The Journey of English
Quick! Nick that word while they're not looking...
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and half way through realised you’re talking about something completely different to what they’re talking about? I once spent half an hour listening to my Grandma speak of her “incredibly gay friend”, as she put it, before realising she was talking about a man who was simply never a disappointment when it came to parties. So after a good laugh (and clearing up much confusion from hearing the words “his wife” several times during Grandma’s story) it got me thinking. How has a word like “gay” come to mean something so different over the years?
Well, it turns out there’s a lot more to the language we’re speaking than you think. Thousands of words more, in fact. Our language is built up of hundreds upon hundreds of 'borrowed' words from all sorts of languages: “bamboo” comes from Malay, “flannel” comes from Welsh, and “Kiosk” from Turkish. “Volcano” is Italian, “troll” Norwegian, and “cruise” is Dutch. The list goes on and on and on. And on. So how did these words end up in our language? Well, it all started in 449, when Germanic invaders – that is, Angles, Saxons and Jutes – decide to invade England. Just to rub it in, they displace some of their Celtic languages to the west and north of the British Isles. Actually, when you listen to Old English it sounds rather scarily like Dutch, a Germanic language. A little later – in 597 to be exact – comes the arrival of the Christians, along with their gradual influence of Christianity throughout England, where the Roman alphabet replaces the runic system. Then come the Scandinavian Viking invasions of 900 in the north of England. We take on some of their Old Norse place names, which all tend to end in -by or -thorpe: Gunthorpe, Bagby, Skeeby.
Jumping ahead slightly into the 10th century, Danish invaders sign a treaty with King Alfred to establish the Danelaw (a line separating the Dane north from the English south.) Then, of course, comes the famous battle of Hastings in 1066, where William the Conqueror invades and the Normans gain control over England, speaking Norman French. This helps us understand how so many of our hierarchical words sound, and are indeed, from French: armée, archier, enemi, castel, liberté, govoner, jurée, prisun, chevalerie.
So there you have it. Over those 600 hundred short years, English has managed to pick up hundreds of different words from all over the world. But our journey doesn’t stop here, oh no. This is merely the end of the Old English era as we enter a whole new world of weird pronunciations and even weirder spellings. The Middle English era, dating from 1100 to 1500, marks the settling of the Normans in England. The most famous text from that time is, of course, the Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer. Here, the influence of French is extremely strong, almost every other word coming from French: “aprill”, “chambre” and “shoures” to name a few. Not only is the lexis similar to that of the French language, but so is the grammar. Verb endings that agree to the noun (for example, adding an “-e” suffix to a feminine noun, as in “shoures soote”) are very common throughout the text. “The Great Vowel Shift” also occurred between 1400 and 1450, altering the way words were pronounced and spelt – though no one knows which happened first – helping to lead our language in yet another new direction. This is proof that language is ephemeral and ever-changing. Nothing is wrong, nothing is right. There is nothing too bizarre, nor too plain for language. Words are being borrowed, adapted, invented everyday.
And if you thought the Great Vowel Shift was enough to satisfy us Brits, you’d be wrong. In the 1500s – the era to which linguists give the name Early Modern English – the triumphant Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) steps into our lives, along with 160 sonnets, 37 plays and a bunch of brand new phrases for us to cast our minds on. Off the top of my head, “to be or not to be”, “in my mind’s eye”, “flesh and blood”, “to be in a pickle,” “be cruel to be kind”, “vanish into thin air”, “play fast and loose”, and “foul play” are some which spring to mind.
This brings us nicely into late modern English, or should I say “our lingo, innit.” This is where “the pill” starts to shape a specific meaning, where “studs” become more than just an accessory to clothing, and where grass becomes “mowed”, not “mown”. The meaning of “gay”, I now realise, is an example of pejoration – when a word becomes more negative in meaning – and that neologisms like “software” have to be invented in order to keep up with the vast, ever-changing phenomenon that is technology.
I have no doubts that we are still making history as we speak and that sometime in the far future my Granddaughter will also have a confused look on her face as I talk to her about “this one time a chav chased me down the street.” I daren’t imagine what she’ll be thinking I’m talking about …
By Daniella Wood
© 2009 by Daniella Wood. All rights reserved. Copying without permission is illegal and will be prosecuted.