Keeping a beady eye on the logosphere!

A Brief History of the English Language

The English language is the child of a marriage between two very different languages-a kind of German (Anglo-Saxon) and a kind of Latin (French). Three fourths of the words we use all the time are Germanic, but new words come from the classical languages. Anglo-Saxon is a dead language that stayed dead; Latin and Greek remain alive because we use their pieces (like philo-) to form new words. Learn a little about these languages, and those long words that look so look so intimidating will break apart into delicious little crumbs.

The English language has passed through three major phases, roughly layered like a lemon meringue pie:

Short Germanic words make up the crust. Above the crust, creamy French words make a delightful filling, and the whole is topped by an immense foamy meringue, the Greek and Latin words that got fixed in the language during the Renaissance.

Germanic words came in with the Angles and Saxons (and Jutes), who overran England in 449, defeating the legendary King Arthur and his Celts. Gritty and necessary, these words form the crust underneath the linguistic pie. The common words of English are Germanic-perhaps 80% of the words we use all the time. This group contains words for actual things in the real world (e.g., house, earth, man, pig) and the words that glue sentences together (e.g., prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, demonstratives, and four-letter words).

In 1066 William the Conqueror and his Norman French forces took over England in 1066. This resulted in the layering of languages.

Above the crust, the French words, longer and more melodious, gel into a creamy filling. These words are blurred Latin: you can see the familiar features of Latin words, but whole syllables have dropped off or single vowels have spread into double vowels. (See Latinate and Germanic words). For a while, two social groups, the rulers and the ruled, spoke two separate languages. The upper classes spoke French; the peasants spoke Anglo-Saxon.

Anglo-Saxon and French were spoken side by side until the fourteenth century, when they coalesced to form English. The two language layers remained distinct, however, retaining their connotations of nature and culture. Nature and culture are perfectly opposed in the contrasting vocabularies, one Germanic, the other a hybrid of Latin and German: the gritty crust and the creamy filling.

In Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott pointed out that the English words for an animal and the meat of an animal come from two linguistic groups. The French lord demanded an animal-cow, sheep, pig-in French: boeuf, mouton, porc. The French words eventually became the English words, beef, mutton, and pork. No other language distinguishes between the animal and its meat. English makes this distinction because Anglo-Saxon-speaking peasants raised the animals eaten by the French-speaking aristocrats. The Germanic word names the animal in its natural state, while the French word denotes the animal's flesh, improved by art in a delicious sauce.

The foamy topping sits like a meringue, a huge, fluffy layer of foamy Latin and Greek words. For a long time, Latin was the language chosen by ambitious writers who wanted international readers and immortal fame. They knew that languages such as Anglo-Saxon changed and died. Latin, being dead, could not change, and so it became the language of immortality. Even after writers trusted their own languages enough to write in them, scholars continued to write scientific, religious, and legal treatises in Latin. When they turned their treatises into English, they naturally reached for the Latin words they grew up with and which easily turned into long English ones. During the Renaissance, Latinate words poured into English. With them came words from Greek. After the capture of Constantinople (now named Istanbul) by the Turks in 1453, scholars fled clutching their Greek manuscripts to Europe. Latin had always been around. It had been the language of the church, of law, of diplomacy, of science. Greek had been lost for hundreds of years. Latin words had status, Greek words had prestige.

Over the centuries, words from Greek and Latin entered professional vocabulary, which we still see today in medical, legal, and literary jargon. Specialized words warn off outsiders. Doctors put patients in their place by choosing the technical word, hypoxia, instead of "low oxygen," which anybody can understand. Academic writers, especially, affect a Latinate diction. "Look," the words seem to declare, "The writer is smart!" They obscure the ideas and, too often, the absence of ideas.