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Foreign Language

By Donna Faturos

Languages change and evolve. Words enter a language in a variety of ways while others fall into disuse and disappear. Even the rules of grammar change. Perhaps no language illustrates this phenomenon as clearly as does English; the language we speak is the product of wide-ranging linguistic influences.

To find the origins of English, we must look not to the original inhabitants of the British Isles, but to Germanic tribes living in the area we now know as northern Germany and western Denmark; the Saxons, the Angles (from which the word English derives) and the Jutes. Beginning in the fifth century with the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain and continuing over hundreds of years, successive waves of these Germanic warriors migrated to the British Isles, displacing the Celtic inhabitants who fled to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and across the English Channel to Brittany. Stories abound of the Celts, in particular one king, Arthur, who remained in England to fight against the invaders. That areas of England in which Celtic place names are common still exist presents the possibility that at least some Celts remained after the Germanic invasion.

The different, but related, languages spoken by the invaders, dubbed Anglo-Saxon or Old English (although there developed four distinct dialects) was not a written language, for although these people did possess a runic alphabet, it was used only as a means of identifying possessions and for religious inscriptions, not as a general means of communication. Despite the lack of written records, vestiges of their culture can still be found today in the names of our weekdays; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, derived from the names of their god/desses Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frig respectively. In addition, some of our cherished Easter and Christmas symbols have their origins in the religious beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons.

Old English was a far more complicated language than modern English. It possessed three grammatical genders - still a feature of modern German - and five noun cases, necessitating a myriad of noun and adjective endings. There were seven divisions of strong verbs and several groups of weak verbs. On the other hand, phonetically it was far more regular than its modern counterpart with no silent letters and none of the maddening spelling vs. pronunciation inconsistencies that make modern English so difficult. Yet in spite of its grammatical complexities. Old English was a language with a limited vocabulary, but one which eagerly and frequently borrowed and adapted words from other languages. The development of the English language mirrors the history of England itself. From the Romans who occupied Britain remain place names ending in -caster and -Chester, for “town”, of which Lancaster and Manchester are examples. The Celts left surprisingly few words in English, this despite their long dominance in Britain. Those Celtic works which remain include the names of the rivers Avon and Thames as well as a handful of geographical terms, primarily used to describe land formations, particular to Britain. There were, however, even greater influences yet to come.

In 597 C.E., St. Augustine and a handful of missionaries arrived in Britain bringing with them not only Christianity, but literacy as well. Within a century, England had become an important center of culture in Europe. The linguistic contributions of the Church included a body of words from Latin, largely ecclesiastical; altar, priest, mass. But perhaps most important was the work of the monasteries by copying manuscripts, without which our knowledge of ancient literature would be severely limited. One of these is of particular interest to our topic; the first major poem in English, the tale of the life and death of the legendary hero, Beowulf, which opens:

Hwaett! We Gar-dena in gear-dagum
beod-cyninga, brym gefrunon,
hu oa aepelingas ellen fremandon!
Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
in the old days, the king of tribes -
how noble princes showed great courage!

This example of Old English clearly illustrates the vast difference between the language we speak today and its early form. The next development in the story of English came from the north, from the Vikings. Their arrival in England left destruction in its wake - and a rich treasure of new words. More next time.

1 Beowulf Translated by Howell D. Chickering Jr., Doubleday, 1977.

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