The connection of the history of the English language with the history of the English people
English is one of the top five languages in the world. It is used every day by more than 400 million people living in at least 45 countries of the world.
The English language of today reflects many centuries of its development. It possesses phonetic, grammatical and lexical features that arose at different periods of time, very often from different sources and in accordance with various linguistic laws.
Those who study the history of English deal with the history of its phonetic structure and spelling, the evolution of its grammatical system, the growth and change of its vocabulary. The history of English covers also the changing historical conditions of the country relevant to language history.
For example, it is easy to perceive a close kinship between English and German, especially in their vocabulary, e.g. milk – Milch, bread – Brot, give – geben, etc.
The same may be said if we compare English and French, e.g. army – armée, peace – paix, language – langue, etc.
The word ‘give’ is of native, Germanic origin, which is confirmed by the parallels from German and other Germanic languages. The words ‘peace’ and ‘army’ are borrowings from Romance languages. In Old English (700-1100) the respective words were Germanic. In present-day English the number of Romance roots is highter than that of native roots. All these facts may be easily explained only in connection with the conditions in which the English people lived. For example, the Norman Conquest (1066) was not only a great event in British political history but also the greatest event in the history of the English language. Its effect was a drastic change in the linguistic situation. The Norman conquerors of England spoke the Northern dialect of French. The most immediate consequence of the Norman domination in Britain is to be seen in the wide use of the French language in many spheres of life. For almost three hundred years French was the official language of the king’s court, the law courts, the church, the army, the administration. The intellectual life, literature and education were in the hands of French-speaking people; French, alongside Latin, was the language of writing. But England never stopped being an English-speaking country; the lower classes in towns, and especially in the countryside, continued to speak English. At first the two languages existed side by side without mingling. Then, slowly, they began to permeate each other. The Norman barons and the French town-dwellers had to pick up English words to make themselves understood, while the English began to use French words in current speech.
In the 14th c. English regained its status of the official language of the country, but French affected English more than any other foreign influence before or after. English borrowed the words denoting different social ranks, titles of respect, governmental and administrative terms, legal terms, military terms, religious terms, words reflecting the life and habits of the nobility of France, their dominance in the arts and literature, etc.
As a social phenomenon, language is inseparable from society, since the people constituting the given society speak the given language. Every major event in the history of a certain community is reflected in its language. Some of these events affect the language so much that they may serve as some kind of landmarks in its history. Without the knowledge of historical events it would be impossible to understand many facts in the language. Only an acquaintance with the history of the English people may explain, for instance, the abundance of Latin, French or Scandinavian words in English, the oddities of English spelling, the relation between the English national language and various dialects, etc.
At the same time we should not exaggerate the influence of the history of a people on the history of their language. Language is a very complicated system with its own regularities and relations which itself may determine the trend of its development, the changes in its sound and structure. For example, we need not look for any changes in the life of the English people in order to explain why the short vowel in Old English “oft” remained short all through the history of English, while the same sound in OE “open” was lengthened. The explanation can be found in the language itself, in the development of its rhythm, in the structure of the words, in the position of the sound. In the word “oft” (E. often) the sound [o] was in a closed syllable. Its lengthening would make the syllable too heavy for the rhythmical pattern of the language. In the word “open” the sound [o] was in an open syllable. In fact, it made a syllable by itself, and the syllable was too short, or too light, for the rhythmical pattern of the language. Hence the process of lengthening resulted in [ou].
Many of the linguistic phenomena can be traced back to a distant past. They cannot be accounted for without a study of history. Thus knowledge of the history of the English language should be an integral part in the training of a linguist. One of the aims of the history of English is to provide the specialist with a wider philological outlook. The history of the English language also shows the place of English in the linguistic world. It reveals its ties and contacts with other related and unrelated languages.