The English language has a rich and varied history. Words have come and gone over the ages and many words used to be spelled very differently from how they are today.
You may have wondered why some words are spelt so strangely, whilst others are more obvious. This is because English is a mash-up of words from a number of countries.
Before the 5th Century, Britons spoke dialects of the Celtic language. The Celtic language is still alive today – examples are Welsh, Scottish and Irish.
Britain was invaded during the 5th Century by Germanic tribes known as Jutes, Angles and Saxons. They were successful enough to force the Britons north and west – to Scotland, Wales and Ireland. That’s one of the reasons the Celtic language survived in those countries.
The Anglo-Saxons spoke what we now call Old English. Of course, this comprised of German and Danish words.
Back in the day, Old English was hardly ever documented on paper – it was predominantly spoken. But, luckily, there were some written examples that we can learn from.
One such example that you may have heard of is Beowulf. This is an epic poem of over 3,000 lines. Unfortunately, we don’t know who wrote it or exactly when it was written. We do know that it’s in Old English. It’s about a warrior, Beowulf, who defeats three monsters and becomes a hero.
Here are a couple of lines from Beowulf:
Gewát þá ofer waégholm, winde gefýsed
flota fámíheals, fugle gelícost
which translates to:
Then they went over the water-waves urged by the wind,
the foamy-necked floater, remarkably bird-like
As you can see, the words are vastly different from the English we know today. It would be almost impossible to guess what they mean!
Some other Old English words and their meanings are below.
As we journey onwards to the 11th Century, French made its way into the English language with the invasion by the Normans. The Normans conquered England and the Royal Court naturally spoke French. It became the language of the wealthy, while the lower classes continued speaking English.
It wasn’t until about 200 years later that English once again became the dominant language. However, many French words had edged their way into English and this new hybrid language became known as Middle English.
For those of you studying English Literature at school, you may have (or soon will) come across Geoffrey Chaucer. With regards to Middle English, Chaucer is the most famous writer of this particular language.
Chaucer is best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. Many of the tales are full of humour and wit, but they make difficult reading for modern-day readers because the language is Middle English.
With some Middle English words, you could have a stab at what they mean. For instance, ynogh is close to enough, grucche sounds a little like grouch and elvysshe sounds like elvish. Elvish, which whilst not literally meaning mysterious, has that magical, other-worldly essence to it which is related to mysterious.
Early Modern English was around between the 16th and 19th Century. During the 1500s, the way words were said began to change. Over time, vowels were pronounced ever shorter. This event is known as The Great Vowel Shift.
These were times of great change. The British were exploring the world, printing was invented and books got cheaper. This encouraged people to learn to read. With words now in print, a standard needed to be adhered to, and spellings and grammar became established.
In 1604, the first English dictionary was published. This held around 3,000 words, each with a simple description.
As the British Empire expanded across the world, other foreign words entered the English language. The English Language was very much becoming a ‘Heinz 57’!
With the advent of an explosion in science and technology, many new words and phrases were needed to explain and describe inventions, ideas and theories. Because of the nature of these works, experts used Greek and Latin roots to invent words.
These days, brand new words enter the dictionary every year. Words from 2018 include tommytoe (tomato); bobowler (a large moth); frugivore (a fruit-eating animal) and mansplain (explain in a condescending manner).
As you can see, words are almost a living entity, evolving and adapting to fit their surroundings! If you fancy playing a quiz on how language has changed, try our GCSE Language Change quiz.