History of the English Language

Talking to the past – the history of the English language from Old English to Middle English

Language is constantly changing – you only need to read articles in the papers complaining about the increasing use of ‘txtspk’ to see that. Language changes in many ways and for many causes – today, we see the restrictions on characters in a text message encouraging people to spell words in new ways. New words come in for new inventions, or from other languages through immigration and travel.

Starting with Old English…

If you were to travel back in time to the 10th century, you probably wouldn’t be able to understand a word that anyone said to you. They’d be speaking Old English, a language very different to the English that we speak today. For a start, the grammar was entirely different – more like Latin or Russian than modern English. Words were inflected – that is to say, rather than using a preposition like ‘of’ or ‘from’ to show what is happening in the sentence, a suffix would be attached to the word. For example, ‘stow’ is the Old English word for ‘place’. To say ‘in many places’, you need to add a suffix, so ‘on manegum stowum’.

And, as you can see from that example, not only the grammar but the vocabulary was very different. Talking to a 10th century Englishman, you’d probably only be able to recognize a few words like ‘a’ or ‘the’. Only about 1/6 th of current English vocabulary has an Old English root, with the rest being foreign influences – but these are often the most important and commonly used words – such as ‘to be’. Other Old English words still exist in place names – you may not recognize that the word ‘stow’ means ‘place’, but there are plenty of towns called Stowe or which include it in their name. Even if you could recognize a word when it was written down, Old English pronounciation was very different to today. Even the alphabet was different – there are extra letters taken from the Norse runes.

So how different was Old English? Take a look at this piece of Old English poetry and see if you can understand any of it:

Waes se grimma gaest Grendel haten,
maere mearcstapa, se the moras heold,
fen ond faesten

Any ideas? Try reading it out aloud to yourself, and see if that helps!

In fact, these lines are from Beowulf, a great poem from the 11th century, and this description is the first time that Grendel, a monster, is described. This is how it might run in modern English:

Grendel this monster grim was called,
march-riever mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness (translated by R.I.Altman)

As you can see, it’s very different from the language we know today. But if you look closely, there are a few words you might recognize – ‘grimma’ is ‘grim’, ‘moras’ is ‘moorland’ and ‘fen’ is fen. Some words make sense if you think about them a little more – ‘gaest’ is an evil spirit or monster, and our word ‘ghost’ is its descendent. Other words you might guess from your knowledge of foreign languages – ‘haten’ does not mean ‘hate’, but ‘called’ or ‘named’, like the German ‘heissen’. A ‘march-riever’ is someone who sneaks over a border to steal from and harass the inhabitants – this is a phrase which was still used up to the 19th century. (Beowulf is a wonderful poem – you might enjoy reading the recent translation by Seamus Heaney).

So what caused Old English to change into the language we have today? There are a number of reasons, but a major factor was the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. The Normans spoke an early form of French. The Normans and the English had to communicate somehow, and their struggles to speak changed the language. New French vocabulary was introduced to Old English, and the English grammar gradually became simplified as the Normans struggled with it.

Gradually, Old English tranformed into what’s now called Middle English – the language that Chaucer was writing in in the 14th century. But the official language of England was still French, even though only the upper and educated classes could speak the language! It was only in 1362 that a law called the ‘Statute of Pleading’ was passed, which argued that the legal system was unfair, and that people couldn’t defend a case if they didn’t understand the language it was conducted in. The Statute of Pleading made English the official language of the courts and the Parliament. In 1399, King Henry IV became the first king of England since the Norman Conquest whose mother tongue was English. English was a still a language of low status – especially when it came to writing poetry and literature. During the 14th century, the Italians and French were experiencing an explosion of creativity – great poets like Dante, Petrach and Boccaccio were transforming literature and their language with it. But English had no such great literature – and this is where Chaucer made a difference. He took the language of the man in the street and proved that poetry written in English could be every bit as good as books in Latin or French.

To see how different Middle English is from Old English, take a look at this passage from Chaucer’s famous book The Canterbury Tales. Unlike Beowulf, you shouldn’t have any problems understanding it (especially if you read it out loud), but remember that there were fewer rules about correct spelling in the 14th century!

A Knight there was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

This is the description of the Knight, one of the group of pilgrims described in The Canterbury Tales. None of the words here are unrecognizable once you get past the spelling – ‘fro’ is ‘from’, and ‘curteisie’ is ‘courtesy’ – good manners. Some words are slightly different in meaning – trouthe is not really ‘truth’, but ‘fidelity’; ‘fredom’ is not ‘freedom’ but ‘a generous spirit’.

Comparing The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf, you can see how English had changed between the 11th and the 14th centuries. But The Canterbury Tales were written in the English spoken in the south of England. In 14th century England, it was far more difficult to travel around than it was today. With little contact between people from different regions, regional dialects were noticeably different. Someone from the North, for example, might find a Londoner almost incomprehensible. Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to Britian, tells a famous story about a man trying to buy eggs:

in my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames for to have sailed over the sea into Zeland, and for lack of wind they tarried atte foreland, and went to land for to refresh them. And on of them named Sheffield, a mercer, in-to an house and asked for meat, and especially he asked after eggs. And the good wife answered, that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would have eggs, and she undestood him not. And then at last another said that he would have eyren? Then the good wife said that she undestood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or Eiern, certainly it is hard to please every man, by cause of diversity and change of language.

The English we speak today developed from the English that was spoken in London, so although we can understand most of Chaucer’s poetry, Middle English from the north is much more difficult. Try taking a look at these lines:

This kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledez of the best,
Rekenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,
With rych reuel ory3t and rechles merthes.

It’s much more difficult than Chaucer! The words ‘Camylot’ and the ‘Rounde Table’ should give you a clue as to what this poem is about, though. These lines are taken from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at about the same time as The Canterbury Tales, but an author whose name is now forgotten. Here’s a translation into modern English:

King Arthur lay at Camelot upon a Christmas-tide, with many a gallant lord and lovely lady, and all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table. There they held rich revels with merry talk and jokes.

As you can see, the language of Gawain appears half-way between Old English and Chaucer’s English. You may also have noticed the difference in how the two poets construct their poetry – Chaucer writes rhyming poetry, as they did in Europe, whereas the Gawain poet uses alliteration, in the same way that the writer of Beowulf did three centuries earlier.

We can get some idea of how important this different language was from Chaucer’s own words – Chaucer ends his long poem Troilus and Criseyde (about the Trojan war) with a plea that his poem will be understood in different parts of Britain:

And for ther is so gret diversite [great diversity]
In English and in writyng of oure tonge, [tongue – i.e. language]
So prey I God that non myswrite thee, [miswrite – i.e. copy it out wrongly]
Ne thee mysmetre for defaute of tonge; [mismetre – i.e. get the rhythm wrong because their language isn’t very good]
And red whereso thow be, or elles songe, [red = read; elles = else; songe = sung]
That thow be understonde, God I beseche! [understonde = understool]

(V, 1793-1798)

Chaucer was living through a time of great linguistic change, and was more conscious than most about the effects it would have on his work, but change in language are taking place all aroung us. New words appear, while others drop out of use. It’s a subject that many people feel passionately about, arguing that language should be used as accurately as possible if people are to communicate effectively. Meanwhile, others say that a word means whatever people think it means, and that there’s no way in which one meaning can be considered ‘right’ and others ‘wrong’. It’s a debate that will probably never be ended – but one which is always interesting to discuss. So think about it next time you text your friends!