July 2019 – a little history of English.

It is probably of no surprise that a proofreader has an interest in language. What interests me the most is the origin of words and how a language can reflect the history of its speakers. English, particularly, has absorbed or borrowed words from a whole host of languages, sometimes absorbing the grammar as well, sometimes anglicising. This has led to inconsistencies in the language and confusion amongst its users.

I’ll start with this cartoon – it always reminds me of the quote attributed to Gugulethu Mhlungu, “English is not a language, it’s three languages wearing a trench coat, pretending to be one.”

And it is true: English is Germanic in origin, brought to these shores by Saxons, Jutes and Angles in the 5th century, but, as mentioned above, over time it has absorbed words and characteristics from other languages, reflecting the history of its homeland. Words have been derived from Norse, French, Hindi and Arabic, to name but a few.

It is often said to be one of the hardest languages to learn for a non-native speaker, even though some of the complex rules present in other languages are not found in modern English.

For example, gender: English no longer bothers with assigning a gender to nouns, which affects their spelling. Hlaford, meaning lord, is a masculine noun from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon English). It can take the form hlaford, hlafordas, hlafordes, hlaforda, hlaforde, and hlafordum, depending on the nature of the sentence. In modern English we get by with lord, lords, lord’s and lords’.

Cwene, meaning queen, is a feminine noun and takes the forms cwene, cwenan, cwenena, cwenum. Fewer endings to deal with but different to those used for the masculine. In modern English it would be the same rule as lord: queen, queens, etc.

Another example is conjugations with verbs taking various forms.

For example, the verb ‘to have’, in modern English follows this pattern: I have, you have, it has, we have, I had, you had, it had, we had.

In Old English: ic hæbbeðu hæfst (*), hit hæfð, we habbað, ic hæfde, ðu hæfdest, hit hæfde, we hæfdon. Eight different spellings, when in modern English we manage with just three.

To my mind, one of the issues is its vast vocabulary. English is said to have more words than, say French or German, and this is considered a consequence of the merger of languages that occurred between the 11th and 14th centuries.

But English has been absorbing words since before then. Perhaps it is because England has often been more than just one society.

One could argue the original North/South divide was that of the Danelaw to the north and east and the Saxon lands to the south and west. To this day Danish (or Viking or Norse) influences remain in place names of that area (for example, Grimsby and Derby indicate a Viking heritage, with the -by suffix denoting a village).

This is also why one can be ‘ill’ (a Viking term) and ‘sick’ (Saxon) simultaneously, ‘wish’ (Saxon) and ‘want’ (Viking) for something and one can buy a ‘leg’ (Viking) of lamb as well as a lamb ‘shank’ (Saxon) and have the same cut of meat.

Then, post 1066, there was the elite or establishment that spoke Norman French while the Church used Latin, both causing many words to be adopted. It was the Normans that were in control and their language became that of government etc (**).

Shires (scir) made way for counties, linked to the French title count. This ranked equal to the title earl and hence the wife of an earl is a countess. Lord (as seen above) and king (cyning) existed but we gained duke and duchy (French duc), prince and principality (from Latin via French, linked to primus). Note, we have kingdoms but not dukedoms and princedoms.

We gained legal, even though we had the word lawful meaning the same thing (lawful being a mix of Viking (law) and Saxon (-ful). There is literally no difference between illegal and unlawful – but does allow a great pun (***).

The English (ie the everyday folk) reared the animal (cow or cu) but the Normans (the elite) ate the meat (beef or boef – note bovine derived from Latin). This is probably why chicken (cicen) is chicken – reared and eaten by the same people.

Over time, English found its way back into government, yet this was not the English that had been spoken prior to 1066 but a merger of both the courtly and the vernacular. And, whilst English was spoken, the records of government were maintained in Latin, which continued to be the scholarly and Church language of choice. So, English continued to be influenced by a foreign tongue and words continued to be absorbed, even those that had already been absorbed from French.

For example, frail came to English from French but was originally from Latin; later fragile came direct from Latin. Frail and fragile are fairly synonymous in English and are both derived, ultimately, from the same original Latin word, fragilis.

Another example is real, royal and regal. All mean the same, although real in this context has fallen out of use. Real relates to royalty, note the word realm. Real came via Norman French. Royal came from French at a later date and then regal from Latin. But all three derive from the same Latin word regalis.

And then, in the Renaissance and later the Industrial Revolution, it was Greek and Latin that were used to form new words for new tools, instruments, discoveries etc.

This is why we have television (****) (tele – Greek for distant; vision – Latin for the act of seeing), telephone (phone – Greek for voice/sound) and not something like “farseer” and “farspeaker” like the German fernseher and fernsprecher (although due to the influence of English they are just as likely to say ‘television’ and ‘telefon’).

It never really stopped: with the empire and a more global society, English continued to absorb words from elsewhere, such as pundit, punch (the drink) and thug from India. Today, it is just as influenced by American English.

As the words were absorbed, so too were some of their rules, making it a bit of mess, with rules that seem more honoured in the breach than the observation, or a different meaning to what we might expect due to the derivation of the word.

For example, inflammable means flammable rather than non-flammable, which a lot of people think. Inflammable comes from the Latin inflammare, it is not the use of the prefix in- such as in insane (ie not sane) or inactive (not active). This misunderstanding could have dire consequences! Indeed, in my lifetime, I have seen aerosol cans change from warning of the inflammability to the flammability of their contents.

Pluralising seems an interesting one.

Criteria is plural but pizzeria and cafeteria are singular. Criteria is the plural of criterion, absorbed from Greek, whilst pizzeria and cafeteria derive from Italian and American Spanish respectively. So why didn’t criterion get pluralised as criterions, as is usual in English?

The plural of gateau is gateaux. Absorbed from French in the 19th century, gâteau means cake, yet in English it tends to be a richer cake with cream etc, but in any event, why is the plural not gateaus?

Panini is the plural of panino from Italian, yet we use panini as singular; however, cappuccino came through as singular and we say cappuccinos rather than cappuccini.

Media is the plural of medium. We use media for TV, newspapers etc in general. Yet, when it is a fortune teller or clairvoyant, we say mediums.

Why does goose become geese and tooth become teeth, but moose does not become meese? All because of when the word entered English. Goose and tooth go back a long way. Moose was absorbed in the 1700s as the English settled in North America. Again, all down to the timing.

Despite all this, the bulk of what is said can be traced back to Old English. Key words such as I, you, me, mother, father, brother, daughter, son, sister, north, south, east, west, man, wife, day, night, king, queen, house, why, what, who, beer, ale and wine all derive from Old English.

Absorption isn’t a problem per se, English did not need a word for kangaroo until Europeans landed in Australia, and why make up one when the aboriginal word would do? And many words survive, despite an alternative being absorbed (such as ill and sick, lawful and legal as mentioned previously). They continue to be used, creating a language with a large vocabulary of synonymous words.

It is debatable if this is good or bad. Languages change: if they didn’t, most of Europe and Asia would still be speaking the Proto-Indo-European language from which all this derives.

With English having a rich history, reflecting that of its homeland and drawing on lots of other languages, it is no wonder that people have trouble with certain aspects of the language. As a proofreader, I can help individuals and organisations navigate these inconsistencies to help ensure their writing is accurate and consistent.

Notes and other worthy comments.

(*) Note the letters æ and ð. These represented the modern -ae- and -th- sounds but died out over time. The letter ð lives on in Icelandic.

(**) Indeed, an aspect of it remains. When Royal Assent is given to Parliamentary Bills the statement is made in Norman French.

(***) What is the difference between unlawful and illegal? One is against the law, the other is a sick bird.

(****) CP Scott, the then editor of The Guardian, is famed for the quote: “Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it.”

This blog draws together a lot of knowledge from various sources read over time. Bryan Evans in Plain English A Wealth of Words gives a great summary of the history of English; some of the information in this blog is derived from this book and was the starting point of further research into specific words. The histories of words have been found in Cassell’s Dictionary of Word Histories. Steve Pollington’s First Steps in Old English is a comfortable introduction to the language and Old English Translator has been useful in checking spellings of various Old English words.

This topic was also the basis of a presentation to Southend Peers.

Kindly proofread by Janice Gilbert, WordperfectVA.


4 thoughts on “July 2019 – a little history of English.

  1. twinkletoes says:

    A fascinating post, Matt. I love that sort of thing …

    You’re right, nobody says “Fernsprecher” in German anymore. Now it just seems to be a popular answer in crosswords (making young people chew on their pencil). However, we do still say “Fernseher” and “fernsehen” (to watch TV). Some might say “TV” (pronounced in the German way “Te-Fau”), especially as part of “TV guide” (TV-Programm), but I’ve never heard “Television” used.

    I’m quite sure if Germans had discovered Australia, they would have created a word for kangaroo. “Beutelreh” (“pouch deer”) or “Hüpfreh” (“hopping deer”) probably. As it is, it is “Känguru”.


  2. twinkletoes says:

    A fascinating blog post, Matt. I love that sort of thing.

    It’s true that nobody says “Fernsprecher” anymore in German. It only occurs in crosswords now (“old fashioned for ‘Telefon'”) – probably causing young people to chew their pencils for a while. We do, however, still call a television “Fernseher”. “TV” is sometimes used (pronounced the German way: Te-Fau), but mainly as part of “TV guide”: “TV-Programm”

    I bet if Germans had discovered Australia in the 1700s they would have come up with a word for kangaroo, just so everyone knows what they’re talking about: “Beutelreh” (“pouch deer”) or “Hüpfreh” (“hopping deer”) probably.

    Liked by 1 person

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