This is the second of two posts exploring the history of the English language. The first post is an overview of the British Isles from the prehistoric Celts through the Viking occupation of England. In this post, I’ll take a look at the broadest cultural, political, and linguistic developments from the Norman invasion up to Late Modern English, also called Present-Day English (PDE).
From Rome’s 400-year occupation of the Celtic islands at the beginning of the first millennium CE, through the mass immigration of the Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes after the year 400, and finally the Viking seizure of power from 800, it can be argued that by the turn of the second millennium, England was a powerful, centralized state with a strong military and successful economy. The language of the islands had evolved from the Insular Celtic Group of languages to the Old Germanic-based language of the Anglo-Saxons (Old English) and was reshaped again by Scandanavian Old Norse during Viking rule.
The Norman Invasion 1066 – 1150
In 1066, the English king, Harold Godwinson, defeated King Hardrada of Norway in a long and bloody battle that headed off the final Viking invasion of England. Within a month, William, Duke of Normandy, landed in Kent and, in a decisive win against the exhausted army of King Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, claimed himself the rightful heir to the British throne, thus commencing the Norman conquest and rule of England.
As king, one of William’s first priorities was a survey of the land, livestock, and taxes owed from the shires (established Anglo-Saxon land divisions) of England. The survey was written in Latin and compiled into a two-volume work called the Domesday Book (Middle English, Doomsday Book). The book is an invaluable source for modern historians and historical economists. No survey approaching the scope and extent of the survey of Britain was attempted again until the 19th century.
William and his successors took over the existing state system, repressing local revolts, controlling the population through a network of castles, and introduced a feudal approach to governing England with a monarchial absolute toward Normanization. Resisting English nobility were sent into exile and their confiscated lands were granted to William’s own followers. Norman controls included the government, the courts, and the introduction of Norman French as the language of the new Norman nobility.
During the Norman Period, while the lower classes continued speaking their now Norsified Old English, the language absorbed a significant component of French vocabulary (approximately one-third of the vocabulary of Modern English), developed a more simplified grammar, and was forced to adopt the orthographic conventions of French when spelling Old English. By the 12th century, Middle English was fully developed, having integrated both Norse and French features into a dialect known as Anglo-Norman. Medieval Latin was still the language used for government documents, e.g., the Domesday Book, and continued to be the language of the Church.
Anglo-Saxon identity survived beyond the Norman conquest and came to be known as Englishry under Norman rule. Englishry was, in fact, the status of a person of native Anglo-Saxon stock as opposed to a member of the Anglo-Norman elite. Specifically, presentment of Englishry referred to the establishment that a slain person was English rather than Norman. If an unknown man was found slain, he was presumed to be a Norman and the administrative shire was fined accordingly. If the slain individual was determined to be Anglo-Saxon, Englishry was established and the fine was excused.
During the 12th century, the divisions between the English and Normans began to dissolve as a result of intermarriage and cohabitation. By the end of the century, and possibly as early as 1150, contemporary commentators believed the two peoples to be blending. The loss of Normandy in 1204 only reinforced this trend.
Middle English 1150 – 1500
The period of Middle English was roughly 300 years during the High to Late Middle Ages, running parallel with and beyond Norman rule. The period saw expansion, political and social unrest, and the devastating effects of the Bubonic Plague. English reasserted itself as the language of government and nobility as Norman rule began to crumble in the 13th century.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, England’s population more than doubled, fueling an expansion of the towns, cities, and trade, helped by warmer temperatures across Northern Europe. Despite Norman rule in England’s government and legal systems, infighting among the Anglo-Norman elite resulted in multiple civil wars and, finally, the loss of Normandy in 1204.
England suffered the Great Famine from 1315-1317 and the Black Death from 1347 to 1351. These catastrophic events killed around half of England’s population, threw the economy into chaos, and undermined the political order. Nearly 1,500 villages were deserted by their inhabitants and many sought new opportunities in the towns and cities. Social mixing and unrest followed. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the result of the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death, the high taxes to support the conflict with France, and finally, the attempts to collect unpaid poll taxes (a fixed sum on every adult without reference to income or resources). Though the rebellion lasted only a month, it failed as a social revolution but succeeded in ending serfdom and prevented further levying of the poll tax.
The Pleading in English Act 1362 was an Act of the Parliament of England. The Act complained that because the Norman French language was largely unknown to the common people of England, they had no knowledge of what was being said for or against them in the courts. The Act stipulated that all charges and complaints shall be pleaded, debated, and judged in the English language. The Act marked the beginning of English Law during the reign of Henry IV (1399 – 1413), a maternal grandson of Philip IV of France, and the first king believed to be a native English speaker since the Norman conquest.
Some 50 years later during the reign of Henry V (1413-1422), English became the language of official government in the form of the London dialect known as the Chancery Standard. The Standard was a version of English that combined elements of northern and southern Middle English to create a standard for the government that could be read by the people, who largely couldn’t read French or Latin. By the end of the Middle English period and aided by William Caxton, who introduced the first printing press to England in 1476, the development of a standardized form of English accelerated and Chancery Standard became the basis for Modern English spelling.
English kings in the 14th and 15th centuries attempted to lay claim to the French throne, resulting in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and a see-saw back and forth of victories for the French and English. It was one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages, in which five generations of kings from two rival dynasties fought for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe. Although each side drew many allies into the war, in the end, the House of Valois retained the French throne and the English and French monarchies remained separate.
By 1450, England was in crisis, facing military failure in France and an ongoing recession. More social unrest broke out, followed by the Wars of the Roses fought between rival factions of the English nobility. Henry VII (Henry Tudor) claimed victory in 1485, marking the end of the Middle Ages in England and the start of the Early Modern period, and the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty.
Little survives of early Middle English literature, due in part to Norman domination and the prestige that came when writing in French rather than English. During the 14th century, a new style of literature emerged with the works of writers including John Wycliffe, eponymously known for the Wycliffe Bible, and Geoffrey Chaucer for The Canterbury Tales. The use of regional dialects in writing proliferated where authors like Chaucer were crucial in legitimizing the literary use of Middle English rather than French or Latin. Today, Chaucer is seen as the greatest poet of the Middle Ages and the “father” of English literature.
Wycliffe’s source for his Bible translation into Middle English came directly from the Vulgate, a late 4th century Latin translation. Wycliffe’s translations were the chief inspiration and cause of the Lollard movement, a pre-Reformation movement that rejected many of the distinctive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the Wycliffe Bible of the 1380s, the verse Matthew 8:20 was written:
Foxis han dennes, and briddis of heuene han nestis… (“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air (heaven) have nests…”)
Early Modern English 1300 – 1700
Major historical events in the 400-year Early Modern period include the English Renaissance, the English Reformation, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Treaty of Union, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the launch of the British Empire. All of these events created more unified governance of the British Isles, brought relative peace to the islands, and set the stage for English to become a global language.
The end of the Wars of the Roses marks the beginning of the Modern English period and brought with it the Tudor (1485-1603) and Stuart (1603-1714) dynasties and a greater degree of stable, centralized government. The Tudor monarchs asserted their claim to the lordship of Ireland, Wales was integrated administratively and legally in 1536 and 1543, the Act of Union brought political unity between England and Scotland in 1707, and the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed.
The British Empire began with decisive sea battles and overseas ventures. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 secured England’s (Protestant) independence in Europe and signaled the British as a serious naval power. The English, relative late-comers to colonial ventures, secured settlements on the North American continent with Jamestown in 1607, Newfoundland in 1610, and Plymouth Colony in 1620. Trading rivalries among the seafaring European powers established trading posts in India in the early 17th century and, by the later 18th century, Great Britain became the dominant power after the East India Company’s conquest in the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
Culturally, the 15th and 16th centuries saw the English Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement beginning in the 15th century, spilling into the 17th, which stands as the summit of (mostly) musical and literary achievement. The 16th century also saw the English Reformation, a political and religious movement that broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church. At the same time, the 17th-century scientific movement, heralded by Francis Bacon, achieved prominence and had the effect of establishing English as an adequate medium of technical writing in place of Latin. Bacon, along with the 1662 charter of The Royal Society, an ‘invisible college’ of natural philosophers and physicians, promoted the cultivation of a plain style of writing and criticized stylistic excesses.
Early Modern English was also characterized by the Great Vowel Shift (1350–1700), inflectional simplification, and linguistic standardization. The Great Vowel Shift affected the stressed long vowels of Middle English. It’s also the main reason for so many irregularities in spelling since our contemporary language retains many Middle English spellings that were influenced by French orthographic standards for writing Old English. The loss of rhoticity (hard /r/) began to accelerate in this period where the English playwright Ben Jonson’s English Grammar (1640) recorded that /r/ was “sounded firme in the beginning of words, and more liquid in the middle, and ends.”
For most modern readers of English, texts from the earlier phase of Early Modern English may present more difficulties but are still obviously closer to Modern English grammar, lexicon, and phonology.
“Certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that which was vsed and spoken whan I was borne.” William Caxton, Prologue to Eneydos (1490).
Late 16th and early 17th-century texts, such as The King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, seem much more uniform to a contemporary audience and are still very influential. The original title of The King James Bible (1612) reads:
“THE HOLY BIBLE, Conteyning the Old Teſtament, AND THE NEW: Newly Tranſlated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Tranſlations diligently compared and reuiſed, by his Maiesties ſpeciall Comandement“.
Quoting Shakespeare in his 1599 play, Henry V, when Henry implores the French Princess Katherine to marry him, the language is thoroughly accessible to modern English speakers:
“Come, your answer in broken music; for thy voice is music and thy English broken; therefore, queen of all, Katherine, break thy mind to me in broken English.”
Old English began to be studied during the Early Modern period. Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were collected and published and the first Old English dictionary appeared in 1659. Motivations for this undertaking were mixed: to demonstrate the continuity of the Church of England, to show that the English legal system descended from Anglo-Saxon law, or to support the cause of biblical translation. Nevertheless, it had the effect of introducing a historical understanding of the English language and paved the way for later etymological and philological investigation.
The 1611 King James Version of the Bible, Matthew 8:20 reads:
The Foxes haue holes and the birds of the ayre haue nests. (“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests…”)
Modern English – 1715 to the Present
As the British Empire expanded, English-speaking people arrived on the shores of North America, the Australian continent, South Africa, and through the colonization of India. Commerce, science and technology, diplomacy, art, and formal education all contributed to English becoming the first truly global language.
Modern English can be taken to have fully emerged by the beginning of the Georgian era in 1714, though English orthography remained somewhat fluid until the publication of Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. Unlike Johnson’s preference for Norman-influenced spellings such as centre and colour, Noah Webster’s first guide to American spelling, published in 1783, preferred spellings like center and the Latinate color. The difference in strategy and philosophy of Johnson and Webster are largely responsible for the divisions in English spelling that exist today.
The British also became fully non-rhotic, dropping the /r/ by the late 19th century, whereas the dialects of the American colonies evolved independently and maintained the earlier rhotic pronunciations. By the 19th century, the standardization of British English was more settled than it had been in the previous century, and this relatively well-established English was brought to Australia, Africa, Asia, and New Zealand.
In Europe, when the Treaty of Versailles was composed in 1919, and at the request of then-President Woodrow Wilson, the treaty was drafted in both French (the common language of diplomacy at the time) and English – a major milestone in the globalization of English.
English Standard Version (ESV) of the Christian Bible now reads:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests…”
Present-Day English (PDE) has many dialects spoken in many countries throughout the world, sometimes collectively referred to as the “anglosphere.” These dialects include American English, Australian English, British English (containing English English, Welsh English, and Scottish English), Canadian English, Caribbean English, Hiberno-English, Indian English, Pakistani English, Nigerian English, New Zealand English, Philippine English, Singaporean English, and South African English.
Out of the world’s approximately 7.9 billion inhabitants, 1.35 billion speak English today as a first or second language. English as a native language is spoken by approximately 360 million people with the vast majority being in the United States. In addition to being widely spoken, English is by far the most commonly studied foreign language in the world.
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