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The Interesting History of the English Language

Written By Jack Budington

May 18, 2023

Whan that Auerylle with his shoures soote 
The droghte of March / hath perced to the roote
And bathed euery veyne in swich lycour

Opening folio of the Hengwrt manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

The opening lines of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are likely the oldest untranslated English text read today. While clearly English, his 14th century London dialect serves to terrify freshman English students on campuses worldwide. Fortunately for those students, they aren’t forced to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around the same period as Chaucer. Even the brightest English students would find themselves at a loss. 

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:

The History and Evolution of English

How has English evolved so dramatically over time? What forced these changes?

Chaucer’s work is the first untranslated work in the English canon in large part because it is the first we can understand. Chaucer lived amid a revolution in English writing, and his London dialect would greatly influence the eventual standardization of English spelling to what we know (and often hate) today. To understand this transition, we need to travel back a bit earlier than Chaucer’s time. 

Written English, like all alphabet-based languages, developed as a way to represent the sound of spoken words onto paper. The Latin script we use today to represent these English sounds was first developed by Irish monks, who modified the Latin alphabet to write down the language of the Germanic Angles, Jutes, and Saxon tribes—those who had invaded England after the fall of the Roman empire. This new Latin-based writing system was combined with the earlier Rune-based alphabet used by the Germanic invaders themselves. The end result was an alphabet with many of the modern English letters, but also characters like ð, þ, ȝ that no longer exist. The letters J and W were not yet part of the alphabet.

The story then unfolds like most languages. Writing starts out mostly phonetic, although still married somewhat to the sound rules of the writing system. This leads to significant local variations. When the need for standard long distance communication grows (state bureaucracy, the church, and later printed books), this starts to create pressure to standardize spelling sometimes at the expense of sacrificing how well it phonetically represents local sounds. In England, this process was starting to take place as a more stable Kingdom of England emerged in the late 800s. Everything was going according to plan, and then the Normans arrived. 

The Norman Invasion

William the Conqueror and his band of Norman invaders landed on the shores of Hastings in the year 1066. More ruthless than diplomatic, they had no interest in adopting the native tongue of England, instead preferring to speak in their own dialect of French (Anglo-Norman). For the next 200 years, the nobility would barely speak English much less write in it. English, however, would survive as the everyday speech of commoners and the writings of much of the native English clergy. This linguistic divide left us with a rich vocabulary. The old English “belief” and the Old Norman “faith,” while similar, do not represent exactly the same concept. Our excess vocabulary has allowed us to better explain subtle differences without resorting to longer sentences.

The Norman Conquest by François Vivares (1709-1780) Yale Center for British Art

English Returns to the Monarchy

The linguistic divide began to close in the 1300s. War with the French and gradual assimilation would see English return to the royal court. This would prove a bit of a problem for many early English writers and readers. Both Chaucer and the unknown author of Sir Gawain were writing just as this shift was occurring. While they spoke the same language, they didn’t write in entirely the same alphabet or spell words in the same way.

The Gawain poet, while influenced by Norman, spelled based on an evolution of the script and sound rules that the Irish monks originally devised. Chaucer, writing from around London where Norman influence was strongest, spelled in Latin the French way. This could only take Chaucer so far though when trying to capture the voices he wished to write. English had many sounds that were not commonly found in French. Chaucer and other southern English writers had to create a hybrid system, substituting many of the older English sounds like þ with the best equivalent in the Latin alphabet while keeping other spelling conventions intact.

Reading the excerpts from The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain, it is clear that Chaucer’s more hybrid spelling system would win out. Then as now, London was the center of government and commerce in England, and unsurprisingly, this would give it the greatest influence over what became standard English.

But as we all know, even this “standard” is subject to change. Chaucer would have as difficult a time reading our text messages as we have reading his tales. In this way, the English language is like a living, breathing thing—constantly changing, growing, and contracting—and it’s our job to keep up. Luckily for us, we have spell check.