A world language
The English language is spoken today in parts of Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and in some of the islands of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. It is spoken as a first language by 370 to 400 million people. It is also used as a second language by a similar number of people, and as a foreign language by hundreds of millions more. English is probably used in some way by about a quarter of all the people in the world. Because so many people, in so many places, speak or use English, it is often called a 'world language'.
Who uses English, and why is it such a widely spoken language? In countries like Britain and the US, English is the first language of most people: in other words, it is the first language people learn as children and they communicate in English all the time. In other countries, like India, Kenya, Singapore, and Papua New Guinea, large numbers of people use English as a second language. They have their own first language, but because English is one of the official languages, they use it in education, business, government, radio, and television. Finally, in many countries, English is taught in schools as a foreign language, but it is not an official language.
English is also used for many different kinds of international communication. People in science, medicine, and business often communicate in English. English is the language of much of the world's pop music and films. The 'languages' of international sea and air traffic control, known as 'Seaspeak' and 'Airspeak', use English. They use a small number of English words and sentences to make communication clearer and simpler. (For example, in Seaspeak instead of saying 'Sorry, what was that?' or 'What did you say?' you say 'Say again'.) Much of the world's news is reported in English on television, the radio, the Internet, or in newspapers.
The spread of English around the world began with the British settlement of North America, the Caribbean, Australia, and Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It continued in the nineteenth century when the British controlled parts of Africa and the South Pacific. English also became important internationally because in the nineteenth century Britain was the most important industrial nation in the world. Many new machines came from Britain, so people had to learn English in order to learn how to use them.
In the twentieth century, the use of English spread with the growth in international business. Air travel developed, making more international business possible. Faster ways of international communication, like the telephone and more recently the computer, became more widely used. Many people wanted to do business with American companies because the US was rich, and in order to do this they had to speak English. When international companies and organizations developed, English was often chosen as the working language. For example, English is the working language of the European Central Bank, although the bank is in Germany. In Asia and the Pacific, nine out of ten international organizations work only in English.
English is important not because it has more first- language speakers than other languages (Chinese has more) but because it is used extremely widely. Will this situation continue? This is an interesting question, but first let us look at how English began.
The beginnings of English
Our understanding of the history of English began at the end of the eighteenth century when Sir William Jones, a British judge who lived in India, began to study Sanskrit. This is a very old language of India, and at the time was used in Indian law. Like others before him, Jones noticed many similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, and other European languages. For example:
pitr pater pater father
matar mater matr mother
asti est esti is
trayan tres treis three
sapta septem hepta seven
People had thought that Latin, Greek, and all European languages came from Sanskrit, but Jones disagreed. In 1786, he wrote that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin all came from a 'common source', which had perhaps disappeared. There was a lot of interest in his idea and other people began to study these three languages. Their work proved that Jones was right. We now know that Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, English, and many other languages all belong to one enormous 'family' of languages called the Indo-European family.
Jones's 'common source' from which all these languages developed is now known as Proto-Indo-European. It is thought that a group of people called the Kurgans spoke this language, or dialects of it, and lived in what is now southern Russia from sometime after 5000 BC. In about 3500 BC the Kurgans probably began to spread west across Europe and east across Asia. As groups of Kurgans travelled further and further away from each other, they began to develop stronger differences in their dialects. With the passing of time, these dialects became different languages. When some of them (the Greek, Anatolian, and Indo-Iranian languages) appear in written form in about 2000 to 1000 BC they are clearly separate languages.
Similarities between some languages as they are spoken today suggest that they probably come from Proto-Indo-European. For example, there are similar words in European and Indo-Iranian languages for people in the family (mother, father), animals (dog, sheep, horse), parts of the body (eye, ear), the weather (rain, snow), and for weapons. These similarities allow us to imagine something of the life of the Kurgans: they worked on the land some of the time, made clothes from wool, and used wheels.
More than 2 billion people speak an Indo-European language as their first language. The speaker of Hindi in India, the speaker of Portuguese in Brazil, and the speaker of English in Australia all express themselves in Indo-European languages.
The Celts were the first group of Indo-European speakers to move across Europe. Towards the end of the fifth century BC, they began to leave their homeland north of the Alps in central Europe. They went to the Black Sea, Turkey, south-west Spain and central Italy, the whole of Britain, and Ireland. As they travelled, different dialects of their language developed. The Celts who settled in Turkey spoke Galatian, those in Spain spoke Celtiberian, and those in France, Italy, and northern Europe spoke Gaulish. The Celts who went to Ireland and later Scotland spoke Goidelic (Gaelic) and those who went to southern England and Wales spoke Brythonic (or British).
Unfortunately, for the Celts in Britain, other people wanted to take advantage of the island's good farming land and valuable metals. In AD 43, the Romans invaded Britain. They remained there for almost four hundred years, and almost all of what is now England came under their control. (They never went very far into Wales or Scotland.) They introduced a new way of life and a new language — Latin. British Celts in the upper classes and the towns became used to life with laws and police, roads, baths, and theatres. Some learnt to speak and write Latin. However, a new language did not develop from Latin in Britain as French did in Gaul and Spanish did in Spain.
From the middle of the third century AD, the Romans grew weaker and weaker as the Germanic peoples of northern Europe invaded more and more Roman lands. In AD 410, the Romans finally left Britain. Without the Roman army to guard it, the country was in danger from other invaders.
In AD 449, people from Jutland in modern Denmark — the Jutes — arrived in southern Britain and the Angles — also from Denmark — came and settled in eastern Britain. In 477 the Saxons, from what is now Germany, came and settled in southern and southeastern Britain. These three Germanic peoples were very different from the Romans. The Romans had governed the British Celts, but they had not taken their lands. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons came in larger numbers and they settled on the lands belonging to the British Celts. Some of the British Celts left and went north, some went west into Wales and Cornwall, and others went over the sea to Brittany, in what is now northern France.
The Jutes stayed in Kent, in the southeast of Britain, but the Angles moved north and the Saxons went south-west. They slowly organized themselves into seven kingdoms in what is now England and southeast Scotland. In the seventh century, the kingdom of Northumbria, in the north, was very strong and a great centre of learning. In the eighth century, Mercia, in the centre, became the most important kingdom, and in the ninth century, Wessex, in the south and south-west, became the strongest kingdom.
The invaders called the British Celts wealas meaning foreigners. Later this meant both Celts and servants. From wealas comes the Modern English word Welsh. The British Celts called all the invaders 'Saxons' at first, but in the sixth century the word Angli was used to mean the whole group of invaders. Later Angli became Engle. Today we call them 'Anglo-Saxons'. From the various Germanic dialects used by these people, English developed.
Old English is the language that was spoken from the middle of the fifth century to the middle of the twelfth century in what is now England and southern Scotland. During this time, the language changed and took in words from other languages.
There were four main dialects of Old English: West Saxon (in the south and south-west), Kentish (in the southeast), Mercian (in the centre and east), and Northumbrian (in the north). The dialects had small differences of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
Unlike other invaders, the Anglo-Saxons kept their own language and did not learn the language of the British Celts. They did not take many Celtic words into their dialects either; only about twenty Celtic words are found in Old English. The Anglo- Saxons borrowed some Celtic words for parts of the countryside, which were new to them: for example, the words crag and tor meaning a high rock, and cumb for a deep valley. The names of some English cities, London and Leeds for example, are Celtic, and the word dubris, which meant water, became Dover. Different Celtic words for river or water survive in the river names Avon, Esk, and Ouse, and Thames is also Celtic, meaning dark river. However, there are very few ordinary Celtic words in Old English, and no one is really sure of the reason for this.
Old English in the fifth and sixth centuries did have some words that were not Germanic. These were Latin words, which the Anglo-Saxons had borrowed from the Romans before invading Britain. But there were not many — only about fifty. Some examples are straet (street), weall (wall), and win (wine).
Most Anglo-Saxons could not read or write, but those who could write used runes. These were letters, which had been used by the Germanic peoples since about the third century AD. They were cut into stone or weapons and were often used to say that someone had made or owned something.
The arrival of Augustine and about forty monks in 597 brought changes to Anglo-Saxon life in Britain and to Old English. They had come from Rome to teach the Anglo-Saxons about Christianity. Although Christianity was not new in Britain, this was the first organized attempt to make the people of Britain Christians. Augustine and the monks were welcomed in Canterbury in the southeast by King Aethelbert of Kent and Queen Bertha, who was a Christian. In the following century, these monks and others took Christianity over the south of the country. In the north, people learnt about Christianity from the Irish monk Aidan, who arrived there in 635. By the end of the seventh century all, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were Christian.
The monks built churches and taught poetry, Greek, and Latin as well as Christianity. As a result, a number of Latin words entered Old English: about 450 appear in Old English literature. Some were about the life of the Church: for example, munuc (monk) and scol (school). Others were words for things in the house: fenester (window) and cest (chest). Some verbs from Latin were spendan (to spend), sealtian (to dance), and tyrnan (to turn).
At first, the monks wrote only in Latin, but then they began to write in Old English. This was unusual: people in other northern European countries did not begin writing in their own languages until much later. Learning spread and flowered among the Anglo-Saxons, and by the eighth century England was a centre of learning in western Europe.
The vocabulary of Old English was almost completely Germanic. Much of it — about 85 percent — has disappeared from Modern English and has been replaced with words from Latin or French. However, many of the words in Modern English that are most often used come from Old English. A few examples are: the, and, can, and get. Other words in Modern English which come from Old English are for very basic things and ideas. Some examples are: mann (person), cild (child), hus (house), etan (eat), slsepan (sleep).
Other words which survive from Old English are names of places. The Anglo-Saxons used ford for a place where a river can be crossed, ham for village, ton for farm or village, and wic for house or village. These words survive in many names, for example, Oxford, Birmingham, Brighton, Warwick.
Some Modern English names for the days of the week come from the names of Anglo-Saxon gods and goddesses. Tuesday is named after Tiw, Wednesday after Woden (both gods of war), Thursday after Thunor (god of thunder), and Friday after Frig (goddess of love).
Like other Indo-European languages, Old English made new words by putting two other words together. For example: boccradft, book-skill, meant literature; sunnandaeg, sun's day, meant Sunday. Poets often did this to make beautiful descriptions; one expression for body was bone-house and one for the sea was the water's back.
Old English also made new words by adding letters before or after the main word. For example: gдn (to go) became ingдn (to go in), upgдn (to go up), and ьtgдn (to go out). The word blцd (blood) became blцdig (bloody), and blind became blindlice (blindly).
The words in a sentence in Old English often appeared in a different order from those in Modern English. In Modern English, the girl helped the boy and the boy helped the girl have different meanings, which we understand from the word order. In Old English, people understood the meaning of a sentence from the endings of each word, and these endings changed to show the job that each word did in the sentence.
Nouns also changed their endings for the plural: for example, guma (man) became guman, stдn (stone) became stдnas, and giefu (gift) became giefa. Nouns had three genders, and adjectives and articles changed with the gender of the noun. However, many of the possible changes to words did not happen in practice.
There were more personal pronouns than in Modern English. For example, there was hine (him), him (to him), hi (her) and hire (to her). Him also meant to it and to them. There were also the pronouns wit meaning we two and git meaning you two.
Verb endings changed, too. The past tense of most verbs was made by changing a vowel in the present tense, so sing changed to sang, for example. In Old English there were about twice as many of these irregular verbs as there are today. The past tense of regular verbs was made by adding the endings -de, -ede, or -ode. For example, the past tense of libban (to live) was lifde, the past tense of cnyssan (to push) was cnysede, and the past tense of lufian (to love) was lufode.
In the eighth century Britain was visited by the Vikings, or 'Danes' as the Anglo-Saxons called them. From 787 they came in many small groups from Denmark and Norway and stole gold and silver from towns and churches on the north coast. In 793 and 794, they destroyed Lindisfarne and Jarrow, two very important Christian centres of learning in the northeast of England. In 850, a large Viking army took London and Canterbury, and so a war began which continued until 878. Then King Alfred (the Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex from 871 to 899) won an important battle, and made an agreement with the Vikings to separate England into two parts. After that, the northern and eastern part, known as the Danelaw, was controlled by the Vikings, and the rest of England was controlled by King Alfred.
In order to bring back the centres of learning that had been destroyed, King Alfred decided to make English, not Latin, the language of education and literature. So at the age of forty he learnt Latin and began translating books into Old English. He described his plan in these words:
Therefore, it seems better to me… that we should also translate certain books, which are most necessary for all men to know into the language that we can all understand, and also arrange it… so that all the youth of free men now among the English people… are able to read English writing well.
Later he had other books translated into Old English. One of these was Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The History of the English Church and People), which had been written in about 731 by a monk in Northumbria called Bede. This is the most important source of information about early English history that we have. In the translation, and in other early English writings, we begin to see the word Englisc (English) used to describe the people and the language.
King Alfred also started a history of England in English: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This was written by monks in different parts of the country. It described what had happened in the past in England, and also what happened every year at the time of writing. It was the first chronicle in Europe that was not written in Latin.
Most of the Old English works that have survived were written after King Alfred's death. One of the greatest writers was a monk from Wessex called AElfric (955-1010). He wrote many Christian works and a guide for young monks called Colloquy. This was written in Latin as a conversation between a teacher and a student, and it is important for two reasons. It tells us a lot about the daily life of monks and ordinary people, and it also tells us a lot about Old English, because in one copy someone has written the Old English words above the Latin words.
The greatest piece of literature in Old English that has survived is a poem of about 3,000 lines called Beowulf. This was probably made in the middle of the eighth century, although it was not actually written down until about two hundred and fifty years later. It tells the story of a brave man from Scandinavia called Beowulf. He fights and kills a terrible animal called Grendel, and then kills Grendel's mother, who is just as terrible. It is a poem about life and death, bravery and defeat, war and peace.
In the Danelaw, the Vikings and the English were able to communicate quite well, because their two languages, Old Norse and Old English, were both Germanic. One effect of this was that Old English became simpler. Many of the different word endings disappeared. Plural endings became simpler as the — s ending was more widely used, and many verbs which used to change their vowel to make the past tense now began to take the — de ending instead.
Another result was that thousands of words from Old Norse (ON) entered Old English (OE). Between four and five hundred remain in use today, with hundreds more in the dialects of northern England and Scotland. We can see that the speakers of the two languages lived together closely, because the Old Norse words that came into Old English are words from everyday life — words for the house (window), parts of the body (leg, neck), and common verbs (get, take, want). There are also many words beginning with sk- like skin, skirt, and sky. Others are: bag, die, egg, husband, same. Some Old Norse words replaced Old English words; for example syster (ON) replaced sweostor (OE) for sister. In some cases, both the Old Norse and Old English words for the same idea were used. For example, there was wish (OE) and want (ON), and sick (OE) and ill (ON).
The Old Norse word are replaced the Old English sindon and the Old Norse verb ending -s for the third person singular in the present tense began to be used. The Old Norse they, their, and them slowly replaced the Old English hi, hire, and hem in the following centuries.
The Vikings also left their mark on place names. More than 1,500 places in northern England have Scandinavian names. Over 600 end in -by, which means farm or town (for example, Whitby). Others end in -thorp(e) (small village), and -toft (piece of land)-, for example, Scunthorpe and Blacktoft. Modern family names that end in -son, like Johnson and Davidson, also come from the Vikings.
Battles between the Vikings and the English continued in the tenth century. From 1016 to 1041, England had Danish kings, who were then followed by an English king, Edward. When Edward died in 1066, Harold, the leader of Wessex, was chosen to be the next king. However, William, one of Edward's cousins, said that Edward had promised that he would become king of England. William was the leader of Normandy in northern France. He decided to take an army to England and fight Harold.
The Normans in England
At the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October 1066, King Harold was killed and his army was defeated by the Normans. On Christmas Day 1066, William was made king of England in London, and over the next four years, he completed his conquest of England and Wales. This conquest had a very great effect on the development of the English language.
William had large stone castles built, from which Norman soldiers controlled the towns and countryside. He took very large areas of land from rich English families and gave them to his Norman followers. Each of these new landowners had his own group of soldiers, and each gave land to his own followers, so there was usually one Norman family in each English village. Normans worked in the government and business and controlled the Church.
Norman French immediately became the language of the governing classes and remained so for the next two hundred years. French and Latin were used in government, the Church, the law, and literature. Very little was written in English, although English monks continued writing The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle until 1154. English was still spoken, however, in its different regional dialects.
The use of French continued in England during the twelfth century, partly because many of the Norman kings and landowners also had land in Normandy and other parts of France and they spent a lot of time there. French was not spoken only by people of Norman or French blood. It was also spoken by English people who wanted to be important.
Slowly, however, English became more widely used by the Normans. Many of the Normans married English women, so they and their children spoke English. In 1177, one English writer reported that with 'free men' it was impossible to know who was English and who was Norman.
In 1204, King John of England lost Normandy to the king of France, and during the next fifty years all the great landowning families in England had to give away their lands in France. They became less involved with France and began to feel that England was their country.
The upper classes continued to speak French as a second language, and it was still used in government and the law. However, French started to become less important socially in England, partly because the Norman French spoken in England was not considered 'good' by speakers of Parisian French in France. The upper classes began to feel prouder of their English than of their French.
Most ordinary people could not speak French at all. At the end of the thirteenth century, one poet wrote:
Lewede men cune Ffrensch non Among an hondryd vrtnejns on.
Common men know no French Among a hundred scarcely one.
Ordinary people did not need to learn French, and probably did not want to. It was the language of the Normans, who had destroyed many English towns and villages. English was the language of the country, and people were proud of it and of their history. A poet in around 1300 wrote in his introduction to the poem Cursor Mundi:
pis ilk bok es translate Into Inglis tong to rede For the love of Inglis lede,
Inglis lede of Ingland,
For the commun at understand.
This book is translated
Into the English language
For the love of the English people,
English people of England,
And for the common people to understand.
The continuing bad feeling between England and France resulted in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). During this time, national feeling grew and the English language was seen more and more as an important part of being English.
Between 1348 and 1375, England was hit several times by the illness known as the Black Death and almost a third of the people in England died. Many churchmen, monks, and schoolteachers died and were replaced by less educated men who spoke only English. There were fewer ordinary working people, so they could ask for better conditions from the landowners. Many left the land and went to work for more money in the towns. As ordinary people became more important, their language — English — became more important too. It was used more and more in government, as fewer and fewer people could understand French. In 1362, English was used for the first time at the opening of Parliament.
When Henry the Fourth became king in 1399, England had its first English-speaking king since 1066. In the following century, English took the place of French in the home, in education, and in government. It also became the language of written communication so that after 1450 most letters were in English, not Latin.
English had survived — but it had changed.
In the four centuries that followed the Norman Conquest, the English language changed more than in any other time in its history. Thousands of words from French came into the language, and many Old English ones left it. At the same time, the language changed grammatically, mainly by becoming simpler. The English used in this time is called Middle English.
One way the grammar grew simpler was by losing some of the different endings for nouns, adjectives, and pronouns. For example, by the fifteenth century the plural noun ending — (e)s was accepted everywhere in England, although some plurals with — en survived (children is one of them). Other noun endings which have survived are the 's (the boy's book) and the s' (the boys' books). Adjectives and nouns also lost their grammatical gender, and the became the only form of the definite article.
The main change to verbs was to the past tense. Some of the Old English verbs began to end in -ed. For example, the past tense of climb was clomb, but the word climbed also began to appear in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, most of the thousands of verbs which had entered the language from French also formed the past tense with — ed. Sometimes the change went the other way, so knowed became knew, but usually -ed was used. There are still about 250 'irregular' past tense verbs in English, but this is only about half the number that there were in Old English.
In Old English, there were two main tenses: past and present. In Middle English other tenses developed which used be, have, shall, and will. Shall and will began to be used to express the future. Have and be were both used for the perfect tenses at first, but in the end have was used for perfect tenses (as in they have gone) and be was used for the passive (as in it was done). Be was also used for the continuous tenses (as in he is coming). These tenses were not used very often at this time, but later they were used much more.
When the different noun endings disappeared, people had to put words in a particular order to express meaning. The most common order they used was subject — verb — object. They also used prepositions, for example in, with, and by, instead of noun endings, so the expression daeges and nihtes became by day and by night in Middle English.
All these grammatical changes were possible because from 1066 until the end of the twelfth century very little was written in English. The official papers of the government and the Church were written in Latin or French. This meant that people were free to make changes to their spoken language very easily.
If English grammar was much simpler by the end of the fifteenth century, its vocabulary was much richer. Between 1100 and 1500, about ten thousand French words were taken into English, three-quarters of which are still in use. French words came into every part of life. The words blanket, ceiling, chair, dinner, fruit, lamp, and table described things in the home. Science and the arts were enriched by the ideas and words dance, grammar, literature, medicine, music, painting, poet, square, and many more. New words arrived to describe the law: crime, judge, prison, and punish, for example. And some things in nature received new names: flower, forest, mountain, river, and ocean.
French (F) words very often replaced Old English (OE) words: for example, people (from the French peuple) replaced leode (OE). But sometimes both the French and the Old English words survived, with small differences in meanings: for example ask (OE) and demand (F), wedding (OE) and marriage (F), king (OE) and sovereign (F). Sometimes French words were used for life in the upper classes, and Old English ones for life in the lower classes. For example, the words for the animals in the fields were Old English (cows, sheep, and pigs) but the words for the meat on the table were French (beef, mutton, and pork).
New English words were made from some of the new French words almost immediately. For example, the English -ly and -ful endings were added to French words to make gently, beautiful, and peaceful.
At the same time, several thousand words also entered English from Latin. They came from books about law, medicine, science, literature, or Christianity these books often used words, which could not be translated into English. One translator wrote:
… there ys many words in Latyn that we have not proper English accordynge thereto.
… there are many Latin words that we do not have English words for.
So translators often took the Latin word and made it into an English one. Some words which came into Middle English from Latin at this time were: admit, history, impossible, necessary, and picture. One important source of Latin words was the first translation of the Bible from Latin to English, which was made by John Wycliffe and his followers between 1380 and 1384. They followed the Latin very closely, using many Latin words. More than a thousand Latin words appear for the first time in English in their translation of the Bible.
The changes to the grammar and vocabulary of Middle English did not happen at the same time everywhere. The Old English dialects continued to develop differently from each other. The main dialects in Middle English were similar to those of Old English, but they used different words, word endings, and pronunciations. Understanding people from different places, even those which were quite close, was difficult. There is a famous description by William Caxton, who later brought the printing machine to England, of a conversation in Kent between a farmer's wife and some sailors from London (about eighty kilometres away). The sailors asked for some eggys but she did not know this word (in her dialect eggs were eyren). Thinking that they must be speaking a foreign language, she told them she 'coude speke no frenshe' (couldn't speak French)!
When people wrote, they used the words and pronunciations of their dialects. For example, the sound /x/ in the middle of words was spelt gh in the south and ch in the north, so night (pronounced /nixt/ at that time) could be spelt as night or nicht. One word could have a number of different spellings. There were more than twenty ways of spelling people (for example, pepylle, puple, peeple), more than five hundred ways of spelling through, more than sixty ways of spelling she and many more variations. Sometimes a spelling from one dialect has survived, together with the pronunciation from another. For example, busy is the spelling from one dialect, but the pronunciation /bizi/ is from another.
From the thirteenth century, English was used more and more in official papers, and also in literature. Much more literature has survived from this time than from the earlier time of Old English. There are songs, long poems, and explanations of Christianity and the Bible. Here is part of a song from around 1225. It is about the cuckoo — a bird that visits Britain in the early summer.
Svmer is icumen in Lhude sing cuccu!
Growe sed and blowe med And springje wde nu.
Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed grows and the field comes into flower And the wood comes up now.
The greatest writer in Middle English was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400). Chaucer, who lived in London, was both a poet and an important government official. He wrote in the East Midlands dialect (spoken by people living in the Oxford-London-Cambridge triangle) and used many words from French. He also used rhyme, which was used in French and Italian poetry. His best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, written in the 1390s, begins with these famous words:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licuor,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages...
When April with its sweet showers
Has pierced the drought of March to the root
And bathed every vein in such liquid
From which strength the flower is engendered...
Then people long to go on pilgrimages...
The poem is about a group of ordinary people who journey to the large church at Canterbury together, telling each other stories on the way. They are a varied group of characters, and Chaucer describes them colorfully. There is the Wife (woman) of Bath, the Cook, the Clerk (a student at Oxford), the Man of Law, the Shipman, the Monk, and many others. In their stories and conversations, Chaucer gives us plenty of details about their lives. For example, he makes fun of the French spoken in England:
And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe.
And French she spoke extremely beautifully With an accent from Stratford-at-Bow Because the French of Paris was unknown to her.
Chaucer was very good at describing people and also at writing conversation which sounded very real. He had a great effect on writers in the fifteenth century, and many of them copied him.
Another very popular poem in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries was Piers Plowman by William Langland (1330-1400). In this, Langland wrote about the difficulties of the poor in England, the bad customs of the Church, and also the perfect Christian life. It was a 'dream' poem, in which the writer describes what he has seen in a dream. This kind of poem was popular in France and Italy at the time, but Langland wrote it in the way Old English poems were written. He did not use rhyme; instead, in each line he used several words that begin with the same sound. This short piece from near the beginning of the poem shows how he did this:
I was wery, forwandred, and went me to reste Vnder a brode banke bi a bornes side,
And as I lay and lened and loked in e wateres,
I slombred in a slepyng, it sweyued so merye.
Thanne gan I meten a merueilouse sweuene — That I was in a wildernesse, wist I neuer where.
I was tired of wandering and went to rest under a broad bank by the side of a brook,
And as I lay and leaned over and looked into the water,
I fell into a sleep, it sounded so pleasant.
Then I began to dream a marvellous dream — That I was in a wilderness, I did not know where.
All poems were written to be read out to other people, so the sounds of the words were very important.
A different kind of development in the fourteenth century was the growing use of family names. People began to need these as they moved away from their village or as their village grew larger. Sometimes the family name had the father's name (Johnson), as in Anglo-Saxon times. Other names showed where a person lived (Rivers, Hill), or his town (Burton, Milton), his country (French, Holland), or his work (Cook, Fisher). A person's family name could change five or six times during his lifetime.
In the fifteenth century, a machine was brought to England, which had a great effect on English. This was the printing machine, which William Caxton brought to London in 1476. Suddenly it was possible to produce thousands of copies of books. But what words and spellings should be used? Caxton wrote:
And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother… Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of… chaunge of langage.
And the common English that is spoken in one region varies from another… Certainly, it is hard to please every man because of… the change in the language.
Caxton and other printers decided to use the East Midlands dialect, mainly because it was spoken in London and used by government officials. The printers did not make their decisions in a particularly organized way, but slowly standard spellings developed. However, after this time, the sounds in many words changed or disappeared. As a result, there are now thousands of words that are spelt in the way that they were pronounced in Caxton's time. For example, the letter k in knee, the letter w in wrong, and the letter l in would were pronounced at this time.
By the end of the fifteenth century, English was starting to be read by thousands of people.
In the next century it was read by many more, and used by the great star of English literature — William Shakespeare.
Modern English begins
The sixteenth century was a time of changes in Europe. Europeans began to explore the Americas, Asia, and Africa, and learning in all areas flowered. In England, the English language grew in order to express a large number of new ideas.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Latin was the language of learning in all of Europe, and it was seen as richer than English and the other spoken European languages. However, with the growth of education, the introduction of printing, and the new interest in learning, this began to change. More and more people wanted to read books by Roman and Greek writers, and in England, they wanted to read them in English. So these books were translated, and other books about learning were written in English. Using English meant that a writer could reach more people, as one sixteenth-century printer explained to a writer who preferred Latin:
Though, sir, your book be wise and full of learning, yet… it will not be so saleable.
However, the acceptance of English as a language of learning was not complete until the end of the seventeenth century. For example, in 1687 Isaac Newton chose Latin when he wrote his Principia, but fifteen years later, he wrote Opticks in English.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writers in English borrowed about 30,000 words from about fifty languages, mainly to describe new things and ideas. About half of these words are still used today. This very large growth of vocabulary was the main change in English at this time. The new words came mainly from Latin; for example, desperate, expensive, explain, fact. Other important sources for new words were French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese. And as the Europeans travelled to more and more places, so words came into English from America, Africa, and Asia. For example chocolate and tomato came from Mexico; banana from Africa, coffee from Turkey, and caravan from Persia.
Not everyone liked this borrowing of words. Some thought that the strange words were unnecessary and hard to understand. English could express everything quite well without them and the writers were only showing how much Latin they knew. One man, Sir John Cheke, wrote in 1557:
I am of this opinion that our own tung shold be written cleane… unmixt… with borowing of other tunges.
I think, we should write our own language without borrowing words from other languages.
But the borrowing continued, and the new words which survived slowly lost their strangeness.
New words were also added to English in other ways. People were adventurous with language: they used verbs as nouns (laugh and invite), or nouns as verbs, or made adjectives from nouns (shady from shade). Or they put two words together (chairman), or they added new parts to words; un- to comfortable, for example.
The age of Queen Elizabeth the First (Queen of England 1558-1603) was one of a great flowering of literature. There were the poets Spenser and Sidney, and the writers of plays Marlowe, Jonson, and, of course, William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare (1564-1616) is considered the greatest writer of plays. He expressed his understanding of human nature in extraordinarily rich language in his plays and poems. He had the largest vocabulary of any English writer and made about two thousand new words, and a large number of expressions, which are now part of Modern English. For example, he wrote: it's early days (it's too soon to know what will happen)-, tongue-tied (unable to speak because you are shy); the long and the short of it (all that needs to be said about something)-, love is blind. His success and fame during his lifetime meant that his plays had a very great effect on English.
When Elizabeth the First died in 1603 she left no children, so her cousin, King James the Sixth of Scotland, became King James the First of England. In 1604, the new king ordered a translation of the Bible into English. There were many different English translations of the Bible and he wanted to have one main translation. It was made by fifty- four translators who worked together in small groups, using older translations as their guide.
The translators did not follow Shakespeare's example and make new words; instead, they used old ones, even ones that were out of date or were becoming unusual. For example, they used ye instead of you as a subject pronoun, and the -eth ending for verbs instead of -s. They did not use as many different words as Shakespeare either: he had used twenty thousand and they only used eight thousand. They aimed to make the language sound like poetry when it was read out and usually they succeeded. Here is a short piece from a teaching of Jesus as an example:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you… That ye may be the children of your Father, which is in heaven: for he maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
The King James Bible appeared in 1611 and was read in churches everywhere in England, Scotland, and Wales for the next three hundred years. It was also read in people's homes and taught at school, and for many people it was the only book that they read again and again. As a result, it had an important effect on the English language. Many expressions from it became part of the language; for example, the apple of somebody's eye (a person who is loved very much by somebody); by the skin of your teeth (you only just manage to do something); the salt of the earth (a very honest person); the straight and narrow (an honest way of living). Its poetry had a great effect on many English writers in the centuries that followed.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were some grammatical changes to English, although not as many as those that had happened to Middle English. People began to use do with a main verb. For example, you could say I know not or I do not know. You could say I know or I do know. And you could say know you? Or do you know? In the seventeenth century, people began to use I know, I do not know, and do you know? more often. Another verb change was the ending of the third person singular in the present tense. By 1700 the -th was no longer used and all verbs took -s; for example loveth was now loves.
Pronouns also changed a little. In 1500 the words ye and you were used in the same way as he and him, but by 1700 ye had disappeared. Thou and thee were also used instead of you to children or people who were less important than yourself, but these also disappeared in many dialects in the seventeenth century.
Also during this time, the word its replaced his to talk about things without gender. The leg of a chair was now its leg not his leg.
Changes in pronunciation were continually taking place. From the middle of the fifteenth century, the seven long vowels began to change. For example, in Chaucer's time the word for life was pronounced /li:f/ and this became /leif/ and then /laif/ by the eighteenth century. Similar changes happened to house, which was /hu:s/ in Chaucer's time. After two changes, it finally arrived at its modern pronunciation /haus/.
Sounds in some other words disappeared; for example, the /k/ and the /w/ at the beginning of knee and write were lost. The pronunciation of /t/ in castle and the /1/ in would also disappeared.
The big growth in vocabulary and the flowering of literature happened when England was quite peaceful. However, in the middle of the seventeenth century, this peace was destroyed, and the changes that followed had some interesting effects on the language.
Bringing order to English
Charles the First, the son of James the First, was not a popular king, and in 1642 war began between those who wanted him to be king and those who did not. In 1649, he was killed, and England, Wales, and Scotland remained without a king until 1660, when his son Charles the Second returned to England. Charles the Second died in 1685 and his brother James became king in 1685. But James the Second was so unpopular that in 1688 he left England and was replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.
All these changes made people wish for order and regularity in their lives, and some people also wanted more regularity in their language. The great growth in new words between 1530 and 1660 — the fastest in the history of the language — had left people uncertain. What was happening to the language? If so many foreign and newly made words continued to come into it, would it remain English?
Some people in England wanted to create an official organization to control the English language, similar to the Accademia della Crusca which had been started in Italy in 1582, and the Acadйmie Franзaise which had been started in France in 1635. One of these people was the writer Jonathan Swift, who in 1712 wrote 'A Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue' (ascertain here means fix). Swift disliked spelling changes, newly fashionable words, the habit of shortening words, and 'bad' grammar. He wanted a group of people to 'fix' the language by making grammar rules, making lists of words that were incorrect, and deciding on correct spellings.
The idea never succeeded, partly because other people realized that change in a language was unavoidable. But it made people think about the need for everyone to use the same spelling and grammar. As a result, different spelling guides, dictionaries, and grammar books began to appear.
Although printing had brought some regularity into spelling, many variations had remained in the sixteenth century, even for personal names. For example, there are six known examples of Shakespeare's name that he wrote himself, and in each one, he spelt his name differently. People used their own spellings, which usually showed their own pronunciation. Other variations were introduced to show that words came from Latin. For example, the letter о was put into people, the letter b into doubt, and the letter c into scissors, because the Latin words populus, dubitare, and cisorium had these letters. And different spellings were given to words like sonne (a male child) and sunne (the star that gives light) which sounded the same but had different meanings. In the end, this freedom to change spellings led to confusion.
In the seventeenth century, people wanted to end this confusion, and the appearance of the first English dictionaries slowly brought about more regularity in spelling. During the eighteenth century, ways of spelling that differed from these dictionaries were seen as incorrect and a sign of stupidity or a bad education. Even today, many people do not like making spelling mistakes, and often use the spellcheck tool on their computers.
Dictionaries were not unknown before the seventeenth century, but they were Latin-English ones. The first English-English dictionary appeared in 1604 and was written by a schoolteacher called Robert Cawdrey. It was called A Table Alphabeticall and was a list of about 2,500 'hard usuall English wordes' with explanations of their meaning and sometimes which language they had come from — French (fr) or Greek (gr). Here are some examples of the words in the Table:
(fr) accomplish, finish, or make an end of;
barbarian, a rude person;
eclipse (gr), a failing of the light of the sunne or moone;
obsolete, olde, past date, growne out of vse or custome;
A Table Alphabeticall became very popular and similar dictionaries followed. In the eighteenth century, dictionary writers began explaining more ordinary words, not just difficult ones.
In 1746, a group of booksellers asked a young writer called Samuel Johnson to prepare an English dictionary. Johnson worked on this dictionary for nine years, with the help of six other people. For three years, he read the works of hundreds of English writers and found examples for words in the dictionary. Then he began to write the meanings of the words. He chose 'hard' words but also many ordinary ones.
When Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language appeared in 1755, it was an immediate success. It explained more than 42,000 words, and as well as the meaning of each word, it gave the pronunciation and history of the word, and sometimes how it was used. A 'cant' word was used only by one group; a 'low' word was informal and not suitable for writing. Johnson gave as many different meanings of a word as he could (there are 66 for take). He very often gave an example from literature to show how the word was used. In fact, there are about 114,000 examples in the dictionary, and they are a very large part of it. Most of them come from literature written between 1560 and 1660.
Here are some examples of words and their meanings from Johnson's Dictionary:
to bubble To cheat: a cant word.
to nab [nappa, Swedish.] To catch unexpectedly; to seize without warning. A word seldom used but in low language.
woman [wifman, wimman, Saxon; whence we yet pronounce women in the plural, wimmen.] The female of the human race.
That man who hath a tongue is no man,
If with his tongue, he cannot win a woman. Shakespeare.
yellowboy A gold coin. A very low word.
To bubble and yellowboy have both disappeared from English, but to nab has survived, with this meaning. It is still an informal word.
The dictionary was not perfect: some of Johnson's explanations were harder to understand than the words themselves, some expressed his personal opinions, and some words were not listed because he disliked them. Also, he could not fit in all his examples, so words at the end of the dictionary have fewer examples than those at the beginning. However, it remained the most important English dictionary in Britain for more than a century.
Help with spelling came from dictionaries; help with grammar came from 'grammars'. There had been a few grammar books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but in the second half of the eighteenth century, a very large number suddenly appeared. Many of them told the reader how to write and speak 'correctly', which really meant how to use language in the same way as in serious pieces of literature. They were written for the rich, and aimed to show the difference between the upper and lower classes. They were widely used because people wanted to show that they were educated.
The writers of these grammar books considered that the grammar of much spoken language and of regional dialects (especially Scots) was wrong. They believed that the grammar of English should be the same as that of Latin. For example, they thought that a sentence should not end with a preposition because this did not happen in Latin. So it would be correct to say I like the town in which I live, but not I like the town which I live in.
The two most widely used grammar books were Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar, which appeared in 1762, and Lindley Murray's English Grammar of 1795. These books had a great effect on people's views of grammar in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and still have some effect today. Some people believe that there is only one 'correct' way of saying things, and argue, for example, about whether it is correct to say different to or different from. As a result, many first-language speakers of English think that the way they speak and write is incorrect and are ashamed of it. The opposite view — that all ways of expressing an idea are grammatically correct if they can be understood clearly, and that grammar is always changing — is becoming more popular. As a result, some grammar books today simply describe how English is used, instead of telling us how we should speak or write.
There were also some attempts in the second half of the eighteenth century to decide on one correct pronunciation. There were many different ways of pronouncing words, as there were a large number of regional accents. Until this time, regional accents were not considered to be bad in any way, or to be a disadvantage. However, many people now wanted to speak correctly as well as write correctly. The first person to teach people 'correct' English pronunciation was an Irishman called Thomas Sheridan. In the 1750s and 1760s, he gave talks to large numbers of important people about the 'correct' sounds and pronunciation of English words. Like correct spelling and grammar, correct pronunciation was a sign of education and class. Sheridan wrote in one of his talks:
Pronunciation… is a sort of proof that a person has kept good company...
Sheridan was followed by John Walker who wrote A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language in 1791. He took the pronunciation of educated people in London as his guide and saw other regional pronunciations as wrong. His dictionary was very successful in both Britain and the US in the nineteenth century. Many people began to feel disadvantaged because they did not speak correctly. It was a long time before regional accents became acceptable again.
Modern English grows
If speakers of English from 1800 were able to speak to those of today, they would notice a few differences in grammar and pronunciation, but not very many for the nineteenth-century speakers the biggest problem would be the extremely large number of new words they would meet.
The developments in science in the last two hundred years have led to hundreds of thousands of new words and expressions for new ideas, machines, materials, plants, animals, stars, diseases, and medicines. Many of these words and expressions are used only by scientists, but others have become part of ordinary English. We know that if we have bronchitis (this word first appeared in writing in 1814) we can take antibiotics (1944) and we know that our genes (1911) come to us from our parents in our DNA (1944). We argue about whether we should use pesticides (1934) in farming, or nuclear energy (1945) to make electricity.
The use of English in different parts of the world and easier and faster communication have together resulted in the appearance of thousands of other new words. Most of them — about 65 percent — have been made by putting two old words together, for example: fingerprint (1859), airport (1919), and street-wise (1965). The world of computers has introduced many of this type: online (1950), user-friendly (1977) and download (1980). Some new words have been made from Latin and Greek; for example, photograph (1839), helicopter (1872), aeroplane (1874) and video (1958). Others are old words that have been given new meanings.
For example, pilot (1907) was first used to mean the person who directs the path of ships, and cassette (1960) used to mean a small box. About 5 percent of new words have come from foreign languages, like disco (1964) from French, and pizza (1935) from Italian. And a few words have come from the names of things we buy or use: for example, to google (1999) from Google, the popular Internet search engine, and podcast (2004). This word, meaning a recording that you can get from the Internet and play on your computer, comes from iPod, the popular music player, and broadcast.
Beginnings or endings have been added to make new words: disinformation (1955) is false information; touchy- feely (1972) describes people who express their feelings too openly. Sometimes both a beginning and an ending have been added: for example, unputdownable (1947) describes a book, which is so interesting that you cannot stop reading it. Some words have been shortened: photo (1860) for photograph, plane (1908) for aeroplane, and TV (1948) for television. Some words have put together sounds from two other words: for example motel (1925), a hotel for car drivers, is made from motor and hotel. Only a very few new words have not been made from other words. Two examples are nylon (1938) to describe a man-made material, and flip-flop (1970), a type of shoe that makes a noise as you walk.
The growth in vocabulary is clear when we look at the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This dictionary contains all English words since 1150, even those that are no longer used. It shows, with examples, when each word was first used in writing and how the meaning of a word has changed over the centuries.
Finding all this information was a very big job, although no one realized at the beginning exactly how big. A Scotsman called James Murray was appointed as the director of work on the dictionary in 1879, and the plan was to finish the job in ten years. Murray organized a very large reading programme: hundreds of people sent him examples of how words were used. After five years, the first part of the dictionary was completed, but it only went from A to ANT. Everyone realized that the job was going to take a lot longer than ten years; in fact, it took another forty-four. Sadly, Murray did not live to see its completion: he died in 1915, aged seventy- eight, while he was working on the letter U. However, he knew that he had helped to make a dictionary, which would give a detailed history of the English language.
The first OED was completed in 1928 and explained the meaning and history of 414,800 words and expressions, with examples from literature and other writing. The second OED, completed in 1989, explained the meanings of 615,100 words, although many of these — perhaps 20 percent — are no longer used. It shows how the words were or are used and has 2.5 million examples from all kinds of books. It contains some scientific words and words from North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean, India, and Pakistan, but not all scientific or regional words in English.
The second OED went online in 2000, and every three months new material is added to this online dictionary, as part of the writing of the third OED. At the same timework is continuing on the words and meanings already in the dictionary, and changes are made if necessary. For some words, there are more details of their history to add, or earlier or later examples. North American and other regional pronunciations are given as well as British ones. These are the first changes to Murray's work since the first OED appeared in 1928. The work on the third OED, begun in 1993, will probably finish in 2018.
The OED has had a great effect on our knowledge and understanding of English. It has given us a lot of information about the history of words and expressions and has helped us understand how language changes over time.
The way dictionaries are made has been changed by computers. There are now extremely large collections of examples of English works on computer that dictionary writers can use. They can look through these for examples of words and see how they are used, and they can use the Internet to search for words. They can also ask readers all over the world to send examples to a website, which means that they can get words from a very wide variety of places. Information about informal words and slang, for example, is now much easier to find because of the Internet. And when a dictionary is written, it can be kept on computer and put on a website.
For about the past hundred years new words have been able to travel fast around the English-speaking world because of the telephone, newspapers, radio, television, films, pop music, and the Internet. These ways of communication can reach extremely large numbers of people. Television and radio have also influenced pronunciation.
In the 1920s the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) chose an accent for all its speakers to use on the radio. This was the accent of the educated: people in government, at the universities, in the army, and the Church. It was known as 'Received Pronunciation' or 'RP', or 'the King's English'. The use of RP on radio and later on television meant that more people heard it and thought that it was the accent that socially important people used. It was not acceptable to use strong regional accents on television and radio, or in teaching and government. However, in the 1960s social differences in Britain began to break down, and regional accents became more acceptable everywhere. And as the number of radio and television programmes grew, more people with different accents had to be employed. Today RP is no longer an important accent and most educated people in England (not Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland) now speak a kind of RP, which has some of their regional accent in it. Television has also made some regional dialects popular. For example, you can now hear parts of the dialect called Estuary English, which is from London and the southeast of England, in many other parts of England. (See Chapter 10 for more about dialects.)
The biggest technological development in recent years is, of course, the Internet. People can now communicate in writing on their websites, through e-mail, on message boards, and in chat rooms. The Internet has had a number of effects on English. Firstly, new words have been made to describe the Internet itself and its activities; for example, cyberspace (1982), e-mail (1982), website (1993), and blog (1999). Or new meanings have been given to old words; for example, link (1951), chat (1985), virtual (1987), and surf (1992).
Secondly, people have developed a new informal way of writing in chat rooms and on message boards. Many users shorten a lot of words, using just single letters or numbers, and often they do not use capital letters or much punctuation. Many use their own spellings, or spellings that are often used in chat rooms. Some people also use smileys (little pictures of faces with different expressions) to show how they feel. They also use groups of letters for some expressions. For example: lol means laughing out loud; btw means by the way; bbl means be back later. Sentences you could see in a chat room or on a message board are:
r u alryt? (Are you all right?) im good thx &cop