English is a member of the great Indo-European Family of languages, which is so called because it includes well-nigh all the languages of Europe and the most important of those found in India. Within this family, English belongs to the Teutonic (or Germanic) Group, which contains also German, Dutch, the Scandinavian tongues (Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish), and some others.
English of the oldest period is called either Anglo-Saxon or Old English. This was the speech of certain piratical tribes whose home was in northern Germany, on the eastern and southern shores of the North Sea, but who invaded Britain about A.D. 450, and subdued the Celtic inhabitants of the island in a series of fierce wars. The most considerable of the invading tribes were the Angles and the Saxons. Their dominion was well assured by the beginning of the seventh century, and their language, which they usually called “English" (that is, “the tongue of the Angles"), gradually spread through England and most of Scotland. In Wales, however, the native Britons have maintained their own Celtic speech to the present day; and in the Scottish Highlands, Gaelic—which is akin to Welsh and practically identical with the native language of Ireland—is still extensively used.
At the time of the invasion, the Angles and Saxons were heathen, and the Britons, who had been for four centuries under the sway of the Roman Empire, were Christians, and much more highly civilized than their conquerors. Indeed, they had adopted many features of Roman culture, and Latin was spoken to some extent, at least in the larger towns. By the end of the seventh century, however, the Anglo-Saxons also had embraced Christianity and had made remarkable advances in literature and learning. The language of the Britons exerted but slight influence upon that of the Anglo-Saxons. The Celtic words in English are few in number, and most of them were borrowed in comparatively recent times.
The Norman Conquest (1066) marks a highly significant date in the history of our language. The Normans were a Scandinavian tribe who had been in possession of Normandy (in northern France) for about a hundred and fifty years. They had abandoned their native tongue, and spoke a dialect of French. From 1066 to about the year 1400, two languages were therefore common in England,—English, which was employed by the vast majority of the people, and French, which was the language of the court and the higher orders. French, however, was never a serious rival of English for supremacy in the island. It was the speech of a class, not of the nation, and its use gradually died out, except as an accomplishment. By the time of Chaucer (who was born about 1340 and died in 1400), it was clear that the English tongue was henceforth to be regarded as the only natural language for Englishmen, whether they were of Anglo-Saxon or of Norman origin.
Still, the Norman conquest had a profound influence upon English. It is not true—though often asserted—that the multitude of French words which our language contains were derived from the Norman dialect. Comparatively few of them came into English until after 1300, when Normandy had been lost to the English crown for a hundred years. Since 1300 we have borrowed freely—not from Norman, however, but from Central (or Parisian) French, which had become the standard to which the English descendants of the Normans endeavored to conform. The effect of the Conquest, then, was not to fill English with Norman terms. It was rather to bring England into close social and literary relations with France, and thus to facilitate the adoption of words and constructions from Central French.
Further, since literature was in the middle ages dependent in the main upon private patronage, the existence of a ruling class whose interest was in French, discouraged the maintenance of any national or general standard of English composition. Every English writer had recourse to his local dialect, and one dialect was felt to be as good as another.
By 1350, however, the dialect of London and the vicinity had come, apparently, to be regarded as somewhat more elegant and polished than the others. All that was needed was the appearance of some writer of supreme genius to whom this dialect should be native. Chaucer was such a writer, for he was born in London. To be sure, Chaucer did not “make modern English." None the less, he was a powerful agent in settling the language. Since his time, at all events, the fact of a “standard of literary usage" has been undisputed. Dialects still exist, but they are not regarded as authoritative. Educated speakers and writers of English, the world over, use the language with substantial uniformity.
Meantime, however, the English of the Anglo-Saxons had undergone many changes before Chaucer was born. Most of its inflections had been lost, and still others have been discarded since. Further, there had been extensive borrowing from French and Latin, and this continued throughout the fourteenth century. The habit, once formed, has proved lasting. Our vocabulary has received contributions from many languages, and is still receiving them. Greek may be mentioned in particular as the source of many words, especially in the various departments of science. But French and Latin remain the chief foreign elements in English.
In the following extract from Scott, most of the words printed in Roman type are of Anglo-Saxon origin, whereas the italicized words are derived from Latin or French.
It was not until evening was nearly closed that Ivanhoe was restored to consciousness of his situation. He awoke from a broken slumber, under the confused impressions which are naturally attendant on the recovery from a state of insensibility. He was unable for some time to recall exactly to memory the circumstances which had preceded his fall in the lists, or to make out any connected chain of the events in which he had been engaged upon the yesterday. A sense of wounds and injury, joined to great weakness and exhaustion, was mingled with the recollection of blows dealt and received, of steeds rushing upon each other, overthrowing and overthrown, of shouts and clashing of arms, and all the heady tumult of a confused fight. An effort to draw aside the curtain of his couch was in some degree successful, although rendered difficult by the pain of his wound.
English has also adopted a good many Scandinavian words, though they form no such proportion of its vocabulary as French or Latin. Danish and Norwegian pirates began to harry the coast in the eighth century. Permanent settlements followed, as well as wars of conquest, and for about thirty years (1013–1042) a Danish family occupied the English throne. These events explain the Scandinavian element in our language.
Despite the freedom with which English has adopted words from abroad, it is still essentially a Germanic speech. Its structure is still the native structure. The borrowings have enriched its vocabulary, but have had comparatively little effect upon its syntax. The foreign words have been naturalized, and their presence in no wise interferes with the unity and general consistency of the English language. It is a strange error to regard English as a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. As for the loss or decay of inflections, that is not due to a mixture of dialects. It is a natural tendency, which may be seen, for example, in Dutch and Danish, though there was no Norman Conquest in Holland or Denmark. The loss, indeed, is really a gain, for it is progress in the direction of simplicity.
The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period comes down to about a century, or a century and a half, after the Norman Conquest. Its extreme limit may be set at 1200. The period from 1200 to 1500 is usually known as the Middle English Period. From 1500 to the present time may be regarded as the Modern Period, though within these boundaries English has changed enormously in pronunciation and in vocabulary, very largely in syntax, and to some extent in inflection. The almost complete abandonment of the subjunctive in common speech is one of the latest of these changes. This, too, is in the direction of simplicity.
The people of Great Britain have long been famous as travellers, explorers, and colonizers. Their language, once the dialect (or dialects) of a handful of Germanic adventurers, has spread to all parts of the world, so that now it is not merely the language of England, but, to a considerable extent, that of Scotland, Ireland, North America, India, Australasia, and South Africa. In this vast area, numerous varieties of pronunciation and of idiom of course occur, but, on the whole, the uniformity of the language is surprisingly well preserved.