Old English ain’t Shakespeare (feat. Dinosaurs)

Yes, hello. Rebekah, 26, American. I can hardly contain myself, so let’s just get straight to it:

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite things was the part of the dictionary where it tells you the history of the word. “And Latin bos begat Old French boef, and Old French boef begat English beef.”1 (Okay, that’s not how they phrase it. Also, this area of study is called etymology.) Then, my senior year in high school, while I was applying to colleges, I learned you could actually major in that. Somehow, I had never heard of linguistics before.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to linguistics than just where words come from. There’s how the words fit together to form sentences, and there’s the 7,000+ languages in the world and how they’re alike and how they’re not, and there’s all these crazy sounds our mouths can make to combine in a billion different ways and become human speech.

I was taking a class on the history of English when I had my eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room, have-we-met-before, do-you-think-this-is-destiny moment. I was doing the assigned reading on Old English, and it was all about Saxons and the Danelaw and Alfred the Great and scops, and something about it all reverberated in the marrow of my bones. It was like hearing a song I’d forgotten a long time ago. A thousand-odd years of history collapsed in on itself, and I could feel the blood of my Anglo-Saxon forebears humming through me. (Too much? Too much. Moving on.)

It was only when I went to share this indescribable feeling with everyone I met that I realized I had a problem. The conversation went like this:

Me: I love Old English! *heart eyes, preparing to gush*
Them: Oh, that’s cool. So you like Shakespeare?
Me: *wilting and dying inside*

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Shakespeare. But here’s a super cool linguistic fun fact: Shakespeare’s language, and the language of the King James Bible, and the language of all those other historic sources inspiring your friendly local Renaissance festival players, that’s a little something we linguists like to call “Early Modern English.”

The periods of English

Let’s talk about dinosaurs. Everybody loves dinosaurs, right? Between the chicken nuggets, the tee shirts, and movies like The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park, most people know the names of at least two or three, and they probably have a favorite. (Mine’s triceratops, if you’re wondering.)

Dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic Era, a 186-million-year period of geological time further subdivided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods.2 I’m about to painfully rewrite your childhood, so sorry in advance. Littlefoot, lovable hero of The Land Before Time, was either a brontosaurus or an apatosaurus. These titanic, long-necked herbivores lived in the Late Jurassic. Cera, Littlefoot’s triceratops best friend, would have lived during the Late Cretaceous—some 77 million years later. As long-distance, time-traveling romances go, it’s arguably a little more problematic than The Lake House. Not least because dinosaurs didn’t have mailboxes.

I know what you’re thinking: “Great, Rebekah. That’s just great. Friendship over. Before I delete your number, what does this have to do with linguistics? Are you trying to tell me dinosaurs spoke English?”

As appealing as it is to imagine all our favorite dinosaurs living together as one big happy family, 186 million years is a long time for everything to stay the same. Likewise, as easy as it is to think that English is English, always has been and always will be, languages grow and evolve, too. (Sabina talked about this a little last week.) No matter how different they became, though, from the time they emerged in the Late Triassic until they disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs were still dinosaurs. It’s kind of the same with languages.

A lot of the dinosaur species people are most familiar with—triceratops, hadrosaurs, velociraptors, and Tyrannosaurus rex, to name a few—lived during the last period, the Cretaceous (yep, Jurassic Park is a bit of a misnomer). This was the period of greatest dinosaur diversity. The latest period of English is called Modern English, and it’s the one you’re probably most familiar with. It started in roughly the late 1400s and runs up to the present. This, too, is a period of impressive diversity, with distinct varieties of English spoken around the world, from Australia to Canada, from India to England, and everywhere in between. As far as literature goes, a lot of the famous English-language works considered part of the Western canon were written during this time, including the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and many others. There are also contemporary works like those of Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, and Dr. Seuss—all those books, magazines, and newspapers filling up your local library (if you happen to live in an English-speaking country).

Of course, no matter how awesome it would be to see a rap battle between Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, even the casual reader will flag their writing as seeming like not quite the same language. As mentioned earlier, Modern English can be separated into Early and Late, with the divide being marked at about 1800. Period distinctions like this are the result of shifts in grammar, pronunciation, and word stock throughout the language, though the specific dates often coincide with historical events that had a widespread impact on culture. (Like the mass extinction events that separate the different periods of the Mesozoic Era. But somewhat less catastrophic.) In the case of Modern English, the starting point is often cited as 1476, the year William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. The ability to mass produce written materials would have a profound effect on literacy and the dissemination of linguistic features. In 1776, the American colonies declared independence from England. Some consider the American Revolution the start of Late Modern English and a period of globalization for the language, as over the following decades the British continued to spread their language, colonizing places like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India.

As useful as dates like these can be for roughly marking linguistic time, languages unfortunately don’t work like that. The line between one stage of English and another isn’t as clear cut as turning over a page of your Gregorian calendar on January 1st and magically finding yourself in a new year. Linguistic shockwaves and subtle nudges take time to spread. A great example of this is Middle English.

On our timeline, Middle English is our Jurassic period. During the Jurassic, dinosaurs began to flourish. They hadn’t yet reached the height of diversity of the Cretaceous, but there are still some Jurassic species everybody recognizes, like the stegosaurus or aforementioned sauropods like the brontosaurus. There’s at least one big Middle English name you’ll recognize, too: Geoffrey Chaucer. If you’ve read just one work that predates the Modern English period, I’d bet good money it was some portion of Chaucer’s seminal Canterbury Tales. See? You knew there was English older than Shakespeare’s, even if you didn’t know you knew it. The Canterbury Tales begins:

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;3

It might look a little odd and incomprehensible, but with just a little elbow grease, most people can puzzle Chaucer out. (It helps to read it out loud.)

Chaucer died in 1400, and his language was that of the latter end of Middle English. Works from Early Middle English are rare, but one very important one is the Peterborough Chronicle, a historical record periodically updated with the important events of each year up to 1154. It only takes a little squinting to recognize Chaucer’s language as an earlier form of English, but the Peterborough Chronicle starts to look like it was written in a different language entirely. If Chaucer was writing in a kind of pre-Shakespeare, the Peterborough Chronicle was written in a kind of post-Anglo-Saxon, two ends of a transitionary continuum. Due to the nature of the Peterborough Chronicle itself, we can watch the language gradually change in the time between entries.

And so, we come at last to true Old English. The Triassic period, I guess? (Look, I can only push this metaphor so far.) The transition from Old to Middle English is traditionally marked by the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. William the Conqueror became William I, and he repopulated the court and the clergy with French-speaking Normans. The sovereignty of French men, French culture, and the French language had a profound effect on English, explaining the rather Romance sound of the language today. Strip that influence away, go back to England between AD 500 and AD 1000, and you’ll find the very Germanic origins of the language we call English. The most famous of all the surviving Old English works is the epic poem Beowulf. It begins like this:

Hwæt we Gar-Dene     in geardagum,
þeodcyninga     þrym gefrunon,
hu þa æþelingas     ellen fremedon.4

It reads something along the lines of:

Lo, we of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,
learned by inquiry of the kings of the people,
how those princes did valor.

This was the language of the Germanic tribes who migrated to Britain and displaced the Celts, the peoples who would become the Anglo-Saxons. The Beowulf poem began as part of an oral tradition and was later written down. In style and content, it’s somewhat like the Norse Eddas, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the Anglo-Saxons shared a Germanic heritage with the Vikings and continued to have contact with them after settling Britain (both friendly and not so friendly). Old English manuscripts show a people transitioning from paganism to Christianity, a warlike people with an awful lot of synonyms for “sword” and “kill,” but also a cultured people with a sophisticated poetic meter and a penchant for alliteration. Shakespeare was a long way down the road.

Back to the future

The story of English is far from over. It’s still being written all around us. As I said, language is in constant flux, and it can be hard to know when to say, “Hang on a second. I think we’ve stumbled into a new stage of English!” Linguists today are even starting to distinguish the most current English, the one we’re speaking right now (and tweeting at each other and scribbling down on post-it notes and dropping in beats in epic rap battles), with the appellation Present Day English, leaving Shakespeare and Dickens and all the rest a little farther in the past.

Don’t think this phenomenon is unique to English. Other languages have gone through some incredible changes, too. Old French boef eventually became French boeuf, and really, French is just grown up Latin, just like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and all the other Romance languages. (Language families are a subject for another day.) And language, all language, is going to go right on changing as our cultures and our communication needs go right on changing. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, “Language finds a way.”

Next week with Lisa: As hard as it is to say when a language has entered a new stage of its evolution, one of the most complicated questions facing linguists is the problem of where to draw the distinction between a language and a dialect. What makes something a separate language rather than just a variety of another? When do we say a dialect has diverged enough from its parent language to be considered a language in its own right?

Bibliography

There are many wonderful works covering the history of English. For specific dates and details mentioned here, I referenced:
Algeo, John & Thomas Pyles. 2005. The origins and development of the English language, 5th edn. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

1Oxford English Dictionary Online

2General information about dinosaurs was found on Wikipedia & from the article “Learn about the different dinosaur periods” at ThoughtCo.

3The prologue to The Canterbury Tales at Bartleby.com

4Mitchell, Bruce & Fred C. Robinson. 2012. A guide to Old English, 8th edn. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *