Aneurin sighs. I am not a linguist but I do know some history. Unfortunately baritalia's account above is well, just plain wrong in certain respects and skates over some of the more curious features of the origins of the English language.

On the nature of the language spoken by the inhabitants of Britain

The Celtic inhabitants of the Britain Isles spoke Insular Celtic of which there are two variants, the Goidelic and the Brythonic. Scholars still debate which one came first, and how and when the Insular Celtic split into its two components but of one thing we can be certain; the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain did not speak 'Gaelic', (which in any case is the name given to the language that developed from Goidelic in the post-Roman period), they spoke Brythonic.

Gaius Julius Caesar's expeditions to Britain in 54 and 55 BC were of the nature of exploratory raids (no matter what he himself claimed); this brought Britain into contact with Rome, but the real deal began with the actual Roman conquest of Britain which was the work of the emperor Claudius in the year 43 AD a century later.

On how the English first came to Britain

Britain was not 'immediately assaulted' by Germanic insurgents after the year 410. After defeating a 'Saxon' attack in 408 a generation passed before Germanic attacks on Britain re-commenced in the mid fifth century. The problems which the British had at the beginning of the fifth century were caused by Pictish and 'Scottish' (i.e Irish) raids which is why they hired the Germanic mercenaries in the first place. It was the revolt of these mercenaries that kicked off the actual 'English settlement' of Britain. (See Sub-Roman Britain and in particular the Revolt of the Saxon Federates)

It is also worth noting that there is clear evidence of Germanic settlement within Britain before 410, since the use of Germanic troops within the Roman Army became exceedingly common in the fourth century. There were certainly Germanic settlers in the Thames Valley (see Gewissae) and hence early forms of 'English' may well have been spoken in Britain long before the fifth century began.

On the nature of the English settlement

The Angles were of course not necessarily any more or less obscure than any other Germanic tribe that was moving into the Western Roman Empire; they just moved into a more peripheral part of the Empire. More importantly, unlike other tribes such as the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals they were pagan and illiterate and comparatively un-Romanized. Whereas the Franks and Ostrogoths saw themselves as re-creating and defending the virtues of a Roman civilisation undermined by weak and incompetent rulers, the Angles were basically piratical raiders after loot and land.

This is important because whereas the Franks (for example) merged into the Gallo-Roman culture they ruled and ended up speaking a Latin based language that became known as French, the Angles remained essentially aloof from Roman culture and retained their Germanic language.

On the conversion of the English to Christianity

Firstly the Augustine mission to England was only really successful in converting Kent and East Anglia. (And Raedwald of East Anglia rather hedged his bets by retaining pagan worship as well.) The Augustinian mission to Northumbria failed when Edwin was killed before Christianity could take root. Most of the north of what later became England was evangelized from Ireland via Iona and thus developed a slightly different brand of Christianity and developed what has sometimes been described as a 'Hiberno-Saxon' culture.

For a second thing the conversion of England to Christianity was a long drawn out affair and it is not until the end of the seventh century that England could really be described as 'Christian'. (See the Foundation of the English Church for further details.)

Regarding Latin loanwords and their adoption into English

In total approximately 450 Old English words were borrowed from Latin but very few of these arose as a result of the adoption of Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons or English if you prefer, were of Germanic origin, and the Germanic tribes had been in close contact with the Roman Empire since the first century AD. There was an active trading relationship between the Roman Empire and the various tribes of Germania and in the later empire much of the Imperial Roman Army was made up of Germanic recruits and mercenaries.

Unsurprisingly therefore Germanic languages incorporated a number of Latin derived loanwords which were later adopted into Old English. Or to put it another way, Old English already included a number of Latin loanwords well before they had even heard of Augustine the Lesser; examples are words such as cealc for chalk, from Latin calx meaning lime ,win for wine, from the Latin vinum.

The actual Latin/Greek imports that arose as a result of Christianity were limited to a very few words of specifically religious significance such as apostol (apostle) and munuc (monk). Indeed one of the defining characteristics of Old English is how little Latin was borrowed, as the English appear to have preferred to construct their own new words (for example tungolcræft, literally 'star-craft' for astronomy, and rimcræft or 'number-craft', for arithmetic) rather than adopt a Latin loanword.

The major impact of Christianity on the English language was that it brought with it literacy, at least for the select few, and the Latin alphabet. Which of course meant that Old English could now become a written as well as a spoken language.

On the nature of Old English

And of course it should be pointed out that there were clear and distinct Mercian, West Saxon and Northumbrian dialects of Old English. It is the so called 'West Saxon' dialect which predominates and is most commonly treated as being Old English, because of the late ninth century political dominance of the kingdom of Wessex. Partly due to the efforts of Alfred the Great the West Saxon dialect became the accepted standard for prose writing and is what largely survives to this day.

Old English is of course almost completely unintelligible to the modern English speaker, and is effectively a foreign language, it apparently differs far more from Modern English than does Ancient Greek from modern Greek. Its existence was largely ignored for centuries and it wasn't until the mid 1900s that any serious study of the language began and people began translating Old English works into Modern English and actually took notice of the fact that there was actually an English culture that predated the Normans.

On the relationship between the Danish and the English

The first recorded Viking contact with Britain was in the 790s not the 750s when they struck Lindisfarne; widespread Viking settlement within England did not really start until the arrival of the Viking 'Great Army' led by Ivarr the Boneless in 846. Now Ivarr the Boneless and his ilk were seen by the native English as the manifestation of the devil himself. (Which of course, rather ironically is exactly how the English themselves had earlier been viewed by the native British.) They were a bunch of well-organised and aggressive thugs bent on plunder and worse and English ecceslesiasts in particular viewed their presence in England with horror.

Whereas a temporary respite was established after the Treaty of Wedmore in 878, the Danes later returned with a vengeance in the late tenth century. Thus king Aethelred ordered the killing of every Dane in England in the St. Brice's day Massacre in 1002 and the Danish king Swein Forkbeard retaliated in kind by slaughtering the inhabitants of various towns that he happened across. It would therefore be better to regard the Danes and English as mortal enemies that were forced by circumstances to live in close proximity. It is entirely possible that completely separate Danish and English kingdoms might have developed within Britain (since nothing is inevitable in history) although as we know events conspired to produce a different result.

As it is the presence of two different but mutually intelligible Germanic languages in close proximity that appears to have been the cause of the 'great grammar shift', when the English language ceased to use inflection to convey meaning. No one quite knows why this happened but it is suggested that English made itself simpler in order to be understood by the Danes, with whom the English were obliged to trade and consort with due to their close proximity.

On the transformation that took place as a result of the Norman Conquest

The one thing that did unite the respective Danish and English populations of Britain was their mutual opposition to the idea of being ruled by the French speaking Normans. (Indeed it is worth noting that it was in the more Danish areas of England that the new Norman masters of England experienced the strongest challenge to their rule.)

The Normans to state the obvious, spoke French and in common with most conquerors viewed the conquered population of England with a certain amount of disdain. They took very little interest in the culture of the conquered English, which is the main reason why so little Anglo-Saxon cultural material survives. Apart from Boewulf, which is really an Old English version of a Scandinavian poem in any case, and the work of Caedmon (who was British) there isn't really a great deal left. (Incidentally it is this general lack of any genuine Old English mythic material that prompted a certain JRR Tolkien (a professor of Anglo-Saxon) to write the Lord of the Rings in the first place, and thus provide the English with their missing corpus of myth.)

The new Norman ruling class of England tended to marry each other, or nice French speaking girls from the other side of the channel; there was very little if any intermarriage with the natives. (Stories of Norman barons marrying 'Saxon heiresses' are 18th and 19th century myths, invented at a time when it became fashionable for the aristocracy to flaunt imagined 'German' origins. (The kings of the House of Hanover were most certainly German you see.)

On the status of the English Language after the Norman Conquest

It has been forgotten by many, most notably the English themselves, that for three centuries after the Norman Conquest, England was ruled by a ruling class that spoke French. As Matthew of Paris, writing in the mid thirteenth century, explained "Whoever was unable to speak French was considered a vile and contemptible person by the common people". Or as the chronicler Robert of Gloucester wrote in around the year 1300, (in French naturally) that "unless a man knows French, he is thought little of", adding that "I reckon that there are no countries in the whole world that do not keep to their own speech, except England only".

In the 1320s, Ranulph Higden a monk from St Werburgh's Abbey in Chester, wrote a Latin universal history under the title of Polychronicon and included a passage on the state of contemporary education in England, stating that;

children in school, contrary to the usage and custom of all other nations, are compelled to abandon their own language and carry on their lessons and their affairs in French, and have done so since the Normans first came to England. Also the children of gentlemen are taught to speak French from the time they are rocked in their cradle and learn to speak and play with a child's trinket, and rustic men will make themselves like gentlemen and seek with great industry to speak French to be more highly thought of.

Thus by the early fourteenth century the English language appeared to be on the verge of irrelevance if not extinction. However in the 1370s a John of Trevisa from Cornwall, translated Higden's Polychronicon into the English of his time, and added the remark that;

in the year of our lord one thousand three hundred and eighty-five .... children in all the grammar schools of England are leaving French, and are construing and learning in English. Similarly, noble men have now largely abandoned teaching their children French.

(Note that this is actually a translation of John's text into Modern English; which is preferable since otherwise the modern reader would be struggling with words like 'habbeþ' and 'yleft'.)

This change of heart by the nobility of England occurred sometime around the middle of the century at the time of the Black Plague, and probably had something to do with changes in social attitudes brought about by the Hundred Years War. Since members of the English ruling class now habitually spent a significant proportion of their life killing Frenchmen, it perhaps seemed somewhat inappropriate to continue to embrace their linguistic culture.

In any event, in the year 1363, and for the first time in history, a Lord Chancellor stood up and announced the opening of a parliamentary session in English, although we have to wait until the year 1399 when Henry IV assumed the throne to find the first truly English speaking king (Henry's speech in front of parliament in which he claimed the throne was rendered in English).

The Lancastrian kings of the early fifteenth century were the first to use English for official court documents, thus giving rise to what is known as Chancery English. And since most of the clerks employed in the Chancery came from London and the East Midlands it is these dialects that became 'standard English' and developed into what we now think of as the English language.

On the domination of the English Language

There is nothing really surprising about the domination of the English Language. Linguistic dominance generally follows political dominance; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British Empire spread itself across the globe into every continent. One particular set of English speaking colonists in North America invented their own nation and came to regard themselves as more English than the English themselves and the true guardians of linguistic purity. (Which is why so many 'Americanisms' are really just anachronistic survivals of 18th century linguistic usage.)

Since this United States of America now drives the most powerful cultural dissemination machine ever seen on this planet it is not surprising that the English language is now seen as the lingua franca even though there are more native Mandarin and Hindi speakers around.

If the French or Spanish had been quicker off the mark in North America this article would likely have been written in a different language.


  • Edward Moore The Influence of Latin on Old English
  • The sources of English words
  • The English Language
  • Melvyn Bragg The Adventure of English (Sceptre, 2004)
  • Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil The Story of English (Guild Publishing London, 1987)