a mother tongue. Whatever the total, English—at the beginning of the twenty-first century—has become the language of the planet.
But let’s go back to the beginning. The languages of about one-third of the human race have a common source. Some time between 3500 and 2500 BC the Indo-European community, which was based in Central Europe, began to travel east and west. Most scholars seem to believe that they spoke about eight major dialects. They have labeled and described them as:
Today the Indo-European family of languages stretches from the Hebrides in the West to the Indian subcontinent in the East, but we will follow the evolution of the West Germanic branch of the three Germanic family of languages, for it was this that evolved into the English that we speak today.
When Rome started losing control of its provinces, starting about 400 AD, the Roman Legions which had been stationed in Britain were gradually recalled to help defend Rome. Terrible times followed. The Picts and Scots, tribes that lived in the unconquered area in the northern half of the Island of Briton, began to make raids south into the previous Roman Province of Britain. Shortly thereafter, during the mid-400s, roving bands of Jutes, Saxons and Angles, who were Germanic tribes from the northwestern coast of Europe, began crossing the North Sea and settling in Britain.
The Jutes came first, from what is now northern Denmark, and occupied the smallest territory, principally Kent and the Isle of Wight. The Saxons, from what is now northwestern Germany, occupied practically all of England south of the Thames, with the exception of Cornwall, which remained a Celtic enclave, but including Essex and Middlesex. The Angles, from an area on the peninsula that includes today’s boundary between Denmark and Germany, took what was left, which was most of what is now England, as well as Lowland Scotland as far north as the Firth of Forth. The Anglo-Saxons (historians and scholars have chosen to ignore the Jutes) gradually displaced most of the native Britons, who moved westward into the mountainous areas of Wales and Cornwall.
The Anglo-Saxons spoke a cluster of related dialects falling within the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Their languages, over time, displaced the indigenous Britannic languages of most of what became England, but the Celtic dialects survived in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. The dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxons began to merge and evolve in isolation from the continental Germanic languages, and by 600 AD had developed into what is commonly called Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, and was being spoken in most of what is now modern England. The new evolutionary tongue was originally called “Angle-ish,” which meant literally, “belonging to Angles.” Over time the pronunciation evolved into “English.”
Roman Catholic church writings tell us that Christianity arrived in England in 597. Tradition has it that Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine (later St. Augustine) and about fifty monks to the former Roman province to spread the Word. Augustine and his followers would have been aware of the
savage nature of the tribes that they were setting out to convert, but as it turned out they were lucky. They landed in Kent, a small kingdom that had a liberal-minded monarch. He made them welcome, and by royal edict made it clear to his subjects that they were not to be molested.
The conversion of England to Christianity was a gradual process, but a peaceful one. As it became established it brought the building of churches and monasteries—the corner-stones of Anglo-Saxon culture—which in turn provided education in a wide range of subjects. Christianity also brought with it a huge Latin vocabulary. The importance of this cultural revolution in the story of the English language is not that it strengthened and enriched Old English with new words, of which more than four hundred survive today, but that the Church words came from Latin, which had previously been enriched with Greek and Hebrew, and gave English the capacity to express abstract thought.
Another mass movement of Scandinavian peoples, starting about 750, was one of the great migrations in European history. It included Norse and Danish seafarers, collectively called Vikings. They were basically sea-faring plunderers, and sailed along the coasts of Europe, and even reached the White Sea. They ventured into the Mediterranean, coasting along from Algiers to Constantinople. They attacked settlements and churches for their gold and silver and would, without apparent conscience, savagely kill the men and boys and carry away the younger women. Later, however, the plunder-raids often ended as conquest and settlement. They spoke Norse, which was a northern Germanic dialect similar to, yet different in grammar from Anglo-Saxon.
One raiding expedition, led by Rolf the Ganger, sailed up the Seine River where it was welcomed by Charles the Simple of France. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, so to speak, Charles gave the invaders the whole of Normandy as a bribe. In the end, however, the French had the last laugh, for the invaders became settlers, were absorbed by the French culture, and, over time, their Germanic speech was replaced by French.
Later the Vikings ventured away from the coasts and navigated out into the open ocean. They crossed the North Sea to the Shetland Islands, to the Orkneys, the Faroes, Ireland and northern Britain. Others, like King Harold of Norway, sent expeditions to Iceland around 870. Erik the Red is credited with the settlement of Greenland about 982, and Leif Eiriksson, son of Erik the Red, discovered Labrador by accident in 1000 AD.
Around 875 it seemed that the Danish Vikings were unstoppable, and that the whole of England would be overcome. But Saxon King Alfred the Great, his back to the wall, raised a fresh army from Somerset, Wilshire and Hampshire and, surprising the Danes, defeated them in 878 at the Battle of Ethandune. If old King Alf had lost there not be an English language today. In fact, it was King Alfred who is credited with first referring to “English” in his writings. After Alfred, the Danes and Saxons lived alongside each other for generations in relative peace. Because both languages had Germanic roots the language barrier broke down, and the result continued the evolution of Old English.
Starting in the middle of the ninth century there were further large incursions of Scandinavians. They settled in Britain, particularly in the northern and eastern areas. In the tenth century there were also Danish military invasions, and at one time the whole of England had a Danish king. Their distinct North Germanic speech had a further influence on English. Many English words that we use today can be traced to this source. Their tongue had its greatest influence in the north, although this new wave of settlers and invaders seems to have adopted English fairly early on.
The common Germanic base of the two languages meant that there were still many similarities between Old English and the language of the later invaders. Some words show a kind of hybridization with some spellings going back to Old English, while others are obviously Scandinavian in origin. The modern English word calf is one example. It is credited to cælf of Old English meaning “young bovine animal.” It is recognized as having an early Germanic origin, and is related to the Dutch kalf and German kalb. As a separate word it also describes the fleshy back part of the lower leg, which appears in Middle English, and is traced to kálfi in Old Norse. The resemblances between the two languages are so great, however, that in many cases it is impossible to be sure of the exact ancestry of a particular word or spelling.
While the Celts were already in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, there are few traces of their language in English today, with the exception of a few place-names in England. Some scholars have suggested that the Celtic tongue might have had an underlying influence on the grammatical development of English, but this is highly speculative. The number of loan-words known for certain to have entered Old English from this source is very small.
Modern theories about the linguistic evolution of the early centuries are mainly the result of scholarly supposition, for there are few written records pertaining to any of the early Germanic languages of northwestern Europe. When Old English writings did begin to appear in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries there was a good deal of regional variation, but not substantially more than that found in later periods.
The conquest of England, led by William the Conqueror of Normandy at Hastings in 1066, was a cataclysmic event that formally ended the Old English period. It also brought new rulers and new cultural, social and linguistic influences to the British Isles. The Norman-French high nobility and ruling minority dominated the church, government, legal, and educational systems for three hundred years thereafter. The Norman establishment used French and Latin, leaving English as the language of the common people, who were largely illiterate.
Various contemporary sources suggest, however, that William the Conqueror did not, by edict, impose his Norman-French speech on his newly conquered subjects. Consequently, within fifty years of the invasion, most of the Normans outside of the royal court had switched to English. The use of Roman Latin continued in the church, but French replaced Latin as the formal prestige language of government and law, and remained so for about three hundred years, largely out of social inertia.
In the early 1200s English began making a comeback at both the written and spoken level. English adopted thousands of words from the Norman French, and its grammar changed rather radically. English literature started to reappear because of a changing political climate, and the continuing decline of Norman-French made it more respectable. Formal church ceremonies were expressed in Latin, but English was used for sermons, prayers, hymns and carols.
Towards the end of the century Edward I (called “Longshanks” because of his unusual height, and who would become a mortal enemy of Scotland) was very conscious of his Englishness, and whipped up patriotic feeling against the king of France, declaring that it was “his detestable purpose, which God forbid, to wipe out the English tongue.” By the end of the 1200s even the English royal court had switched to English. French remained the language of diplomats throughout Europe, but in England it was being learned in the classroom. By the early 1300s, even among the educated class, it was clear that French had become an acquired tongue. Assimilation had prevailed.
It is interesting to note that our ancestor, Sir William (1260-1333), spelled his surname in the Norman manner: de Irwyn, but that three generations later, in the early 1400s, it had evolved into I-R-V-I-N-E. This way of spelling has survived in Scotland, but James N. Irvine, our immigrant ancestor, who arrived in Pennsylvania about 1739, began spelling his name E-R-W-I-N about 1755 in Rowan County, North Carolina.
The period from the Norman conquest to the reemergence of English as a full-fledged literary language about 1500 is called the Middle English Period. Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the early authors. He wrote his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English in the late 1300s. There were great changes in English during this time. The fairly rich inflectional system of Old English broke down. It was replaced by what is, generally speaking, the same system in use today. Our modern language, unlike Old English, makes very little use of distinctive word endings in the grammar of the language. The vocabulary of English also changed enormously, with huge numbers of borrowings from French and Latin, in addition to the Scandinavian loanwords which were slowly starting to appear in the written language.
Chaucer (1340-1400) wrote in English, but the official language of government was still French. Yet only seventeen years after his death Henry V became the first English king since King Harold to use English in his official documents. Edward III, Henry’s predecessor, and grandson of “Longshanks,” could only swear in English. By the time of Henry’s death in 1422 English was again the official language of English kings. The term “King’s English” has its root with old Henry V.
The late medieval and early modern periods saw a fairly steady process of standardization in English south of the Scottish border. The written and spoken language of London, known as the London Standard, continued to evolve and gradually began to have a greater influence in the country at large. For most of the Middle English Period a dialect was simply what was spoken in a particular area, which would normally be more or less represented in writing—although where and from whom the writer had learned how to write were also important. As the London standard became more widely used, especially in more formal contexts and among the more educated members of English society, the other regional varieties came to be stigmatized, much like our own “hillbilly” twang with its fractured grammar. It was only when the broad London Standard began to dominate, especially through the new technology of printing, that the other regional varieties of the language began to be noticed.
Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany around 1450, but William Caxton (1422-1491), was the first English printer. His translation and print of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, in 1474, was the first book printed in English. Caxton printed nearly one hundred publications, about twenty of which he also translated from French and Dutch. The more notable books from his press include The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and Confessio Amantis by English poet John Gower.
Linguist scholars estimate that by 1600 nearly half of the population of England had at least a minimal literacy, especially in and around cities and towns. The printing press had accelerated the spread of literacy by making books, printed in English, increasingly available to the masses. Outside the universities people preferred to read books in English rather than Latin or Greek, and printers naturally tried to satisfy their demand.
In the same period a series of changes also occurred in English pronunciation (though not uniformly in all dialects), which go under the collective name of the Great Vowel Shift. These were purely linguistic “sound changes” which occur in every language in every period of history. The changes in pronunciation weren’t the result of specific social or historical factors, but social and historical factors would have helped to spread the results of the changes. As a result the so-called “pure” vowel sounds which still characterize many continental languages were lost to English. The phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were also lost, which gave rise to many of the oddities of English pronunciation, and which now obscure the relationships between many English words and their foreign counterparts.
Early dictionaries, such as A Short Dictionarie for Yong Begynners, by John Withals in 1533, included only what the author considered to be difficult words. Others were basically Latin-English and French-English comparisons or glossaries. None attempted to cover the then complete common vocabularies. It is generally accepted that Nathan Bailey’s An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, published in 1721 and containing forty thousand words, was the first real dictionary. This was accepted as the authority on the English language until 1755 when Samuel Johnson published his two-volume work called simply, Dictionary.
During the next two decades a number of scholars produced works that attempted to standardize the pronunciation and spelling of English, but it was in 1773 that the forerunner of a modern and complete dictionary was published. This was Englishman William Kenrick’s A New Dictionary for the English Language. American Noah Webster followed 1806 with Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and in 1828 with An American Dictionary of the English Language with over one hundred thousand entries. Fellow American
Joseph Worcester came out with a similar work in 1830. Merriam, Funk & Wagnalls followed in the late 1800s, and later with revised additions.
Funk & Wagnalls’ New Standard Dictionary of the English Language came out in 1913 with over four hundred thousand entries, but most linguists believe, however, that it was the Oxford English Dictionary, with over six hundred thousand entries, that established the true standard of the English language. The first volumes were published in 1884, and the last in 1928. It was begun under the editorial supervision of one Scotsman, Sir James Murray, and finished under another, Sir William Craigie.
During the medieval and early modern periods the influence of English spread throughout the British Isles, and from the early seventeenth century onward its influence began to be felt throughout the world. The complex processes of exploration, colonization and overseas trade that characterized Britain’s external relations for several centuries, resulted in many changes in the English language. This wasn’t simply through the acquisition of loanwords derived from languages from every corner of the world, but through the gradual development of new varieties of English, each with its own nuances of vocabulary, grammar, and distinct pronunciations.
Elizabeth I died in 1603, and in a surprisingly peaceful transfer of power, James IV of Scotland was crowned James I of England. James became, at his coronation, the most powerful Protestant king in Europe, and adopted, for the purposes of his foreign policy, the term “Great Britain” as an overall label for England and her colonies.
In 1604 James presided over a special conference of bishops, and other persons of ecclesiastical importance, to discuss and reconcile religious differences. The result would eventually provide the English language with one of its greatest Renaissance masterpieces: the King James Bible. It was published the year that Shakespeare began work on his last play, The Tempest. Both the play and the Bible are masterpieces of English, but there is one large difference. While Shakespeare used a huge number of words, as well as his own manner of spelling—sometimes several different ways for the same word—the King James bible uses only about eight thousand, and is written in a manner that is easily read today.
The beginning of Modern English is loosely traced to the King James Bible. A literary language, interrupted by several centuries of foreign invasion, was again evolving. The reason was two-fold. First, there were no foreign invasions after William the Conqueror in 1066, and second, the influence of such men as Chaucer, Wycliff, Caxton and Mallory stabilized it as a basis for the living language that it is today.
English took root in the New World in April 1607, when three English ships sailed into Chesapeake Bay. Under the leadership of Captain John Smith they established a settlement that they called Jamestown, named for their king.
Less than two decades later the Mayflower left England on September 16, 1620. The planned destination was Virginia, but due to bad weather and an error in navigation, it landed at Cape Cod. Nevertheless, the colonists stayed and established a village. They named it Plymouth for the port in East Anglia from which they had embarked sixty-five days before.
Other English colonies sprang up all along the Atlantic coast, from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south. Swedish and Dutch colonies took shape in and around what is now New York as well. The major settlements were:
· 1623: New Jersey (settled by the Dutch; won by English in a treaty in 1664).
· 1623: New Hampshire.
· 1624: New York (settled by the Dutch as New Amsterdam; won by English in treaty in 1664).
· 1628: Salem, Massachusetts.
· 1630: Boston.
· 1632: Maryland.
· 1633: Connecticut (settled by Dutch; England takes over in 1636).
· 1636: Rhode Island.
· 1638: Delaware (settled by Sweden; Dutch take Delaware from Sweden in 1655; English win from Dutch by treaty in 1664).
· 1647: First English settlement in what would be Pennsylvania, formalized by a grant by the King to Quaker William Penn in 1681.
· 1663: Carolina Charter; South Carolina obtained a Royal Charter in 1719; North Carolina in 1729, and Georgia became a Royal Colony in 1752.
Beginning in the latter part of the 1600s, immigration to British colonies in North America increased dramatically, primarily to the eastern seaboard of what would be the United States of America, and had a dramatic affect on the English language. The newcomers brought their language and usages with them, and British visitors to the U.S. today often note unmistakable sixteenth and early seventeenth century nuances and characteristics still evident in American English. Some examples are:
· Many Americans use gotten in place of “got,” a usage that was common in England until the eighteenth century, but is now archaic.
· We often use mad instead of “angry,” as Shakespeare did.
· Sick in England tends to refer to nausea, but we use the Mid English term to mean illness in general.
· Using platter instead of “dish,” now largely extinct in England, is still common here.
· The old word fall, for “autumn,” is still in wide use in American English.
· The American English phrase I guess goes back to Chaucer.
What did the first speakers of American English sound like after all these different varieties and patterns of speech up and down the eastern seaboard were thrown together into the melting pot? Initially, each community would have retained its English speech patterns, and, as we have already seen, the flat “a,” common throughout England until the eighteenth century, has been preserved in the United States in words like fast, dance, path, can’t, half and so on. Quite quickly, however, the process known as “accent leveling” would have started to merge the distinctive speech characteristics of, say, an emigrant from East Anglia and an emigrant from the West Country, into American English.
This “leveling” would have been accelerated with the next generation, who would have had no direct exposure to English accents. The making of a new variety of English would have been further accelerated by encounters with all kinds of pidgin English among the Dutch, French, and German settlers.
Gradually, out of this chaos, an American pronunciation emerged, now recognized and imitated the world over. The “a” was mainly flat. The English speak quickly; the Americans tend to be more deliberate; the English tend to use a greater variety of tone; Americans tend to a certain monotony. It is as much the variety of tone as the different pronunciation of words that makes British speech so different to American ears.
Oscar Wilde observed, “We and the Americans have much in common, but there is always the language barrier,” and Winston Churchill wrote: “We are divided by a common language.” There are transatlantic differences; different words for the same thing or situation. A few examples:
· Bed sitter. Studio apartment.
· Codswallop. Nonsense.
· Face flannel. Washcloth.
· Flyover. Overpass.
· Nappy. A diaper.
· Car park. Parking lot
There are similar differences in word-meanings between regions in the United States. A Texas cowboy might say that his horse is a high roller (bucks high in the air), but in Las Vegas the term would apply to a high-stakes gambler.
We tend to forget, however, that the English were not the first to settle in America. It was the Spanish who in 1492 commissioned Christopher Columbus to seek out a westerly route to the East Indies. His discovery of the New World was a happy accident, and resulted in the “Spanishization” of a good portion of South America, save Brazil, as well as Mexico and Central America. The continent itself was named after the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci. Even before the Armada, the Spanish had introduced the horse and the cow to the land they called New Spain, known today as the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. It was contact with Spanish, French and Dutch rivals that contributed to the unique flavor of American English.
It was from the Spanish also that English acquired such everyday words as barbecue, chocolate and tomato, once exotic borrowings from people the American English called dagoes—from the common Spanish name Diego—who had themselves borrowed them from Caribbean and South American Indian tribes. The Spanish influence in American life and language has persisted. Many of our nearest neighbors are Spanish-speaking, as is Puerto Rico, a current territory, as well as the Philippines, a past important dependency. To this day, American English has borrowed more words from Spanish than any other language. The list is long, and contains words like enchilada, marijuana, plaza, stampede and tornado. Also, the list is growing year by year as millions of illegals continue to pour across our southern border.
Almost two hundred years after the first English settlement, Thomas Jefferson, who took a more than amateur interest in the English language, observed that, “new circumstances ...call for new words, new phrases, and the transfer of old words to new objects.” He was right of course, and the process has accelerated as we incorporate various industry-related words, made-up media words and phrases, and as our scientists and researchers discover previously unknown compounds, plants and animals, etc., etc. Yes, Thomas was right, but he could not have foretold—even using his wildest imagination—how the English language would evolve and grow.
Today English is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment and diplomacy. The influence of the British Empire in the 1700s and 1800s was the primary reason for the initial spread of the language, even far beyond the British Isles, but it was the growing economic and cultural influence of the United States that has significantly accelerated the spread of the language, especially following World War II.
Because a working knowledge of English is required in certain fields, professions, and occupations, English is studied and spoken by up to a billion people around the world, at least to a basic level. It is one of six official languages of the United Nations, and is now regularly used and understood by virtually all who actively trade with the U.S. The eventual effects of the English language on the world’s linguistics can only be wondered about today. Will it some day by the only language? Probably not, but there can be little doubt that it will continue its spread as third world countries modernize, and their level of education is raised.
More important still, the often-raised worry that the millions of illegals—primarily Hispanic—now in our country will turn the United States of America into a bi-lingual nation is absurd. History has proven that previous millions of Germans, Irish, Dutch, East Europeans, as well as several previous generations of Hispanics, have plunged into our so-called “melting pot.” These groups, and many others, are proud of their ethnicity and cultural heritage, but they eventually speak English. Many have annual celebrations, and invite their fellow Americans to attend. I attend an annual Scottish celebration in my home town every April, and I notice attendees of every color and nationality, and—possibly excepting some of the oldsters—all speak English.
Of the estimated seven thousand languages spoken in the world today, linguists say nearly half are in danger of extinction. English, however, is not endangered. Yes, many of the older folks who emigrate here never fully master English, but their children do. The second generation is usually bi-lingual, but often-times the third generation can barely converse with their grandparents in their native tongue. After that many young people don’t even bother. In other words, they have been assimilated. They may learn a foreign tongue in high school or college, but it may not be the language of their ancestors, and even that is usually lost unless used on a frequent basis.
The language of the Angles, with about four hundred basic words, evolved into the dominate language of England, and eventually—by the end of the twentieth century—the international language of the world. And, contrary to the naysayer, California will not evolve into Mexicalia, and English will not be lost any time soon.