The first global language
THE STORY OF ENGLISH:
How the English Language Conquered the World
by Philip Gooden
(London: Quercus Books)
Hardback: 224 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Once the language of small bands of Anglo-Saxon tribes, by the start of the third millennium English had become the first global language.
Speakers of English can be found in every corner of the world, and those who speak English as a second language (albeit with varying degrees of proficiency) vastly outnumber “native” English speakers.
We rely on English to the point where we take it for granted, but few of us know much about its history and development. Philip Gooden, in his study The Story of English, addresses this deficiency and traces the development of English from its origins to the present day.
The name for the language reveals something about its origin. It is derived from one of the Germanic tribes, the Angles, which occupied England in the fifth century following the departure of the Romans from Britain in AD 410, so Old English was essentially a Germanic language. So decisive was its dominance that Old English contained few linguistic items from the languages of the Celtic peoples whose presence in Britain pre-dated that of the Romans.
While the later Viking invasions and Danish hegemony of England left some linguistic markers, the next major development was the Norman conquest of 1066.
However, unlike the Anglo-Saxon invasions, Norman French did not supplant Old English; instead, the two languages fused to become Middle English. The reason for this is that the numbers of Norman French soldiers who came to England were comparatively small – perhaps as few as 5,000.
Gooden notes some interesting patterns in the language that indicate which elements became predominant in different contexts, one of the most interesting being animal names. Whereas the names of farm animals are essentially of Germanic origin – sheep, cow, swine – the names of their equivalent cooked meats are of French origin – mutton, beef, pork. It is this fusion of the two languages which explains English’s hybrid facets.
Not only did the fusion of the two languages take some time, it was not until the mid-14th century that English had gained sufficient status to become the official language of government, supplanting French. This transition was also an important factor in the predominance of the East Midland Dialect of English, London being on the edge of the spread of this dialect.
However, features of other dialects have persisted. For example, the present simple version of the verb “begin” is “he begins” (from the Northern Dialect), instead of “he beginneth” from the East Midland Dialect.
Scholars generally agree that Modern English emerged at the end of the 16th century, with writers such as Shakespeare. Gooden contends that the invention of printing and the increase in literacy served to standardise the language. However, key facets such as spelling were still not fixed. Thus, texts such as the first edition of the Authorised Version of the Bible (the “King James Bible”), published in 1611, contained variant spellings of the same word.
By the 18th century – the age of Dr Johnson – English was little different from what it is today. The increased volume of publications – from newspapers to novels – as well as texts such as Dr Johnson’s dictionary finally helped standardise features such as spelling.
There was also the insistence in using the correct form of the language, with many common usages – such as ending a sentence or clause with a preposition – being considered grammatically incorrect. However, unlike French, English never had a body such as the AcadÃ©mie FranÃ§aise to regulate the language.
Ironically, just as English reached “this level of maturity” (to quote Gooden), the rise of the United States of American as an independent country in its own right heralded the emergence of another variant of English, namely American English. One of the key differences between the two is found in spelling, the differences dating back to the publication of Webster’s Dictionary in the early 19th century in an attempt to establish a more phonetic spelling system.
American English is but one of the variants of English that have emerged. Some, such as Australian English, have few differences from British English – the major ones being in pronunciation and certain lexical items. However, other varieties such as “Singlish” (an English-based language sometimes spoken in Singapore) would be difficult for a speaker of standard English to comprehend.
One trend that Gooden notes throughout his work is the way in which contact between English speakers and those of other languages has broadened and enriched English, particularly through the inclusion of new words. Such a trend, he posits, will only continue, particularly in a globalised world.
The Story of English is an interesting account of the history of our language. The product of good research, this highly readable work is written for the non-specialist in such a way that it makes the history of English engaging. Gooden draws upon reliable scholarship and acknowledges academic debates about aspects of the history of the language.
This “coffee-table book” sized work is beautifully illustrated and would make an attractive gift or addition to a library.