Frequently Asked Questions
1. How old is the English language?
Dating is not easy, but written
records and archaeological evidence
indicate that the island of Britain
was settled by speakers of the
ancestor of the English language
-- the Anglo-Saxons -- around the
year 450 AD. If we use this as
a starting point, the English language
is just over 1,500 years old.
2. What is 'Old English'?
Make sure you distinguish between Old English and old
English. The latter has no technical meaning and can be used to
refer to anything from the earliest forms of the language to eighties
'Val Talk'. But the capitalised version refers to the language
at a particular period in time, about 450-1100 AD. Many people
think of Shakespeare's language as 'Old English', but Shakespeare
lived between 1564 and 1616 -- almost five hundred years after
the end of the Old English period!
3. What is the difference between
'Old English' and 'Anglo-Saxon'
'Anglo-Saxon' refers to the people,
their history, and their culture.
'Old English' refers to their language.
Old English used to be called 'Anglo-Saxon'
as well, but around the middle
of the twentieth century scholars
began to use the term 'Old English'
to stress the continuity between
the Anglo-Saxons' language and
ours. Indeed, although the written
form of old English looks to a
beginner like a foreign language,
further study reveals that Old
English and Modern English really
are very closely related.
4. Where did the Anglo-Saxons come from?
The Anglo-Saxons tell that they were descended from peoples who
lived across the North Sea from Britain in what is now Denmark,
Northern Germany, and Holland. Modern historians know them as
ethnically Germanic, but they were not German; Germany
as a political (and cultural) institution notion developed much
5. So how much has English changed in 1,500 years?
In the 19th century, the philologist Henry Sweet referred to
three periods in the history of English which were characterised
by some notable grammatical tendencies. Old English is
similar to many European languages in marking grammatical functions
with 'endings' on words (like the -s in words which
tells us that the word is plural). In the second period, Middle
English, the number of these endings became significantly
reduced and devices such as word order increased in grammatical
function. Middle English lasted from approximately 1100-1500.
When studying Middle English in detail, we can divide the period
into Early Middle English and Late Middle English.
Together, Old English and Middle English comprise the medieval
The third period is known as Modern English, lasting from
about 1500 to the present. During this period the endings became
reduced to a very few. As you can see, the medieval period was
twice as long as the modern period. And you may be surprised to
find that Shakespeare wrote Modern English! Well, if that goes
against your intuitions, you'll be happy to know that the modern
period is divided into Early Modern English (about 1500-1800)
and Present-Day English (1800 to the present). Around 1800,
the language (in its written form, at least) achieved approximately
its present form.
6. How exactly has English changed?
Now we're getting into the nitty gritty of the subject. You already
know part of the answer: English lost many of its grammatical
endings over the course of time and word order became increasingly
more important. But changes also occurred in handwriting, spelling,
pronunciation, vocabulary, and idiom as well. Cultural attitudes
about the use of English have also changed considerably, often
in ways that reflect wider social attitudes.
7. Why did English change?
The standard non-scholarly answer is that people were lazy and
careless with their use of language. Certainly some people have
been (and still are) guilty of lazy and careless usage. But are
we then to conclude that we have inherited 1,500 years of laziness
and carelessness, and that, if we were only more conscientious,
we could all speak beautiful Old English? The fact is that even
competent use of the language has changed over time. The more
discerning of you might come up with a different reason for the
changes English has undergone: to simplify its many complexities.
Well, if that's what you thought of, you're on to something. But
you shouldn't think that we now speak a simpler language than
the Anglo-Saxons did. Tweaking one aspect of the language to make
it simpler often creates new complexities. This is what drives
language to change constantly.
8. Did English change because of historical events?
This is another common reason given for many of the developments
English has undergone. The relationship between the internal
history of the language and the external history of
its speakers is a complex one. Different aspects of the language
are affected to different extents by external history. The answer,
then, is both yes and no. It depends on which individual changes
you are looking at.
9. What did Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English
A National Endowment for the Humanities grant allowed me to build
a time machine, and the resulting extensive library of recordings
will bear fruit in my Anglo-Saxon Drinking Songs CD, to
be released next year. Sadly, I was unable to bring my camera
equipment into the theatre when I tried to get the first production
of Hamlet on film. OK, my little joke. We don't really
have any way of knowing how English was pronounced before the
invention of sound recordings. But we do have some remarkably
good evidence, either from contemporary observations or from a
technique called linguistic reconstruction. So we can guess
at the pronunciation without being too far off. Samples of modern
scholars' recordings of Old English and Middle English can be
found online at Chaucer
Studio. Sadly, most people read Early Modern literature with
today's pronunciation, so there are no similar collections of
recordings of pronunciation between the year 1500 and the invention
of modern recording equipment.
10. What do I need to know for this course, and what will I
The course is designed to introduce you to the two most important
things you need to know about the history of the English language:
the history of those who spoke (and speak) English and the grammatical
structures of English at various stages of history. Essentially,
you will study both history and linguistics. Be prepared to take
on both. You'll come away with a lot more, as well: knowledge
about literature and poetry, art and archaeology, and sociology.
You'll also develop analytical skills and an understanding of
the way systems work. Most importantly, you'll pick up thousands
of items of trivia which are sure to come in handy as pick-up
Copyright (C)1999 by Scott Kleinman
Distribution or reproduction of any kind is prohibited.