History Of The English Language

The story of a bunch of unwashed illiterate thugs who ruled a country for four hundred years, leaving shires, debating councils, one good history book, boring poetry, bad housing and a practical fluid language. Aethelred the Unready is long gone, but the language he used remains, changed and modified; still used by two thirds of the world as a means of communication in business, banking, and Hollywood Movies.

English is a Germanic language, originally very different from the language now spoken throughout the world. From western Germany and southern Denmark, it was originally a guttural language with few long words.

The speakers of English, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, colonised Britain in fits and starts from the 5th century, taking advantage of the retreat of Roman civilisation and competition between British ‘Big Men’, who each established small states, which replaced it. This was the time of Arthur, who, if he ever existed, was probably a British warlord in the west of the island, one of many fighting the newly formed Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the east. The original British language may have been similar to present day Welsh, but we can’t be sure.

Germanic tribes occupied all of Western Europe during this time, establishing new states. In Italy it was the Ostrogoths and Lombards, in France the Burgundians, Franks (from where we get the name France) and Allamanni (from where we get the name Germany). But in none of these countries did the Germanic languages prevail. In each of these countries, a Latin dialect is spoken, in England it is a German variant.

The Anglo-Saxons were skilled craftsmen, farmers and warriors but they were pagans. They believed in warrior gods and strong belligerent goddesses. They had poetry, plenty of poetry, but its often very boring stuff about fighting, death and monsters. Also, the Anglo Saxons loved riddles. Besides their poetry, they entertained themselves with riddles. Wordplay was prominent it seems in their long huts and around their campfires. In Britain as a whole, towns deteriorated. The Anglo Saxons didn’t like towns, but lived in farmsteads and villages.

We now know that many indigenous Britains survived the barbarian onslaughts. How did all the British come to relinquish their own tongue, soon speaking English instead? We don’t know. The Anglo-Saxons were relatively few in number. Their supremacy was mainly political. One interesting theory by an historian is that many people in East England may already have spoken English as a first or second language due to their proximity to Friesian lands, where the language came from. Another suggests that the dominance of German elite groups on the continent encouraged its adoption in Britain.
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Over time, the indigenous population, for whatever reason, began identifying with their new rulers, assuming their culture including their language. Perhaps, they did so simply because it was a new world ruled by Germans instead of Romans, the British Isles looking to the north rather than the southern parts of Europe. Anyway, for whatever reason, English, similar to Friesian and Dutch, secured a foothold in these Islands.

If you were to hear Old English spoken, you would hardly understand a word. One or two words would pop up as recognisable, but that’s all. The common Indo-European words for mother, father, brother, God, would be distinguishable amongst the deep guttural grunts and barks. The smooth sensual flow of modern English would be absent.

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