Very Brief History of Birth of English Language.
Masterworks of British Literature I
The Organic Nature of Language
Our language has had a long and fascinating career. The language we speak and write today is the result of over two thousand years of growth, development and change.
- The rebuilt Globe Theater in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed. If you are ever in London, you must see a performance here.
Any language is a changing, evolving and organic entity. The English language has looked different with each century. Even though Shakespeare’s language is pretty close to the modern English language, any of you who have read any of his plays know that a lot of the words, phrases, grammar and expression can be almost like a foreign language. This is because Shakespeare uses a lot of colloquialisms, street-talk, phrases and lingo that was very accessible to the audience of his time, but which looks alien to us today. In fact, Shakespeare’s plays are a great place to see the creative and evolving nature of language. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, there was no dictionary of the English language. Therefore, Shakespeare–and many other authors of the time–invented words, often amalgamating existing words to create a new one, and often hatching a brand new word on the spot. In fact, Shakespeare invented hundreds of words that we use today. For instance, he invented the word “lonely.” It first appears in A Winter’s Tale.
In the first week of our course, we will look at some examples of Old English poetry, written anywhere between 500 and 1200 AD. The language these poets used is known as Anglo-Saxon, denoting the two different Nordic peoples, Angles and Saxons, who settled on the island known as England during this period. The poems are translated from the Old English. You would not be able to read these poems if they were not translated. Old English looks like a foreign language.
- Beowulf is the only extant Old English epic poem. It focuses on the central themes of the Nordic clan in England: service to the kinsman, the centrality of the clan and the mead-hall, battling sinister forces that threaten the clan, sacrifice, fate and death. Woody Allen’s advise to prospective college student’s was to never take a course that requires you to read Beowulf.
Old English language tends to be gloomy, dark, fascinated with death and fate. The Angles and Saxons were originally Nordic tribes who subscribed to a sort-of polytheistic religion–less organized than the ancient Greeks–and were obsessed with death and fate. The life of an Angle or Saxon revolved around the health of a “clan,” headed up by its “kinsman,” or clan leader, which evolves into our notion of a “King.” Notice how the word “King” has the word “kin” in it, referring to family or familiarity–being of a “kind.” Members of a clan served their “king” to the death. The most tragic thing that could happen to a member of a clan is to become estranged from the clan, to lose the clan or to be exiled.
Old English and Christianity
However, when the Angles and Saxons conquer the island of England, they come in contact with the Holy Roman Empire, and rapidly adopt Christianity into their religion. Issues of death and fate combine with Christian notions of rebirth and predestination. Christianity brings a more positive interpretation of death for the Nordic tribes, most notable in the wonderful poem we will read, “Dream of the Rood.”
By the second week of the course, however, we will examine literature written in what we call Middle English. It looks a lot more like the language we use today. With diligence, you could read Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight or The Canterbury Tales untranslated, but your anthology will have translated versions. However, I will give you some photo-copies of excerpts from these poems so that you can see what Middle English looks like, and hear what it sounds like.
- The famous narrative poem Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight might end up being one of the most enjoyable things you’ll ever read. At least, that’s what many students tell me. You would never guess that medieval literature could be fun!
Middle English is the language that evolved after the Norman Conquest in 1066, when France conquered the island of England, and brought with them the French language. Middle English becomes a combination of the dark, hard and gloomy language of the Anglo-Saxons, and the more descriptive and romantic language of the French. As language develops into the Medieval period, from the 1200s until the 1500s, the result of the amalgamation of the French and Anglo-Saxon language is some of the greatest developments and products of Western literature.
But for now, read “The Dream of the Rood,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament.” They are very short, so don’t panic.
If you do not have the anthology for the class yet, you can easily find copies of these poems on-line.
Entry filed under: WEEK ONE.