The Journey Begins

Say what?

A short journey into the history of English…

Hey, what was that you said?

Have you ever wondered, as an English speaker, why you say the words you do? Most people never give it a thought. The words they use are just taken for granted as useful tools for everyday communication. There’s no interest in where these words came from, right?

I say wrong. DNA testing for ancestors is a very hot topic today, and I’m willing to bet that people will not only want to know where they came from, but where their words came from as well. And so I begin this blog.

Influence on Language

If you speak Icelandic, Spanish, or Finnish you are generally using the same words which have been spoken for centuries. You’d say these languages are conservative. Especially if a country is isolated, there is less opportunity for new influences on the language from non native speakers.

But what about English? The roots of the English language are deep and wide and the results are a unique, linguistic flowering, largely due to the influence of invaders. Take a look at England. It’s hardly isolated. In fact, the British Isles have been a target for invaders for thousands of years. Every invader, and eventually settler, contributed to the evolution of the English language.

Anglo Saxon Influence

“But what does this have to do with me?” you may ask. Well, what if you were to say, “Let’s go to your house. I need to get something to eat.” You would be speaking an evolved version of pure Old English, the speech of the Anglo Saxons. Every word in those sentences is from them. Their words are the “meat and potatoes” words, the words that glue our language together. The Anglo Saxons were Germanic raiders that acted and looked a lot like their more famous cousins, the Vikings. They found the island with it’s doors wide open as early as 450 A.D. and walked right in.


And speaking of the Vikings, after plundering the British Isles, they eventually settled down and shared their language, Old Norse. If you wanted to choose some words spoken by that tough bunch of dudes, you might say, “Tuesday and Thursday I want to ransack the loft for that skirt!” They showed up in earnest in “Angleland” about 800 A. D.

Norman French

After the second millennium rolled around, we had another batch of bad boys take over and bring their words with them. In 1066, William the Conqueror from Normandy battled Harold and the Anglo Saxon lords at the Battle of Hastings. After they dispatched Harold with an arrow through the eye, they set up their French government and eventually influenced the way their English subjects spoke. Now, remember you wanted to eat at your friend’s house before? Let’s suppose you’re still hungry but don’t want to go to your friend’s house after all. You’ve found out that all he’s got is three day old cheese sticks. You might say, “Let’s rendezvous at the restaurant. I’m famished!” Well, most of that is basically Frenchified Anglo Saxon, which soon after the Norman French takeover would have been dubbed – Middle English.

As English speakers, we have a rich treasure of words at our beck and call. Mmm… and where does that fun, little phrase come from? Stay tuned… there’s another English expression which bears looking into! We will explore more secrets of the English language in upcoming posts.

Mary Atwood, May 2018