How did we arrive at this point in our English language?
England began, as far as anyone knows, with a Celtic tongue or suite of tongues spoken by the myriad of small tribes all over the island, probably from south-central Europe. There may have been earlier languages, but my understanding is that whatever predated these Celtic roots, probably has not survived in any recognizable volume.
One could compare Continental Celtic languages, if they could be isolated, to what is remaining of Celtic languages in Great Britain, and get a few ideas of what might have been here before, but one would never really know if the differences were from mixing with older languages or what had simply evolved in a different way from the mother tongue.
Evolution is one of the characteristics of language. As situations, invasions or immigration occurs, language adapts, adds and drops words, changes spelling and grammar conventions.
Latin, has been pretty much static for 1600 years or so. It is not exactly the same as Classical Latin, after all, it had to decay as people stopped using it in everyday language, and situations over the centuries have added words, and words have fallen out of use as the situations or phenomenons described have disappeared from our lives.
Since the 1400s, Latin has not been used in legal transactions. The last true Roman disappeared with the fall of Rome in the Dark Ages, and the only real use for the language, after the decline of it's use legally, was in the church up till the 1960s. Now, even that has disappeared. It really was beautiful, and I was sad when it went away in the church.
Now It is a dead language. It is not in use by anyone for daily activities.
Most of our modern languages can be traced to a single common Indo-European language, another indication that our human differences are only cultural, and not genetic.
This central/southern Asian parent language migrated all over the world with the waves of immigrants or conquerors, and eventually arrived in greatly altered forms at our modern languages and countries.
In general, we speak a lower or evolved form of German which came to us through the Saxons, Angles and Jutes from High German, much like Dutch descended from a parallel to or descendant of High German. German in turn came from an earlier language that took in outside influences and local names over the centuries.
When a people or tribe separate from its parent tribe geographically, new place names appear, accents change, spelling changes, foods differ, and your tribe begins making its own mistakes in usage and spelling that are different from what is happening in the "Old Country". Meanwhile, the people in your old country are making their own changes and mistakes that change the language. Eventually, people are separated long enough that they no longer understand each other.(Do we Americans truly understand the British? OK bad example.)
We all know about the new words that are appearing in American English, from immigrants and new situations in our lives. For better or worse, our English is changing. Just an example, when was the last time you heard anyone on TV or the radio pronounce more than one "R" in Library and February. It was only in the last fifty years or so that a school child would get his or her knuckles rapped if he/she left that letter out. Now, to me, as a person who had his knuckles rapped more than once, this just seems like plain laziness, but it is all evolution, whatever the cause, just like our strange use of constructions like: his/hers, and he/she. The pronouns really have little effect on anyone, but we have to use them rather than the standard "male" choice of word as much as possible, or some Ultra Liberal with have a fit!
This evolution of text or language is also visible in the Bible. So much of what we read in the Bible has little to do with the original work, because scribes made little mistakes in copying older texts over the centuries. Then new generations of scribes and later on, printers made further mistakes, often building on the earlier mistakes.
Even in translating from early Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic(the language of Jesus) can be a real nightmare, because all of those languages are either dead, poorly understood or significantly changed. We can sometimes interpret words from those languages in a number of ways. This causes even more confusion. Anyone who does a translation tends to use words in their translation and interpret them to satisfy his/her own philosophy.
Did Moses cross the Red Sea, or the Sea of Reeds? Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost? Did Cinderella wear a glass slipper(Verre) or did she wear an Ermine fur slipper(Vair)?
The first major wave of immigration or conquest of England came with the Romans. Julius Caesar made an attempt in the last decades of B.C.. Then, Caligula pretended to go to Britain. Finally came the successful conquest in 43 AD by Claudius's armies. The old Celtic peoples (Britons) had been touched by traders before this time, from Greece, Phoenicia and even the Basques, leaving little traces of their languages when they did, but they did not have a completely cohesive language or government..
Rome pushed the Celtic people and their language(s) right out of the country. Traces remained with the common people, the place names, local products etc.. But, generally the languages were pushed into Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where they remain to varying degrees today. Wales is using Welsh on a regular basis despite the English attempts to snuff it out over the centuries; Irish and Scottish to a lesser degree.
Roman Britain was very Roman for almost 400 years. Latin was used in all aspects of life in the country. But, as the Roman Empire in general came under attack on all fronts from migrating peoples wanting a bit of the Roman lifestyle, wealth and climate; the waves of attack on Roman Britain from the Scottish Picts and the Welsh seemed like too big and expensive a problem to deal with when things were getting bad at home. So, they just picked up their toys and went home. Some people stayed behind to try to preserve their lifestyle without protection. Their language held on and made it's way into new languages as they arrived.
Next came the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. These peoples, who began raiding in England once the Romans had gone, eventually settled throughout England and brought their Germanic languages with them. Eventually, they became such a large proportion of the population, that their language became dominant. Again, the new common language retained many remnants of the older languages in place names, indigenous foods, and anything useful from the earlier peoples.
If I remember correctly, the Saxons did not even have words for hills, valleys or mountains in their language, because they lived on large plains in northern Germany. Older words stayed on to be applied to those features.
Also, Latin was respected as a very pure language, and the language of authority, so it remained as a "legal" language in use in courts etc.. When it started to fade over the years, Latin got another boost when the Saxons converted to Christianity, and the Latin using clergy became the custodians of knowledge and history. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles, written in Latin, are still an important source of history of the period, from the beginning of the Dark Ages till after the Norman Conquest.
In the late 700s, the Vikings began raiding the British Isles. Despite all efforts by the Saxons to keep them out, the Norwegians, Swedes and Danes pushed more and more into Northern and Eastern England, and, like in Normandy, they settled more and more to working the land till the 870s, and 80s. The treaty of Alfred(The Great) and Guthrum( A Danish warlord) divided the country into Mercia(toward Wales), Wessex(the south) and the Danelaw(north of London and the Thames, and north of a diagonal line across the country to the Chester area).
There were frequent struggles between the dominant Wessex kings and the "Norse" for who would rule the country right up till 1066. Wessex was always the winner, even if there were a few Norse kings thrown in here and there. The Saxon language remained dominant but there was a ton of influence and even a living Norse dialect in much of the the former Danelaw right up to the 1400s. Differences can still be heard in places like Yorkshire(Yorvik=York) even today.
In 1066, came the Normans. After the conquest, the higher levels of society spoke French. The Norse tribes who had earlier taken over northern France had developed their own form of French. This was one of the fastest conversions on record for a people adopting a new language. They became the new lords of England, but they were always in the minority.
Latin was still rattling around in the church, legal paperwork and the law courts, but the dominant language of the educated(and there were damned few of those) and the upper classes was French. Unfortunately, there were mostly men coming in from Normandy, and few women. The Normans, though they tried to marry Norman women had few choices after a while, and they began to marry Saxon women more and more. With the Saxon women, came the Saxon language, and French began to fade into the background. By 1399, Henry IV spoke to his people in English at his coronation.
Both Latin and French had taken a back seat in the courts, and in daily life, and they never regained their popularity again. Of course there was plenty of vocabulary, syntax and grammar left over. Soon, even the habit of gender in language disappeared...Le and La for instance as well as gender in most nouns and adjectives.
Over the years, four distinct dialects developed. There was one from the former Wessex. Basically this was the south, say from the level of the Thames to the coast, Dorset and Cornwall, that were still heavily influenced by Celtic.
The entire center of the country was divided into two halves like an open book that has its division along the spine of the book. The eastern and western Midlands, the west was likely heavily influenced by Celtic/Welsh (our family would fall under this group) and the eastern Midlands, more influenced by Norse languages. The Midland dialects were quite similar however.
The north and perhaps tending a bit to the east had the fourth dialect, heavily influenced as I noted earlier by Norse languages.
There was language pandemonium. People from one part of the country could barely understand people from other parts of the country. It was hard to carry on business, and to understand laws. So, as the printing press and a trend toward education came along, Geoffrey Chaucer and a number of other influential authors started writing in the Eastern Midlands dialect mixed with the local London. This blend eventually became dominant, and standardized.
Of course many changes have taken place since that time in the 1400s, but basically that is the same English we use today. Spelling and grammar continue to change, new words are introduced, products come from overseas, adding their names; immigrants add words; technology evolves; all producing changes in the language.
France only allows a handful of words to enter the language each year. It is very regulated. They are extremely proud of their language, and it is very simple and beautiful.
English, though, is a veritable tossed salad of vocabulary and grammar. It can be a very difficult language to really master because of all the irregularities and multiplicity of words. However, it is extremely rich, nuanced, beautiful and expressive. Many thanks to all those tribes, conquerors, authors and immigrants that contributed to it.
Shakespeare alone, contributed hundreds or thousands of new words to the language(I love the word: incarnadine..."Macbeth"), and though some of them are quite rarefied, and seldom used, they help to make the English language one that we can be truly proud of.
There are some that say that Shakespeare contributed to the King James Bible as well. Any of you that remember it, pre 1970, may remember how beautiful its 17th century language was.
Now here is a parting gift for you as a reward for reading this post. It is a perfectly good and accepted word, unlike supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It is from "Love's Labors Lost". It is honorificabilitudinitatibus.... Let me know if you know what it means.
Check out this link: