By : Barnali Bose, Editor- ICN Group
KOLKATA: Not only the British, but their language too, has left an indelible trail in almost every corner of the globe. English is spoken in 101 countries worldwide.
Thus exploring the roots of the English language and tracing the transformation it has undergone over the centuries makes for interesting study.
Where from the English Language emanated:
English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the mid 5th to 7th centuries AD.
This occurred due to the Anglo-Saxon settlers who displaced the Celtic languages that previously predominated Britain.
However, most of the Celtic speakers were pushed further west and north by the invaders – mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The language of the Angles, a tribe, came to be called “Englisc” – the source of the words “England” and “English.”
Old English (450-1100 AD)
Germanic invaders entered Britain on the east and south coasts in the 5th century. They spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what came to be called Old English. Neither did Old English sound nor look like English today.
Nevertheless, the majority of commonly used words in Modern English have old English roots. The words ‘be’, ‘strong’ , ‘beam’ ,and ‘water’ for instance have old English roots.
Some words that are similar to modern English words are eald (old), nett (net), brodor (brother), riht (right) and hus (house).The Old English was prevalent until 1100.
Beowulf is the first English literary masterpiece as well as one of the earliest European epics written in native language,instead of literary Latin.
The heroic epic-poem that survived in a fragile manuscript, suffered damage from fire in 1731. Its first printed edition dates back to 1815.
In 2007, a British- American 3D animated fantasy film was released on the story of the Geatish hero, Beowulf.
In the Roman empire, the western half used Latin as a lingua franca and the eastern half used Greek.
Middle English (1100-1500)
In Western Europe,during the Middle Ages, Latin continued as the international language of educated people.
Greek gradually lost its relevance so much so that the idiomatic phrase seems “all greek” meaning ‘ beyond comprehension’, came into use.
William, the Duke of Normandy, France, conquered England in the later 11th century. The Normans brought with them a kind of French, which became the language of the royal court and the nobility.
There existed, quite for sometime,a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes, French.
The tables however turned, when in the 14th century, English once more gained dominance in Britain, but with many French words added to it.
This language, Middle English was the language of Geoffrey Chaucer,whose famous, The Canterbury Tales was published in 1387. It is a collection of 24 stories,the language of which the modern reader will find difficult to comprehend.
Modern English: (1500 onwards)
With the onset of Renaissance and Classical learning, many new words and phrases were induced into the English language.
Early modern English known as Shakespearean English is the Transition from Middle to Modern English and is also known as the Great Vowel shift.
As a result,there was a radical change in pronunciation from the 15th to the 17th century.
Printing helped bring standardization to English. Increase in the rate of literacy only further intensified the process of language development.
Spelling and Grammar began to follow set rules, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were located, became the accepted standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.
From 1800,many more words, came into use due to two main factors. Firstly, the Industrial Revolution resulted in the development of technology thereby creating the need for new words. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly,the British had become the Colonial masters in many countries spanning the globe.
The English language adopted and modified words from many countries. A clue to the meaning of a word can be found by looking for the root word’ s meaning. This is etymology or the study of the source of words.
Many English words used today have Greek roots and a good number of them are derived from the names of Gods and mythological figures.
In English, ‘Atlas’( a Titan) means a book of maps ; Chronos( god of time) is the source of ‘Chronology’ events in sequential order of time, are two instances of the above.
From around 1600, the English colonisation of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English.
( To be continued…)