West Germanic languages
English is a West Germanic language of the „Ingvaeonic“ subgroup, spoken in the British Isles since the arrival of continental Germanic groups (the „Anglo-Saxons“) during the fifth century AD, and currently far more widespread, due to more recent migrations of English speakers to eg. North America, Australia and New Zealand, and due to the use of English as a lingua franca or an official language in many countries.
English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This bbroad family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches:
• Latin and the modern Romance languages;
• The Germanic languages;
• The Indo-Iranian languages, including Hindi and Sanskrit;
• The Slavic languages;
• The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian (but not Estonian);
• The Celtic languages; and
The influence of the original Indo-European language, designated proto-Indo-European, can be seen today, even though no written record of it exists. The word for father, for example, is vater in GGerman, pater in Latin, and pitr in Sanskrit. These words are all cognates, similar words in different languages that share the same root.
Of these branches of the Indo-European family, two are, for our purposes of studying the development of English, oof paramount importance, the Germanic and the Romance (called that because the Romance languages derive from Latin, the language of ancient Rome, not because of any bodice-ripping literary genre). English is in the Germanic group of languages. This group began as a common language in the Elbe river region about 3,000 years ago. Around the second century BC, this Common Germanic language split into three distinct sub-groups:
• East Germanic was spoken by peoples who migrated back to southeastern Europe. No East Germanic language is spoken today, and the only written East Germanic language that survives is Gothic.
• North Germanic evolved into the modern Scandinavian languages of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic (but not Finnish, which is related to Estonian and is nnot an Indo-European language).
• West Germanic is the ancestor of modern German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and English.
Old English (500-1100 AD)
1.1 West Germanic invaders
West Germanic invaders from Jutland and southern Denmark: the Angles (whose name is the source of the words England and English), Saxons, and Jutes, began populating the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. They spoke a mutually intelligible language, similar to modern Frisian–the language of northeastern region of the Netherlands–that is called Old English. Four mmajor dialects of Old English emerged, Northumbrian in the north of England, Mercian in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the Southeast.
These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland, leaving behind a few Celtic words. These Celtic languages survive today in Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland and in Welsh. Cornish, unfortunately, is now a dead language. (The last native Cornish speaker, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777 in the town of Mousehole, Cornwall.) Also influencing English at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions, beginning around 850, brought many North Germanic words into the language, particularly in the north of England. Some examples are dream, which had meant ‘joy’ until the Vikings imparted its current meaning on it from the Scandinavian cognate draumr, and skirt, which continues to live alongside its native English cognate shirt.
The role of the Latin language in Medieval Britain was clearly a manifest. It was determined by such historical events as Roman civilization and the introduction of Christianity.
The majority of words in modern English come from foreign, not Old English roots. In fact, only about one sixth of the kknown Old English words have descendants surviving today. But this is deceptive; Old English is much more important than these statistics would indicate. About half of the most commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Words like be, water, and strong, for example, derive from Old English roots.
1.2 Etymological survey of the old English vocabulary
Native OE words can be subdivided into a number of etymological layers coming from different historical periods. The three main are: 1) common IE words, 2) common Germanic words, 3) specifically OE words.
Words belonging to the common IE layer constitute the oldest part of the OE vocabulary. They go back to the days of the IE parent-language. Among these words we find names of some natural phenomena, plants and animals, agricultural terms, names of parts of the human body, terms of kinship, etc. This layer includes personal and demonstrative pronouns and most numerals. In addition to roots, this portion of the OE (and Germanic) heritage includes word-building and form building elements. OE examples: beard, broðor, ic, min, twā.
The common Germanic layer includes words, which are shared by most Germanic languages, but do nor occur outside the group. Being specifically Germanic, these words constitude aan important distinctive mark of the Germanic languages at the lexical level. Common Germanic words originated in the common period of Germanic history, i.e. in PG when the Teutonic tribes lived close together. Semantically these words are connected with nature, with the sea and everyday life. OE examples: hand, sand, fox.
The third etimological layer of native words can be defined as specifically OE, that is wors which do nor occur in other Germanic or non-Germanic languages. These words are few, if we include here only the words whose roots have not been found outside English: OE clipian ‘call’, OE bird (NE bird) and several others. However, they are far more numerous of we include in this layer OE compounds and derived words formed from Germanic roots in England. For instance, OE wifman or wimman (NE woman) consists of two roots which occurred as separate words in other OC languages, but formed a compound only in OE (cf. OHG wib, O Icel vif, OE man, Gt mann(a), NE man).
1.3 Old English Written Records
The records of OE writing embrace a variety of matter: they are dated in different centuries, represent various local dialects, belong to diverse genres and are written in
different scripts. The earliest written records of English are inscriptions on hard material made in a special alphabet known as the runes. The runic alphabet is a specially Germanic alphabet. Our knowledge of OE language comes mainly from manuscripts written in Latin characters: Anglo-Saxon Charters, the Corpus and Epinal glossaries in the 8th c., Bede’s historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (8th c.). We have about 30,000 lines of OE verse from many poets of some 3 centuries. The greatest poem of tthe time was Beowulf(7th c.). Old English, whose best known surviving example is the poem Beowulf, lasted until about 1100. This last date is rather arbitrary, but most scholars choose it because it is shortly after the most important event in the development of the English language, the Norman Conquest.
Later appeared new war poems: The battle of Brunanburh, the battle of Maldon (10th c.); elegiac (lyrical) poems: Widsith (“The Traveler’s Song”), The Wanderer, The Seafarer and others; religious poems: GGenesis, Exordus, Elene, Endreas, Christ, Fate Of The Apostles.
OE poetry is characterized by a specific system of versification and some peculiar stylistic devices. The lines are not rhymed and number of the syllables in a line is free, only tthe number of stressed syllables being fixed. The style of OE poetry is marked by the wide use of metaphorical phrases or compounds describing the qualities or functions of the thing. OE prose is valuable source of information for the history of language.
The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500)
William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England and the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD. The new overlords spoke a dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman. The Normans were also of Germanic stock („Norman“ comes from „Norseman“) and Anglo-Norman was a French dialect that had considerable Germanic influences in addition to the basic Latin roots.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, Latin had been only a minor influence on the English llanguage, mainly through vestiges of the Roman occupation and from the conversion of Britain to Christianity in the seventh century (ecclesiastical terms such as priest, vicar, and mass came into the language this way), but now there was a wholesale infusion of Romance (Anglo-Norman) words.
The influence of the Normans can be illustrated by looking at two words, beef and cow. Beef, commonly eaten by the aristocracy, derives from the Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle, retained the GGermanic cow. Many legal terms, such as indict, jury, and verdict have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. This split, where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and words frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can be seen in many instances.
Sometimes French words replaced Old English words; crime replaced firen and uncle replaced eam. Other times, French and Old English components combined to form a new word, as the French gentle and the Germanic man formed gentleman. Other times, two different words with roughly the same meaning survive into modern English. Thus we have the Germanic doom and the French judgment, or wish and desire.
It is useful to compare various versions of a familiar text to see the differences between Old, Middle, and Modern English. Take for instance this Old English (c.1000) sample:
Fæder ure þuþe eart on heofonum
si þin nama gehalgod tobecume þin rice gewurþe þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.
Rendered in Middle English (Wyclif, 1384), the ssame text is recognizable to the modern eye:
Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name;
þi reume or kyngdom come to be. Be þi wille don in herþe as it is dounin heuene.
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us.
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.
Finally, in Early Modern English (King James Version, 1611) the same text is completely intelligible:
Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen.
Giue us this day our daily bread.
And forgiue us our debts as we forgiue our debters.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliuer us from euill. Amen.
In 1204 AD, King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France. This began a process where the Norman nobles of England became increasingly estranged from their French cousins. England became the chief concern of the nobility, rather than their estates in France, and consequently the nobility adopted a modified English as their nnative tongue. About 150 years later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed about one third of the English population. The laboring and merchant classes grew in economic and social importance, and along with them English increased in importance compared to Anglo-Norman.
This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English. The most famous example of Middle English is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unlike Old English, Middle English can be read, albeit with difficulty, by modern English-speaking people.
By 1362, the linguistic division between the nobility and the commoners was largely over. In that year, the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts and it began to be used in Parliament.
The Middle English period came to a close around 1500 AD with the rise of Modern English.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
The next wave of innovation in English came with the Renaissance. The revival of classical scholarship brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and many bemoaned the adoption of these „inkhorn“ terms, but many survive to this day. Shakespeare’s character Holofernes in Loves Labor Lost is a satire of an overenthusiastic schoolmaster who is too fond of Latinisms.
having difficulty understanding Shakespeare would be surprised to learn that he wrote in modern English. But, as can be seen in the earlier example of the Lord’s Prayer, Elizabethan English has much more in common with our language today than it does with the language of Chaucer. Many familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by Shakespeare, some 2,000 words and countless catch-phrases are his. Newcomers to Shakespeare are often shocked at the number of cliches contained in hhis plays, until they realize that he coined them and they became cliches afterwards. „One fell swoop,“ „vanish into thin air,“ and „flesh and blood“ are all Shakespeare’s. Words he bequeathed to the language include „critical,“ „leapfrog,“ „majestic,“ „dwindle,“ and „pedant.“
Two other major factors influenced the language and served to separate Middle and Modern English. The first was the Great Vowel Shift. This was a change in pronunciation that began around 1400. While modern English speakers can read Chaucer wwith some difficulty, Chaucer’s pronunciation would have been completely unintelligible to the modern ear. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would be accented, but understandable. Long vowel sounds began to be made higher in the mouth and the letter „e“ at tthe end of words became silent. Chaucer’s Lyf (pronounced „leef“) became the modern life. In Middle English name was pronounced „nam-a,“ five was pronounced „feef,“ and down was pronounced „doon.“ In linguistic terms, the shift was rather sudden, the major changes occurring within a century. The shift is still not over, however, vowel sounds are still shortening although the change has become considerably more gradual.
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