The name “Britain” comes from Latin: Britannia~Brittania, via Old French Bretaigne and Middle English Breteyne, possibly influenced by Old English Bryten(lond), and ultimately an adaptation of the native word for the island, Pritanī.
This is the first of two posts exploring the history of the English language. In this post, I’ll take a look at the broadest cultural, political, and linguistic developments on the British Isles from the prehistoric up to the Norman invasion in 1066. The second post looks at the history of English from the Norman conquest through Modern English.
Prehistory and the Celts
During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (4500 to 600 BC), the British islands saw the adoption of agriculture as communities gave up their hunter-gatherer modes of existence to begin farming.
During the British Iron Age (1200 BC to 600 AD) a trans-cultural diffusion and immigration from continental Europe resulted in the establishment of Celtic languages and gave rise to the Insular Celtic group. The Insular Celtic culture diversified into that of the Gaels or Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish and Manx) and the Celtic Britons or Brythonic languages (Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons).
The first historical account of the islands of Britain and Ireland was by Pytheas, a Greek from the city of Massalia, who around 310–306 BC, sailed around what he called the “Pretannikai nesoi,” or “Pretannic Isles.” “Pretani” or “Pritani” was understood on the continent to mean “the land of the tattooed” or “the painted ones.”
Celtic influence on the English language is most apparent through geographic and place names. The Thames and Yare rivers as well as important Roman towns such as London, York, and Lincoln find their origins in the Brittonic Celt language. Beyond this, it has been suggested that it is impossible to point to any feature about Anglo-Saxon phonology or Old English which can be shown conclusively to have been modified due to the linguistic habits of the Celtic Britons.
Roman Invasion, Occupation & Departure – 55 BC – 410 AD
In 55 and 54 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar invaded the British Isles and by 43 AD “Brittania” had became the furthest western province of the Roman Empire. In the first century, governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola enlarged the province significantly, taking in north Wales, northern Britain, and most of Caledonia (Scotland). By the third century, most Britons were granted some form of citizenship in the Roman Empire.
Following the conquest of the Britons, a distinctive Romano-British culture emerged as the Romans introduced improved agriculture, urban planning, industrial production, and architecture. They also built an extensive network of roads, sanitation, and wastewater systems.
By the end of the fourth century, Roman Britain had an estimated population of 3.6 million people, of whom 125,000 consisted of the Roman army and their families and dependents. The capital city of Londinium (London) was an ethnically diverse city with inhabitants from across the Roman Empire, including natives of Britannia, continental Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
The British language at the time of the invasion was Common Brittonic and remained so after the Romans withdrew. Although a British Latin dialect was presumably spoken in the population centers, it did not become influential enough to displace Celtic British dialects spoken throughout the country. Examination suggests some 800 Latin words were incorporated into the native language.
The Druids, the Celtic priestly caste, vainly defended their sacred groves from destruction by the Romans and their religion was outlawed by Claudius in the first century AD. Archaeological evidence for Christian communities begins to appear in the 3rd and 4th centuries with small timber churches and Roman Christian burial grounds.
By 410 AD, 460 years into the occupation of the British Isles, the city of Rome was under attack and they could no longer maintain the far western stretches of the crumbling empire. The Roman Emperor Honorius sent a letter to the people of Britain to “look to their own defenses.” There may have been some brief naval assistance from the fading Roman Empire of the West, but otherwise, they were on their own.
With Britain open to invasion, the islands were divided politically as former soldiers, mercenaries, nobles, officials, and farmers declared themselves kings and fighting broke out among each other. Added to this, depredations of the Picts from the north and Scotti from Ireland forced the Britons to seek help from the pagan German tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who then, depending on interpretation, defended, immigrated, and then integrated with the populace peacefully or invaded the islands with an aggressive military occupation. Either way, their presence completely altered the cultural and linguistic makeup of the islands.
Anglo Saxons – 410 – 1060 AD
From the 5th to the 11th centuries of the medieval period, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were formed and gradually came to dominate the territory of present-day England. Gaining control of eastern England in the 5th century, they expanded during the 6th century into the Midlands, and expanded again into the south-west and north of England during the 7th century. By 600, a new order was developing of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms including East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex, Essex, Kent, and Sussex. By the 8th century, the term Anglo-Saxon was in use, but more often than not, was used to distinguish Germanic groups in Britain from those on the continent (Old Saxony in Northern Germany). The earliest “English” identity emerged in this period when they were known in Old English as the Angelcynn (‘family of the Angles’).
The Saxon invasions of Britain destroyed most of the Roman Christian churches in the east of Britain, replacing them with a form of Germanic polytheism. The unconquered parts of southern Britain, notably Wales, protected their Romano-British culture, in particular retaining Christianity as well as spoken Celtic. Around 600, the Anglo-Saxon states were again Christianized by the Gregorian Mission; a Christian mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 596 specifically to convert Britain’s Anglo-Saxons.
When the Saxons arrived, they brought with them a writing system called Runes and a spoken language made up of Germanic languages such as Old Frisian, Old Norse, and Old High German. Over the next few centuries, at the expense of British Celtic and British Latin, these became the predominant languages throughout England. Today, we refer to these medieval dialects as Old English though it bears very little resemblance to the English as spoken today. About 85% of Old English words are no longer in use, but those that survived are the basic elements of Modern English vocabulary. With the spread of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages, the Latin alphabet was adopted and eventually displaced earlier Runic alphabets.
Old English had four main dialects, associated with particular Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon. It was West Saxon that formed the basis for the literary standard of the later Old English period. It was Mercian that influenced the dominant forms of Middle and Modern English.
Old English can be subdivided into three historical periods:
- Prehistoric Old English (c. 450 to 650) This language was a closely related group of dialects spoken by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and pre-date documented Old English or Anglo-Saxon.
- Early Old English (c. 650 to 900) This is the period of the oldest manuscript traditions, with authors such as Cædmon, Bede, Cynewulf, and Aldhelm.
- Late Old English (c. 900 to 1170) This final period also includes the Old Norse (Viking) influence before the transition to Middle English.
The Vikings – 800 to 1150 AD
In 793 came the first recorded Viking raid, where “on the Ides of June the harrying of the heathen destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, bringing ruin and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)
The Viking Age and its relationship with England lasted from approximately 800 to 1150 AD. Its expansion took the forms of warfare, exploration, settlement, and trade with the Danish invaders ultimately becoming part of the mix of people on the British islands. Anglo-Saxon writers called the Scandanavian invaders Danes, Norsemen, Northmen, the Great Army, sea-rovers, sea wolves, or the heathen.
The Vikings took over parts of Northumbria, East Anglia, and parts of Mercia. In 866 they captured modern York and made it their capital. The kings of Mercia and Wessex resisted as best they could, but with little success until the time of Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great), who managed to re-conquer and unify England for much of the 10th century.
Danelaw is the set of legal terms and definitions created in the treaties between Alfred the Great and Guthrum, the Danish warlord, written following Guthrum’s defeat at the Battle of Edington in 878.
The Danes brought with them the Old Norse branch of Germanic religions commonly known as Norse paganism. Our names for days of the week come mainly from Anglo Saxon equivalents of Old Norse gods – Tuesday from Tiw or Týr, Wednesday from Woden (Odin), Thursday from Thor, etc. Hundreds of adopted words also include give, take, get, husband, fellow, sister, plow, ugly, egg, steak, law, die, bread, down, fog, muck, lump, and scrawny. With the 300-year influence of Old Norse, Old English was transformed beyond its Anglo-Saxon roots. This “Norsification” included changes in syntax, phonology, lexical borrowing, and (importantly) grammatical simplification. Old English was in its nature a synthetic language, where word meaning was indicated by distinctions of tense, person, gender, number, mood, voice, and case. The Old Norse influence simplified the language toward a more analytic language that organizes words and grammar by a strict word order instead of inflections or word endings that show grammar.
The translation of Matthew 8:20 from 1000 AD from Old English:
Foxas habbað holu and heofonan fuglas nest… (“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests…”)
The final Viking invasion of England came in 1066 when Harald Hardrada of Norway sailed up the River Humber and marched to Stamford Bridge with his men. The English king, Harold Godwinson, marched north with his army and defeated Hardrada in a long and bloody battle.
Immediately after the battle, King Harold heard that William of Normandy had landed in Kent with yet another invading army. With no time to rest, Harold’s army marched swiftly back south to meet this new threat. The exhausted English army fought the Normans at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th of October, 1066. At the end of a long day of fighting, the Old French-speaking Normans had won, King Harold was dead, and William of Normandy, aka William the Conqueror or William the Bastard, was the new king of England.
To continue this history, click on the “next” button below! You might also be interested in the influence of Native American languages in the North American dialects, or English words you didn’t know were originally Spanish!
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