The Merging Of The Anglo Saxon Language History Essay

1971 words (8 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 History Reference this


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When I then this all remembered, then remembered I also, how I, before it wall ravaged was and burnt up, how the churches throughout all England stood with treasures and books filled…]

This statement, written in Old English, was expressed by King Alfred, who reigned from 871 to 899 [1] . Its complex and confusing configuration demonstrates the freedom of word order in Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. This language was complicated, but not many rules were clearly defined. In the next centuries, this unpolished language was hit with many influences, mainly from French and Latin. Throughout the years, English molded into the vibrant language it is today, first impacted by the Norman Conquest of England, which brought French into the development of the language, and then also the influence of Latin occurred, which left behind many loan words that remain in our vocabularies to this day. The aim of this paper is to explore the development of the English language by studying its phases of Old English, Middle English and Modern English, and the effect that Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin had throughout the history of the language.

The first phase of English, Old English, was a very complex and undefined language. The Anglo-Saxons began invading Britain in the mid-fifth century, settling down by the late sixth century [2] , and once their power dominated England, so did their language. The Anglo-Saxons were functionally illiterate, but once literacy was brought to them by St. Augustine around the same time of the invasion, the language flourished, developing into Old English after a very small influence from Celtic (Old English contains barely a dozen Celtic words [3] ). The Anglo-Saxons were a farming people, and thus many farming-like words in our vocabularies, like sheep, shepherd, ox, earth, plough, etc., come from Old English [4] . When the Anglo-Saxons took over England, they did so in a very piecemeal way. Bede wrote about this in his work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People [5] :

“From Saxon County… came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons… From the county of the Angles… came the east Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all the Northumbrian race… as well as the other Anglian tribes.”

The excerpt demonstrates in just how many groups the Vikings came. This created many regions that each had their own, slightly different dialect. These regions, to this day, correspond to the main varieties of contemporary English in the British Isles. Old English was a very complicated tongue, having seven vowels, compared to the modern six, and at least six endings for the use of plurals. In addition, any single adjective could have up to eleven different forms [6] . English went through at least one cultural revival where the language was fortified, and its rules were defined, but new attacks always brought new peoples with new tongues, adding furthermore to the intricacy of Old English. The greatest and most significant of these attacks was the Norman Conquest of England.

The Norman Conquest played a major role in the transition of Old to Middle English. Although this conquest of 1066 was not the cause of the introduction of French to English, it still highly impacted the English language. This was because the rulers of Normandy that conquered England were originally Scandinavian Vikings that occupied parts of Northern France. By the middle of the eleventh century, they lost their Scandinavian language and spoke French, and were fundamentally French in their culture [7] . During and after the Norman Conquest, English was no longer the language of the upper class in England. This position was replaced by French, which became the greater language not because of cultural superiority, but because it was the spoken tongue of the conquerors7. French was still, however, considered a very prestigious language, and was described in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester as follows [8] :

“Thus came, lo, England into Normandy’s hand: and the Normans then knew how to speak only their own language, and spoke French as they did at home, and also had their children taught (it), so that noblemen of this land, that come of their stock, all keep to the same speech that they received from them; for unless a man knows French, people make little account of him. But low men keep to English and to their own language still…”

This excerpt demonstrates that even though French was highly revered and was the language of the nobility, English still existed among the “low men”, which were the majority of the population. It was in 1362 that French ceased to be the language of the Parliament. English completely resurfaced at some point after the battle at Agincourt in 1415, where Henry V used the French threat against the English language as a rallying cry [9] .

Middle English was a much more efficient tongue than its predecessor. After the recovery of English, the language was very changed. Only about 15% of approximately 30,000 Anglo-Saxon words still existed [10] . The other 25,500 words vanished under the influence of the Normans. However, it can be said that those words that did remain were basic and fundamental words that are still in existence in our language to this day. Another change that occurred in Middle English was the introduction of new spelling conventions. The Normans disregarded traditional English spelling, and spelt the language just as they heard it, using many of the principles of Norman French [11] . In addition, several changes in the pronunciation of the language also changed. These included y and Ó¯, and the transformation of sounds like gāt to goat, and gōs to goose. [12] In Middle English, the inflectional system declined, and other lingual devices came to replace it. One such instance was the greater importance of word order. Because inflictions, which are noun-endings, failed at demonstrating which noun in a sentence was the subject, the “subject-verb-object” order was created, which was later taken over by the “subject-object-verb” word-order that dominated during the Middle English period [13] . For all of the previously stated reasons, Middle English developed into a more sophisticated language than Old English and triumphed in England during the late Middle Ages.

Despite the success that English had in over-coming French, it still had one more barrier to break: Latin. Latin was much esteemed in that it was the language of international learning. A very long time period passed before English completely replaced Latin. From the early fifteen-hundreds and on, the grammar-school syllabus was centered on classical Latin, where the pupils leaned the language and studied its history and literature and rhetoric; in universities, Latin was the medium of instruction12. Even natural scientists often wrote in Latin: Francis Bacon wrote his Novum Organum about the scientific method in 1620, the three greatest scientific works published in the 17th century were in Latin. However, by 1704, when Newton published Opticks, Latin was declining into abandonment as the paper was written in English [14] . One of the factors that favored English over Latin in the 15th and 16th centuries was the increase of the national feeling of being English or French or Italian, rather than the medieval ideal of being part of a Christendom, or collectively part of a collective Christian community14. This pride in one’s specific nationality led to a greater interest in national languages, and international languages like Latin fell into oblivion.

At the same time that English prevailed over Latin, it was also the most under its influence that it has ever been in history [15] . Thus, numerous traces of Latin can be seen in English. For example, in English, we have many loan-words from Latin. This was encouraged by the large number of translations from Latin to English14. As writers translated works, they often invented English technical terms by adapting those of the Latin originals. The cause of loan-words was not only from translations, though, but also simply from the mixing and co-existence of both languages at once. Some Latin words in English even have completely different meanings than they originally did. Although that happened, some Latin- loans were formally adapted. For example, the Latin ending -ātus was often replaced by English equivalent -ate, like in the word desperate [16] . The Latin influence on English not only brought in new words, but also reshaped in agreement with their real, or supposed, Latin derivation. This is the reason for the silent b in words like debt and doubt, which in Old French were spelled dette and doute, but the b was inserted because of the influence of their Latin equivalents, debitum and dubitāre [17] . As Latin proceeded to shape and mold Middle English into an early Modern English, and our language continued to slowly overpower Latin, English came into its final stages. Over the next centuries, English adapted to each new generation of learners.

After the long journey that English made through its influences from Anglo-Saxon, French, and finally Latin, it merged into the vibrant, effervescent tongue it is today. People now declare that English is an international, major world- language, and will remain that way for centuries to come. However, we can only guess and predict what will happen to the complex English language in the future, but one thing is sure. English has come a long way from what it used to be, and from this point, it can only improve more!

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