What is commonly known as the English language may be the most complex example of a native tongue undergoing vast change over history, resulting in a vernacular reflecting the strong influences shaping it over time. If there was an original British language, it was Celtic, an Indo-European tongue shared by the Scots, Irish, and Britons.
The Roman occupation of England after 50 BCE, marking the first significant presence of a language completely different, by no means erased Celtic language; it was spoken by the people regularly, even as the Latin influenced it (Van Gelderen, 2006, p 91). It was also a complex language in itself, and one still difficult to identify in terms of linguistic characteristics. In plain terms, Celt is an archaic or highly primitive tongue; it lacks many of the rules and structures found in developed languages, and this fragmented aspect of it is attributed to its having evolved away from any social or urban center (MacAulay, 1992, p. 3); it was, and for long centuries, more a language purely vernacular, existing to address ordinary needs of expression in diffuse rural arenas.
With the Romans and the infusion of Latin, a striking development would occur, and one that largely explains the enduring quality of Latin in the British languages long after the Romans were gone. That is to say, as the Roman presence was a conquest, so too did the Latin language become the language of judicial, civil, and political authority.
Words were introduced to address the new models of order, so a lasting influence were place names. The language of authority then created terms which would become part of the vernacular, as in the prefix of “eccles” before many place names, which denoted a church presence. There is debate as to the actual impact of the Latin as specifically infused with the enduring British vernacular, nonetheless. The consensus seems to be that Latin never became a native vernacular adopted by the people, even as it remained a significant part of the evolving language of Britain for armies, courts, government offices, and merchants (Miller, 2012, p. 25). This then presents a duality; Latin was never fully accepted by the common people, as Roman rule was long resisted, but the language itself would nonetheless become an element of the vernacular in terms of how all British people were to some extent involved in the church, trade, and with local authority.
Two other linguistic forces vastly restructured and revised Celtic, or British, language. Even today, English is typically referred to as “Anglo-Saxon,” which indicates the massive influence of the Germanic conquests before and during the Middle Ages. This is so radical a change that scholars cannot comprehend the linguistic transition; there is virtually no evidence of Celtic within Anglo-Saxon language development, indicating that the Celts removed themselves from what was, by the 9th and 10th centuries, an Anglo-Saxon nation (Schrijver, 2013, p. 33). Latin lingered on in various forms, but the Saxon phrases, words, and grammar became one with the hybrid Old English, which was itself constructed of earlier Danish and Germanic influences combined with Briton and Pict languages removed from the strictly Celtic. Then, the Norman Conquest of 1066 brought with it, as did the earlier Roman, a shift in language based on power. More exactly, as Norman aristocrats began to exercise authority in Britain, the Norman French words carried with them “elevated” the English in place, and this would gradually seep into the vernacular of English in general; “edifice,” for example, became synonymous with “building,” as “address” came to be used as often as, “talk to” (Miller, 2012, p. 148). As with the Latin, then, the English/British vernacular would evolve from exponential processes. The external agents imposed the new languages chiefly in terms of status, and this element would eventually translate into ordinary speech and writing.
- MacAulay, D. (1992). The Celtic Languages. New York: Cambrisge University Press.
- Miller, D. G. (2012). External Influences on English: From Its Beginnings to the Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Schrijver, P. (2013). Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages. New York: Routledge.
- Van Gelderen, E. (2006). A History of the English Language. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.