Sunday, February 19, 2012

Invaders of the English Language

In this post, I provide a simplified account of the birth and evolution of the English language, suitable for grades 6-12, depending on the reader. This account might be explored in chunks, with a map at hand. This modified excerpt is from Vocabulary Through Morphemes, Second Edition (Ebbers, 2011). The book includes pictures, charts, etc.

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Invaders of the English Language

England is on an island in the North Atlantic. This island has rich soil, good for farming. Rivers flow across the fertile land, good for fishing and irrigating. Plants and animals thrive. Under the ground, mines yield coal, copper, and iron. This rich country is somewhat protected from invaders because it is surrounded by water. In brief, it is a fine place to raise a family and build a nation.

Long ago, Celtic tribes, called Britons, lived on this fertile island. Unfortunately, the Celts (pronounced /kelts/) lived in many tribes without one united army. This made them somewhat defenseless to larger armies. This made their island vulnerable to attack.

Roman soldiers successfully invaded the island in the year 43A.D. Romans spoke Latin. The Romans called the island Britannia, named after the Britons they found living there. The Romans built roads, walls, cities, and castles. Actually, they forced the Britons to do most of the construction work, and to farm the land and dig in the mines, laboring for the Roman empire. The Britons and Romans lived peacefully together most of the time. However, a few famous Celtic leaders battled the Romans, including Queen Boudicca (also spelled Boadicea) and possibly the legendary King Arthur. The Romans defeated the Celtic Britons. Rome ruled.

Slowly, the Roman Empire began to weaken. By the year 410, Rome “fell” into the hands of invaders. The Roman soldiers left Britannia and hurried home to protect their city of Rome, in Italy. The Celtic Britons remained on Britannia. After nearly 400 years of Roman rule, the island belonged to the Britons again.

THE ANGLO-SAXONS (the birth of English, from Germanic languages)
The civilized Celts still lived in tribes with no united army, and their island was still green and fertile. Neighbors still wanted it. Thus, around the year 450, Germanic tribes from across the water invaded. The Germanic invaders were the Angles and Saxons (called the Anglo-Saxons) and the Jutes. These barbaric Germanic pirates took control of Britannia, harming the Celtic Britons terribly, burning their homes and villages and killing or enslaving them. Many Celts fled to Scotland and Wales and France. Only a handful of their words are found in the English language. The Thames River and the cities of London, Dover, and Kent are probably named after Celtic tribes or chieftains. The words clan, crag, and wraith may also derive from Celtic origins, but this is not certain.

From the tribal name Angle (the Angles) came the words England and English. Thus, the English language was born about 1,500 years ago as a Germanic language. Only a fraction of the Old English words exist today, including live, love, heaven, fight, good, evil, man, wife, child, sleep, eat, house, stone, rain, one, two, three, green, black, the, an, to, for, but, around, will, do, and, with, and compound words like mankind and blackbird. These English words came from Germanic languages.

The island suffered yet another invasion, bringing changes to the English language. In about 787, the Vikings invaded. The Vikings lived across the water, in Scandinavia (the Norsemen lived in Norway and the Danes lived in Denmark). These Scandinavian Vikings spoke another form of German and were excellent sailors. They invaded Britain, arriving on countless Viking ships. Pirates again! (Remember, the Angles and Saxons had once been pirates, driving out the Celts 200 years earlier.) The Germanic-speaking Vikings raided the Anglo-Saxon villages in England repeatedly and brutally for more than 100 years. Finally, King Alfred the Great brought about peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. Alfred was the only English king to be named “Great” (his name, Alfred, meant ‘elf counsel’). The English married the Scandinavian Danes and Norsemen. Their Germanic languages blended into English. A multitude of Norse words were adopted into English, including freckle, leg, skull, skirt, skin, sky, egg, score, scream, and cake. By the year 1000, Old English contained thousands of Germanic words, absorbed from the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Scandinavians.

Still another invasion occurred in 1066. William the Conqueror was a French nobleman from Normandy, France. He led his Norman soldiers to defeat the English at the Battle of Hastings, in 1066. William the Conqueror was crowned King of England. For 300 years his followers, the Norman French, ruled England. They built great castles and cathedrals. For 300 years, every English king spoke French. All the English landowners were ordered to speak French, too. French was the only official language allowed in court, government, and medicine. Latin was used for education and worship. Meanwhile, the poor folk continued to speak Germanic words like love, live, and laugh. The Germanic portion of the English language survived mainly because of peasants and serfs, but thousands of Germanic words were lost in these centuries.

French flows from the Latin language of the Romans. Thus, the conquering Normans brought a multitude of French words with Latin roots into the English language, including please, sign, very, peace, nobility, felony, attorney, government, parliament, justice, chivalry, court, courtesy, courage, beef, bacon, baptize, flower, power, royal, annoy, and joy.

Gradually, the French-speaking Normans intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon English. Eventually, battles between France and England broke out. By about 1400, the French language was rejected and the English language was back in business and back on the throne. However, it was not Old English. After the Norman invasion it developed into Middle English. Middle English was far more expansive, having gained more than 10,000 French words. Middle English was also simpler, having lost many of the rules of grammar that complicated Old English.

Early Modern English began soon after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany in 1436. With the printing press came books, instead of scrolls and manuscripts written by hand. William Caxton set up a printing press in London in 1476. The press brought greater consistency to the English language. Spelling rules emerged. Before the press there were at least 12 ways to spell the word egg, depending on the dialect. After the press, spelling was more consistent. More people learned to read and write. Bibles and other books were written in English instead of Latin, starting with Tyndale’s Bible in 1525 and the King James Bible in 1611. Dozens of plays were written by William Shakespeare, including Romeo and Juliet. By the end of the sixteenth century, more than 1,500 new words and phrases had entered the English language, penned by the famous playwright, including swagger, gloomy, zany, and bedroom. As more books were published, the English language continued to grow. Eventually, dictionaries were written, to record the words and their spellings.

At about the same time as the invention of the printing press, a great Renaissance began in Italy and swept across Europe, reaching England by 1500. The Renaissance was a kind of rebirth, a time of fresh new thinking, a bright, hope-filled period. Renaissance thinkers included Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, and many more. Artists, musicians, mathematicians, and scientists created marvelous sculptures, paintings, symphonies, calculations, formulas, and inventions. As a result of this explosion of creative energy and insight, many Greek, Latin, French, and Italian words entered the English language. (A great many words used in science and the arts flow from ancient Greek roots, including telescope, astronomer, biology, physics, electricity, psychology, geothermal, dinosaur, museum, orchestra, symphony, lexicon, apostrophe, and paragraph.) The Renaissance spanned several centuries. At least 10,000 English words were born during the Renaissance, bearing witness to the enlightenment of the time.

England grew rich and powerful, as the English sailed the seas, charted the globe, and colonized various parts of the world, much like the Romans had done nearly two millennia before. Thus, in those days, English absorbed words from more than 50 other languages. From native tribes in Haiti and North America came words like teepee, toboggan, tomato, potato, tobacco, woodchuck, moose, and canoe.

English is still absorbing new words today, including an abundance of Spanish words. Because of the World Wide Web, the English word bank grows very quickly indeed. English is one of the largest and most widespread languages in the world.

Source: Modified from Vocabulary Through Morphemes: Suffixes, Prefixes, and Roots for Intermediate and Secondary Grades, Second Edition (Ebbers, 2011), published by Sopris West, Cambium Learning (more details at Reading Way).

Want more?  Watch a fast-paced, funny, and fairly risqué video summarizing The History of English in Ten Minutes (or see the same video at Open University, neatly broken into 10 one-minute segments.)


  1. Anonymous2/20/2012

    This is wonderful, Susan! Thank you.

  2. Gloria Morrison3/03/2012

    Thank you for this blog. This is open for anyone to use? We want to use it with our high school English curriculum, and we will get a sample of your book, too.



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