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The History of English from its Celtic Origin until the Norman Invasion

The History of English from its Celtic Origin

The history of English

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Three thousand years ago, the English language would have been incomprehensible. Around the 10th century, English first began to solidify into something that would be comprehensible as we know English today.

Today English is the most widely spoken language, as a first, second, or third language. What started as tribal dialects, is now spoken by more than one billion people in the world.

The Germanic influence on Old English

The language spoken in Friesland, northern Netherlands, is the closest language to what English might have sounded like 1500 years ago.  Both Friesian and old English have their roots in the Germanic family of languages. The Germanic tribes invaded England and supplanted the Celtic language. We would recognize about 25,000 words from around the 10th century in England.  Most people have a vocabulary of about 10,000 words. Words from Old English include: ‘three, four, frost, freeze, blue, butter, cheese, sleep, boat.’  Very few words from the Celtic language have survived, words like ‘Crag (rock), Combe (deep valley), and many place names in England (Thames, Avon).

The arrival of Christianity

The English language changed in 597AD when Christianity arrived in England. Latin religious texts introduced Latin words in the English language, words like ‘Alter, Apostle, mass.’  Latin script became the English alphabet.  The Angles and the Saxons had used Runes. Runes are straight lines carved into wood or stone.  Latin allowed for curved writing, which could be written using pen and ink onto parchment.  Duplicating texts were much more accessible in Latin with ink and parchment. Christianity introduced a scholarship based on writing.

Norse Runes

Norse Runes carved into stone

The Viking invasion of England

The Vikings invaded raided settlements in England from 793AD, introducing Old Norse into the English language introducing words like nouns like ‘sister, arm, bag, egg, skull, and window‘ and pronouns like ‘they, them, there.’

Placenames that denote Danish settlement include:

  • Newby, Rudby, Corby – placenames ending in ‘by’ reveal the Danish name for a farm
  • WestThorpe – placenames ending in ‘Thorpe’ tell the Danish name for a village
  • Place names ending in ‘thwaite‘ denote a portion of land

Sometimes when words that indicate the same thing in Old Norse and Old English, both words survived with a slightly different meaning. For example, Craft (Old English) and Skill (Old Norse). The first great epic poem ‘Beowulf’ was written around the Eighth century based on Norse legend. The English language has a remarkable ability to absorb words from other languages and adopt them with slightly different meanings.

Alfreds Horse

A memorial to King Alfred carved into the ground he had saved

King Alfred, the great defender of the English language

The Vikings threatened the survival of the English language.  King Alfred defeated the Vikings with guerilla warfare and by uniting tribes against the Vikings.  King Alfred led an army and defeated the Vikings.  The Viking defeat also ensured the survival of the English language. Another of King Alfred’s remarkable achievement is the translation of Latin texts into English.  English people could now read religious and philosophical books in their writing.

The Norman invasion of England

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror

The Normans invaded England in 1066AD.  William the Conqueror took the throne. The language of kings and royalty became Old French for the next 300 years.

Words to with warfare come from Old French like ‘army, archer, soldier, garrison, guard, enemy, castle, and battle.‘  Old French words also spoke the architecture of the new social order with words like ‘throne, crown, court, duke, baron, nobility, peasant, vassal, servant, govern, liberty, authority, and obedience.’ Words to do with the law, including ‘felony, arrest, warrant, justice, judge, jury’ all come from Old French.

About 10,000 Old French words have taken residence in the English vocabulary.

The French were the biggest threat to the survival of the English language.

The French ruled England for 300 years pushing the English language out to the countryside. When the black plague almost wiped out the French rulers, country-folk reintroduced the English back into the power centers of England.

Summary

Successive invasions have shaped and formed the English language into what we know today. When there is an existing word for the word used by the invading army, then both words might be adopted.  The English language absorbed the vocabulary of its conquerors and grew substantially from its Celtic origins.  These invasions have resulted in a very complex language with many anomalies. It is these complexities and peculiarities that make English a complicated language for foreigners to learn.

Acknowledgments

The BBC documentary ‘The Adventure of English‘ provided a base for the research of this article.

Tools for learning English

The English Vocabulary in Use series

Rocket LanguagesRocket languages – online tools for language learning

 

 

Aaron Skudder

3 Comments

  1. Hello!

    The importance of the English language in the world is unquestionable. How well you explain how it was its origin and evolution over the years. 

    Its Celtic origin and the successive invasions were forming to the English language.

    I didn’t know that the Vikings threatened the survival of the English language.

    Thank you very much for this excellent information.

    • The French were a bigger threat to the survival of the English language. The French ruled England for 300 years pushing the English language out to the countryside. When the black plague almost wiped out the French rulers, country-folk reintroduced the English back into the power centers of England.

  2. Hey thanks for the awesome post! I never knew there were so many different influences on the English language. I honestly thought it was just an evolution of Latin and nothing else.  It’s so cool learning about our history!  I find it interesting that the Vikings had an influence on English  I would have never guessed that.

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