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Foreign Language

by Donna Faturos

Languages are continually changing, adding new words and expressions as needed, discarding outmoded ones. Our English language is a marvelous example of this sort of linguistic evolution. From its origins in Anglo-Saxon England to its modern form, English has shown a voracious appetite for new words, whether created or borrowed. Indeed, in our contemporary language can be seen the influences of many foreign tongues as well as the products of innovation and creativity.

In last month’s column, I traced the earliest history of English from its birth as a blend of several northern Germanic languages with contributions from both Celtic and Roman sources. Yet the minor influences of the original Celtic inhabitants of Britain and that of the Roman Legions were but the beginnings of a long process in the development of English. Despite these borrowings, this early form, Anglo-Saxon, remained a distinctly Germanic tongue, different enough from contemporary English as to seem a separate language.

Following the retreat of the Romans from Britain in 410 C.E., the country fell victim to waves of invasions and raids by the Norsemen, or Vikings, from Scandinavia. At first, the raiders sought plunder; later, it became their goal to take over the whole of England. The battles between the two armies lasted until the English victory at Edington in 878 C.E.. Alfred, King of England, and the Danish king, Guthram, signed a treaty dividing Britain into Wessex, under English control, and the Danelaw (Essex, East Anglia and Northumbria), which were placed under Danish rule. For centuries thereafter, this division marked the boundary between the northern and southern dialects of English. The Scandinavian influence on English in the northern and eastern regions, those covered by the Danelaw, was tremendous. Although, at first, the words introduced pertained to war and battles, later adoptions include words important to Scandinavian social systems. Our words law, take, both, ill, the verb form are, husband, crawl, and freckle all came to us courtesy of the Vikings.

The next major influence on English was to come from the south. In 1066, the French-speaking Normans defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings and crowned William the Conqueror as King William 1. For the next several centuries, French was the language of the nobility, of law and of government in England. Indeed, three hundred years were to pass before England had a king, Henry IV, whose native language was English. Yet, in spite of the distance between the nobility and peasantry, nearly 10,000 words of Norman French entered English during the years they reigned, the majority of which are still in use. Most, but certainly not all, were words used in law, government and even fashion, words such as maternity, jury, beef, marriage,prince, government, architecture, baron and feast. For the most part, though, the nobility carried on their business in French, the peasantry in English, an English that was becoming steadily less complex. In 1066, English was still an inflected language with gender, complex conjugations, noun cases and a plethora of possible noun and adjective endings. Gradually, by the end of the Middle English period, noun declensions were dropped, plural endings greatly simplified (only oxen remains in Modern English as a vestige of the older, weak plural noun ending), grammatical gender was abandoned in favor of natural gender and the accusative and dative pronouns were combined into one form.

In spite of its increasing simplicity, Middle English was a language marked by many dialects, often so different as to render the language incomprehensible even a few miles from one’s home. Gradually, the Midland dialect emerged as the most important, largely because it was the dialect of London, the capital, and of the local universities. This is the English of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate and the English which William Caxton used in print. Unlike the language of Beowulf, Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales looks to the modern eye as unmistakably English.

Whan that Aprille with his
shoures soote
The droughte of March hath
perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in
swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is
the flour

(Cantebury Tales, Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace, 1952.)

Next time: The Great Vowel Shift and Shakespeare’s creativity.

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