The History of English in ten minutes. Chapter One: Anglo-Saxon or whatever happened to The Jutes? The English Language begins with the phrase ‘Up yours, Caesar’, as the Romans leave Britain and a lot of Germanic tribes start flooding in. Tribes such as the Angles and the Saxons, who together gave us the term Anglo-Saxon and the Jutes who didn’t. The Romans left some very straight roads behind, but not much of their Latin language. The Anglo-Saxon vocab was much more useful, as it was mainly words for simple everyday things, like ‘house’ ‘woman’ ‘loaf’ and ‘werewolf’.
Four of our days of the week were named in honour of Anglo-Saxon gods, they didn’t bother with ‘Saturday’ ‘Sunday’ and ‘Monday’ as they’d all gone off for a long weekend. While they were away, Christian missionaries stole in, bringing with them leaflets about jumble sales and more Latin. Christianity was a hit with the locals and made them much happy to take on funky new words from Latin like ‘martyr’ ‘Bishop’ and ‘font’ along came the Vikings with their action-man words like ‘drag’ ‘ransack’ ‘fast’ and ‘die’. They may have raped and pillaged, but they were also into give and take, two of around 2000 words they gave English, as well as the phrase ‘watch out for that man with the enormous axe.’ Chapter Two: The Norman Conquest or excuse my English. 1066, true to his, name William the Conqueror invades England bringing new concepts from across the channel like the French language, the Doomsday Book and the duty-free Gauloise multi-pack. French was de rigueur for all official business, with words like ‘judge’ ‘jury’ ‘evidence’ and ‘justice’, coming in and giving John Grisham’s career a kick start. Latin was still used at nauseam in church, but the common man spoke English, able to communicate only by speaking more slowly and loudly until the others understood him.
Words like ‘cow’ ‘sheep’ and ‘swine’ come from the english-speaking farmers, while the a la carte versions, ‘beef’ ‘mutton’ and ‘pork’ come from the french-speaking tops, beginning a long-running trend for restaurants having completely indecipherable menus. All in all, the English absorbed about 10,000 new words from the Normans, though they still couldn’t grasp the rules of cheek kissing. The Boname all ended when the English nation took their new war-like lingo of ‘armies’ ‘navies’ and ‘soldiers’ and began the Hundred Years War against France. It actually lasted 116 years but by that point no one could count any higher in French and English took over as the language of power. Chapter Three: Shakespeare or a plaque on both his houses. As the dictionary tells us, about 2,000 new words and phrases were invented by William Shakespeare he gave us handy words like ‘eyeball’ ‘puppy dog’ and ‘anchovy’, and more show- offy words like ‘dauntless’ ‘besmirch’ and lacklustre.
He came up with the word ‘alligator’ soon after he ran out of things to rhyme with ‘crocodile’. And a nation of tea drinkers finally took him to their hearts, when he invented the hobnob. Shakespeare knew the power of catchphrases as well as biscuits, without him we would never eat our flesh and blood out of house and home. We’d have to say good riddance to the green-eyed monster and breaking the ice will be as dead as a door nail. If you try to get your money’s worth you’d be given short shrift and anyone who laid it on with a trial could be pushed with his own petard. Of course, it’s possible other people use these words first but the dictionary writers liked looking them up in Shakespeare, because there was more cross-dressing and people taking each other’s eyes out. Shakespeare’s poetry showed the world that English was a rich, vibrant language with limitless expressive and emotional power, and he still had time to open all those tea rooms in Stratford. Chapter Four: The King James Bible or let there be light reading. In 1611, the powers that be turned the world upside down with a labour of love, a new translation of the Bible.
A team of scribes with the wisdom of Sullivan went the extra mile to make King James translation all things to all men. Whether from their heart’s desire, to fight the good fight, or just for the filthy lucre. This sexy new Bible went from strength to strength getting to the root of the matter in a language even the salt of the earth could understand. The writing wasn’t on the wall, it was in handy little books with fire and brimstone preachers reading it in every church. Its words and phrases took root to the ends of the earth, well at least the ends of Britain. The King James Bible is the book that taught us that a leopard can’t change its spots, that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, that a wolf in sheep’s clothing is harder to spot than you would imagine, and how annoying it is to have a fly in your ointment.
In fact, just as Jonathan begat Maribel and Maribel begat Myka, the King James Bible begat a whole glossary of metaphor and morality that still shapes the way English is spoken today. Amen. Chapter Five: The English of Science or how to speak with gravity. Before the 17th Century scientists weren’t really recognised, possibly because lab coats had yet to catch on. But suddenly Britain was full of physicists, there was Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, and even some people not called Robert, like Isaac Newton. The Royal Society was formed out of the invisible college after they put it down somewhere and couldn’t find it again. At first they worked in Latin after sitting through Newton’s story about the ‘Pomum’ falling to the ‘Terra’ from the ‘Arbor’ for the umpteenth time, the bright sparks realised they all spoke English and they could transform our understanding of the universe much quicker, by talking in their own language. But science was discovering things faster than they could name them, words like ‘acid’ ‘gravity’ ‘electricity’ and ‘pendulum’ had to be invented just to stop their meetings turning into an endless game of charades.
Like teenage boys, the scientists suddenly became aware of the human body, coining new words like ‘cardiac’ and ‘tonsil’ ‘ovary’ and ‘sternum’ and the invention of ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ made sex education classes a bit easier to follow. Though clitoris was still a source of confusion. Chapter Six: English and Empire or the Sun never sets on the English language. With English making its name as the language of science, the bible and Shakespeare, Britain decided to take it on tour, asking only for land, wealth, natural resources, total obedience to the crown and a few local words in return.
They went to the Caribbean looking for gold and a chance to really unwind, discovering the barbecue, the canoe and a pretty good recipe for rum punch. They also brought back the word ‘cannibal’ to make their trip sound more exciting. In India, there was something for everyone. Yoga to help you stay in shape while pretending to be spiritual. If that didn’t work there was the cummerbund to hide the paunch, and if you couldn’t even make it up the stairs without turning crimson, they have the bungalow. Meanwhile in Africa, they picked up words like ‘voodoo’ and ‘zombie’ kicking off the teen horror film.
From Australia, English took the words ‘nugget’ ‘boomerang’ and ‘walkabout’ and, in fact, the whole concept of chained pubs. All in all, between toppling Napoleon and the First World War, the British Empire gobbled up around ten million square miles, four hundred million people, and nearly a hundred thousand gin and tonics. Leaving new varieties of English to develop all over the globe. Chapter Seven: The Age of the Dictionary or the definition of a hopeless task. With English expanding in all directions, along came a new breed of men called lexicographers who wanted to put an end to this Anarchy, a word they defined as what happens when people spell words slightly differently from each other.
One of the greatest was Dr. Johnson, whose Dictionary of the English Language took him nine years to write. It was 18 inches tall and contained forty two thousand seven hundred and seventy three entries, meaning that even if you couldn’t read, it was still pretty useful if you wanted to reach a high shelf. For the first time when people were calling you a pickle herring, a jobbernowl or a fopdoodle you could understand exactly what they meant, and you’d have the consolation of knowing they were all using the standard spelling. Try as he might to stop them, words kept being invented, and in 1857 a new book was started that would become the Oxford English Dictionary. It took another seventy years to be finished after the first editor resigned to be an archbishop, the second died of TB and the third was so boring that half his volunteers quit and one of them ended up in an asylum. It eventually paid in 1928 and it’s continued to be revised ever since, proving the whole idea you can stop people making up words is complete snuffbumble. Chapter 8: American English or not English but somewhere in the ballpark.
From the moment Brits first landed in America they needed names for all the new plants and animals, so they borrowed words like ‘raccoon’ ‘squash’ and ‘moose’ from the Native Americans, as well as most of their territory. Waves of immigrants fed America’s hunger for words, the Dutch came sharing coleslaw and cookies, probably a result of their relaxed attitude to drugs. Later the Germans arrived selling pretzels from delicatessens and the Italians arrived with their pizza, their pasta and their mafia, just like mama used to make. America spread a new language of capitalism, getting everyone worried about the break-even and the bottom line, whether they were blue chip or white collar. The commuter needed a whole new system of freeways, subways and parking lots, and quickly, before words like ‘merger’ and ‘downsizing’ could be invented.
American English drifted back across the pond, as Brits got the hang of their cool movies and their groovy jazz. There are even some old forgotten English words that lived on in America, so they carried on using ‘fall’ ‘faucets’ ‘diapers’ and ‘candy’, while the Brits moved on to ‘autumn’ ‘taps’ ‘nappies’ and NHS dental care. Chapter Nine: Internet English or language reverts to type. In 1972, the first email was sent, soon the internet arrived: a free global space to share information, ideas and amusing pictures of cats. Before the Internet, English changed through people speaking it, but the net brought typing back into fashion and hundreds of cases of repetitive strain injury.
Nobody had ever had to download anything before, let alone use a toolbar and the only time someone set up a firewall it ended with a massive insurance claim and a huge pile of charred wallpaper. Conversations were getting shorter than the average attention span. Why bother writing a sentence when an abbreviation would do and leave you more time to blog, poke and reboot when your hard drive crashed. In my humble opinion became IMHO, by the way became BTW and if we’re honest that life-threatening accident was pretty hilarious, simply became FAIL.
Some changes even passed into spoken English, for your information people frequently asked questions like how can LOL mean ‘laugh out loud’ and ‘lots of love’, but if you’re gonna complain about that, then you U’v Go 2 Be Kidding. Chapter 10: Global English or whose language is it anyway? In the 1500 years since the Romans left Britain, English has shown a unique ability to absorb, evolve, invade and if we’re honest, steal. After foreign settlers got it started, it grew into a fully-fledged language all of its own, before leaving home and travelling the world, first via the high seas then via the high-speed broadband connection, pilfering words from over 350 languages and establishing itself as a global institution. All this, despite a written alphabet that bears no correlation to how it sounds, and a system of spelling that even Dan Brown couldn’t decipher. Right now, around billion people speak English. Of these, about a quarter are native speakers, a quarter speak it as their second language and half are able to ask for directions to a swimming pool.
There’s ‘Hinglish’ which is Hindi English, ‘Chinglish’ which is Chinese English and ‘Singlish’ which is Singaporean English and not that bit where they speak in musicals. So in conclusion, the language has got so little to do with England these days it may well be time to stop calling things. If someone does think up a new name for it, it should probably be in Chinese..
As found on Youtube