They say that history is written by the victors. (Alas, I couldn’t find a reliable source for this quote. Some people attribute it to Churchill, but others say it might have been Orwell or even someone like Pliny the Younger). Maybe it’s one of those meme things.
The history of language is a history of war. If your land is conquered, you learn to speak the language of your new overlords. If you live in a country that conquers other countries, your soldiers come home with new words and phrases they’ve picked up. Languages also change with economics (traders travel here and there to buy and sell things and they return with new words for new things). And teenagers have an uncontrollable urge to invent new words, such as ‘hot’ or ‘cool’ or ‘groovy’ or ‘phat.’ Sometimes a king or a president or dictator says something and it becomes popular (Calvin Coolidge invented the word 'normalcy,' and he was mocked for using a word that wasn’t a word, but now we don’t think twice about it.)
If you’d like to learn more about the history of English, keep reading.
Around the time of the Trojan war and Odysseus’s heroic journey to get home, in the eighth century BCE, the original Celtic culture was flourishing in Central Europe, near modern-day Hallstatt in Austria. The Celtic bronze age ran from about 1200-800 BCE, the iron age from about 800-500 BCE. (Note: I prefer to use "BCE," Before The Common Era, instead of "BC," Before Christ.)
The Celts spread their culture and language east to the Black Sea, west to France and Spain, and north and west to the British Isles. They may have conquered or displaced some other cultures, but the written records are almost non-existent. For example, Stonehenge was probably built before the Celts arrive in Britain, but we don’t know much about what language they might have spoken. Here’s a Wikipedia article about Hallstatt Culture: Hallstatt culture.
In the map below, the Celts started in the yellow area and eventually spread to the light green. The dark green areas indicate where people still speak a Celtic language.
Linguists distinguish between continental Celts (from France and Belgium, for example) and insular Celts (in Latin, ‘insula’ means ‘island,’ which would be Britain and Ireland). The continental Celtic languages are dead – no one speaks them anymore. The insular Celtic languages are split into two groups: Goidelic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx) and Brythonic (Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and probably Pictish).
You can’t point to an actual Celtic invasion of Britain and Ireland; they just sort of migrated there. They eventually spread throughout Britain and Ireland.
In the Welsh language, Wales is known as ‘Cymru’ (which means land of the ‘cymry’ (which means compatriots)). The English word ‘Wales’ actually comes from Germanic – in Germanic, ‘walh’ means ‘outsider’ and a variation of ‘walh’ appears in the words ‘Cornwall’ and ‘Gaul’ as well.
I’m going to digress here. It’s quite common for people in power (including conquering nations) to use a disparaging word for outsiders. In ancient Greek, a ‘barbaros’ (barbarian in English) was the word for a non-Greek – because from a Greek point of view the way non-Greeks talked was nonsense; it sounded like "bar bar bar." Non-Greeks were barbarians. In ancient Germanic languages, the word for outsider was ‘walh,’ and the outsiders lived in Cornwall, Wales, and Gaul. In Alaska, the Inuit word ‘Inuit’ was the word for ‘human beings,’ whereas the word ‘Eskimo’ comes from a non-Inuit language that means either ‘outsiders’ or ‘eaters of raw meat.’ In the southwestern states, the word ‘Navajo’ comes from a Spanish word for ‘field’ or ‘plain.’ The Navajos prefer to call themselves ‘Dineh,’ which translates as ‘the people.’ This pattern repeats itself again and again.
Even some artistic movements got their names from people in power – the establishment critics – who were making fun of them. For example, the words ‘rococo,’ ‘fauvism,’ ‘cubism,’ and ‘punk rock’ were all intended (by insiders) to be derogatory terms for non-traditional (outsider) artists. And don’t forget Lenny Bruce, who was called a ‘sick comic’ or a ‘toilet comic.’
People in power have always had disparaging words for outsiders – words for "those uncivilized people over there." There’s a horribly racist line (but funny, too, in a weird way) from the TV show "Fawlty Towers" – The major says, "And the strange thing was... throughout the morning she kept referring to the Indians as niggers. ‘No no no,’ I said, ‘the niggers are the West Indians. These people are wogs.’" History is written by the victors. Racial slurs and putdowns are also written by the victors.
A Few Famous Celts
Speaking of victors writing a history, you might remember from Latin class that Julius Caesar said "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres." All Gaul is divided into three parts.
Around 55 BCE, Caesar was running around Gaul (France), which at that time was full of people who spoke a Celtic language. Probably the most famous leader of the Gauls was Vercingetorix, who led a rebellion in 52 BCE (but lost to Caesar). If you’ve seen French comic books, you might remember Astérix and Obelix. They were Celtic Gauls, too.
600 years later, in British history, King Arthur and Merlin and Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table were all Celtic. Arthur fought against the invading Saxons in the 6th century CE. I’ll get to the Saxons in a bit. Let’s return to Julius Caesar.
The Roman Invasion of Britain – The First Latin Influence
Julius Caesar invaded southern England in 55 BCE which established a base for the Roman Empire in England (which the Romans called ‘Britannia’). In 43 CE, the Emperor Claudius sent four legions to Britannia to expand the empire. Around 122 CE, the Emperor Hadrian built a wall to keep out the Scottish barbarians from Caledonia. It wasn’t as big or as long as the Great Wall of China, but it was a wall. Ireland was called Hibernia (a Roman general once estimated that Hibernia could be conquered with one legion – about 6000 soldiers, but it never came about).
The Romans left behind their mark. Here’s one simple example: In the Latin language, a military camp was called a ‘castrum.’ Military camps attracted traders, so camps often grew into cities. The suffixes '-caster,' '-chester,' and '-cester' all come from the Latin word ‘castrum’ (so Lancaster, Winchester, and even Worcestershire were originally military camps).
By the year 410, the Roman troops had abandoned Britannia, leaving the Celts once again in charge of Britain, at least for a short time.
The Germanic Tribes
Way back when the Celts were expanding from Central Europe, the Germanic tribes were living in the area around Sweden and Denmark. The Germanic tribes spread south into Germany and Poland and Holland. The map below shows the spread of Germanic languages from about 750-0 BCE:
The Proto-Germanic language evolved and changed and split into three groups:
- East Germanic (Ostrogothic), which was spoken by the Ostrogoths and the Vandals in the area around Poland. You might remember the Vandals as the tribe that sacked Rome in 455. The East Germanic languages eventually faded away and became dead languages.
- North Germanic (Norse), spoken in Scandinavia, which eventually developed into Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic. Finnish isn’t Germanic – it’s Finno-Ugric (which means it’s related to Hungarian).
- West Germanic (Visigothic). Some Visigoths went south to sack and to pillage and to contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire. But a lot of them stayed at home and became the ancestors of the Germans, the Dutch, and the English.
The Migration Of Anglo-Saxon Tribes
Soon after the Roman armies retreated in 410, the Germanic tribes began to migrate to the east coast of England. You can’t really call it an invasion. These were relatively small tribes who lived on the coast, from Denmark to Holland.
From north to south, these Anglo-Saxon tribes included:
• Jutes, from Jutland (modern-day Denmark)
• Angles, from Angeln (near Schleswig-Holstein, Germany)
• Saxons, from lower Saxony (northwest coastal Germany)
• Frisians (Holland and the low countries)
Some people refer to the period from 500-850 as the Heptarchy, because there were seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The four main kingdoms were Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. The other three were Kent, Sussex, and Essex. The languages spoken in the seven kingdoms were mutually intelligible dialects of Old English (each with its own accent).
A Few Examples of Old English
First a few explanations about spelling. There are three letters you might not recognize: æ is ‘ash’ (pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’); þ is ‘thorn’ (an unvoiced th, as in ‘thing’ or ‘thigh’); and ð is eth or edh (a voiced th, as in ‘this’ or ‘thy’). Also, the letters ‘sc’ are pronounced like ‘sh.’ And if you see ‘hw,’ it’s the Modern English equivalent of ‘wh.’
I borrowed the following from Wikipedia. Here’s the beginning of Beowulf (in Old-English, literal translation, and colloquial translation):
- Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum,
- þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
- hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
- Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
- monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
- egsode eorlas.
- What! We [of] Gar-Danes (lit. spear-danes) in yore-days,
- [of] people-kings, trim (glory) afrained (have learned of by asking),
- how those athelings (princes) arm-strong feats framed (made/performed).
- Oft Scyld Scefing, [from] scathers (enemies) [in] threats (armed bands),
- [from] many magths (clans, groups of sons, cf. Irish cognate Mac-), mead-settles took,
- awed earls (leaders of men).
(Colloquial translation) Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes, of the kings of the people, in the days of yore, [and] how those princes did deeds of glory. Often Scyld Scefing deprived armed bands of foes, many clans of mead-benches, [and] terrified warriors.
Anglo-Saxon poets didn’t try to make lines rhyme. Instead they preferred alliteration. Look at line 1 (Gar Dena, gear deagum). Or line 4 (scyld scefing sceathena). Or line 5 (monegum maegthum meodosetla).
In AS, the verb tends to be shoved to the end (as in modern German). And the nouns are strongly inflected (nominative, accusative, ablative, instrumental, etc., like Latin). And here’s something interesting: Old English didn’t have a future tense. I eat (present tense). I ate (past tense). But if you’re talking about the future, you say "I will eat" or "I shall eat" or "Tomorrow I eat" or "I am going to eat." OMG, Modern English doesn’t have a real future tense, either.
Another example is the Lord’s Prayer:
- Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
- Si þin nama gehalgod.
- To becume þin rice,
- gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
- Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
- and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
- And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele.
- Father ours, thou that art in heaven,
- Be thy name hallowed.
- Come thy rich (kingdom, cognate of German ‘Reich’),
- Worth (manifest) thy will, on earth also as in heaven.
- Our daily loaf sell (give) us today,
- And forgive us our guilts as also we forgive our guilty,
- And lead thou us not in temptation, but loose (release) us of evil.
If you’ve studied German or Dutch, it might look sort of familiar.
Alfred The Great
Alfred the Great (who lived from 849-899 and reigned from 871-899) is my favorite Anglo-Saxon king. He was the youngest of four sons of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, by his first wife, Osburga. After his father and his older brothers died, Alfred became king and immediately had to deal with incessant Viking invasions. Sometimes he raised an army and fought against the Norsemen, sometimes he negotiated a payment or bribe to make them go away.
During his 28 years as king, Alfred the Great accomplished quite a lot:
• He unified the scattered Anglo-Saxon tribes and was the first person to call himself King of the Anglo-Saxons. In effect, he said, "You can either fight on our side with us or you can join the Vikings."
• He raised taxes. Because that’s what you do when you’re fighting a war.
• He built infrastructure. A lot of towns got fortresses or walls to keep the Vikings out. If the Vikings besieged a town, the wall would slow them down until Alfred could send an army.
• He created a 120-chapter legal code (the number 120 was important because it was associated with Moses-the-lawgiver). So he wrote down a bunch of laws. He believed in the rule of law rather than the arbitrary whims of the king.
• He insisted that politicians and priests should be literate, so he created an educational system (for his own children, for the children of lords and earls and preachers, and for talented children from the lower classes). The children would start with Anglo-Saxon textbooks then later they would learn Latin. But there weren’t any textbooks in Anglo-Saxon, so he paid people to translate a whole bunch of books into Anglo-Saxon.
• He kept in touch with other rulers. He sent ambassadors far away to the Pope and to the Patriarch of Jerusalem and even to the Caliph in Bagdad. He also kept in touch with the nearby kings of Saxony and Ireland.
Consider this: It all happened in the 9th century, during the Dark Ages, many centuries before the Renaissance. Alfred the Great created his own little Renaissance. He was almost a progressive.
The Anglo-Saxons held onto England for a few more centuries, until the fatal year of 1066.
The Norman Invasion
The events of 1066 began with the death, in January, of King Edward the Confessor. His father was Aethelred of England; his mother was Emma (sister of the Duke of Normandy). Edward had succeeded Harthacnut (from Norway). Then events began to unfold.
So, King Edward was dead and Edward had no issue – no sons to inherit the throne. Three (or four) different people claimed the English throne:
• First, Harold Godwinson (Harold with an ‘o’), who was probably the richest, most powerful noble in England. He was crowned king on January 5, 1066 and reigned until October 14, 1066 (about nine months).
• Second, Tostig Godwinson who was King Harold’s brother. He claimed the throne, but had been outlawed and sent to live in Flanders. He might have been homosexual, but the main thing was he was a heavy-handed jerk who raised taxes, hired mercenaries, was cruel to his thains, and was uniformly hated by his subjects in Northumbria and Scotland. He also might have been in cahoots with Harald Hardrade.
• Third, Harald Hardrade (Harald with an ‘a’) who was the king of Norway. Hardrade means ‘hard ruler.’ His claim to England was based on Cnut and Harthacnut and some agreement or treaty from a few decades earlier.
• Fourth, William of Normandy who was from Northern France (who was related to King Edward’s wife). It may be that Edward the Confessor, before he died, said that he wanted England to be ruled by William of Normandy. Or maybe he said Harold Godwinson should inherit the throne. Different people told different stories.
So King Edward died and King Harold took over in January, 1066. A few months later, his brother Tostig attempted an invasion with a small force from Flanders (to the east) and failed. So far, so good. But Harold was worried about William (in France), so he sent his troops south to repel the Normans.
But in early September, Harald Hardrade (of Norway) sent 300 ships with 15,000 men to invade Northern England. They marched south and occupied York. Oh my god! King Harold (of England) had to rush his troops north to fight the invaders. And King Harold won the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25. King Harald (of Norway) and Tostig were killed in the battle and the Norwegians had only 24 ships left to make their retreat. But King Harold of England won the battle but had a weakened army.
Three days later, William of Normandy (soon to be known as William The Conqueror) invaded southern England on September 28. Harold took his army south, lost the Battle of Hastings, and was killed. Somebody made a tapestry about it. Harald, Harold, and Tostig were dead and William the Conqueror became the King of England.
The Norman invasion of 1066 was, arguably, the last successful continental invasion of England. The Spanish sent their Armada, but failed. Napoleon thought about it, but didn’t do it. In WWII, the Nazis occupied a few small islands and fought the Battle of Britain with aircraft, but didn’t actually land troops.
The Norman Invasion meant that there were two languages in England. For a couple of centuries, the upper classes spoke French and the lower classes spoke English, but the two languages eventually merged together.
The Norman invasion made the English language into a very rich and delicious creole. Think about all the words we have for the same goddamned things: The upper classes were served meat on the table, so we have French-derived words like beef, pork, veal, and poultry. The lower classes used Germanic words for meat on the hoof: cow, ox, pig, swine, calf, chicken. Another example is kingly (Germanic), royal (French), and regal (Latin) – three different words for the same thing.
Plus, there was the second wave of Latin words. In the Mediaeval Period, if you were well-educated, you learned to speak Latin, the lingua franca of the time (much like English is the lingua franca of the 21st century).
Probably the most famous author from Middle English is Geoffrey Chaucer. Here’s a sample from "The Canterbury Tales":
Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
I can translate this without looking at a reference book:
When April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced to the root
And bathed every vein in such liquor,
Of which virtue engendered is the flower;
When Zephyr (the wind) also with his sweet breath
Has inspired in every holt and heath
The tender crops, and the young sun
Has in the ram (Aries) his half course run,
And small fouls make melody,
Who sleep all the night with open eye.
Alliteration is gone. Poetry now has rhymes at the end of lines (OK, they don’t rhyme in the translation, but they rhyme in the original).
Oh, I almost forgot about Ireland. The Roman Empire never invaded Ireland. The Anglo-Saxons never invaded Ireland. The Normans invaded England in 1066 and about 100 years later, they invaded Ireland (in 1169). And that created a thousand years of Irish troubles.
Middle English lasted until about 1550, when The Great Vowel Shift occurred and people started speaking Modern English. Shakespeare wrote in Modern English. The King James Bible is Modern English.
Here’s a link to Wikipedia’s article about Modern English: Modern English,
Here’s a good DKos diary written by unspeakable about The Great Vowel Shift: Modern EnglishPhenomena of Language: The Great English Vowel Shift.
There’s one more thing I should mention before I go: Samuel Johnson’s "Dictionary of the English Language." Johnson was a strange man (possibly OCD), but he was the first person to write and publish a definitive dictionary of the English language. He signed the book contract in 1746 and finished writing his dictionary nine years later. For 150 years, it was the definitive reference work.
Prior to the first dictionary, people spelled words according to how they sounded. There weren't any definite rules. But after Samuel Johnson wrote a dictionary, it gave you a reason to spell a word in a certain way. Johnson’s dictionary was the absolute authority until the Oxford English Dictionary was published about 150 years later.
In the U.S., it took Noah Webster 27 years to write his dictionary (which was published in 1828). He invented the American style of spelling (color instead of colour, center instead of centre, and he added uniquely American words like skunk and squash). Webster was the Samuel Johnson of America.
I'm sorry that I didn't spend more time on Modern English, but I think the really old stuff is the most interesting. English English got some words from India and American English got some words from the Native Americans and Filipinos and Hawaiians and Vietnamese and so on and so on. And the Australians got words from the aborigines. Which is really cool. But I still like the old stuff.