The History of English Writing!
Updated: Jul 1, 2022
“The English language is a work in progress. Have fun with it.” – Jonathan Culver
There are so many languages in the world, yet fluency in English is considered to be an important criterion. It is one of the most spoken languages globally. Today, we will discuss briefly about the origin of the language and the history on how it has evolved in the art of writing. Though this is a vast topic, we will try to touch some of the important aspects.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the English language originated after the invasion of Britain during the 5th century. Three Germanic tribes, the Jutes, Saxons and Angles came to conquer new lands, and crossed over from the North Sea. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But after the invasion, most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders - mainly to present Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The word England and English originated from the Old English word Engla-land, literally meaning “the land of the Angles” where they spoke Englisc.
Now let us understand a bit about the evolution of writing in the English language.
At the very early age, words used to be signs or images carved on stone known as petroglyphs and they were found all across the world. They had a few characteristics:
- Earlier petroglyphs followed a method of simplifying things. So, emphasis was more on message and communication rather than aesthetics, so simple drawings were used.
- They usually denoted an order or sequence so either they were drawn on top of the previous one or in a linear order. Today also, when we write we follow linear sequence.
- There was an acute understanding of the signs and meaning like words today.
As the need for understanding and communication grew through the ages and it started becoming more complex, the methods and signs also started to evolve as more and more people started using it. Hence, we will take a look at how it evolved through several generations and were passed down to the next.
The Sumerian Era
They existed about 5000 years ago, and used what is known as syllabary (it is mostly a symbol which will have a combination of a vowel and a consonant like ab, ac, ad etc.) which is not an alphabet. They are known to have developed the first adequate phonetic system of writing. They used to write in clay using wedge-shaped stamps and it was known as cuneiform. The Cunieform writing was so well developed as a code, that the Sumerian language could be easily decoded even after thousands of years.
The Egyptian Era
Around the 3000 B.C when the Sumerian influence was strong, the Egyptian writing was developed. Better known as hieroglyphics, it was a combination of pictograms, ideographs and sound pictures. And, we have seen several examples in various tombs and palaces of ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics means ‘sacred inscriptions’, and their writings were distinctively bold and aesthetically strong. Ideographs were signs with an abstract meaning, and sound words were precursors of a phonetic system where a sign signifies a sound more than a meaning. With the invention of paper, Egyptian writings were now available to the common mass rather than privilege of the priests and wealthy people.
The Phoenician Era
They were skilled sailors and developed an alphabet of their own with 22 characters representing consonant sounds only. Foe example, an English sentence, ‘Can Jim read that book?’ would look like ‘Cn Jm rd tht bk?’ Like the Egyptians, they also used the initial sound of familiar objects to create their sound/symbol relationships.
The Greek Era
The Greeks being great borrowers adopted the Phoenician alphabets including the letter named which meant nothing in Greek. The word ‘alphabet’ also comes from the first and second Phoenician letters- aleph + beth. The Greeks borrowed 19 Phoenician characters as symbols for consonants, bur they still vowels to write their language, so they invented new ones. By 400 B.C, the Greek alphabet has 24 characters which were not easy to learn. They also did the left to right sequencing which we still follow till date. They still there were problems like they wrote everything in capital letters and there was no space between words with no commas and full stops.
The Etruscan Era
These people came to power in Italy, long before the Romans did. They had an alphabet of 26 letters- 22 Phoenician and 4 Greek. Rather than discarding letters that they didn’t need, they kept them so that some of their sounds had more than one letter representing it. For example, we have c and k making the same sound in can and kin.
The Roman Era
As the Romans came into power, they adopted 21 of the Etruscan letters. They developed both the capital letters and uncial letters, which is half capital and half in lower case. They began placing punctuation marks after every word. They also added the letter G which signifies the harsh sound /g/ which we hear at the start of goat. They also introduced thick and thin strokes in letters and serifs, the thin lines at the bottom and top of strokes. Serif gave letters a neat and nice finish. Gradually, the alphabet made its way to English through the efforts of the Roman soldiers.
The Celts Era
The earliest tribe to invade the islands of now England are the Celts. They spoke on Gaelic, a distinct from English, but it is still spoken by some people in parts of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It is vert different from the English language that we use today.
The Angles and the Saxons Era
This is the real advent of the English language as mentioned at the starting of the article. Though the Saxons came first, the Angles gave us the names of the language- Englisc. What we call the ‘Old English’ was mostly spoken between 450 A.D to 1100 A.D. The Angles and Saxon were mostly illiterate people and they communicated using runic alphabet for chiseling inscriptions. Their language was simple and descriptive of everyday objects and actions. Some words taken from a later Anglo-Saxon manuscript are still decipherable today like wase – was, cwen – queen, hus- house, cyning – king etc.
The Christian Era
With the invasion of the Christian monks, they came to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. They not only introduced the Roman alphabet, but also changed the face of literacy. They brough a new vocabulary, mainly Latin, but also Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. With this came new words with new ideas and new meaning to old words. Words like pepper, orange, phoenix, oyster etc. became a part of English reflecting the exotic world of far East. There was new addition of religion words like disciple, shrine, priest etc. Also, words like hell, heaven and God, all part of the Angles language, took new meanings after the conversion.
The Vikings Era
The, came the Vikings and they brought with them the Old Norse Language. Though, it is also derived from the same family as the Anglo-Saxon, it is difficult to judge the extent of influence on English. Some of their words replaced Old English like husband, leg, skull, sky etc. while some stood alongside, sometimes with a little variation of meaning like nay/no, ditch/dike, and sometimes with a slightly different meaning like scatter/shatter, wake/watch etc.
The Normans Era
The Norman invasion took place in France in 1066 A.D. For the next 300 years, no king in England spoke English. Between 1100 and 1500 A.D, more than 10,000 French words came into the English vocabulary and around 75% of them are still used today. Thousands more came from the church and scholarly Latin brought by the Normans, and 2000 more from the Dutch and low German languages. Soon, England became a bilingual country with two tiers in the society – the French-speaking aristocracy and the English-speaking peasantry. The functional Anglo-Saxon words like swin/swine, sceap/sheep, cyna/cows got transformed into more sophisticated French forms like porc/prok, moton/mutton, boef/beef and others. There was a visible rich diversity which included both simple grammar and rich vocabulary.
The Middle English
This is referred to the English used between 1100 A.D and 1500 A.D. This is merely a record in writing of what already has happened to the spoken Old English. During this time, strong regional writings began to be documented. Spoken English differed from country to country, and eventually narrowed down to FIVE main speech areas: Latin and Greek, Vulgar Latin, Geoffrey Chaucer, and others.
The Late Middle English or the Early Modern English
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the English language achieved a richness and finesse in the works of the literary stalwarts like Willian Shakespeare, and others. Shakespeare alone coined around 2000 words and phrase like ‘in my mind’s eye’, ‘to be in a pickle’, and many others. By this time, words like shoen and shoes were commonly used plurals, hence children, oxen and others still remain today. The King James Bible is a good source of Elizabethan English. We also see the evolution of family names like Brooks (place of residence), Shepherd (occupation) etc.
English is an alphabetic and phonetic language, but it is also a dynamic and friendly language because it has taken so many words from different languages and they are now an integral part of English. The English we teach and learn today is like an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Latin vocabulary which can be seen as language layers.
The Anglo-Saxon gave us one and two syllable, everyday words. Then, they were expanded by compounding and affixing -ed, -able, -ing, etc. Irregular words like thought and rough differ from the regular Anglo-Saxon and are known as learned words.
Latin words are mostly multisyllable and are formed around a root with prefixes and suffixes. They are usually pronounced as one syllable accented and the other one said softly (unaccented). One notable feature is the schwa sound- it is the unaccented vowel sound found in prefixes, suffixes and unaccented syllables which are not as important as the root word like servant, hospital, etc. The Latin-based words are always affixed, not compounded, because the Latin root cannot stand alone. More than half of the words we use today, mostly pertaining to the law, government or religion come directly or indirectly from Latin.
Greek words relate to science, technology and the theatre. They have the same letter-sound correspondence as the Anglo-Saxon, but with three new patters: ph=/f/, ch=/k/, and y=/~i/. Greek words are often compound like tele/scope, hemi/sphere or poly/gon. Each contains Greek roots, compounded and given equal stress. Greek words are context-based so only about one hundred needs to be actually learned.