The history of Britain is undoubtedly most colourful and interesting, stretching from the Neolithic period, throughout the more recent Pre-Roman Britain and various invasions that followed after the Romans had left, up to the present days. As far as the English language is concerned, however, I wish to focus on that one part of British history, which played the most significant part in the development of this language.
Before and during the Roman era, the Britons (of Celtic origin) had been inhabiting the islands of today’s Great Britain. Picts of the north are believed to have been of the same Celtic origins. Never fully subjugated, both Britons and Picts coexisted with Romans until their departure from Britain in the 5th century AD. This power vacuum left Britain vulnerable to external attacks.
During this time, the invasion of three Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) took place and was successful. Various kingdoms were established and later united into the kingdom of England (the land of the Angles), in the early 9th century. Anglo-Saxons ruled Britain and defended it against the Vikings and later Danes, which reinforced their cultural identity as can be observed in their language and art.
Anglo-Saxons were the dominant force in Britain until the year of 1066. In this year, the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor died and since he had no heir of his own, his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson claimed the throne and became the king. The Norwegian king Harald Hardrada also laid the claim on the English throne and invaded England in the North. Harold Godwinson met him in two battles and had just defeated him, when he learnt of another invasion in the south.
William, the Duke of Normandy, landed in the south of England and Harold marched down to fight him, leaving a big part of his army in the North. They met in the famous battle of Hastings, which Harold lost and during which he was killed. William became the ruler of England, William the Conqueror.
In the following few years, the resisting Anglo-Saxons were defeated and those who survived either fled to exile or accepted the Normans as their lords. The whole Anglo-Saxon population was subjugated and became an inferior class, with Normans becoming the ruling class.
The impact of the Norman Conquest on the English language
The Norman Conquest of 1066 is an important event in British history as it was the last time that Britain was invaded. It is this conquest of Britain which is referred to, when the D-Day landing in Normandy in 1944 is mentioned, as the pay-back of the English invading the Normans.
However, apart from its historical importance of 1066, it is equally interesting to consider its linguistic ramifications for the language, which we now call English. To do that, let us mention a few things about Old English, i.e. the English language before 1066 conquest.
English before 1066
When they start learning the language, not many students realize that English belongs to the Germanic group of languages. Regardless of various historical influences, the core of this language is Anglo-Saxon, thus of the Germanic origin. Over the time, the English language underwent many significant changes and lost a lot of its Germanic characteristics in terms of the structure, e.g. Old English also had grammatical cases, Nominative, Dative, Accusative and Instrumental.
One can see the remnants of the Germanic origin e.g. in the 3rd person – speak – speaks; irregular plural nouns like child – children (Kind – Kinder); genitive case in my brother’s horse; but most importantly in the irregular / strong verbs speak (sprechen), see (sehen), sit (sitzen), come (kommen), drink (trinken), etc…
Half of the English vocabulary comes from the Anglo-Saxon language, primarily the words describing the everyday objects and activity, days of week, names of geographical places, towns, etc.
When you start learning English, you start with the Anglo-Saxon part, hence for those who understand some German, it is easier to understand the basic structures of the English language, such as modal verbs, articles, the use of irregular verbs, present perfect tense structure, etc..
Modern English, though born out of Old English, has lost most of its synthetic language attributes and developed into a fully analytic language, i.e. it relies heavily on the word order, use of articles, prepositions and particles, and context.
English after 1066
After the Norman conquest, two languages co-existed and were used in Britain at the same time – Anglo-Saxon or Old English, used by the subjugated populace, serfs and generally lower classes, and French, used by the nobility, it having become the official language in the country.
A typical example of this parallel use of the two languages are the names of animals. They are of Anglo-Saxon origin because it was the lower Anglo-Saxon class of farmers who raised them. But once cooked and put on the Norman table, the meat coming from those animals was named in French, e.g.
Cow (G. Kuh) VS Beef (F. Beauf) Swine (G. Schweine) VS Pork (F. Porc) Sheep (G. Schaf) VS Mutton (F. Mouton)
This situation persisted for some two hundred years, and resulted in a peculiar outcome as far as the vocabulary is concerned.
When the political situation changed and the nationalistic attitudes gained the upper hand, the now English nobility needed to distance themselves from the French not only by the sea, but in the language as well. Anglo-Saxon English became the official language now and in the process, it absorbed great many words from French. This meant the instant doubling of the word stock of the English language and thus creation of the language with unparalleled richness in vocabulary.
The direct result of this process of merging two languages into one is that in many cases there are two names (of the Anglo-Saxon (A) and the French (F) origin) for the same thing, e.g.
fatherly (A) paternal (F) lord (A) liege (F) amaze (A) astonish (F) house (A) mansion (F) answer (A) reply (F) behaviour (A) manner (F) forgive (A) pardon (F) freedom (A) liberty (F) grave (A) tomb (F) room (A) chamber (F) etc. ...
It is this historical event to which the students of English owe their experience of the fact that as they expand their vocabulary, they come across new words which carry the meanings they have already learnt. This richness in the choice of words is what makes English such an exciting language to study and use.