Monday, February 23, 2015

#English: a product of conquest and being conquered

During the Roman time, English wasn't originally spoken in the British Isles. The British Isles were originally settled by Celts: Gaelic, Welsh and Pictish speakers and Latin by the Roman Conquerors. The Germanic speakers who would go on to speak English were still in Germania–a land of "Grimm Walds" (pun intended), where the Romans dare not venture–the memory of the lost legions, victims of "der schlact im Teutoburger Wald" was still fresh.

During the twilight years of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes started running roughshod over the empire: Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals terrorized the continental Roman Empire. Northern tribes, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians on the other hand, left the Germanic homeland in search of some lebensraum on the backwater Roman colony on the British Isles. The subsequent conflict between the Celts and the Germanic tribes are best dramatized in the 2004 film, King Arthur.

Old English was pretty intelligible with the old Saxon and old Frisian spoken in the mainland. Indeed, the English language's closest living relatives is Frisian spoken in the Netherlands and Low German (Saxon). Over the years though, old words and old conjugations for words were lost resulting in a language that seems totally different from the ancient Theod Cynings. The major foreign influences on the English language were:

1. Old Norse, another Germanic language, spoken by the Norsemen in what is now Denmark and Norway. The Germanic tribes were always a warlike people you see, always out looking for more lebensraum, the Vikings came in rampaging on the Eastern and Northern parts of the British Isles such that the Anglo-Saxons sued for peace and gave them. From Old Norse, the English language lost much of the complicated Germanic grammar.

2. Norman French spoken by the Frenchified Norsemen in Normandy. Sound like a tongue twister? Haha. These were actually Vikings who settled in the North of France (lebensraum again?) and decided to speak French instead of Norse. From this language, the English expanded their vocabulary. The Norman conquerors eventually became the elite of English society, like the Russians, the English tried to speak French in order to be better identified with the elite. A sort of pidgin higher register evolved from this. We see this today, when one tries to sound well educated, he'd say "Cordial Reception" which uses French words, but if he wanted to sound more down to earth, he'd say "Hearty Welcome" which uses Germanic words.

3. Latin and Greek. These were the source languages for technical vocabulary. To some extent, the highly creative and colorful Germanic way of compounding words were lost (example is the Greek-derived word "Hydrogen" which the Germans call "Wasserstoff" which if literally translated into English means "Water-stuff"), but the use of Latin was able to give English some flexibility and mobility in the then-latin academic and scientific world.

4. Celtic. No, Celtic was never a big influence on English. The Celts were always seen as a lesser tribe. The Anglo-Saxons had a name for them, "Wilas" which meant both foreigner and slave.

Throughout most of its its existence, the English language struggled with its Volkish roots. Academics were never sure if it could supplant French or Latin, but it did. The result however makes it unrecognizable to the speaker of Old English or even Modern day German or Scandinavian except in the simplest of sentences. Will Filipino ever follow this path? I'm confident it could, but people should not expect it to stay in the same form that it is in today.

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