by Nike Phoenix
This article tells the story of the English language.
| The English language is one of the most diverse languages in the world. This is why English has survived for so long despite the many transformations that have been imposed on it. English is considered a hybrid language and there is a reason why English has many cognates or similar sounding words from other languages. English will thrive in the many years to come and will change the landscape of the world and of linguistic tendencies of other nations and people. |
To give you a better understanding of how English works I will give you a short history of my background and why I love learning languages. I was born with an ear infection and a speech impediment when I was a baby. When I was undergoing speech therapy as I aged I became frustrated because of the many intricacies that were in the English language. I was pronouncing sounds wrong and had to be corrected over and over again. I wasn't forming my lips right to say a sound so I had to practice over and over again. I mumbled a lot and I screamed when I was frustrated. Eventually I learned to control how I was sounding and started speaking English normally so other English speakers could understand me. The weird thing about my speech dysfunction was that I could read when I was 4 years old but I just barely learned to speak. I had to be sent to a special school before I attended preschool to learn how to form sounds phonetically. Yet I could read books that young adults could read. I could read medical textbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Yet I struggled whenever I wanted to express myself. I had an overactive imagination and would use it whenever I couldn't be near people because I was frustrated that I couldn't talk normally. So in high school I decided to learn more about the language I had always struggled to learn.
In middle school and high school I had taken courses in French and Spanish so I could learn more about languages. In these classes I discovered that there were cognates in English, Spanish, and French. I took French because my mom was of French blood and I took Spanish because Spanish other than English is the most widely spoken language in the United States. Then in middle school and high school I learned about the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire completely changed the English language!
To understand English we have to understand the people where the language came from. The land we know today as Great Britain or the United Kingdom is where a lot of colonists who eventually settled in the thirteen colonies came from. Today most people only know about England because it is where London is. London is the hub of the British Empire. London is where the Queen of England and the rest of the royal family live. Here is a hint about the name of the land of England: Angle-Land or the Land of the Angles. How do I know this? I have to know this because it is part of my heritage. My heritage is my story. So I thank you for your patience and invite you to travel back in time with me. Back to the Iron Age of the British Isles.
In the Iron Age the British Isles consisted of three types of people or tribes: the Bretons (Britain), the Scotii (Ireland), and the Picts (Scotland). These tribal people were called Celts and we know of the Druids and of pagan religions such as Wicca where these religions were part of these Celts' way of life. These tribes were always fighting with each other and never could agree on which part of the island belonged to which tribe. Luckily for the Scots, Hibernia as Ireland was known back in the Roman times didn't really have many invaders other than when the United Kingdom laid claim to Northern Ireland in the recent century. The Picts and the Scots were related by blood and were always at ends with the Bretons. So when the Roman Empire came into power the Bretons sent an envoy to the Romans to ask for help with the conflicts they were having with the other Celtic tribes. When the Romans arrived in Brittania (as the Romans called it) not everyone was happy. A warrior queen by the name of Boudicca tried to send back the invading Roman army but was unsuccessful in her attempt. So thus the era of the Romano-Britains came into being. Now English hadn't been introduced to the island yet because the Celts and the Romans were living there. Latin was being introduced into the Celtic languages and would change how the people of Brittania were speaking. To give you an idea of what the Celtic languages might have sounded like I reference three Celtic languages of today: Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and Irish. Even after the Roman Empire took a hold of the British Isles the Celts were still fighting each other so a wall had to be built to separate the island of Britain. This wall is known as Hadrian's Wall.
Emperor Hadrian inherited the British Isles at a very bad time in the island's history. The Roman Army had just taken hold of the island and because they decided to set up an alliance with the Bretons in the south part of Britain; the Picts in the North felt even more threatened. So to dissuade the Picts from trying to cause trouble with the Romans and the Bretons he built two walls separating the northern part of Brittania (called Caledonia) from Britain (the southern part). Caledonia is the ancient name for Scotland and Britain is the ancient name for England. Brittania was what the Romans called the whole island other than Hibernia which is now Ireland. Well legend has it that King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table lived during this time of Roman rule. During this time Roman consulates and soldiers came to the island of Brittania to have land awarded them through their conquests or terms of service. Arthur's father was Uther Pendragon who claimed descent from Roman royalty. These people were called Romano-Britains. Latin was being heavily introduced into the Celtic tongues and would form a basis for a future language in the land of Brittania.
For those who aren't familiar with the study of language, English is from the Germanic family of languages in the world. German is the sister language of English and English is very closely related to Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, and especially North Frisian. The Germanic tribes were being incorporated heavily into the Roman Army when Roman forces would take over Germanic territories.
Here is where the story of the Roman Empire and the English language gets interesting. We all know about Julius Caesar and how he was assassinated. We all know of how Rome was the most powerful empire in the world when it was in power. For most of us we have no idea what happened to the Roman Empire after it fell. I have one word for you: treason! A Germanic lord who became one of the most trusted soldiers in the Roman military eventually convinced the other Germanic tribes to launch a surprise attack on Rome. The Germanic tribes sacked Rome and destroyed everything of value in the city and virtually tore the Roman Empire apart. After this act the Germanic tribes of lands such as Angeln, Saxony, and the Jutlands of modern Northern Germany and Denmark had to find another place to live. Their homes had been ruined by the Romans and they were looking for a new place to live. So when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate these Germanic tribes crossed the North Sea and the channel of water into the island and either settled or invaded lands in Brittania. The ones who settled were invited to help the British Empire from the other Celtic tribes who saw an opportunity to reclaim lands that were taken from them by the Roman Empire and the British hierarchy. This gave rise to the now popular term: Anglo-Saxon.
Anglo-Saxon as a term is used to describe the people and their language. As the Angles and these other Germanic tribes slowly settled in this new land they slowly changed the linguistic diversity of the British Isles. Their language is also known as Old English and Beowulf is their most famous work in this language. The Angles were the prime champions of the new language and gave rise to what the country of British royalty is called: England. So it is no wonder that German and English are really close in comparison as languages but because of the different journeys that the two languages took with their evolution is why they look and sound different to each other.
To give you a better perspective of how the Germanic settlers viewed the Britons I will tell you what the Angles called the Britons back then: Welsh. Today there is a country called Wales which lies to the West of England and where the natives still speak a Celtic language called Welsh. These will help explain why a lot of English speakers in the United Kingdom speak English with a funny accent. Which makes English an even more fascinating language!
Well other Germanic tribes saw an opportunity in the British Isles and even more conquests took place. This time by Viking invaders from Scandinavia and more Germanic tribes from what is known today as Denmark. These Vikings spoke a language called Old Norse. So Old Norse and Old English were combined and the English language changed even further.
As time went by many different families were formed that became royalty or that inherited lands or positions of power. One of the most famous figures in history; William the Conqueror was one of these royals. The British Isles at the time of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was ruled by an Anglo-Saxon ruler, Edward the Confessor. When Edward the Confessor died he had no heirs to give his kingdom to. So a battle of words was started between Harold Godwinson (Anglo-Saxon relative of Edward) and the Duke of Normandy, William II. After William was able to maintain his hold on Normandy in the North of France, he set his sights on the British Isles once Edward passed away. So William and King Harold met at the Battle of Hastings and Harold's Army was decimated by William's and he became William the Conqueror. After William came into power he introduced his Norman (French) language into the Old English language. He made his subjects speak Norman in all official, court related, and business transactions. It was forbidden to speak Old English in the courts or in public places. Well that didn't stop the English language was being spoken. The Roman Empire had been transformed into the Holy Roman Empire and all church services at the time were held in Latin. So an amalgam of Celtic languages, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, Norman-French, and other Germanic languages began to form. It is interesting to note here that William the Conqueror was descended from the Viking raiders who in the past invaded the British Isles. The English language was becoming a multilingual phenomenon.
As time went by the subjects of William became frustrated by his stubbornness to let them speak their native languages. This is ironic because in modern times English is the only language that borrows other words from other languages at a really high rate. Well one writer decided to write in an amalgam of Latin, French, and Old English rather than just plain French when he was conducting business. This opened up a flurry of debate about languages and soon Middle English would form. William Caxton starting printing these works by these writers and would keep printing despite objections from the Royal Court in Great Britain. One of the most famous writers in the English language became popular because of William Caxton's printing press. His name was Geoffrey Chaucer and would write the Canterbury Tales, the most famous work in Middle English.
Ironically, a Royal Scotsmen by the name of King James the 6th of Scotland commissioned a Bible in English which would be the main reason English is so widespread today. At the time the Bible was written in Greek or Latin and many uneducated people had trouble reading it because only church clerics knew languages such as Latin. So when King James united Scotland and England into the United Kingdom he had to help the uneducated learn more about the religion of the state. So he had the Bibles in the United Kingdom all translated into English.
Middle English became the King's English or Scholarly English. After King James passed away, Queen Elizabeth the I came into power and writers such as William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, and Sir Walter Raleigh started writing in the this new English. It is in this period where English became the most like it is today. We all know William Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in history. He changed the way the English language was written and expressed. He virtually made the English language into a new art form of wonderful potential. Every story whether told in a play, a television series, a movie, or even video games has been adapted from one of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare became the literary genius of the English language.
So the great explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh who would establish a colony in the New World was also a writer. He established a colony that became lost when he had to leave and help defend the British Empire from the invading Spanish Armada intent on destroying Great Britain. This is metaphorical to me because it shows the hidden war between Spanish and English in the United States of America. Standard English as it is known today has always tried to preserve its heritage. When English spread from the British Isles to the new British colonies it had no choice but to change its structure.
American English as our English is now known in the United States has adopted words from Spanish and from Native American languages of the territories of the land of the Native Americans. Wherever explorers traveled their native language had to travel. Christopher Columbus who is credited for discovering America spoke Italian but was discovering the land of America for the Queen of Spain. He had obtained financing of his voyage from Spain after being rejected by Portugal. So Columbus had to have some knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese along with his native Italian. Latin formed the basis of many of these languages. English has a wide base of words that have many Romance origins. This is why I find linguistics so fascinating.
The story of our languages is the story of our history. Our history as nations, our history as a planet, and our history as human beings. I love the English language but I do not wish that in the future it becomes the only language spoken in the world. So if you know any languages whether it is a dead language such as Latin or any language at all, speak it! Language is how we express ourselves as human beings and as a culture.