Word Matters Podcast

A Brief History of the English Language

Word Matters, Episode 74

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English is often called a "Germanic" language, and yet huge parts of it come from Latin and Greek. So: what gives? Here's the story of English, in 17 minutes.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, a listener question that gets at the core of the language. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I, explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. English is widely reputed to be a Germanic language, and yet we're constantly talking about the vast swaths of its vocabulary that have Latin, not German, at their roots. So is English truly a Germanic language after all? Peter starts us off.

Peter Sokolowski: We got a note from Robert with a question, "I was wondering, since the English language has been so influenced by Latin and Greek, and to a lesser degree French, can it really be called a Germanic language, or has it over the centuries developed into a quasi-Germanic language?" And that's a great question, and opens up such a discussion of what a language is, what constitutes a language. It seems like in Robert's framing, if we're just talking about vocabulary, then he's got a good argument that there are so many terms that have come from other languages into English, and in particular Latin-based language borrowings. But the reason English is called a Germanic language is largely syntactical, I think it's largely grammatical and not based on vocabulary, which is why it's still considered a Germanic language.

Emily Brewster: And also its history is Germanic.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course, from the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. We refer to things as being Anglo-Saxon in different ways, whether it's language or historical objects or even architecture or writings. There were three tribes that were from what we now would call Holland Belgium who came across with a language that was Germanic, a proto English, and they came to a place where the inhabitants spoke a Celtic language, or Celtic languages, and those two languages met, and most of the Celts during this period, for one reason or another, through invasions and occupations, moved to the edges, which is why in Britain the Irish people, the Scottish people, and the Welsh people have remnants of the Celtic language, and they're all essentially as far away as they could get from the invaders who came across what we would call the English Channel today.

Emily Brewster: Yes, and that happened in the fifth and sixth century, these invaders arrived in various waves, the Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes. They were speaking mutually intelligible dialects that all eventually coalesced into Old English.

Peter Sokolowski: Old English, which is a different language, that's why we make that distinction, we say Old English. It's not a language I ever really studied, and it's one that would be very hard for us to understand, it's hard for us to read, and in fact there's a lot of letters in that language that we don't even use anymore.

Emily Brewster: The vocabulary of modern English is approximately a quarter Germanic coming from Old English, Scandinavian, Dutch, and German, and two thirds of it, though, is this Italic, or Romance language based.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Emily Brewster: But that one quarter quantity of the vocabulary is all of our most basic words, we can get by just on their own if we really needed to.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Ammon Shea: The way I always remembered it being explained to me as to why, even though so much of English is Greek and Latin in origin, the reason why we don't consider it a Romance language is because it's very easy to create a sentence in English using no Greek or Latin origin words, but it is essentially impossible to make any kind of sentence, even a short one, in English without using Germanic origin words.

Emily Brewster: I happen to have Melvin Bragg's book The Adventure of English here, and he has a really great quote from Churchill. He's says, this is Winston Churchill speaking in 1940, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender." And he says the only word in that entire utterance that is not from Old English is the word surrender.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's powerful, most of them are one syllable words.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Of the 100 most commonly used words in the English language, almost all of them are from Old English. We get they there and them from Old Norse, but otherwise it's basically Old English.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, and so the function words, what we might call the irregular verbs like is, to be, and to have, and to do, the most heavy lifting of the verbs in English are these Old English words.

Emily Brewster: Yes, any elementary student of modern German will recognize so many English words, the word house, finger is finger, arm is arm, hand is hand, ohr is ear. There are so many commonalities between even modern English and modern German, and aside from the vocabulary it's the very basic structure. I mean, the foundation of the language was not changed by the Norman invasion.

Peter Sokolowski: We can also talk about the Roman invasion, because the Romans occupied Britain, and to Robert's point, what's interesting about the Roman occupation, it's just still a mystery to me, is that they seem to have left Britain and left very little Latin behind, because the Old English writings that we have up to Beowulf, which is basically ninth century, has very little Latin in it, and yet the Romans were there.

Emily Brewster: They were there for a long time, they were there like 43 BC to 410 AD. And then we have the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes coming in the fifth and sixth century, so later that same century they are coming over on their boats. And there's very, very little vocabulary from that long, long Roman occupation. Again, from Melvin Bragg's book, he says there are only about 200 words at most that come from that initial Roman occupation, they are the words for plant, wine, I'm giving the modern English word, cat, kettle, candle, anchor, chest fork, wall, camp, road, mortar, letter, and rose.

Peter Sokolowski: And the word city. And some of them are recognizable, as Emily was just saying, the German words that are recognizable for parts of the body, and especially words of house and home and hearth, those tend to be Old English words that are similar to German words, but there are some words that in that list do remind me of modern French, city is one of them, of course, certainly plant is another. There are so few Roman relics in England, and it may be that, as you say, the Germanic language was superimposed upon that, so it came in after and really took over. And then of course many people talk about the Norman conquest in 1066 as being obviously one of them most important dates in the history of the English language because it was the beginning of a new wave, and a really distinct political military cultural influence of the Latin based French of the Norman conquerors into the area of Great Britain.

Ammon Shea: I do think that there was a kind of other introduction of Latin through Christianity prior to this, where there are some, again, a vestigial vocabulary remains from that. But the Norman invasion was the bulk of our Latin at that point.

Peter Sokolowski: You're talking about what David Crystal calls the continental period, which was the period where there was some Christian terminology that came across because the common language of the church was Latin during this period.

Ammon Shea: Right, at the end of the sixth century. It exists for hundreds of years, but it's again dwarfed in volume by the Norman invasion.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, and the Normans brought, what we call in our dictionary, Anglo French, AF, which is the equivalent of Old French on the continent. It's just the French that was spoken in the British Isles by the Norman conquerors. The difference between the Roman conquerors and the Norman conquerors is that the Normans really stayed. The Normans established themselves, they intermarried, and they established all the hierarchies that we recognize today, including government, law, and notably nobility, which we think of as being the most English of English institutions. But of course all the words of English nobility, except the word earl, which is an Old English word, and some people say was not used for the simple reason that the word count as said in French was a word that sounded very much like a very, very vulgar word in English and that's why it was not used, which is why today we have the word earl, but the wife of an earl is a countess. But all the other terms of nobility, baron, duke, even prince, squire, marquis of course, those are all French terms, and also the ranks of the military, private, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major, they're all French words. So every hierarchy we have, and of course all of the words for law and government, came from this imposition, this power from above, of a French speaking world. It also important to note that the prestige language was the language of literature. And so we have Beowulf in the ninth century, and it's really not until the 14th century we have Gawain and we have Chaucer when English comes back as a literary language, which means there's a period of 400 or 500 years in which the literature of Great Britain was essentially composed in French.

Emily Brewster: English as a written language ceased to exist. It developed in the ninth century, and then it disappeared.

Peter Sokolowski: Because the bureaucratic use was entirely in Latin and French. The literary use, it's important to mention the Tales of King Arthur, again, the most English of English legends, was entirely written initially in Latin and then in French. And there was a counterpoint with the oral tradition, the oral history, in a sense a troubadour type, storytelling that was distinctly English as opposed to French, and that was the tales of Robin Hood. And Robin Hood notably was not a nobleman, some of them modern movies show him as being a nobleman who's been wronged, but the original oral tradition was that he was a yeoman, which is to say a freeman, an Englishman, not a Norman.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be backs soon with more of our discussion about the English language's history. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@M-W.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-Webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And from more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: There's plenty more to say about what French has done to English. This vocabulary that came from the continent, came from France to Great Britain, it was vocabulary that was super imposed on an existing language that already had a structure, that already had a morphology, that already had syntax, and this vocabulary was laid over, adopted, and very much brought into the language and made its own, but the language at its core remains Germanic.

Ammon Shea: Even went throughout the ages after the Norman conquest and there were other periods when we took in grand polysyllabic words of Latin Greek origin. The most successful ones were during the Industrial Revolution or the Scientific Revolution when scientists were creating new words for diseases, or various technical things. But several hundred years before that there was this great period of words called inkhorns, or new orient words, golden words, in which a lot of writers, particularly we have to say lexicographers, tried to come up with these very fancy words. And a lot of the early dictionaries were called hardware dictionaries. And there were just these polysyllabic outrages, we can call them. There were words like desiccate, to cry like a rat, or vulpeculated, robbed as in the manner of a fox, things like that. And I have to say, most of these words just disappeared. They did not have great staying power. In a lot of cases they were just formed by taking a Latin, in some cases a Greek word, and Anglicizing the ending, but very, very few of them really stuck to our language.

Peter Sokolowski: And it's interesting because it shows there was a hierarchy, in other words, they thought the fancy sounding words were the Latin sounding words, and often Greek parts were part of this as well. And that continues to this day, that we have basically baked into the language a sense of prestige or authority in terms that have their basis in Latin or French. And whether that authority was intellectual or military or political, that's one of the reasons that we have this peculiar condition in English, we think French sounds fancy. In modern terms we have things like haute couture, haute cuisine, there are reasons for which the French culture is admired that are very modern. But my argument is that these are prejudices that are baked into the language for a thousand years, and they go back to that conquest, and the very basic example that is often given, I call it the Ivanhoe example, of the terms for food and the terms for the animals that are killed for that food. So you have cow, which is English, and beef, which is French. You have sheep, which is English, and mutton, which is French. You have calf, which is English, and veal, which is French. You have of deer, which is English, and venison, which is French. In every case you see that the word for the animal as it's tended in the barnyard, in the farm yard, is the Old English term, but the term for the food as it's served is the modern French term, and so we have a perfect clear identification of who was serving whom.

Emily Brewster: And it's also very interesting to me that English has adopted many more words than it has sloughed off. It took on these words from the French language, these Anglo-French terms, and adopted them, but it didn't actually discard the synonyms that it had, instead it let those terms become differentiated and applied in different contexts with different connotations. So we have the word mansion, which in French was any kind of dwelling, in Anglo-French it referred to any kind of dwelling, but we get house being the more general term, that Old English word becomes the more general term, and mansion becomes this elevated, specialized, enormous structure.

Peter Sokolowski: There's so many rich examples of exactly this phenomenon, these kinds of more basic terms that go back to English, and the more technical terms, like brotherhood is English, fraternity is French. Kingly is English, royal is French. Freedom is English, liberty is French. Tongue is English, but language is French. Readable and legible, there are millions of these, and this is why English vocabulary is so rich and so nuanced, because the builder of the Romance language is derived so directly from Latin, and there are far fewer borrowings in those languages.

Emily Brewster: It's also true that the way that words are structured in English, it's been influenced by the various languages that have influenced English. There are words that are classically Germanic, like icebreaker, one that breaks ice, that is classically Germanic morphology, that is a composition that harks back to the language's origins.

Ammon Shea: In English, as we now know, debacle was the icebreaker from French.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, that was the term, right?

Ammon Shea: Yeah, which then changed.

Peter Sokolowski: Even within the borrowings of French, especially after the Norman conquest, what happened among other things to the Normans is that they were then pushed out of France so that they really turned a conquest into an occupation into a country. So what had been England became this Norman territory, and then the Normans were pushed out by the Parisian kingdom of France. And what happened after that was another wave of French borrowings that was perceived as being more prestigious, the dialect of the Parisian area, as opposed to the Norman dialect, and so some words were borrowed twice. This is why we have terms in English that begin with a G, and others that begin with a W, but are actually the same word, like warranty and guarantee, for example, or guardian and warden, or while and guile, or basically William and Guillaume.

These just simply represent the fact that the Normans retained the W sound, that was in fact a Germanic sound, and there was no E sound in Parisian French. So those doublets both came into English, but at separate moments in history, hundreds of years apart, and English was welcoming to both of them. And that's why we make distinctions. Again, these distinctions are so subtle, and that's what makes English so rich, is all of these borrowings.

Ammon Shea: Are we still answering some fellow's question here?

Emily Brewster: We are still answering the question, and the answer is still, yes, English is still Germanic, despite all of the impositions made by the French language.

Peter Sokolowski: Indeed.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@M-W.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org, and for the word of the day, and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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