Today someone called ‘Grammar Nazi’ interrupted a twitter conversation to point out I had written Glamourous instead of Glamorous. Despite my instinctive reaction, which was to feel quite indignant, I had to admit Grammar Nazi was right. (Well I didn’t admit it, I actually replied, ‘ Thank you, yes I am’; obviously still feeling indignant at that point!) It did get me thinking however, about the often arbitrary nature of the English language.
It is actually one of the things I love about our language. I love that words like rough, cough, tough through and bough look so similar and yet are not only completely different in meaning, but also in pronunciation. Aside – How many of of you when watching Sharpe, LofTR or Game of Thrones have made that terrible old joke “Isn’t that Shorn Born (or Seen Been)” upon seeing the deliciously maturing Sean Bean?
In the novel I’m currently writing this is one of my themes (it’s not a key theme but still, its a thread running through it). I’m writing about a fantasy England full of sword fighting knights, gypsies, pagans and an emerging new church. During the adventures on this small isle we meet a gallimaufry (just found this word so i’m using it – can’t pronounce it though!) of races, languages and beliefs. I’m not trying to make any grand comment on multiculturalism – I’m woefully uneducated to do so, I’m just revelling in the richness of our ancestry and being a little bit nostalgic about what we’ve lost. (My Grandfather was a Welshman who lived for many years in Cornwall. He had the most beautiful mixture of accents/dialects. I would love to be able to speak both Welsh and Cornish, but (notwithstanding my complete inability to learn other languages) the last Cornish speaker died in 1777.
Old English (500-1100 AD)
Apart from my Grandfather’s nationality, I also love Welsh and Cornish because (as well as Irish, Scottish and Breton) they contain remnants of Brythonic and Goidelic; spoken before West Germanic invaders arrived from Jutland and southern Denmark in the fifth and sixth centuries (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes). These invaders spoke a language called Old English similar to modern Frisian (region of the Netherlands).
Old English developed into a range of dialects, notably, Northumbrian (Northern England), Mercian (Midlands), West Saxon (South and west) and Kentish (Southeast).
Also influencing English at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions began around 850, bringing North Germanic words into the language.
Although the majority of modern English words come from foreign, not Old English roots, Old English is more important than this indicates. About half of the most commonly used words have Old English roots; like be, water, and strong, for example. Old English, whose best known surviving example is the poem, Beowulf, lasted until c1100, shortly after the most important event in the development of the English language, the Norman Conquest.
Middle English (1100-1500)
I love the term Middle English, I like to imagine it originates somewhere in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In reality it came into existence after William the Conqueror (from Normandy) conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD.
I didn’t realise until recently how completely the Normans crushed the Anglo-Saxons. Fairly well know is The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North, a series of campaigns by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate Northern England. The death toll of over 100,000, caused substantial social, cultural, and economic damage. William installed new overlords speaking a dialect of Old French, known as Anglo-Norman.
Language very obviously discriminated between the indigenous population and this new French speaking aristocracy. Great examples of this can be found in our words for meats and the animals they came from: Pork comes from the Norman-French word for a pig, porc, whereas the animal itself, variously pig, swine, hog, etc. comes from Anglo-Saxon. Mouton is French for the meat of a sheep. Beef would be eaten by the Norman aristocracy, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic word, cow.
Sometimes French words replaced Old English words; crime replaced firen. In other instances French and Old English combined to form new words; the French gentle and Germanic man formed gentleman. Sometimes two different words with roughly the same meaning both survive into modern English; like the Germanic doom and the French judgement.
In 1204 AD, King John lost Normandy to the King of France. Norman nobles became estranged from their French cousins. Consequently they adopted a modified English as their native tongue. 150 years later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed a third of the English population. Labouring and merchant classes grew in economic and social importance, and English increased in importance compared to Anglo-Norman. This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English. The most famous example of which is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
The revival of classical scholarship in the Renaissance brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and some people disliked their adoption. Shakespeare’s character Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost is a satire of an overenthusiastic schoolmaster too fond of Latinisms. Many familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by Shakespeare, some 2,000 words and countless catch-phrases are his. such as: One fell swoop, vanish into thin air, flesh and blood and the words, critical, leapfrog, majestic, dwindle, and pedant.
There was also something called the Great Vowel Shift; a change in pronunciation which began around 1400. While modern English speakers can read Chaucer with some difficulty, his pronunciation would be unintelligible to the modern ear. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would be accented, but understandable. Long vowel sounds began to be made higher in the mouth and the letter e at the end of words became silent. Chaucer’s Lyf (pronounced leef) became the modern word life. In Middle English name was pronounced nam-a, five was pronounced feef.
After the advent of the printing press in England in 1476, literacy became more common and brought standardization to English. To neatly include my favourite King of England, Richard III into this blog, I would like to point out that in 1483, he was the first monarch to take his coronation oath in English. He also ensured laws were printed in English, so as to be more easily understood by the population.
Modern English continues to develop to suit our needs. This inclusivity, this tendency to adapt and assimilate only adds to its vibrance. It also means if I can induce enough people to start writing Glamourous, then eventually the OED will have to enter it into the dictionary! 😉
I do mourn the loss of old languages like Cornish and the fading out of words (still heard in northern England) like thee thou, thy, thine, aye and nay. Bring them and top hats back, and I shall be a happy lady 🙂
Are there any quirks of the English language you particularly like, bad grammar that gets your goat or bad habits you’re trying to shake?
- The Story of English in 100 Words (Feature) (popmatters.com)
- What colour is your language? (economist.com)