Lic. Mary Williams
The Adventure of English 500 to 2000 Essay
“Isn´t it funny how day by day nothing changes but when we look back everything is different?” said the famous poet C.S. Lewis. Things move slowly but relentlessly. Every single day new changes happen and even when we cannot notice them, they make the greatest differences within time. Languages are not an exception. Can we think of a future in which people will develop brand new tongues that we cannot even foresee? Would it be possible to imagine a former human society that did not know about the existence of the world´s most widely used languages nowadays? If not, we just need to take a look in our everyday ways of communicating: We learn a word in a new language; we use it in our mother tongue sentences; it becomes popular or easier to use; it gets accepted by the dictionary, and bam! The mixture of languages is ready! I do not have to do long research to come up with an example of this; we have one in our everyday language: the famous “Spanglish”. Even when it is not a language per-se, it would not be completely ludicrous to think that in a near future this mixture will contribute to the creation of a new language. The particular case of the English is not very different. It has been evolving throughout the years and when one speaks it, we do not really realize that it carries a great story within; it is also the result of mixing other tongues. It would be very difficult to find the exact process by which it became the language we all try to learn today, but thanks to The Adventure of English series, we can get a very accurate idea. Two thousand years ago it did not exist and like we do today, people would not even imagine its possible existence. Nowadays, it has become the language of over a million thousand people, the language of business, and every day people around the entire world get interested in learning it. Its appearance was not the result of a friendly process; it was introduced by successive invasions that later, threatened to destroy it and incredibly, it survived when it was about to become extinct in more than one occasion. In episode one of The Adventure of English, we can see some of the biggest threatens and safes that it suffered, and in my opinion, the most fantastic ones; that is the reason why I chose to base my whole essay in that single episode.
If someone is asked about the geography where it all began, it would not be very difficult to say that it must have happened in Europe and indeed it did, in the Netherlands. They speak the Frisian Language that is part of the Germanic Family of Languages and it sounds very similar to what English used to sound 1500 years ago and considerably different to what it sounds in the present. The West Germanic Tribe settled on Poland, Germany and Denmark; eager to get a better life, they travelled to what later would be the United Kingdom and, as it is obvious, they took their language with them.
500 years before, the Romans had got there by sea and tried to impose their will, but the Empire crumbled and they left these islands with their native tribes, the Celts, to their fate. With the Germanic onslaught in 491, some Celts survived the invasion but they were broken people; the only way they had to recover was to become servants and followers and to adopt the culture and language of the invaders tribes. Only a few words survived from the Celtic language to modern English. The Germanic tribes that settled down all over the country spoke their own dialects, and from among them the Anglo-saxon or Old English would be born. Modern English still has hundreds of words from this language. In the 6th and 7th centuries, English began to distance from its tribal roots with the arrival of Christianity. It brought the Latin language and from it, English took the curved script. It also brought the book and Old English began to be written down using the Latin alphabet. This made English stand out from other languages spoken at that time in Europe and it became powerful. The coalition of these two languages established a pattern for growing a new language that would last for centuries. English became powerful enough to be poetry. Beowulf, a poem that celebrates the glory days of the Germanic tribes, was the first one to be written in English and it marked the beginning of a tradition that would lead to further great writers like Shakespeare. It revealed the language´s narrative and descriptive power and it can be clearly seen that the writer dealt with a traditional oral language. No other tongue in that time could match the achievement of the Beowulf poet. With the arrival of the Vikings in the late 8th Century, Latin faced extinction; it meant the end of a civilization. They sacked and destroyed the abbey on Lindisfarne and with it, Latin was burnt to the ground and its books with it. Within 5 years, the Viking invaders, that were called Danes by then, had controlled the all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, except for Wessex. Their language, Old Norse, was spreading out throughout the land and in that moment, English potentially faced the faith of the Celtic language; it needed a savor and it found one: King Alfred. King Alfred is the only English monarch that has been called “The Great” and “The Savor of England”; it has been debatable because England did not exist as a unified country in Alfred´s day but certainly he was a great defender of the English language. He was in the throne of Wessex within a year of the first Danish attack and at the beginning, he could hardly hold them back. The Danes won what seemed to be a decisive battle in 878 at Chippenham and Alfred went on the run. His situation was terrible and if his kingdom fell, the whole country would be controlled and settled by conquerors whose language would inevitably crush English; however, he was planning an strategy and 40 thousand men joined his army. Alfred finally won the battle of Edington which was described as a slaughter. His crown, his kingdom and his language were safe. The Danish surrendered and their leader was baptized. King Alfred´s crucial victory was immortalized with a great white horse carved into the land he saved. He also signed a peace treaty with the Danes, which established a border running up to the country from the Tamesis to the old Roman road of Watling Street. The land of the Northern East would be known as the Danelaw would be for the Danish, and the land to the South and West would be for the English and no one was supposed to cross the line. In the course of time, when the Danes and English met they started to do business and even started to get married; this caused a mixture of the communities and languages; however, English was predominant and began to absorb the Danish language and modern English has a clear influence of Old Norse. It created a huge impact on English grammar because it simplified it, took it away from its Germanic roots and led it to a restructuring. Today we still use many words from this language. Spoken English survived the Danish invasion but the written culture was in a terrible state. King Alfred saw this and felt very concerned that the scholarly tradition had declined. He could not really find people who were able to read and understand Latin, and that would be an enormous threat to religious teachings and so, he found a solution and drew English to new heights of achievement. Alfred realized that it would be easier to teach people to read books written in the language they spoke, and drew up a majestic plan: to promote literacy and restore the English language. He had five books of religious instruction, philosophy and history translated from Latin into English, and then he sent copies to the twelve bishops of his kingdom for their wisdom to be spread as widely as possible. Everybody would have access to scholarship and spiritual guidance written in English. This was one of the greater legacies of Alfred the Great, an English language which was more prestigious and widely read than ever before. Nowadays, most governors are only concerned to widen their richness and fulfill their own expectations of a leadership; none of them really worries for culture. Regardless of Alfred´s government achievements, only to defend and hold the survival of a language is enough credit to be remembered as a greater governor. In the middle of the 11th century, English faced its most considerable threat ever, a new wave of invaders: the Normans. The English king, Edward the Confessor, had spent many years in Normandy, next to its governor William and thought of him as a brother. They were so close that he decided to name the duke William his successor and, when he sensed his death and feared a rebellion at home, he made his brother in law, Harold Godwinson, to pledge loyalty to William; he did, but when Edward died, he crowned himself in Westminster Abbey with the support of the English nobility. William thought of this act as a tremendous offense and saw that the only response was an invasion with maximum force. They fought what it is now known as “The Battle of Hastings”, Normans triumphed, and the place where the engagement took place was named with the Norman word “Battle”. Harold II would be the last English speaking king for three centuries. A new king had arrived and with him, his own language. French and Latin had become the languages of state, law, the church and history itself in England. Written English became extremely rare and it would take it three hundred years to reemerge and when it did, it would have changed dramatically. This is only the beginning of English chronicles but in it, everything that was to come is built. This first episode of The Adventure of English engages two of the most drastic threats that English had in its history and it is absolutely wonderful to see that a language which was once about to die is nowadays the most important and spread language in the entire world.