You have a pet pig, think your colleague’s a swine but feel like eating some pork … English can be a nightmare for people trying to learn it, who will often find that they are confronted with several words that seem very different but appear to mean the same thing. This morphological diversity reflects Britain’s eventful history of migration and colonisation – the latter as both colony and coloniser.
The earliest form of the language that we call “English” today didn’t arrive in the British Isles until the 5th century AD, just as the Roman colony that had been there since the start of the millennium was collapsing. Britain was settled by Anglo-Saxon tribes, who spoke what we now refer to as “Old English”. This language is completely incomprehensible to English-speakers today – take, for example, this passage from Old English’s most famous text, Beowulf:
Hwät! we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum
þeód-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
hû þâ äðelingas ellen fremedon.
Which translates roughly as:
Lo! the Spear-Danes‘ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings‘ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Nonetheless, the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons gave us many of the words we use in everyday situations, such as – to name but three of thousands – “ear”, “old” and “fish”.
Viking invasions and Norse colonisation in the 8th and 9th centuries were accompanied by the introduction of Old Norse, a North Germanic language, which has left us with other fairly day-to-day words such as “bag”, “sky” and “egg”. In 1066, William the Conqueror made good on his name, and the Norman conquest of England led to the spread of Old Norman, a predecessor of modern French – which, incidentally, also contained some Old Norse words not found in other Old French dialects of the time, as the Norman conquerors themselves were intermingled descendants of Franks and Norse Viking settlers. The language of the Normans was mainly spoken by the elite and the members of the court, while the commoners continued to speak Old, Anglo-Saxon English. This is why many of our terms that relate to politics and law-making are of French and, by way of scholarly influence, Latin origin, such as “parliament”, “justice” and “crime”. However, Old Norman had an impact on the realm of food, which is why we talk about “pork” (porc), “beef” (beouf), “mutton” (mouton) and “veal” (veau), instead of “pig”, “cow”, “sheep” and “calf” meat, as speakers of Germanic languages still do.
By the 12th century, the mixing of these languages had led to the creation of a distinct language, which we refer to as “Middle English”, integrating Norse and Norman features into the old Anglo-Saxon language. Although Middle English more closely approximates the English that we speak today than Old English does, it still poses a huge challenge to the average Modern English-speaker, as in this example from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
Ye seken lond and see for your wynnynges,
As wise folk ye knowen all th’estaat
Of regnes; ye been fadres of tydynges
And tales, bothe of pees and of debaat.
Or, in today’s English:
You seek land and sea for your winnings,
As wise folk you know all the estate
Of kingdoms; you be fathers of tidings,
And tales, both of peace and of debate.
People continued to speak this form of English until around 1500, when the Great Vowel Shift occurred and the prestige of English as a spoken language increased, leading to the emergence of Early Modern English, the language spoken by Shakespeare. This was also the language in which the first translation of the Bible into English, the King James Bible, appeared. This language underwent a number of morphological, phonological, syntactical and alphabetical changes to become what we call “English” today, which spread around the world with the British Empire, in turn absorbing words of more far-flung origin – but that’s a story for another day.
So, it is the different Norse and Norman influences upon the ‘original’ Anglo-Saxon language combined with the influence of scholarly Latin that have given us word triplets such as “kingly”, “royal” and “regal”; “rise”, “mount” and “ascend”; “ask”, “question” and “interrogate”; “fast”, “firm” and “secure”; “holy”, “sacred” and “consecrated”. And it is this linguistic diversity that gives English a larger vocabulary than any other comparable European language, which might be a pain in the bottom, rear, rump, behind, posterior, derrière or gluteus maximus for English learners, but is also what gives English such richness and depth.