A Short History of the English Language
Here’s a quiz for you. What language is this? And can you translate it? No googling!
Fæder ure ðu ðe eart on heofenum
Si ðin nama gehalgod
To-becume ðin rice, geweorþe ðin willa
On eorðan swa swa on heofenum.
Here’s a clue: "ð” and “þ” are both pronounced like “th” – the former is the hard sound you’d find in “that”, the second the softer sound from “south.” When I passed this text around the office my colleagues had plenty of guesses. Gaelic? Icelandic? Klingon? Give up?
English. Admittedly, it’s Old English – the English of 1000 years ago.
The evolution of a language
If you stare at it long enough, or try to read it aloud, you may find that it’s not quite as alien as it looks, especially if you’re familiar with archaic words like “thou” and “art” – or alternatively if you notice how close “ðu” is to German “du.” Once you’ve been clued in about the unfamiliar letters it’s not that surprising that “ðu” = thou. The similarity between “Faeder” and “Father” isn’t a coincidence, either. Scan further on, and “nama,” “willa” and “forgyf” are only a few letters away from their modern equivalents – name, will and forgive. “And” and “us” haven’t changed at all. See if you can find “earth,” “heaven,” “today” and “guilts” in there!
Just a century later, this same text would look very different:
Oure Fadir, that art in hevene,
Halowid be thi name;
Thi kyngdoom come to; be thi wille don,
In erthe as in hevene.
It still looks pretty strange, but native speakers of English who were baffled by the first version will often find this one instantly recognizable. And if we skip forward another few centuries …
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done,
On Earth as it is in heaven …
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The day that changed English
In its long history, English has absorbed and repurposed huge quantities of vocabulary from other languages. It has casually appropriated vocabulary – along with land – through colonialism, (pajamas, banana, sugar and chocolate) and shamelessly copied words mostly just on the grounds they were cool (tsunami, guerilla and lingerie). But nothing has altered its texture as fundamentally as the events of a single day: 14 October, 1066.
At the Battle of Hastings, English forces met those of William, Duke of Normandy to fight for the English throne. And with the English defeat, Norman French became the language of the ruling classes in England for the next 300 years.
“English is just French, badly pronounced,” Alexandre Dumas wrote in 1845. He was almost exactly half right. By 1400 this Germanic language had changed so much that 50% of English vocabulary derived from French. Ever wondered why modern English has so many pairs of words with similar or identical meanings?
Words on the left come from Old English, those on the right from Norman French:
Pardon our French
As the language of the elites, French had the biggest impact on the language of privilege – from government and law to fine dining and the arts (money, royalty, justice, legality, music, and pastry). English became the language of plain, everyday things: (earth, plough, knife, loaf, bed). Even now, to native speakers, a French-derived word often sounds more formal or literary – whereas those from Old English roots are usually more concrete.
The relationship between English’s Germanic and French roots can have quirky effects on language learning. If you’re an English speaker studying French or any of the other “Romance” languages derived from Latin, or a Romance-language speaker learning English, you may find that complicated, technical language can be easier to grasp than the basic vocabulary of daily life. “The general theory of relativity” is so similar to "La théorie générale de la relativité” that anyone who understands one can make sense of the other. But “Give me a slice of bread” won’t help you with “donne-moi une tranche de pain”
The “Romance origins = abstract; Old English origins = concrete” rule doesn’t always hold true. English words as simple as air, fruit and people are all derived from Norman French. Nevertheless, the tone of a thought can change completely depending on the origins of the words chosen, for example:
“I experienced extensive difficulties as I commenced my labors, but finally my aspirations were realized.” (Mostly French origins)
“I underwent great hardship as I began my work, but at last my dreams came true.” (Mostly Old English origins)
Both sentences express the same thing. But the first sounds abstract and remote. It encourages us to be impressed by the speaker rather than to feel their struggle. The second sentence, built from Old English-derived words, sounds simpler – but the stakes feel higher. The story it tells feels more real.
In other words, if you’re reading English, then a battle that took place almost a thousand years ago is affecting the way you think.
How did you do on our quiz in the opening section? Do you feel like you have a better understanding of the origins of English? Share your thoughts and experiences with us on our Facebook channel or in the comment section below.