The origin and history of the English language

The value of a language as an object of study, depends chiefly on the character of the books which it

The origin and history of the English language

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Министерство образования Республики Беларусь

Учреждение образования

«Гомельский государственный университет им. Ф. Скорины»

Филологический факультет











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Студентка группы К-52

Ловренчук Т.Е.







Гомель 2007





1. Origin of English language

2. History of English language

3. English literature






In order that we may set a just value upon the literary labours of those who, in former times, gave particular attention to the culture of the English language, and that we may the better judge of the credibility of modern pretensions to further improvements, it seems necessary that we should know something of the course of events through which its acknowledged melioration in earlier days took place. For, in this case, the extent of a man's knowledge is the strength of his argument. As Bacon quotes Aristotle, "Qui respiciunt ad pauca, de facili pronunciant." He that takes a narrow view, easily makes up his mind. But what is any opinion worth, if further knowledge of facts can confute it?

Whatsoever is successively varied, or has such a manner of existence as time can affect, must have had both an origin and a progress; and may have also its particular history, if the opportunity for writing it be not neglected. But such is the levity of mankind, that things of great moment are often left without memorial, while the hand of Literature is busy to beguile the world with trifles or with fictions, with fancies or with lies. The rude and cursory languages of barbarous nations, till the genius of Grammar arise to their rescue, are among those transitory things which unsparing time is ever hurrying away, irrecoverably, to oblivion. Tradition knows not what they were; for of their changes she takes no account. Philosophy tells us, they are resolved into the variable, fleeting breath of the successive generations of those by whom they were spoken; whose kindred fate it was, to pass away unnoticed and nameless, lost in the elements from which they sprung.

Upon the history of the English language, darkness thickens as we tread back the course of time. The subject of our inquiry becomes, at every step, more difficult and less worthy. We have now a tract of English literature, both extensive and luminous; and though many modern writers, and no few even of our writers on grammar, are comparatively very deficient in style, it is safe to affirm that the English language in general has never been written or spoken with more propriety and elegance, than it is at the present day. Modern English we read with facility; and that which was good two centuries ago, though considerably antiquated, is still easily understood. The best way, therefore, to gain a practical knowledge of the changes which our language has undergone, is, to read some of our older authors in retrograde order, till the style employed at times more and more remote, becomes in some degree familiar. Pursued in this manner, the study will be less difficult, and the labour of the curious inquirer, which may be suspended or resumed at pleasure, will be better repaid, than if he proceed in the order of history, and attempt at first the Saxon remains.


1. Origin of English language


The value of a language as an object of study, depends chiefly on the character of the books which it contains; and, secondarily, on its connexion with others more worthy to be thoroughly known. In this instance, there are several circumstances which are calculated soon to discourage research. As our language took its rise during the barbarism of the dark ages, the books through which its early history must be traced, are not only few and meagre, but, in respect to grammar, unsettled and diverse. It is not to be expected that inquiries of this kind will ever engage the attention of any very considerable number of persons. Over the minds of the reading public, the attractions of novelty hold a much greater influence, than any thing that is to be discovered in the dusk of antiquity. All old books contain a greater or less number of obsolete words, and antiquated modes of expression, which puzzle the reader, and call him too frequently to his glossary. And even the most common terms, when they appear in their ancient, unsettled orthography, are often so disguised as not to be readily recognized.

  1. These circumstances (the last of which should be a caution to us against innovations in spelling) retard the progress of the reader, impose a labour too great for the ardour of his curiosity, and soon dispose him to rest satisfied with an ignorance, which, being general, is not likely to expose him to censure. For these reasons, ancient authors are little read; and the real antiquary is considered a man of odd habits, who, by a singular propensity, is led into studies both unfashionable and fruitless-- a man who ought to have been born in the days of old, that he might have spoken the language he is so curious to know, and have appeared in the costume of an age better suited to his taste.
  2. But Learning is ever curious to explore the records of time, as well as the regions of space; and wherever her institutions flourish, she will amass her treasures, and spread them before her votaries. Difference of languages she easily overcomes; but the leaden reign of unlettered Ignorance defies her scrutiny. Hence, of one period of the world's history, she ever speaks with horror--that "long night of apostasy," during which, like a lone Sibyl, she hid her precious relics in solitary cells, and fleeing from degraded Christendom, sought refuge with the eastern caliphs. "This awful decline of true religion in the world carried with it almost every vestige of civil liberty, of classical literature, and of scientific knowledge; and it will generally be found in experience that they must all stand or fall together."--Hints on Toleration, p. 263. In the tenth century, beyond which we find nothing that bears much resemblance to the English language as now written, this mental darkness appears to have gathered to its deepest obscuration; and, at that period, England was sunk as low in ignorance, superstition, and depravity, as any other part of Europe.
  3. The English language gradually varies as we trace it back, and becomes at length identified with the Anglo-Saxon; that is, with the dialect spoken by the Saxons after their settlement in England. These Saxons were a fierce, warlike, unlettered people from Germany; whom the ancient Britons had invited to their assistance against the Picts and Scots. Cruel and ignorant, like their Gothic kindred, who had but lately overrun the Roman empire, they came, not for the good of others, but to accommodate themselves. They accordingly seized the country; destroyed or enslaved the ancient inhabitants; or, more probably, drove the remnant of them into the mountains of Wales. Of Welsh or ancient British words, Charles Bucke, who says in his grammar that he took great pains to be accurate in his scale of derivation, enumerates but one hundred and eleven, as now found in our language; and Dr. Johnson, who makes them but ninety-five, argues from their paucity, or almost total absence, that the Saxons could not have mingled at all with these people, or even have retained them in vassalage.
  4. The ancient languages of France and of the British isles are said to have proceeded from an other language yet more ancient, called the _Celtic_; so that, from one common source, are supposed to have sprung the present Welsh, the present Irish, and the present Highland Scotch.[46] The term Celtic Dr. Webster defines, as a noun, "The language of the Celts;" and, as an adjective, "Pertaining to the primitive inhabitants of the south and west of Europe, or to the early inhabitants of Italy, Gaul, Spain, and Britain." What unity, according to this, there was, or could have been, in the ancient Celtic tongue, does not appear from books, nor is it easy to be conjectured.[47] Many ancient writers sustain this broad application of the term _Celtae_ or _Celts_; which, according to Strabo's etymology of it, means horsemen, and seems to have been almost as general asour word Indians. But Casar informs us that the name was more particularly claimed by the people who, in his day, lived in France between the Seine and the Garonne, and who by the Romans were called Galli, or Gauls.

5.The Celtic tribes are said to have been the descendants of Gomer, the son of Japhet. The English historians agree that the first inhabitants of their island owed their origin and their language to the _Celta_, or Gauls, who settled on the opposite shore. Julius Casar, who invaded Britain about half a century before the Christian era, found the inhabitants ignorant of letters, and destitute of any history but oral tradition. To this, however, they paid great attention, teaching every thing in verse. Some of the Druids, it is said in Casar's Commentaries, spent twenty years in learning to repeat songs and hymns that were never committed to writing. These ancient priests, or diviners, are represented as having great power, and as exe

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