The medieval rise of English

This week is a week where many feel a little down – the Christmas break is becoming a distant memory; the weather is still as cold; and the daily grind has returned with a vengeance. All hope is lost!

I was glancing at some historical texts over the break (as you do…) and was interested to find a number from Elizabethan England essentially castigating the English language. It was noted at the time (just as Shakespeare was beginning to write) that the language was a mongrel, consisting of borrowings from Norse, French and Latin thrown on to its German base to create something wholly unsatisfactory; it was noted that it was not cultured in any way; and it was noted that it was in any case useless beyond the shores of England (and the odd English garrison in the Pale, perhaps).

Yet, as we write, there are more people with at least a degree of conversational proficiency in the world now than there were in the world at all a century ago – some estimates now suggest up to 2 billion. So how did this mongrel, uncultured and useless tongue (one castigated even by its own speakers) come to take over the world? It’s a remarkable comeback – and maybe an uplifting one on the first full working week in January!

As ever, it was a few events of huge import – some innocuous at the time – which turned the tide. In 1475, England was just a backwater – it had just effectively lost the Hundred Years’ War allowing France to unite with three times the area, three times the population and three times the economic might. Even at that, the real coming superpower was Spain, itself newly united and about to restore Christianity to the entire Iberian Peninsula. Five and a bit centuries ago, it would simply have been inconceivable to anyone, even (actually particularly) in England, that English – a language not even spoken by England’s own King until just over a century before and which was still avoided by much of the Upper Class in its own land – would attain global dominance.

Two things suddenly turned the tide. Firstly, the Printing Press arrived in England; secondly, the Tudors won the Wars of the Roses and took control of the country. These two events enabled rapid dissemination of written English (leading in effect to a written standard of sorts based primarily on dialects within the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle) and improved administration of the country to ensure at least that it could defend itself.

The Printing Press had a dramatic impact on the language, as it dramatically slowed down changes within it (by creating a standard which people recognised and adhered to, at least to some extent). Shakespeare’s writing is easily accessible to us, but Chaucer’s writing was not accessible to people of Shakespeare’s time – even though they were in fact much closer together in time. The language had changed swiftly between Chaucer and Shakespeare, but has comparatively changed scarcely at all since.

It is probable that social upheaval after the Black Death plague of the 14th century led to a particularly swift change in the English language in the 15th century. Grammatically, noun cases were all but abandoned and verbs greatly simplified; phonologically, the Great Vowel Shift commenced. The second of these was relatively unaffected by the Printing Press, as this provided a written but not a spoken standard. The consequence was that English spelling still largely reflects pronunciation of the 15th century, even though this was in the middle of a dramatic shift. Even by Shakespeare’s time (examples of pronunciation here and elsewhere), many spellings made little sense. Modern German still pronounces “Name” and modern Danish “time” more or less as they look (“NA-MEH”; “TI-MEH”), English shifted them dramatically and complicatedly.

The other, non-linguistic change was the prestige of England itself, under Elizabeth. Suddenly, in the 1580s, there is a shift in view among the (educated) English from acceptance that theirs is a second class language, towards a sense that its unique mongrel status is in fact an advantage. Growing English power, even before its fortuitous victory over the Spanish Armada, meant growing interest in English. This applied not just in England; already, prior to the Union of the Crowns, educated Scottish writers like John Knox began to adopt “Southern” (i.e. “English”) as their written standard. Where Queen Elizabeth I had noted “Scottish” as a “foreign language” that she spoke, James VI/I spoke of a “common language” between his two kingdoms. The scene was set. Oxford-Cambridge-London English, once an obscure dialect or an irrelevant tongue dubbed useless even by those who spoke it, would four centuries later become by far the most spoken language ever.

Hope regained?!

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