The Origins Of The English Language

I grew up in Miami, Florida. The city is a hodgepodge of communities that coexist, offering up a variety of cultural nuances, and exhilarating ethnic experiences. However, it’s also a tropical environment, and the high humidity can be a catalyst that causes temperatures to boil over. As a result of the sweltering heat that the city is famous for, rational processes often fail, and hostilities arise between one who perceives themselves to be an American, and another, most likely a Cuban, and who had probably lived in the city for a longer period of time. When the former found they were unable to express themselves, as they desired during one of these heated exchanges, they would often resort to intolerable obscenities, racist slurs, and almost always ended up commanding the latter to speak English!

I speak one of a vast array of dialects that has come to be recognized as the English language. But, what is this English language that I speak? What is its origin?

The language spoken two thousand years ago by those that dwelt in the land that’s known as Britain today wouldn’t be decipherable by contemporary English speakers. It would take another thousand years before the ever-evolving English language would become recognizable in today’s England, a land that received its name from the Saxon invaders. Today, what has developed into the English language has become the vernacular of the world. This is possible because the English language has the ability to absorb other languages almost seamlessly, and is amenable to nearly every other tongue in the world. The adaptability of this manner of speech has made the English language capable of producing new dialects, and new forms of expression that continue to evolve, all over the world.

What started as a guttural tribal dialect has become the language of more than one and a half billion people today. More people speak English than any other language on earth. Yet, the English tongue nearly became extinct on numerous occasions as successive invasions of the island nation not only added to its ever-expanding vocabulary, but also threatened to destroy it completely.

For three hundred years the English language would be forced underground. Nonetheless, it would emerge as the language of William Tyndale, the writer of a vast majority of the King James Bible, William Shakespeare, and William Wordsworth, the master of prose. Oddly, what is dubbed the “Queens” English today is in reality a language forbidden to the ruling classes for three centuries. It was the farmer, and the peasant that lived far from the courts, and the royal facades that kept the language alive. Against all likelihoods, the language of the English empire would eventually become the language of another powerful nation. America! English would also become the international language of business, and diplomacy, despite its rather humble beginnings.

Friesland is a province in northern Netherlands, which originally was part of an ancient region known as Frisia. The Friesland dialect is the closest relative of today’s English, which evolved some 1500 years ago. Words such as three, four, frost, freeze, mist, and blue originate from this region. Other words that began in the Germanic forms of languages include butter, bread, cheese, meal, boat, snow, see, and storm. The people who spoke these words lived in today what are known as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

Modern English can be traced back to the Germanic family of languages dating back to the 5th century. The Germanic people were nomadic, warlike tribes that moved throughout Europe a thousand years ago, and eventually settled upon what today is known as Holland, Denmark, and Germany. The original Germanic tribes consisted of Jutes, Anglo, and Saxons, and after mastering the art of fashioning together seaworthy vessels they sailed to the English shores in search of conquest, plunder, and to take advantage of abundant resources. However, the Germanic people weren’t the first to invade the shores of England. More than a thousand years earlier, the Romans invaded the land claiming it for Emperor Claudius, and to expand the Roman Empire. The Romans named this newly discovered land Britannia. Yet, when the empire crumbled, the native inhabitants, known as Celts at the time, were left to fend for themselves.

The Celts were subsequently conquered by the Germanic invaders, and were given the name Weelah (Welsh), which meant foreigner or slave. The only way the Welsh could gain in social status within these varying Germanic cultures was to assimilate into it. This meant the Welsh has to adopt the Germanic languages as their own. As a result, the Celt language became more, and more marginalized, and began to fade away almost entirely, as the language of the victors prevailed. Few Celtic words have survived into the modern English language. Among them are crag for rock, combe for valley, tor for peak, fortress, and the caer of Carlisle, which at the time meant a protected place. The Celts also left many names that remain to this day, including Thames, for the Thames River, London, and Dover.

By the 6th century Germanic tribes occupied much of the southeast, and about half of Britain as well. The tribes broke off into territories, Essex (east), Kent and Sussex (south), and Wessex (west). These regions would form Saxon tribes. In East Anglia, it would be the Saxon’s who bequeathed England with its name.  East Anglia (the Anglos), territory included Mercia, and North Umbria. The “ing”, meaning, “the people of”, was used in these regions, and exists unto this day, such as in the towns of Reading, and Worthing. Other language examples that remain from this period include “ton”, which meant village. So today, Bridlington would mean, the people of the village of Bridl, or the people of the village of Chess, for Chessington. Birmingham today used to be known as Birmington. Another example of the language that survives today would be “ham”, which meant farm. So, today Birmingham would have meant, the farmers of Birm.

Each word you’re reading now is from Old English!

Hundreds of words used today in the English language originated around 1500 years ago. From all of those Germanic tongues, and all of their various dialects, a single language would begin to emerge. This emerging language would be known as Old English. And English speakers from all around the world speak Old English everyday. Samples include nouns, such as youth, son, daughter, field, friend, and home, prepositions, like, in, on, into, by, and from come from this time, participles a, and the, also originated from Old English. Our verbs, drink, come, go, sing, like, and love also can be traced to their origins in the Germanic languages. Today there are approximately 25,000 words that originate from Old English. This may seem marginal when compared to modern dictionaries that contain approximately 100,000 words. But, the average educated person today only has about 10,000 words in their vocabulary, and those ancient people didn’t have terms like hairdryer, television, computer, electricity, stationary, telephone, and technology to bolster their vocabulary.

Verbim: The Word

Tribal roots in the English language had already begun to fade with the revival of Christianity in England. In 597, Augustine led a mission from Rome to Kent, and around that same period Irish monks were establishing churches in the north of England. Within another century Christians were already building churches, and monasteries throughout the island. Christians (Catholics) also brought with them the international language of scholars, which was Latin. From this point on religious terminology would become permanently imbedded into the English language. Words such as apostle, altar, mass, monk, and verse became used in daily life. Absorbing words from other languages would become a pattern, as the English tongue would continue to evolve from a diversity sources.

The written form of the Jutes, Anglos, and Saxons would end up giving way to the Latin custom. Earlier written forms did not utilize script, as we know it today. The Jutes, Anglos, and Saxons used the runic alphabet, and symbols, which were formed mainly of straight lines, so that letters could be carved into stone or wood, as this was the medium to communicate at that time. Runes were mainly used for short practical messages. The Latin alphabet however, was different, as its curves, and bows allowed for words to easily be written on parchment or vellum using pen and ink. Pages could then be gathered into a book, and widely circulated to convey the writers intended message. It was Christianity that brought books to the English shores. Yet, the text of those books were written in Latin, and the common people could not decipher its meaning.

It wasn’t long before a native culture of scholarship began to flourish in the region. However, the written language would be based on Latin, and not on the ever-evolving language of the English speaking people. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels would be created on the island of Lindisfarne, which was just off of the northeast coast of England. A few miles south of Lindisfarne, at the monastery of St. Paul in Jaro, the European monk Bead, born, and educated in North Umbria, would begin documenting the first recorded history of the English speaking people. Although Bead wrote in Latin, which was the language of scholars at the time, the prevailing language of the land was still Old English. Beginning in the 7th Century, the English language was beginning to appear on parchment, and vellum as well. Thanks to the written form of expression the English language was now able to record a variety of subtle nuances, and express in great depth the human experience.

An Epic English Language Poem

Beowulf is the first great poem ever written in the English language. Its author remains unknown. This stylistic masterpiece was written between the 7th and 10th century, and celebrates the glory days of the Germanic warrior. The work was written in a traditionally oral form that would lend itself to other legendary English writings such as that of Shakespeare. The surprisingly extensive, and expressive language found in Beowulf leaves no doubt that even the earliest forms of English had the ability to utilize a wide variety of creativity, and expressionism. Beowulf contains around 40,000 words. English speakers today speak a less elaborate form than that found in the language of Beowulf. By this time, written English was already fully developed, and had become the perfect vehicle to express action, and descriptive speech. Writers were now capable of articulating great depth, detail, and subtle nuances due to the fusing of so many different languages. Around this same period, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles were also recording England’s historical events.

Invaders From The North

By the late 8th century, just as the English language began to evolve into an elaborate form of communication, a great destructive force from the north had already begun to lay siege. The Vikings had arrived, and sacked, and burned the religious centers that were recording the new English era. First to go was the religious center located on Lindisfarne Island. One year later the Vikings returned, and sacked the Abbey of Jaro, where the monk Bead had been the writer of one of the greatest libraries in English history. Bead was one of the scholars instrumental in writing in Latin, as well as English. Jaro was burned to the ground, and as at Lindisfarne, all its books were destroyed. For the next seventy years the Vikings ruthlessly attacked the eastern half of England. Few stories endure as to what had occurred because few survived the invasions to live, and tell about them. At first, the Vikings were content upon plundering the fortresses of their wealth, and returning home. But, in 865 the Vikings decided to annex East Anglia as well. Within five years the marauders, now known as Danes, controlled the entire north, and eastern part of the country. Of all of the early Anglo Saxon kingdoms only Wessex remained. Old Norse, the language of the conquerors was now spreading throughout the land. Old English now faced the same fate as the Celtic language it had supplanted, which was virtual extinction.

The English language needed a champion. It found one in King Alfred the Great. He would become known as the great defender of the English language. Alfred came to the throne within one year of the Danes numerous attacks on the northeast. In 878, the Danes defeated Alfred in a decisive battle that took place at Chipidome in Woocher. Alfred fled the battle with only a few surviving men. If Alfred’s kingdom fell, then the entire country would fall into the hands of the Danes, and be controlled, and settled by the conquerors that would inevitably crush the English language. His situation was desperate. Alfred began mounting guerilla warfare against the Danes, and in the spring of 878, he sent out a call for all inhabitants of the land to join him in a battle against the Danes. Four thousand men from Woocher, and Summerset would answer the call. The famous battle would result in the Danes being defeated, with the Danish king being baptized as a Christian. A peace treaty followed, and Alfred, and the Danes would divide the country into two regions, establishing a border that divided the land from the Thames to the north. The land to the north would be known as Danelagh, and it fell under Danish rule. The land to the south, and west was English territory ruled by Alfred.

Over the course of time the Danes, and English would trade in goods, and as a result, began to intermarry. Communities mixed, and so did the languages. The English began to absorb the Danish language, and culture. The extension, “by” had been the Danish name for farm. Today towns like Swanby, Runby, Faceby, and Kirkby, that had been vast farmland, still carry the same Danish names. Thorpe, meant “village”, and villages that grew into towns like Westhorpe still have their roots in Danish tradition. “Waite” is a section of land, such as in Huthwaite. “Son” was a Danish way of adding to the father’s name. Harrison, Robinson, Gibson, Simpson, and Watson are but a few examples. The Danish influence exists on many aspects of the English language, and culture even to this very day.

Old Norse remained in the dialect of some northeastern parts of England. Words such as beck (stream), and the sound “sk”, for sky began to appear in the English language. Other words that originated from the Danes include anger, knife, neck, root, scowl, and window. When the English, and the Danes had different words that meant the same thing, often both would survive such as in craft/skill, hide/skin, and sick/ill. These, and other foreign words were helping to build a powerful English vocabulary, and added to the richness of the language’s expression. Words like law, egg, husband, leg, ill, die, and ugly, are all from Old Norse. The pronouns they, their, and them are also Old Norse in origin. Even today, Old Norse affects the English language more than any other. Old Norse actually resulted in restructuring the way English speakers form sentences. Old English had no prepositions like “to.” Instead they added special endings, which meant the same thing. In English, gunum, meant (to man), and un (many), added to blanc (horse), blancun meant, many horses.

Through the great efforts of King Alfred, the English language survived, but the written form remained in a state of ruin. Written English had been on the decline ever since the early Viking raids. In his capital city of Winchester, Alfred began to promote literacy, and the restoration of the English tongue. “We should promote certain books for all men to know, into a language we can all understand. And also arrange it, if we have peace, so that all free men among the English people can devote themselves until the time when all men are able to read English writing well.” Alfred had five books of religion, history, and philosophy translated from Latin into English. Copies were sent to the twelve Bishops of his kingdom to be taught, and spread as widely as possible amongst the people. Alfred truly made the English language the jewel in his crown. King Alfred the Great died in 899, but at the time of his death, the English language had become more prestigious, and more widely read than ever before. Alfred’s legacy was to produce English text that could eventually be read by all who spoke the language.

By the mid 11th century English seemed secure as a language in both written, and spoken form, but the language itself was about to face its greatest threat yet.

The Battle Over Hastings. Painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg.

The Norman Invasion

The English king Edward the Confessor, spent many years in Normandy, and regarded William Duke of Normandy as his son. In 1066, Edward named William as his successor to the English throne. Harold, as Earl of Essex, the most powerful of the English lords was summoned to Normandy, where he was to pledge his loyalty to William. He did! However, when Edward was laid to rest, Harold had himself crowned as the king of England on the very same day of Edward’s death. William responded with a full invasion of England. The Norman, and English armies met near Hastings where a fight would ensue. Harold would fall, fatally pierced through the eye with an arrow. The site where the incident took place would be named with the French word battle. The Battle of Hastings! England had a new king, and a new language. Harold would be the last English-speaking king for three centuries.

On Christmas day in 1066, William was crowned king. Although his coronation was in English, and Latin, William spoke French throughout the entire proceeding. A new king, and a new language were in authority in England. Approximately ten thousand words of the Old French vocabulary would find their way into the English language. The Normans however, no longer spoke Old Norse. They spoke the language of what today is called Old French, which had its roots in Latin. Over time, many words that originated from Normandy would become unpleasantly familiar to the English.

French words became an integral part of the English language. Enemy, and castle would be new words added to the English language immediately. The French built many castles throughout the conquered land, and used them to impose Norman rule over the English-speaking people. By blood the Normans were the same as the Norsemen, who had invaded Lindisfarne, and Jaro centuries earlier, but the language had become very different. Old French, Norman words such as army, archer, soldier, guard, crown, thrown, court, Duke, Baron, nobility, peasant, servant, governor, liberty, authority, obedience, traitor, felony, warrant, arrest, judgment, jury, accused, acquit, sentence, condemn, prison, and jail were words that proved who was in authority over the land. Words such as city, market, salmon, mackerel, oysters, pork, sausage, bacon, fruit, olive, appetite, plate, mustard, salad and dinner, all Old French were absorbed into the English language as well.

The Norman takeover of the English was pervasive, and absolute. The native ruling class was slaughtered, banished, or disinherited. Half of England was now in the hands of one hundred, and ninety men. Only eleven of those held half of that, and not one of them spoke English. The writing of English became increasingly more rare. Even the writings of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles ceased to exist. In a country of three languages, English became the least communicated in any form. As the English language was forced underground, it would take another three hundred years for it to reemerge, and when it finally does, it changed dramatically from when Beowulf had been written.

The Normans took over power in every important aspect of English life especially in positions within the government, and the church. No longer were Englishmen Earls, Bishops, or Abbotts. The last recorded record of English writing during this period was in Peterborough Cathedral Abbey in the year, 1154. For the past six hundred years, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles were written in English, the language of the people. The Peterborough Chronicles would be the last official English text, recording that the new Bishop, was a Frenchman. These would be the last words written in the English language for the next three hundred years. Old English ceased to be the language of record throughout the land. Nevertheless, the spoken language remained the language of ninety percent of the people. Over time, the language became simpler. Plural forms were becoming more prevalent. Despite English being the officially ignored language, it was continuing to evolve and change, and would endure, resisting, and absorbing the invaders tongue, until it would someday become the prevalent language it is today.

New words began to pour into the English language. Words such as, honor, damsels, jousting, and tournaments were absorbed into the language through the French Court. The vocabulary of romance flourished in England. Eleanor, the French queen of England was considered the most cultured in all of Europe. She patronized the troubadours, and poets whose verses, and songs painted the romantic image of the middle ages. This would be known historically as the age of chivalry, but it was never realized outside the pages of literature. One hundred years earlier, chivalry meant something entirely different, it meant cavalry, as it was the warriors of the Normans that carried the day at the Battle of Hastings. Since then, the English considered the Normans as little more than thugs, and bullies, who ran the country by force, terror, and intimidation. But to the Normans, the mounted warriors became known as Knights, and chivalry represented a whole new paradigm of ideals, and behaviors. As a result, the English culture became infused with words, and concepts such as honor, and altruism. Ideas shifted, and words went with them. It was through Eleanor that the stories of Arthur, and his Knights made their way into history books, as the concept of French romanticism, cultivated the region, adding new words that were richer than those of the Normans who had invaded the northern region of the island. This new language would run through the sonnets, and poems of Shakespeare, and the pop songs of today’s hit singles, which have all, in some way, been inspired by Eleanor’s heart of the court of courtly love, and the imagery of fair cruel ladies.

It was William the Conqueror that introduced the system of feudalism to England, and along with it came words such as village, vassal, labor, and serfs. But, the French language did not trickle down to the common people. The native Englishmen were concerned with things related to their less than exalted condition. They sang of matters that related to their daily lives, and sang in their own tongue. English words like summer, sow, seed, spring, and wood sprang from Beowulf. Merry, sing, and loud, words authorized by Alfred remained as part of the language as well. In the country, where 95% of the people lived as serfs, tied to their lord’s land for life, at the subsistence level, lived in cottages, or huts, while their French masters lived in castles. The modern form of English still holds these distinctions. On the farm the English tended to cattle, and raised oxen, and cows, while the French dined on the preferred meats that came to their table. The French ate beef. The English used sheep, while the French dined on mutton. Calf was veal; deer was venison, and pig, pork. English animals were French meat in every case. The English labored as the French feasted. Apple in Old English meant any kind of fruit. The word fruit is introduced into the language, absorbed, and becomes a way of describing a variety of different foods. As a result, apple takes on the characteristic of describing a particular kind of food. English words begin taking on a more narrow meaning, giving the language more descriptive expressions, flexibility, and preciseness. Sadly though, after 150 years, the written form of English, which was the labor of Alfred, was all but dead. But, the balance of power within the languages was about to shift.

Where the French masters, and their English subjects lived together, the boundaries in language began to wither away. The court, and countryside began to mingle, as French words continued to enhance the English vocabulary. But, not the grammar as the Danes had. As trade grew so did the towns with London merging as the center of commerce. Its population doubled during the 13th century, and French craftsmen came to England from Normandy to ply their trade, as the city continued to expand. Feudalism began to loosen its grip. English speakers in masse migrated to the city, looking for opportunity, and a better life. Already established were the French court officials, administrators, lawyers, and merchants. Craftsmen gave French names to the tools of the trade including, measure, mallet, chisel, pulley, bucket, and trowel. As the population, and trade grew so too did the vocabulary. Business opportunity brought in new business oriented words such as, merchant, money, price, discount, bargain, contract, partner, and embezzle became part of the English language. The English didn’t just absorb the French vocabulary; they took their names from it as well. Then as now, names are taken out of fashion, and the fashion of the 13th century was French. French names like, Richard, Robert, Simon, Steven, John, Jeffrey, and the most popular William became the leading names of the English, as well as the French. With this much French influence, one would think the English language would be engulfed entirely, but that didn’t happen. Because of particular historical events, French speakers in English became cut off form their cultural, and linguistic roots.

In 1284, John, the reigning king of Normandy lost his land in a war with the much smaller kingdom of France. The Normandy Dukedoms, and ancestral lands of William the Conqueror became part of another empire. Many French Englishmen were cut off from their ancestral lands, and when they lost that contact, the ruling class began to lose connection with their homeland. Their identities began to change, and their language began to lose its grip on the French-English. French speakers, even from the noblest of families began to marry English wives. When they did, they married English speakers, and into the English language as well. Now, the French aristocrats children were learning English from mothers who spoke the language as their native tongue. As a result, children of Anglo-French families began to grow up bilingual. By 1250, many children were struggling to learn French from language instructors, as had to grapple with what was effectively a foreign tongue. Many French living within the English society were beginning to speak English as well. As Normandy became a foreign land, those with French blood, and French names began calling themselves trueborn Englishmen. The French language was becoming a foreign tongue even to the French, but its vocabulary was streaming into the English language. Words like attire, defend, figure, malady, music, person, sacrifice, scarlet, spy, stable, virtue, park, reign, beauty, clergy, cloak, country, food, and air all became part of the English language. The French court would introduce legal terms, such as plead, defend, and marshal while the religious order used clergy, and pillory. As trade with the east began to open, Arabic words also became part of the English language; words such as saffron, mattress, hazard, camphor, lute, amber, syrup, and alchemy were absorbed into English. The chess game term checkmate entered the English language from the Arabic word shazmat, meaning the king is dead.

Fine nuances became part of the language as well. Answer, and respond did not mean the same thing. Neither did, begin and commence, or liberty and freedom. As new words poured in, English words remained, steadfastly, adding to the richness of the language. Words like swan/signet, ax/hatchet, ask/demand, bit/morsel, wish/desire, might/power, room/chamber, on the surface appear similar, yet they began to represent shades of meaning, new thoughts, and expressive details, adding more precision, and flexibility, to the language, which allowed speakers, and writers to carefully choose the right world to express their desired form of communication. Rather than replace English, French was equipping the language with its ability to communicate more powerfully.

The old language was beginning to be revived, and by now was a rallying cry for a new people. Edward I of Scotland, a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, known as the hammer of the Scots, used the English language to unite the kingdom, when the French King Phillip threatened to invade England in 1295. Edward used the English language as a symbol of national unity to galvanize support. “If Phillip is able to do all the evil he means to, God protect us, he plans to wipe out our English language entirely from the earth.” The invasion of Phillip never came. Despite the threat of yet another invasion, Latin, and French remained the official language of those who governed the nation. As the 14th century approached English became the one language everyone knew, and used in their daily lives. Even the French troubadours were now singing in the English language.

By William of Nassyngton

In englysch tonge I schal you telle
Yif ye so longe with me wil dwelle
Ne latyn wil I speke ne waste
Bot englisch that men usen maste
For that is youre kynde langage
That ye have most here of usage
That kan eche man understonde
That is boren in engelonde
For that langage is most schewed
As wel among lered as lewed
Latyn as I trowe can nane
Bot thoo that have it at scole tane
Somme kan frensch and no latyn
That used have court and dwelled therin
And somme kan of latyn a party
That kan frensch ful febelly
And somme understonden englysch
That kan nouther latyn ne frensch
Bot lered and lewed olde and yonge
Alle understonden englysch tonge

The Great Pestilence: Black Death

It would be a rodent that gave the English language its greatest boost. In 1348, black rats began to arrive on the shores of England from France. They carried with them a deadly cargo. The disease became known as the great pestilence, or the Black Death. Black rats shed infected fleas that fed on their blood. This would then transmit the bubonic plague to humans who would likewise be bitten by the contagious fleas. An estimated one-third of England’s four million died from this terrible plague. In some places, entire communities were wiped out. This set into motion a social upheaval that aided in the restoration of the English language as the recognized language of the nation. At the local level, priests who performed mandatory services in Latin either caught the plague or ran away. Many of their replacements were laymen whose only language was English. They began to perform religious rituals, such as Masses, and baptisms in the English tongue.

After the Black Death, England became a very different country. In many places there was hardly anyone that could work the land, or tend to livestock. The acute shortage of labor meant those that did have the requisite skill, and who could perform the work suddenly had the power to demand better working, and living conditions, and higher wages as well. As wages rose, the price of property fell, and the fortunes of the common people began to rise. By 1385, English replaced French in the schoolrooms, and as literacy spread, so did the demand for books written in English. It was during this time that the English language would find its place in the state, and in the law. In 1362, for the first time in three hundred years, English was acknowledged as the official language of business, and the language of the state because too many lawyers, judges, and officials had died from the plague. As a result, cases could now be pleaded, defended, and judged in English. That same year Parliament opened in Westminster, and for the first time ever the Chancellor addressed the assembly, not in French, but in English. Soon English would become the language of the kings. Since 1066, during Harold’s brief stint, England had not had an English king. In 1399, Henry Duke of Lancaster deposed King Richard II. Henry Duke of Lancaster became known as Henry the 4th. He made his coronation speech in English. Once again, the English language was the royal language of England.

Catholic Control: The Dark Ages

The Catholic Church controlled all aspects of life. In the church, Latin was the spoken language, but nobody understood it except the church leaders themselves. When one went to church, and everybody did because it was compulsory, common prayers, the service, hymns, and everything else was spoken in Latin. Only the clergy were allowed to read the word, and they even did that silently. Absurdly, a bell would ring to let the congregation know when the priest reached the important parts. Although the masses were forced to attend church, they weren’t even allowed to know the words of the faith that was imposed upon them, under the threat of death. The authority of the Catholic Church sought to hold all power, and language was power, so it was vital that the clergy stood between the believer, and the Catholic bible, which was written in Latin. But, all of this nonsense was about to change dramatically.

In the 14th century, there was a movement that would tear the church in two. It would mark the end of the middles ages, and cost the lives of millions. This would be the battle for the language of the bible. The English wanted access to the language of the kingdom of heaven. They wanted a bible that belonged to them, and they wanted a religious teaching that was in their language. They were also willing to fight, and die for it. So, English set out to become the language of God. This struggle would be a violent one, as the lay demanded access to the bible in a tongue they understood.

John Wycliffe, a theologian, and philosopher was fluent in Latin. Wycliffe believed everyone should have access to the knowledge he held. The church in Wycliffe’s time was corrupt, and he was fiercely opposed to the power, and wealth of the church. “When men speak of the church they speak of priests, monks, bishops, friars, but it should not be so.” “Whether a hundred popes, and all the friars turned to cardinals, their opinions, and matters of faith should not be accepted except in so far as they are found on the scripture itself.” Wycliffe railed at the corruption, and complacency of the Catholic faith. Wycliffe believed man had the right tot examine the bible for himself. This meant an English bible that was unauthorized by the church. To the church this very thought (an opinion crime) was heretical, even seditious. Wycliffe set out to produce an English language bible. The work had to be done in secrecy. Its aim was to not only produce an English language bible, but to also overthrow, and end the reign of the Catholic Church. By 1380, Wycliffe had completed, and authorized the first English bible translated from Latin. The work was done at Oxford University, with numerous translators. Hundreds of English language bibles were copied by hand, and distributed throughout England. Today, one hundred, and seventy copies have survived, which means there must have been armies of faithful followers that believed in the cause who were secretly transcribing, and passing them on, knowing their discovery meant certain death.

Eventually, hundreds would be martyred as a result of Wycliffe’s English bible. But, many believed it was worth dying for, as it was “God’s” work that they were performing. Because of Wycliffe’s bible, many phrases made their way into the English language, and continue to this day. Some of those words, and phrases include, woe is me, an eye for an eye, barbarian, birthday, child bearing, cock crow, communication, crime, dishonor, envy, godly, graven, humanity, injury, jubilee, lecture, madness, mountainous, pollute, tramp, unfaithful, and zeal. These, and other words, and phrase first appeared in Wycliffe’s bible. In fact, there are more than one thousand Latin words that first appeared in Wycliffe’s bible, and those words would become a pertinent part of the English tongue. Other words from Wycliffe’s bible include, emperor, justice, city, cradle, suddenly, angel, multitude, and glory.  Wycliffe’s bible immediately became the best selling, and most sought after literary work in the English language. The church immediately condemned it. “The jewel of the cleric is turned to the sport of the laity, and the pearl of the gospel is scattered abroad, and trampled under foot by swine.” Clearly, the Catholic Church thought of the English as nothing more than mere farm animals; chattel to labor for the churches coffers. By keeping the masses in the dark, regarding scriptural content, contradictions that existed between the Catholic Church, and the scripture could not be known. However, once the English bible became available, people began to question the churches doctrine, and authority, and the foreign faith that was imposed upon them. Moreover, the swine that the church spoke of were now becoming illiterate, and learned.

Wycliffe trained an order, and dispatched them throughout England. There purpose was to spread the word all across the land. They were determined to win the battle against the church, and preach against its corruption. They did this reading from Wycliffe’s bible. Those who read from Wycliffe’s bible became known as Lollards, which meant, the whisperers. The Lollard’s remained a secretive, but influential movement that was hated by the Catholic establishment. The Lollards went straight to the people, cutting out the middlemen. The following text is from the book of Mark, which Wycliffe had interpreted directly from the original Greek, and Hebrew:

Blessed be poor men in spirit, for the kingdom of heavens is theirs.
Blessed be mild men, for they shall wield the earth.
Blessed be they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed be they that hunger, and thirst rightwiseness, for they shall be fulfilled.
Blessed be merciful men, for they shall get mercy.

On May 17th, 1382, a special organization of top Catholic Church leaders met to examine Wycliffe’s work. It was as much a show trial, as the Nuremberg trials held in Germany after WWII, as the conclusion was preordained. Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic. The Catholic Church ordered his arrest, and the arrest, and imprisonment of all of Wycliffe’s preachers. The church also secured a parliamentary ban on all of Wycliffe’s bibles. Wycliffe fell ill. The stress defeated him. He became paralyzed by a stroke, and would die two years later. Regardless, it was already too late for the corrupt church leaders, because after Wycliffe’s death, the movement continued, as the faithful avoided captivity, keeping their faith, and their English teachings alive. Wycliffe’s bible became a national political movement, and its cause was for the people to have an official English language bible.

The church was not satisfied with Wycliffe’s death. In 1414, the Catholic Church declared Wycliffe a heretic once again, and in the spring of 1428, his body was ordered exhumed, and posthumously burned. Wycliffe’s remains were burned near a tributary of the Avon River. His ashes were then scattered into it. Officially, the bible would remain in Latin, but a Lollard prophecy rang true:

The Avon to the Severn Runs
The Severn to the sea
And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad
Wide as the waters be

The Church Of England

In 1417, King Henry V, began writing letters in English. His English letters started a movement to standardize spelling throughout the entire country, because each region spelled even the simplest of words differently. Take for example the word church, which could have been spelled sixteen different ways. The following are those different spelling forms, church, churche, cherche, chirche, church, chyrch, cherge, chyrche, kirk, kirke, kyrk, kyrke, kerk, kire, kerke, schyrche. The Chancellery was given the task to standardize spelling because it was crucial that all official documents that were written in London, could be read elsewhere. Because government documents had legal status, they had to be consistent. The Chancellery had the task to impose this new standard upon the entire nation. Congruency within the language became one of the nation’s top priorities. The Chancellery had to choose, which form of a word, and which spelling would become the standard. Thousands of documents were written, and sent all over the country explaining this new legal procedure. The language was becoming clearer, more modern, and congruent. I, (previously Iche) found its modern form. So did any, but, ought, and such. Lond became land, chirche (and the rest) became church, xal, and schal became shall. Rithe became right. Hath, and doth became has, and does. Everyone spelling words the same way doesn’t mean the language became logical though. Anyone trying to rationalize the English language text realizes immediately that the final determination is in reality not logical at all.

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes
Then one fowl is a goose, but two are called geese
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese

You may find a lone mouse or a whole nest of mice
But the plural of house is houses, not hice
If the plural of man is always called men
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen

The cow in the plural may be cows or kine
And the plural of vow is vows, never vine
If I speak of a foot and you show me your feet
And I give you a boot would a pair be called beet

If one is a tooth, and a whole set are teeth
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth
If the singular’s this and the plural is these
Should the plural of kiss ever be keese

Then one may be that and three would be those
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren
But though we say mother, we never say methren

Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him
But imagine the feminine she, shis and shim
So the English, I think, you all will agree
Is the strangest of languages you ever will see

The Power Of The Press: Gutenberg Germany

The print medium gave writing its true power. The ability to print is the most technological seismic change western civilization has ever known. In 1435, printing was invented in Guttenberg, Germany. This would be the beginning of the information age. Print also made it hard to control the spread of ideas. As in England, where the Chancellery decided how words would be spelled, it would be the owners of the presses that determined what words would be used.

Early in the reign of Henry VIII, the king remained adamant on burning Wycliffe’s bible, and followers. Wycliffe’s bible was circulating relentlessly in hand copied form. The Catholic Church continued hunting down, and executing all books they alone considered heretical. It was during this time, an ordained priest, educated at Oxford, named William Tyndale began to preach against the Catholic Church. History was repeating itself. The presses would play a major role in bringing about a radical change in the English language, and what was to be read. When one cleric challenged Tyndale regarding his intention to make a new English language bible he responded, “I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the scriptures that thou.” It would be Tyndale who finished the work that had begun with John Wycliffe.

William Tyndale: A Stranger In A Strange Land

In 1524, at the age of 29, William Tyndale left England. Unknown to him at the time, he would never return. He settled in Cologne, Germany, and began to work on translating the New Testament, not from Latin, but from the original text of Hebrew, and Greek. By 1526, six thousand copies had been printed, and were about to be smuggled into England. Henry VIII, and the Catholic Church were alerted, even terrified of this perceived threat. The nation’s entire political, and religious authority was put on alert. Naval ships patrolled the coastal waters, and searched boats for the latest heretical conspiracy against the church, and a great number of Tyndale’s books were intercepted. Nevertheless, hundreds of copies of the first run of Tyndale’s Bible would eventually make their way through. The king sought to purchase the entire print run so he could have them burned. “Oh, he will burn them”, Tyndale was known to have said. “Well, I am the gladder, for I shall get the money for these books, and the whole world will cry out for the burning of God’s word.” The books were purchased, and burnt. Tyndale would use the proceeds to prepare, and print a better version of his bible, and all at the church’s expense. Tyndale’s work would later become 85% of the King James Bible, and native English language speakers all use Tyndale’s words, and phrases unto this very today. Words, and phrases such as, scapegoat, let there be light, the powers that be, filthy lucre, my brother’s keeper, fight the good fight, flowing with milk and honey, sick unto death, a man after my own heart, signs of the times, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, ye of little faith, eat drink and be merry, broken hearted, clear eyed, and hundreds of other phrases, and idioms are accredited to Tyndale. Words like, beautiful, fishermen, stumbling block, two-edged viper, Jehovah, and Passover also come to the English language through Tyndale. Tyndale’s language not only refined the English speaker regarding their external experiences, they also taught them how to communicate concerning their internal condition.

Before long there were thousands of copies of Tyndale’s Bible in England. These new bibles were produced in pocket-sized books and were easily concealed. He passed them on to city officials, and universities, even to young boys who plowed the fields. The authorities, especially Thomas Moore railed against Tyndale’s work. But, it was too late, the damage to the Catholic Church was done. The English had their bible. Tyndale, of course, was condemned as a heretic, and the hunt for him continued until 1535 when two hired assassins trapped Tyndale in Antwerp. Tyndale was captured, kidnapped, and smuggled out of the city, and taken to Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels, where he was imprisoned and tortured extensively. In his last letter, Tyndale asked, “That I might have a warmer cup, for I suffer greatly from the cold. A warmer coat also, for what I have is very thin. A piece of clothe for which to patch my leggings, and I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But, most of all, I beg and beseech your clemency that the commissary will permit me to have my Hebrew bible, my grammar, and my dictionary, so that I might continue with my work.” Tyndale did continue to work, his work would also give the English language phrases such as, a prophet has no honor in his own country, a stranger in a strange land, a law unto themselves, and, let my people go.

In August, of 1536, Tyndale was found guilty of heresy by an inquisitional court in the Netherlands, and as was the case with John Wycliffe, the determination was already predetermined. On October 6th, Tyndale was tortured yet again, strangled while tied to a stake, and burned. His last words would be, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Within one year the Catholic Church would be ousted from England, and Tyndale’s bible placed in every parish throughout the land. The ousting of the church wasn’t based on corruption, or even morality. It would be based on a king who sought the annulment of his marriage. A decision the Catholic Church wasn’t willing to make.

The Pope’s refusal to grant Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon led to a confrontation with the Catholic Church. Suddenly, Henry VIII objected to Catholic rule. Precipitously, scripture became more important to the king than Catholic authority. As well, Thomas Moore would be executed for refusing to a meeting of the minds with the king. King Henry’s new advisors, Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer, pushed for ecclesiastic reform. The split with the Catholic Church also meant a split from Rome. The English reformation was now in its infancy. The English language would now become the language of the court, the language of literature, and now the language of religion. Ironically, at the time of Tyndale’s martyrdom, Henry had authorized the first legal English bible, the Coverdale Bible. Soon there would be so many competing versions of the bible that King James of Scotland would order a standardized version, which today is known as the King James Bible, completed in 1611. The interpreters of the King James Bible reviewed all of the competing versions, but it would be William Tyndale’s Bible that made up the majority of the English text. In fact, 85% of the King James Bible is in reality, Tyndale’s work.

Henry The Eighth And His Many Wives

Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, who had previously been married to the king’s brother Arthur. Arthur had been the original heir to the throne. Henry, and Catherine’s first son died, and a series of miscarriages followed. Catherine therefore failed to produce an heir to the throne. Henry being much younger watched as his wife became bloated as a result of numerous pregnancies. The marriage however was able to produce a daughter. Mary! Catherine, being of Spanish blood was a devote Catholic, as her daughter would grow to be. During Henry’s reign, Thomas Woolsey was the churches supreme leader. Woolsey rose from a butcher’s son to the hold the highest position in the Church of England. Woolsey would be the architect of Henry’s victories in the French campaigns, known as the Battle of the Spurs. Henry took control of two French cities at that time. Also, during this time, in Germany, Martin Luther had risen in power, and began condemning the corruption of the Catholic Church.

Henry was adamant to defend Rome, and won the title of Defender of the Faith when he wrote his book, In Defense of the Seven Sacraments. This was the first book written by a king since Alfred. Thomas Moore, a friend who held great sway over Henry requested Henry to take a more moderate stance on religion. The king steadfastly refused. King Henry would eventually fall for the sister of one of his mistresses, Anne Boleyn. Anne refused Henry sexual relations, only unless he agreed to marry her. The difficulty was that he was already married, and Catherine refused to grant a divorce. So, Henry, and Anne began searching for a legal loophole to resolve the marriage. Their best hope laid in the bible. The book of Leviticus forbade a man to marry his dead brother’s wife. Henry argued that when Rome permitted his marriage to Catherine, the Pope exceeded his power, and the marriage was therefore invalid. That matter was then turned over for disposition to the man who was both the Pope’s representative in England, and Henry’s own chief minister, Cardinal Woolsey.

On May 17th 1527, the first trial of the marriage of Henry the VIII began. It was a secret trial, as Catherine had no knowledge about the proceedings. All were confident that Woolsey would rule the marriage invalid. To everyone’s surprise, on May 31st, Woolsey adjourned the court indefinitely on grounds of the difficulty of the case. Woolsey defied the king who felt betrayed. The fact is that matters in Rome at that very time made it impossible for the Pope to rule in favor of Henry. The troops of Charles V had sacked Rome, and pillaged the city. The Pope was driven out of the city, and sought refuge at Castel St. Angelo, which was the property of Catherine’s nephew. While the Pope waited in exile at the Castel St. Angelo, Henry’s desire to receive an annulment was quashed.

Henry, and Anne had hoped for a quick marriage, but the matter had stretched into years. In the second divorce trial held in 1529, Henry’s patience was at an end. Woolsey knew his power, and life was at stake. He wrote Henry’s case, in his own hand, “never rising to eat or even piss” according to his valet. But, not even the Cardinal of England had the power to sway Europe’s political powers at that time. Given the condition of the Pope, Woolsey was unable to persuade the Pope to grant Henry, and Catherine’s annulment. Woolsey would lose his position, power, and prestige, and shortly thereafter died, but not before cursing Anne, and blaming her for his swift downfall. Woolsey predicted the downfall of the Catholic Church as well.

Anne, a sympathizer of Luther, encouraged Henry to turn to Rome’s English opponents for guidance, and that led to a meeting with Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury. Henry was told that he had been going about the divorce proceeding the wrong way. Cranmer said he had been treating it as a legal matter, but it wasn’t, according to Cranmer, it was a moral one. Cranmer said the bible supplied absolute answers as to what was right, and what was wrong. Cranmer suggested Henry seek the knowledge of theological experts to get his answer, which all of Rome, as well as the Pope would have to recognize. Experts gathered at Cambridge, and delivered the verdict Henry desired. Henry’s envoy was then sent to pit the argument against the authority of the Pope. The entire power of the Tutor state bribed, and bullied the European universities to rule in favor of Henry. But, Catherine wasn’t without her own defenders. One of them was Thomas Able, her personal minister. Henry sent Able on a mission to Catherine’s nephew, but Able acted as a double agent. Outwardly, he was working for Henry’s cause, but secretly he was undermining the king’s strategy, on Catherine’s behalf. When Able returned to England, he became Catherine’s outspoken propagandist. He wrote, Invicta Veritas, which attacked the verdict of the university scholars. Henry read the book, and was furious, he wrote, “The whole basis of this book is false. Therefore, the Papal authority is empty save in its own seat.” Despite this, Able continued to rail against the king. This led to Able being arrested, and imprisonment in the tower twice. Able would subsequently be executed as a traitor to England in 1540.

Henry being king, and emperor of England felt he was subject to no authority on earth. Not even that of the Pope. Henry, once the stoutest of proponents of papal authority, turned his back on the church, all because of the matter of a divorce. Henry held that the truth was not found in Rome, but in the words of the bible itself. Those same words that the church had tried so desperately hide from the English people.

The Pope’s interest in preserving his own position, and the five years delay in obtaining a divorce had taken its toll. The church was now Henry’s enemy, and what stood between him, and Anne. Henry argued that there were no Popes in scripture, but there were plenty of kings. Cranmer also argued that it was kings who were God’s anointed. Henry’s wrath against the Catholic Church would transform the monarchy from that point on, and forever. On January 19th 1531, the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed that Henry should be the head of the Church of England. The announcement was met by a stunned silence. The Archbishop took it to mean consent. Henry was now head of the Church of England. By becoming the head of the English Church, Henry broke Magna Carta, the first clause of his coronation, which was his allegiance, and devotion to the Catholic faith. Henry, still married to Catherine became a bigamist. In December of 1532, Anne became pregnant, and in January of 1533, Henry, and Anne married. The following month Cranmer was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine unlawful. Charles V of Spain became furious upon learning of the announcement, and the Pope excommunicated Henry.

Henry’s old friend and counselor, Thomas Moore, warned him regarding his defiance to the church. Laws now required opponents to swear a double oath, to accept the kings second marriage, and to object to Papal supremacy. To refuse the oath meant treason to England, and certain death. Moore refused the oath, and was imprisoned for more than a year at the tower. At his trial, Moore said he could not be guilty because the English Parliament did not have the power to make Henry the supreme leader of the church. Moore argued that all of Christianity had given that authority to the Pope, and had done so for more than a thousand years. The law chief justice responded, “English law was whatever English Parliament said it was.” Moore was condemned, and beheaded on July 6th, 1535. Working with Parliament, instead of against it, as his father had, worked in Henry’s favor. In 1536, the monasteries were plundered of their wealth, and dissolved under the guise of reform. Henry would then face the greatest threat to his power, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. By 1540, the last standing Abbey was gone. This provoked shock, outrage, and open revolt. The largest army England had ever seen, since the Battle of the Roses, some thirty thousand with twelve thousand reserves marched toward London from the North. They were prepared for war. Henry only had eight thousand men. Wisely, he chose to negotiate a deal. Henry also offered pardons to all, and the revolt dispersed. A few months later Henry broke his promise, and exacted revenge. The leaders of the revolt were arrested, and sent to London. The trial was especially harsh on the clerics, even those who were coerced into joining the revolt. Many religious leaders were drawn and quartered, or hanged. Henry’s church, which condemned Rome for all its barbarity was now the new form of tyranny, and terror.

Anne was unable to produce a male heir to Henry’s throne. After only three years of marriage, she was executed on trumped up charges of adultery, incest, and sexual perversion. Anne’s real crime however, was that she failed to produce a male heir. Henry soon married Jane Seymour who produced a male heir, Edward. However, Jane would die shortly after giving birth to Edward. Henry’s two disputed marriages, and the lack of a male heir were now resolved. Edward succeeded Henry in 1547. Edward then removed his half sister Mary from succession because of her staunch Catholic religious faith. On Edward’s deathbed, Lady Jane Grey was named queen of England. Mary formed an army based out of East Anglia, and backed by the Catholic Church, and successfully deposed Jane, who was subsequently beheaded. In 1554, Mary married Phillip of Spain, and thereby began the 4th Tutor dynasty. Mary restored Catholicism to England, and during her five-year reign, executed more than two hundred and eighty protestant dissenters, who were burnt at the stake. Upon her death, Mary’s half sister, and successor Elizabeth returned England to Protestantism.

Prevailing Winds

John Locke’s, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was a conceptual work where Locke believed that if a definition of all words could be agreed upon, this would bring an absolute understanding between nations, and as a result, peace would prevail, and wars would be avoided. “Dispute would end of themselves.” Locked also believed that a uniformity of language would lead to pure reasoning. Latin remained understood as the international language of scholarly work, and regarded as the only precise way of communicating science, and other serious works. Members of the Royal Society wanted to make England the language for scholars. In 1687, Isaac Newton published his first work, Principia Mathematica, which was published in Latin. But, his next work, Opticks, published in 1704, was written in England. Newton gave the English language new terms such as flexibility, and other terms began to take on new meaning, transmission became, passing through a medium, opaque had meant unlit, but now was understood for not allowing the passage of light. Newton also gave us indistinctness, and well defined. English scholars by now were redefining the meaning of many English words.

For the first time, daily newspapers began to circulate. Articles were short, and concise. The work of Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, was becoming difficult to understand, even tedious to read. Jonathan Swift, the writer of the fictional travel diaries known as, Gulliver’s Travels, written under the name Lemuel Gulliver, (a surgeon and captain), criticized the changes to the written form of English. Swift argued the new terms could hardly be understood unless one had access to an interpreter. Swift hated “the vulgar liberties” the English scholars were having with the English language. Modern scholars had also begun to shorten words, and this shortening was considered crude. Examples include, mob, from a French word that was shortened to mean common people. Swift also hated modal words such as, bully, banter, shuffling, cutting, and sham. Swift said Latin, and Greek had survived because they never changed. Swift said he would save the English language by “putting an end to changes.” He wanted to take control of the language, and to take it away from the “anarchy” of the class bloods, and their slang. In 1712, Swift proposed the foundation of an academy, for ascertaining, improving and preserving the English tongue. This new form of academia was to replace the “bastardization” of the language the aristocracy was responsible for. Swift took his case to Queen Anne, however she died shortly thereafter, and George III, took her place. George III was a German king who spoke little English, and cared about the matter even less. Swift’s plans died a miserable, and humiliating death. Dr. Samuel Johnson, an effortless eccentric would become the English language’s next champion.

Samuel Johnson took seven years to put 43,000 words, and definitions, etymology, and quotations into a dictionary. He confessed to omitting words he didn’t understand, “Many terms of art, manufacturing, and trade were omitted. But, for this deficit, may I boldly allege it was unavoidable. I could not visit caverns to learn the miner’s language, nor take a voyage to perfect my skill in the dialect of navigation.” Johnson’s dictionary is lacking in the language of law, medicine, and the physical sciences. He left out rude words, and when two society ladies asked him why, he responded, “What my dears? Have you been looking for them?” In 1755, Johnson’s dictionary was finally published in two volumes. This dictionary, with all its omissions gave a sense of national pride. For it was not put together by a French committee, but was the efforts of one man alone, an Englishman. One inclusion into Johnson’s dictionary is the word, Tarantula, which described the creature as, “an insect whose bite is cured only by music.” Johnson also defined his trade as a, lexicographer, “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.” Today the dictionary is still read, and enjoyed in all its eccentricity, and antiquated glory. Despite the humor attached to some of the definitions, like the examples given above, Johnson’s goal was to fix the pronunciation of words in the English language. But, by the time he finished his work, Johnson was convinced that no dictionary could pin the language down.

The printed form of English was being regarded as the correct way to speak the English language. But, what did the written English sound like, and who decided? One idea was that all the letters that were written should be spoken. This was to help in how to pronounce vowels. But, what of the many English inconsistencies in the written form? Truly, the English language is a nightmare. There are at least seven ways to pronounce the vowel, e. Free, these, leaf, field, seize, key, machine. The four letters ough, have six different sounds, cough, though, through, thorough, bough, thought. Johnson omitted pronunciations from his dictionary stating, “Trying to fix it was like trying to lash the wind.”

The Select Society held. “Pronunciation is proof someone has kept good company.” Thomas Sheridan believed his new book would teach everyone how to speak the same, and make everyone equal. That didn’t happen. His book divided people’s, especially the Scotts who were made to feel their dialect was inferior. Robert Burns would be the bearer of the Scot standard. Born in 1759, to a poor farming family, Burns worked as a plowboy until he was 15. It’s said he loved women, Scotch, and Scots. His first publication was a collection of poems, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Burns made the Scots proud of their own language. Burns died at 37, but he left four hundred songs, and other admired Scottish works.

Prose And Cons

William Wordsworth, an ordinary man wrote, Lyrical Ballads And A Few Other Poems. He said, “Poetry should be written in the language really used by men.” Wordsworth lived in the same manner that he wrote. He planted his garden using wildflowers, instead of the cultivated hybrids of the upper class. It was much the same with the language of his verse; the natural variety that men used in their daily lives. Wordsworth warned that readers who were used to gaudiness, and inane phraseology, of many modern writers would perhaps have to struggle with reading his works. For daring to write poetry in the language of the ordinary person, Wordsworth was reviled by the critics, and contemporary poets. Thomas Paine’s, The Rights Of Man, was written in the plain language of the common people, as well as, Answer’s to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution. Today it’s hard to imagine a world of art without the likes of Paine, Wordsworth, and their predecessors. Wordsworth gave a lasting legacy to the language of ordinary speech. Despite this, among the privileged, and “educated”, how one spoke was a key to their social status.

Jan Austin wrote novels that were aimed at the woman reader. Her subjects were always a well off businessman in search of a wife who had the same social status. Her works carried with it the concept that, if certain words were removed, the thought regarding those words follow. For the male penis she used terms, such as: tailpipe, Pilgrim’s shaft, silent flute, pike of pleasure, mutton dagger, cupids torch, chink stopper, Nimrod the mighty hunter, his majesty in purple cap, pick lock, pump handle, pleasure pivot, dear morsel, and Dr. Johnson, “because there was no one that he wasn’t prepared to stand up to.” Trade terms had no place in the works of Austin. But, those terms were about to reinvigorate the English language once again.

The Industrial Revolution

In 1851, an exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in London, displayed manufactured a plethora of goods, and inventions from the modern industrial world. For the first time ever, every conceivable device was on display. This era of industrialization also ushered in, and introduced new words into the English vocabulary. Those trade words included, hydraulic power, centrifuge pump, lithograph, electro-plating, dynamo graph, and anhydrohepsetarion. Craftsmen, usually watchmakers brought word of their trade into common language as well, wheels, pins teeth, and horsepower the new standard of energy output. New words that originated from Greek, and Latin were absorbed into the new world, which was now the leader in science, and technology such as: biology, petrology, taxonomy, morphology, paleontology, ethnology, gynecology, histology, agronomy, phytology, and entomology. Engine in the middle ages meant skill or talent. It would change to mean machine, or weapon, and again to mean motor, or locomotive. The world was moving on, and taking with it many words. The word industry itself moved away from initially meaning, individual ideals, to large factories or mills, which had originally been trading post. Now, factories were something that churned out products en masse. Words like labor, capital, and industry were not just changes in meaning, but also changed the way people lived. Untold millions would learn new words, from the slang of the poor, including slum. The economic miracle of the industrial revolution was also a curse with large-scale squalor, and poverty on every corner, never before seen in any society considered civil. English was using new words to describe social standing. Status, or rank changed to class. The slum was the realm of the working class, the lower class.

In the late 16th century, the language police sneered at urban dialect, such as Cockney, which was regarded as the speech of the “vulgar provincialists from metropolis”, or “a speech that lacked literary propriety.” The journalist, Henry Mayhew writings would change all of this when the Cockney rhyme eventually gave the street language the cherished characteristic it still enjoys today. Slang means street language. It’s code speech. A way a group speaks to itself, without being understood by the rest of society. Marie Lloyd, was reviled for using the following line, “She sits among the cabbages, and peas.” Lloyd then changed the words to, “She sits among the cabbages, and leeks.” Speech was changing; people were changing, their speech was designed to hide its true meaning, behind masks of respectability. Charles Dodson, who wrote under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, invented the fictional character of Humpty Dumpty, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.” In 1871, Dodson wrote, Alice In Wonderland, Through The looking Glass. He then took the written form of the English language into a new realm, with his poem, Jabberwocky, which was considered intellectual nonsense. Dodson once said, “A word means what the writer intends it to mean, and what the hearer understands it to mean, and that is all.”

Pygmalion, a work of Bernard Shaw, is the story of a Cockney girl who’s coached how to speak “properly”, like an upper class lady. Shaw intended to show that there was no magic in this perceived “good speech.” At the time Shaw broke one of the cardinal rules of polite society, which was to never use a certain word on stage. That word was “bloody.” The use of this word brought outrage at the time, but that outrage would soon fade, as the outbreak of WWI would bring about the long decline of social order, an order based merely on language, and speech. From this time on, no longer would one be considered a better person simply based on the manner of their speech. WWII would follow, and the new mediums of radio, and television brought the realities of the horrors of war right into the living room of every home. Soon the Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam were to follow, and terms like, communism, red scare, cold war, and nuclear bombs were added to the vocabulary of anyone that spoke the English language. People could now sit in the comfort of their own home, in their favorite reclining chair, while eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and partake in the ritual of becoming desensitized to the realities of the new world that surrounded them. Next it would be Palestine, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the “terrorist”, both theirs, and ours, as the high-speed “information age” ran so fast at us that everything had to be abbreviated. 911, and WMDs are phrases that were intended to put us in such a perplexed state of fear that nearly everyone was ready to give up all their freedom in order to keep their liberty. Soon, “smart devices” came along, and anyone that had learned to type at 60WPM, could suddenly express themselves while clumsily typing on a keypad the size of a thimble with only their thumbs. CUL8TR, LMAO, and OMG will no doubt become dictionary entries, if they haven’t already, in this age of de-evolution. No longer would one have to leave their desk to communicate to another warm body. One can now LOL while the entity on the receiving end contemplates whether it was a statement of mockery, “laughing out loud”, or sending “lots of love their way.”

This new era, this “information age” is in reality anything but that, as how much accurate information one is allowed access to is controlled by those who own the airwaves, the television networks, cable networks, magazines, newspapers, marketing, and PR firms. I think you get the picture. I hope you do!

As much as the English language has grown, absorbed, and expanded in this age of talking heads, visual manipulation, enhanced audio, and double spin, all of this in reality is designed to bombard the senses with senselessness, and mystify the bovine masses with a sophisticated form of controlling the way we perceive, and react to intentionally illusory contrivances. The age of technology, and a refined, and well-crafted form of propaganda has arrived. It too has brought the English language a myriad of cryptic terminology. But… who cares? Let’s go shopping!

I’ve heard it said that journalism is a form of communication that is untrue, unreadable, paid for, and intentionally misleading. On the other hand, I’ve also heard it said that literature is expressive, stylized, and dynamic yet it is seldom read, and even less understood. What is communication? What is language?

4 thoughts on “The Origins Of The English Language

  1. George P. Guzman says:

    Language is the soul of humanity.

  2. Gregg Jaeger says:

    Very nice summary. Henry Hitchens’, The Secret Life of Words has a similar choice of themes as this piece, for those looking for a fuller story.

  3. Andre NYC says:

    Another great writeup!

  4. NV Tim says:

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in this article on the history of the language I speak. I hope to continue to see the same high-grade content from you later on as well.

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