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The History of English (Part II)

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English, as a distinct spoken language, probably began early in the Christian era with the rude dialects of the Angles (from the Baltic Sea area), Saxons (modern Germany), Jutes, and Frisians.

The latter two were then encamped on the North Sea from Jutland (Danish peninsula) down to the North of the Rhine River (West German).

Just prior, when their common Germanic language broke up in the Second century BC, there was: (1) East Germanic (Gothic); (2) North Germanic (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic); (3) West Germanic (modern German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and English).

After the Romans conquered France in the 1st Century BC, the Gauls (the Celts in Western Europe) and later the “Francs” (a Germanic tribe) dropped their native tongues and clumsily took up Latin.

By 43 AD, the Romans were occupying England. Over the next four centuries, many Britons and Romans in England were bilingual in Latin and one of the common Germanic languages.

After the collapse of Roman authority around 410 AD, a group of primitive Germanic tribes (not to be confused with today’s Germans), living along the North Sea Coast (between Germany and England), migrated from Jutland and Southern Denmark across the channel into Britain.

They were settled by 449 AD. We now refer to their descendants as the Anglo-Saxons. These newcomers -- the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes -- spoke a mutually intelligible set of Germanic dialects which they called “English” but which we call “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon.”

They were eventually to give Britain the name “England” - “Land of the Angles.” During the Old English period (600 AD to 1100 AD), English spread in Britain but the Germanic connection also continued.

For example, around 780 AD, piratical northmen -- Scandinavian Vikings (meaning pirate or rover) -- raided Britain (and elsewhere) in search of land, riches, trade, and adventure.

They spoke Old Norse, the ancestor of modern Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. Though the Viking invaders eventually integrated with their Anglo-Saxon cousins, these Norse-speaking newcomers left a broad and indelible mark on English in words like anger, knife, egg, law, and leg. Thus, Old English is essentially a foreign language.

Middle English (1100 to 1500): Undoubtedly, the single most significant event regarding English was the successful 1066 French Norman invasion of England. Anglo-Saxons adopted French words -- actually French versions of bastardized Latin.

After William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, was crowned king of England, the new ruling class made French the language of state business. English was therefore of secondary importance in political, social, and cultural matters.

New Anglo-Norman words formed the immediate ancestor of Modern English. Since Latin was the language of the Church, state, scholarship, and literature, it also became prominent in English.

Largely because of Chaucer’s (1340-1400) classic Canterbury Tales, Middle English was a polished literary language by the late 14th century. Because of the British prominence at sea, continued trade and warfare (for shipping rights rather than for conquest) resulted in thousands of foreign word infusions into English in the 15th and 16th century.

Modern English (1500 to the present): The revival of classical African and to a much less extent Greek and Roman learning by Renaissance humanists introduced even more words.

Thanks to the Korean or Chinese invention of the printing press, scholarship previously restricted to the clergy opened up to a wider population. Leisure from prosperity and the flood of new words opened the thinking of writers like Shakespeare.

Religious people wrote such books as the “King James Bible” and scientist use classical Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes to form words of a scientific nature.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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