The English Language

Image result for lindisfarne gospelsEnglish is such a great language, isn’t it? I mean, where else can you get a sentence like “All the faith he had had had had not effect on his life” and it makes perfect sense?

I’m afraid I don’t know much grammatically about the English language. I can use proper grammar, but it’s instinctual for me. I probably couldn’t define what an adjective is. I couldn’t diagram a sentence. I probably know more about Latin and Greek grammar than I do English. But I do know a bit about the history and etymology of it, and it’s fascinating to look at.

Just starting with the sound of the language. Chances are that the majority of people reading this post speak English fluently. Or your reading with google translate, but that seems less likely. Anyway, you probably can’t really hear how you or other people sound. Obviously, if someone has an accent that’s different than that used on a regular basis around you, it’ll sound different, but sound of the words, regardless of who’s speaking, is going to sound different than listening in to someone speaking German fluently. I remember when I was little and listening to a German mother scold her toddler on the playground across the street from my house. It was the first time I wondered what English sounded like to someone who didn’t speak it.

That was something I didn’t think I’d ever be able to figure out, since I can’t just forget how to speak English. I’m old enough now that even if I never heard or spoke it for 15 years I’d still remember how. But yesterday I was watching an American TV show for the first time in a long time. Normally I prefer the BBC to anything American. The majority of the cast is American, but there’s a few English actors (with wildly differing accents) and one Scot, so I had a chance to listen closely to the various accents all speaking to each other, and I noticed something. English sounds a bit like small stones tumbling over and over each other, pebbles falling. Listen to people speaking English, either around you or on Youtube. Can you hear it?

But that’s not why I wanted to make a post about the English language. I wanted to talk about the history, the way it changed. (Full disclaimer here: I’m no expert, this is mainly stuff I’ve picked up from various books I’ve read)

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to separate English into four “periods”. First, there’s Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon. This is, unsurprisingly, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. It was used widespread from roughly the 5th century, when the Saxons invaded England; to the 11th century, when the Normans invaded. It’s rather closely related to German. Then there’s Middle English, where the Normans’ French and the Saxons’ Old English melded together. This is much more recognizable as our Modern English, and you could probably at least get the gist of what you read if you picked up Canterbury Tales. Then there’s Elizabethan English. I almost included this with modern English. This is the language spoken in England around the time of Shakespeare, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Think “thee” and “thou”. Finally there’s modern English, which is what we speak now.

Do you know that you could probably read some Old English, or at least recognize some words? J.R.R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, composed a poem/riddle in Old English and translated it into modern English. The first two lines go like this:

Hæfth Hild Hunecan hwite tunecan,
ond swa read rose hæfth rugide nose;

At first glance it looks like nonese, or perhaps German, but when you compare it with the translation, it’s really easy to see the similarities.

Hild Hunic has a white tunic
And like a red rose, a ruddy nose.

It’s a re-imagination of the nursery rhyme “Little Nancy Etticoat”.

Then there’s Middle English, the language of England during the High Middle Ages, the time you think of when you think knights and castles and princesses. This is the language that Canterbury Tales were originally written in. This is the first two lines of Canterbury Tales, pulled from a (hopefully reputable) site I found by googling.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote

While Chaucer had, by today’s standards, atrocious spelling, it’s still readable. The translation to modern English that the copy on my bookshelf has is this:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root

Really all the translator did was change the spelling of a few words and translate one that we don’t use anymore. But it’s fascinating to watch the progression, even up to this point.

Then there’s Elizabethan English, the language of the King James Bible, of Shakespeare, of the Pilgrims. It’s now mainly used at Ren Faires and reenactments, or in some churches. Most people tend to think of it as the “fancy language”. The language people used talking to kings. I thought that, too, for the longest time, but I recently learned that that’s not the case. The thees and and thous are actually the intimate form, the words a father would use to speak to his child. Words like “you” were the formal words, as well as the plural. If you were addressing a large crowd, you wouldn’t say “I wish thee to remove thy chickens from my corn patch,” you’d say “I wish you to remove your chickens from my corn patch”. Or something to that effect. I don’t actually know the proper grammar of how the sentences went together.

When I first learned that I thought “oh, cool,” and proceeded to use it whenever I needed to for writing purposes and the like. But the more I thought about it, the more awe-inspiring it because. Because think about it. God, the Creator of the whole world, addresses us with “thees” and “thous”, and we’re instructed to do likewise. Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. So when we use “old fashioned” language in church, it’s not just “old fashioned,” it’s awe-inspiring and amazing and wonderful.

Now I must confess. This post was not just to geek out about the English language. There was quite a bit of that, yes, but I had a bit of an ulterior motive. Over the past two weeks I have come across quite a few instances of people talking about Shakespeare and saying things like “it was hard to read the Old English at first…”. The first time I ran across it I winced, but figured I was probably be a bit nit-picky and so ignored it. But after the fifth time in a week, I remembered I had a blog, and thus this post was born. But it’s still fun to geek out about language and everything that goes into it. I didn’t even mention the romance languages and how everything interconnected and all the cool stuff… Maybe some other time.

What did you think? Would you recommend any good remedial grammar program for high schoolers? 😛 



4 thoughts on “The English Language

  1. In very truth, English is a very faskinating language, if only as a great mixing bowl of other languages. Of course, this has its draw-backs, the main of which is over-simplicity in grammar and inflection. For example, look at this: “I eat, you eat, he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat.” That’s plain-out boring! If I were King of England, I’d convene a great council of all the scholars of the English Language and do something about it.

    Very nice post. I love languages! My father calls my our etymologists (recently I worked out that ‘Walmart’ must mean, put simply, “whale-market”), so if ever you need to find the etymology of a word, you can always ask me (or you can just google “X etymology”). I’d only make one correction. “Elizabethan” English is in fact a part of Modern English, not a separate form. And it’s so annoying, especially in light of this, when people think Shakespeare wrote in “Old English”! It makes laugh aloud! “Hwaet we gar-dena in gear-dagum,” THAT’s Old English, not “To be or not to be, that is the question”! Whoever calls Shakespeare’s language “Old English” is just plainly exhibiting his ignorance; so that with Cicero I exclaim: “O tempora! O ignorantia!”

    Be well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really is neat to be able to look at another language and find root words of English, languages from all over! Well, things like βλεπω, βλεπεις, βλεπει, βλεπομεν, βλεπετε, βλεπουσι aren’t particularly interesting, either. 😛 *grins* The language does change on it’s own. You might even be able to make a small difference (or greatly annoy those around you) if you started saying it in a more interesting/different way.

      Thank you! (Hm… I think the guy who started it and owns it’s name is Sam Walton, thus “Wal – Mart”, but whale – mart fits it too.)
      I know it is, but I separated it out to make the point. And the modern language of today would be rather difficult for Shakespeare or others from the Elizabethan period to understand, especially with current turns of phrase, etc. And even reading Shakespeare’s plays, there’s a lot of words that are no longer used today at all, and there are plenty of new words, now, as well, and not just words like “car” or “cell phone”.


      1. Well, I believe it is self-evident that a Greek (or Latin, or Russian, for that matter) verb is a lot less monotonous in declension than an English verb. I mean, look at βλέπω, since you named that one: not one ending is the same with another one, while with English, only one ending /isn’t/ the same with the other ones! I suppose that’s what comes when half your language is derivatives.

        (Yes, I was told that. The point here was not so much the validity of the particular conclusion as the manner of arriving at it.)
        True, but it takes more than a difference in vocabulary for a form of speech to be considered a separate language (the other requirements being things like grammar, sentence structure, etc.).


  2. Ah, this post. You’ve pretty much taken my biggest annoyances with uneducated Americans not knowing their mother-tongue and put them in one place. Whenever someone, in a college-level class no less, says Shakespeare is hard to read because they’re not familiar with Old English, I want to quote the opening lines of Beowulf at them and see what they make of it. And it’s almost physically painful when people think they’re using old-fashioned “fancy” language when they say things like “I wishest that thy wouldeth” do something or other. It makes me squirm and want to teach them about verb endings.

    I don’t mind you geeking out over our lovely tongue! I wish I knew more people who do.


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