Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Evolution Of English

The Evolution of English

George Boeree

The English language begins with the Anglo-Saxons.  The Romans, who had controlled England for centuries, had withdrawn their troops and most of their colonists by the early 400s.  Attacks from the Irish, the Picts from Scotland, the native Britons, and Anglo-Saxons from across the North Sea, plus the deteriorating situation in the rest of the Empire, made the retreat a strategic necessity.  As the Romans withdrew, the Britons re-established themselves in the western parts of England, and the Anglo-Saxons invaded and began to settle the eastern parts in the middle 400s.  The Britons are the ancestors of the modern day Welsh, as well as the people of Britanny across the English channel.  The Anglo-Saxons apparently displaced or absorbed the original Romanized Britons, and created the five kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex (see map below).  Notice that the last three are actually contractions of East Saxon, South Saxon, and West Saxon, and that the Welsh still refer to the English as Saxons (Saesneg).

The language we now call English is actually a blend of many languages. Even the original Anglo-Saxon was already a blend of the dialects of west Germanic tribes living along the North Sea coast:  The Saxons in Germany and eastern Holland, the Jutes, possibly from northern Denmark (the area now called Jutland), and the Angles, probably living along the coast and on islands between Denmark and Holland.  It is also likely that the invaders included Frisians from northern Holland and northern Franks from southern Holland (whose relatives gave their name to France).  The dialects were close enough for each to understand the other.

Later, in the 800s, the Northmen (Vikings) came to England, mostly from Denmark, and settled in with the Anglo-Saxons from Yorkshire to Norfolk, an area that became known as the Danelaw.  Others from Norway ruled over the people in the northwest, from Strathclyde to the north of Wales.  The Norse language they spoke resembled Anglo-Saxon in many ways, but was different enough for two things to happen:  One, there were many Old Norse words that entered into English, including even such basic ones as they and them;  And two, the complex conjugations and declensions began to wither away as people disagreed about which to use!

Last, William the Conqueror and his Norman supporters invaded England in 1066.  Although, as their name suggests, they were the descendents of the same Northmen that had invaded England earlier, they had been settled long enough in Normandy in the north of France to adopt a dialect of French.  They brought this Norman French with them to England and kept it as the language of their newly imposed aristocracy.  In the day-to-day need to communicate, the common language became English, but with a large number of French words, and still more withering of grammatical complexities.

English since then has been absorbing vocabulary from a huge number of sources.  French, the language of diplomacy for Europe for centuries, Latin, the language of the church, and Greek, the language of philosophy and science, contributed many words, especially the more "educated" ones.  Other European languages have left culturally specific words.  The American Indian languages, Australian Aborigine languages, and the languages of Africa and India gave us many hundreds of words, especially for the innumerable species of plants and animals of the world.  On top of all this, there is the steady creation of new words and new uses for old words by the many subcultures of the English speaking world.

English's closest relatives can be found right across the water in Holland and Germany.  It's very closest relative is Frisian, spoken in northern Holland and the islands running along the coast from Holland up into Denmark.  Notice some obvious similarities:

English        Frisian        Dutch        German

as             as             als          als   
bread          brea           brood        Brot            
chaff          tsjêf          kaf          Kaf        
cheese         tsiis          kaas         Käse                
church         tsjerke        kerk         Kirche              
cow            kou            koe          Kuh
day            dei            dag          Tag                           
dove           dou            duif         Taube        
dream          dream          droom        Traum           
ear            ear            oor          Ohr   
flea           flie           vlo          Floh        
flown          flein          gevlogen     geflogen                
fly            fleane         vliegen      fliegen            
goose          goes           gans         Gans        
great          great          groot        gross            
ground         groun          grond        Grund                      
hail           heil           hagel        Hagel            
head           haed           hooft        Haupt       
heap           heap           hoop         Haufe       
hear           hear           hoor         Hören   
him            him            hem          ihm
is             is             is           ist
it             it             het          es                      
lain           lein           gelegen      gelegen             
lay            lei            lag          lag        
nail           neil           nagel        Nagel                 
need           noot           noot         Not   
nose           noas           neus         Nase      
rain           rein           regen        Regen   
salt           sâlt           zout         Salz          
say            sei            zeg          sag            
seed           sied           zaad         Saat      
sleep          sliepe         slaap        schlaff            
soft           sêft           zacht        sanft            
think          tinke          denken       denken            
thought        tocht          dacht        dachte           
through        troch          door         durch        
thumb          tomme          duim         Daum        
to             to             toe          zu           
Tuesday        tiisdei        dinsdag      Dienstag               
under          ûnder          onder        unter           
us             ús             ons          uns          
way            wei            weg          Weg                
yesterday      juster         gisteren     gestern
From Brea en Griene Tsiis: Bread and Green Cheese by William Z. Shetter []

No comments:

Post a Comment