English: a brief history

By Antony Goedhals, University of Pretoria

In August, PanSALB celebrates English as one of the official languages of South Africa – with the other languages being celebrated in succeeding months.

This article aims to provide a few insights into English – into facts about the language and its origins that most people do not know. It is useful to know these things because they make it clear that English has not always been the dominant world language it is today. It is useful to know these things because they provide a context for speakers of other languages to see that nothing stays the same, that languages, like people – like peoples – are constantly changing. It is useful to know these things, in short, because such insights provide some hope that other languages can change and develop to provide alternatives to English in the future. (It is always a good thing to be able to speak more than one language, and the person who does so has a great advantage over the person who is monolingual – who speaks only one language.)

Did you know, for example, that England – the great colonizer – had herself been colonized on at least two occasions in the last two thousand years, and that English was once the language of servants rather than “masters”? Did you know that for hundreds of years English was not the official language of the courts and upper classes of England? Did you know that the English spoken at this time in England would have been largely unrecognizable to modern speakers of the language – that if you had to go back in time a thousand years and meet an “English” farmer, for example, you would not be able to understand what he or she said to you? Did you know that Afrikaans is very closely related to English, and that South Africans who speak or understand Afrikaans are much more likely to understand the older forms of English – that farmer referred to above – than people living in England today? If any of these ideas interests you, then read on!

The oldest texts in English come from the seventh century AD and the “Old English” of this period sounds something like this:

Nim þinne ancennedan sunu Isaac, þe þu lufast, and far to þam lande Visionis hraðe, and geoffra hine þær uppan anre dune. (Mitchell & Robinson, 1972: 178)

As you can see English used to use letters which have now been modernized. Using the modern alphabet, the words God speaks to Abraham in the above sentence sound something like this:

Nem thine ancennedan sunu, Isaac, tha thu lufast, and far to tham lande Visionis rathe, and yeoffra him thar uppan anre dune.

“Translated” into modern English the sentence means:

Take thine first-born son Isaac, whom you love, and fare to the land of the vision quickly, and offer him there upon a (one) hill.

This is, of course, the beginning of the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament. What should immediately be evident to South Africans who speak Afrikaans is that some of the words are very similar to modern Afrikaans words: “nim” – neem (take); “far” – vaar (journey/ travel); and even the word “thar” is related to the Afrikaans daar (there). (The commonest word in English is “the” and it is related to the commonest word in Afrikaans “die”. You can see this if you pronounce them both with a thick, lazy tongue so that they sound something like “de”: when in moments like this you see the relation of Afrikaans to English it is like suddenly seeing someone you know – and realizing that you have common ancestors, that you are related!)

A few years ago Joe Public, an advertising agency, wrote a poem entitled “My Stories Begin As Letters” that can be read as both English and Afrikaans! The poem was written for Bryanston Parallel Medium School. It provides insight into how closely related Afrikaans is to English, for they are both Germanic languages – they both come from what is now Germany (and originally from much further East, from the heartland of Asia, but that is going back three or more thousand years – too far for our present purposes):

My pen is my wonderland.

Word water in my hand.

In my pen is wonder ink.

Stories sing. Stories sink.

My stories loop.

My Stories stop.

My pen is my wonder mop.

Drink letters.

Drink my ink.

My pen is blind.

My stories blink. (https://www.taalmuseum.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/my-stories-begin-as-letters.jpg)

This is the first surprise for South Africans, this sense that we are connected – all who speak either language, and not only mother-tongue speakers – to the Europe and ultimately the Asia of thousands of years ago.

That Old English we met above, then, is the original, the basis of the Modern English so many millions speak today. But how did it morph from this thick Germanic Afrikaans-sounding language into the language we know today? The answer is colonialization by armies speaking Latinate languages – languages related the Latin, the root from which grow Italian, French, Portuguese, and other languages like Romanian (the clue is in the name: Rome). In the centuries after 43 AD when Roman armies began to invade England and occupy it, that Old English we saw above was not always the dominant language – the language of power – in England: Latin was. The Latin spoken by administrators and soldiers and merchants and lawyers till the Romans left in the fifth century sounded quite similar to modern Italian. Gradually the words and sounds of the invading language began to mix themselves into Old English.

In the eleventh century, in the year 1066 to be precise, a French army invaded England and a French king became the King of England. From this time forward, French (and some Latin) was the language of power – the language of the court of the king and of the law courts, and of scholars, and of priests and the Church. French words began to take over from Germanic ones – or lived alongside them, and English took on new vocabulary, becoming more Latinate. Old English Germanic words like “lady” (Old English “half” (loaf) + “dige” maker) were supplemented and sometimes supplanted by newer words for the same thing – like the now old-fashioned “dame”. Two hundred years later, by the late fourteenth century, English has begun to be recognizable as the language we know today, and once again took over from French and Latin as the official language of the land. Here is the opening of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fourteenth century. The poem is describing the coming of the rains of Spring. You will see the Afrikaans equivalents of the English words in brackets:

Whan [wanner] that [dat] Aprill with his shoures [storte] soote [soet]

The [die] droghte [droogte] of March hath [het] perced to the roote,

And [en] bathed [bad] every [elke] veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is [is] the flour … (Fisher, 1977: 9)

There are a few Latin/ French words too: “perced” (pierced), “vertu” (virtue), “flour” (flower).

Of course this process of literary colonization takes place all the time in billions of minds and mouths every day, all over the world – except nowadays the process is more often self-chosen than imposed by conquest. Speakers of languages other than English should therefore feel free to develop and grow their languages – by borrowing from English and from whatever other languages they find useful – in just the same way that English has borrowed from other languages over the millennia.

Perhaps now you feel more comfortable with English – when you realize as an Afrikaans speaker or as a speaker of one of South Africa’s African languages which borrow from English (and other languages) that ALL languages are a mix of older tongues, and that it is precisely this openness to others that keeps our own mother tongues alive, and gives them renewed strength to change and grow in the world.

Works referenced

Fisher, John H. (ed.) 1977. The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. St Louis, MI. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Mitchell, Bruce & Robinson, Fred C. 1982. A Guide to Old English Revised with Texts and Glossary. Oxford: Blackwell.

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