Sunday, 24 February 2013

The History Of English - Part 1

Il y avait une fois...
(once upon a time...)

The Britain that the Romans came, saw and conquered (43-410 CE) was inhabited by scattered tribes of Celtic-speakers who had probably crossed the channel from France and Belgium. (Which means, I suppose, that some of my ancestors were, possibly, French, although of course France, as a country, did not exist that long ago, and my mother always insisted that she was descended from the Vikings which is why I have blue eyes, fair hair and a love of snow and forests. I digress.)

Moving on, the Roman invaders brought with them Latin, naturalemente, and this would have been the official language of trade, commerce and government, although the majority of the Celts, especially those living in rural locations, would have continued to speak their own dialects.

Now, Britain may be an island but as early as the first century it was a cosmopolitan kind of place with travelers landing on our shores from as far afield as Africa and the Middle East. The air would have been full of foreign accents and this would have added to the linguistic flexibility of the native population, a state of affairs that would, over the next few centuries, be extended as English adopted wanderers, ways and words from across Europe and beyond.

(Note to the 'purists', sorry guys, English has never been a 'pure' language and it's way too late to try to make it so now)

Where were we?
So, the Roman Empire was good for Britain. For over three hundred years it provided stability and growth, good government, as well as hot baths, chilled wine and straight roads.
However all good things must come to an end and the Roman Empire was no exception. By the fourth century Italy itself was increasingly under attack, both by barbarian invaders from eastern and northern Europe as well as the bugs and diseases that wiped out whole communities. The Roman Empire needed to withdraw and re-group in order to survive.

As the Roman garrisons began to depart from the outposts of the empire the earlier-displaced Celtic tribes seized the opportunity to indulge in a little Pay Back and started to attack the soft-living southerners from their lands in the north and east...

It was time to call in the cavalry.

"the Angles or Saxons came to Britain at the invitation of King Vortigern in three longships, and were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on condition that they protected the country; nevertheless their real intention was to subdue it. They engaged the enemy advancing from the north, or having defeated them, sent back news of their success to their homeland, adding that the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly. Whereupon a larger fleet quickly came over with a great body of warriors, which, when joined to the original forces, constituted an invincible army. ... These newcomers were from the three most formidable races in Germany, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes...

It was not long before such hoards of those alien peoples vied together to crowd into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror
(Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede)

This is one version of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. There are others that tell heroic tales of derring-do by brave warriors who valiantly fought the invaders for many years, it was not necessarily the rout that history would have us believe.

But, as history relates, the Anglo-Saxons also came, they also saw and they also conquered.

And Britain entered a period of documentary dearth from which few records survive, emerging some 200 years later speaking an identifiable language variety that had evolved from the Germanic tongue of the invaders into that which we call Old English.

So, here's how Old English looked, if you had been living in Britain in the first few hundred years this is the writing that you would have seen on road signs, advertising hoardings and on the front page of your favourite newspaper, well, if there had been such things back then which, of course, there weren't...

The Anglo-Saxon futhorc, so-called because the first few letters are f-u-th-o-r-c, (think alphabet, you know, alpha, beta...)

The origins of the futhorc are obscure. It may have come from Frisia, around the south eastern coast of the North Sea, that land whose tongue most closely resembles Old English, or perhaps it traveled to British shores from Scandinavia with my mother's ancestors, who knows?

Suffice to say that the first words of Old English were written using this runic script. Which must have made carving your name on a rock with a simple blade an awful lot easier...

Beowulf woz here

The picture is of the Franks Casket, carved in whalebone in Northumbria around the 8th century. The inscription was intended to be read in a circle so the writing on the lower edge is upside down. Early English writing was not always left to right, top to bottom, but often followed the shape of the medium on which it was inscribed. Notice also the absence of spaces, punctuation and capital letters...

Why are runic inscriptions interesting?

Well, firstly they show the futhorc at that time in it's development. The Old English futhorc had between 24 and 31 letters some of which have no modern-day equivalent.

The letters are angular and indicative of the tools with which they were 'written', ie chisels and knives that scratched on hard surfaces like wood and stone.

The inscriptions provide a clue to the sounds of Old English and the manner in which it was evolving. For instance, at some time the pronunciation of the original Old English k changed and a new rune was created to accommodate this new sound.

So, that's Chapter One in the History of English in which our hero, the fledgling English language, finds himself unexpectedly on the shores of a new land but, undaunted, starts to evolve and grow in size and strength as he feeds on new words from the mouths of others...

Here's a Timeline for Old English, we leave the story slap-bang in the middle of Early Old English, just before the Vikings appear on the horizon, on a cliffhanger? or a pause so that this blogger can go and do things domestic around the house.

1. Pre-English period (? to AD 450)
The local language of Britain was Celtic.
The Roman invasion of circa 55 CE brought Latin which became the dominant language of government, culture and commerce. Many Britons became bilingual Celtic-Latin speakers

2. Early Old English (450 - 850 CE)
The Anglo-Saxon invasion circa 499 CE.
The invaders who settled brought a selection of Germanic dialects from western Europe. The first Old English writings appeared. During the seventh century Old English adopted many Latin words from the increasingly powerful Christian church.

3. Late Old English (850-1100)
The vikings repeatedly invaded and many settled in the north and eastern parts of Britain. These latest invasions heavily influenced the dialects spoken in those areas of the country.
King Alfred ordered the translation of many Latin texts into English


  1. I wish I'd had this when I was studying this 30 odd years ago.

    Good to see you back. Please keep this up, and keep in touch.

    1. Bonjour Lucy, I wish that I had studied linguistics thirty years ago, I was seduced by science and only managed to embark on my love affair with languages when the Rags were born

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I only did a course on the history and development of English (Baugh and Cable was the only book required really) as part of the mediaeval English module I took for my degree - happily ensconced in a fusty room with an old bloke called Bill who smoked a pipe and half a dozen others reading Beowulf and Icelandic sagas, while the go-getter types were down in the lecture theatre cutting their teeth on modern critical theory! Proper linguistics would always have been beyond me, I haven't the head for it, though I seriously envy those that do.

    There's a post might interest you at Dale's blog from a while back, one of a series he did about the history of English poetry, about the rupture between Old and Middle English. It's at

    1. A wonderful post from Dale (who I have previously encountered but never knew he'd written on that topic), thank you!

      I'd have liked to have spent time in a fusty room with the pipe-smoking Bill et al, alas and alack I was probably mired in a mainframe computer operating system at that time and the only languages that I studied were Cobol and assembler.

      If I had known then...
      T'was ever the way, n'est-ce pas?

  4. This is wonderful, Julia. I know some but learned a lot! I was made to recall a visit to the Museum in Pargue many years ago where there were many historical artifacts and history of the Celts that had lived in the area, which surprised me. Also that the Vikings had been that far east!

  5. I guess I can claim Viking ancestry, too, since all my grandparents came from Norway!
    Considering how good the Norwegians have it now I sometimes think it would have been better if they had stayed in Norway! Just think, no worries about healthcare, childcare, university education, or old age.

    1. Indeed, Scandinavia seems sensible in my opinion


Hello! Your comments are welcome and appreciated