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Glimpses of the History of English

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Section I Battle for the Language

“Adventure of English” (2002) film 3”Battle for the Language”

The text below informs of the development of the English language before the 14th century. Read it and answer the questions:

Are there many Celtic words in Modern English?

What effect on the English language did the Roman domination make?

What is the origin of the word ‘English’?

What are the three results of the Scandinavian invasion?

Why did the English language go underground under the Normans?


The English language of today reflects many centuries of development. The political and social events that have in the course of English history so profoundly affected the English people in their national life have generally had a recognizable effect on their language.

The language spoken by the native inhabitants of the British Isles belonged to the Celtic family, introduced by a people who had come to the islands in the first millennium BC. There is, surprisingly, very little Celtic influence – or perhaps it is not surprising, given the savage way in which the Celtic communities were destroyed.

Though Julius Caesar’s invasions of 55 and 54 BC. mark the end of Britain’s pre-history and the beginning of her history, they had no lasting effect on the tribes in the island. Only in AD 43 the armies of the Emperor Claudius overran the south-east of Britain and established it as the Roman Province. The history of the province ended in 410 when the Romans had to leave it because of the Germanic threat on the Continent. The Latin language did not vanish with the Romans. The Roman army, merchants and Christian missionaries brought a huge Latin vocabulary: plant, wine, cheese, cat, dish, candle; tile, wall, city, road; camp, decree, commerce, buy, pound; Mass, monk, minster, alter, preach.

The Scandinavian invasion resulted in the considerable mixture of the two races and their languages. Bede, the famous medieval English historian, describes the invaders as belonging to the three most powerful nations of Germany – the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. With scant respect for priorities, the Germanic invaders called the native Celts wealas (foreigners), from which the name Welsh is derived. The Celts called the invaders ‘Saxons’, regardless of their tribe. By the end of the 6th century, however, the term Angli (‘Angles’) was in use – as early as 601, a king of Kent is called King of the Angles – and during the 7th century Angli or Anglia (for the country) became the usual Latin names. Old English Engle derives from this usage, and the name of the language found in Old English texts is from the outset referred to as Englisc (the sc spelling representing the sound sh). References to the name of the country as Englaland (land of the Angles), from which came England, do not appear until c. 1000.

The next big linguistic invasion came as a result of the Viking raids on Britain, which began in AD 787 and continued at intervals for some 200 years. The linguistic result in this prolonged period of contact was threefold. A large number of settlements with Danish names appeared in England. Many general words entered the language. They include again, anger, bag, birth, cake, die, egg, flat, happy, husband, neck, root, silver, smile, take, want window and many others. Some of the commonest words in Modern English came into the language at the time of close contacts between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danish settlers, such as both, same, get, give. They and them, and their replaced the early forms. Sindom was replaced by are, -s ending in the present tense spread.

The year 1066 marks the beginning of a new social and linguistic era in Britain. It is also the beginning of the period that we call Middle English ( the 12th – 15th century). In October 1066 Duke of Normandy William defeated the Anglo-Saxons at Hastings, captured London, was crowned and became the English King William the Conqueror, subjugated the country and started to rule with an iron hand. The French language was established in the corridors of power. Almost all the English words to do with aristocracy and their servants are of French origin. The chief examples are baron, count(ess), duchess, duke, marquis, page, noble, prince, princess, government, liberty, constable, empire, arrest, crime, jury, prison, verdict, cardinal, cathedral, religion, saint, salvation to mention a few. French-speaking barons, abbots, bishops, merchants and craftsmen made English the language of the lower classes. Doubtless bilingualism quickly flourished – English people learning French to gain advantages from the aristocracy, baronial staff learning English as part of their daily contact with the local communities. Judging by the documents it seems that French was the language of government, law, administration,, literature, with Latin used in church, and education. These 150 years is something of a ‘dark age’ in the history of the language.



During the 14th and 15th centuries there began the movement to return English to its central place in society. This fight was often a violent one. It was as much a political story as a linguistic one. Two segments of the film are illustrations of this fight.



Video off


Before you watch the film read about heroes of the film and events described in it.


The Wycliffite Bible


The authorship of the Bible translation attributed to John Wycliff (1384) is uncertain. Because of the unorthodox nature of Wycliff’s opinion, the early manuscripts of his writings were widely destroyed. His followers included several scholars who helped him carry out the task of translation. But there is no doubt that the inspiration for the work came from Wycliff himself, who was particularly concerned that lay people should be able to read in their own language. The first translation, using the Latin version, was made between 1380 and 1384. The Catholic church that controlled and pervaded all aspects of life condemned Wycliff’s work as heresy

in 1382, the Lollards who preached his Bible were persecuted, the Parliament banned the Bible. The rage of the church authorities was so great that they burnt John Wycliff’s bones 41 years after his death.


The First English Printer


The man who is credited with having invented the art of printing from movable type is Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany. The first English printer William Caxton (1438-1491) was a merchant and spent 20 years in the Low Countries (Modern Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg). In 1469 he began work on his first translation, a French account of the Trojan War. He decided to reproduce his translation in printing. In early 1474 he put through his 700-page translation of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English. Caxton was a merchant, not a linguist or a literary scholar. Faced with the task of translation, he had to deal with several major problems:

Should he use foreign words in his translation or replace them be native English words?

Which variety of English should he follow?

How should the language be spelled and punctuated?

Returning to England, in 1476 he set up his wooden press in a shop somewhere within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. He published nearly 80 items, several in more than one edition.


The Medieval Church


The Church was extremely powerful. It formed to some extent a state within a state and represented the one indisputable moral force. The language of the Church was Latin, although even in Latin countries this was a language no longer understood by people. Mass could be celebrated only in Latin, and the Bible, the Gospels, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church read only in Latin. This contributed greatly to its internal unity. The privileges enjoyed by the Church, privileges generally recognized and respected by the rich as well as the poor, meant that it played an enormously important part in society.



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