How old is English?




Here is one positive email.


" Haven't had time to read every part of your page, but
I believe you do the best job of putting forth the
facts on this issue. I am an anthropologist teaching
basic courses in physical and cultural anthropology in
Southern California, whose hobby is reading
archaeology, genetics and linguistics, in order to
understand the past 45,000 years or so.

You're brilliant, your hypothesis fits all the data I
know, and yes, it's preposterous to think that
eastern England had its indigeneous language wiped out
and then replaced - twice.

Bravo. For some reason, standard academia doesn't
want to hear what you have to say. It's consistent,
though, with work coming out of Russia, Romania and
Italy (in linguistics) and with the genetic satellite
data, which is forcing linguists to consider new

I'll be having my undergraduates read your page this
coming semester, rather than the dross in their


Lxxxx Kxxxxxxx
Xxxxxxx College "

I deliberately masked the name of this professor and the Californian College.

Although I'm very pleased with encouragements, this doesn't help me much. I prefer negative reactions. They force me to think over all arguments and, in case, to correct them.


Dear Michael,

Your website is very interesting, and I am attracted by the idea that English has been in England from before Roman times - it would explain a great deal. But the big difficulty I have with it is the fact that the Latin loanwords in early Anglo-Saxon were largely the same as those in other West Germanic languages.

I'm sure you know the kind of words I'm talking about - mile, street, pepper, butter, cheese, chalk, copper, and so on. (And of course there is also the Greek-derived "church".)

Moreover, there is a fuller correspondence, in this respect, between English and the Western Germanic languages than between English and the North Germanic languages; the North Germanic list is shorter, lacking, for example, "butter" and "cheese".

This seems to me consistent with these words having percolated up from the Roman Empire into the old Germanic homelands - with fewer reaching Scandinavia than the Mainland, simply because of the greater distance - and with the ancestral languages of Old English having then still been located on the Continent, and therefore getting the same loans as the other West Germanic languages.

If a form of English had by then already been established in England, wouldn't one expect that the list of Latin words in the earliest recorded Anglo-Saxon would be different from, and longer than, the equivalent list in Dutch and German? (I know there are some differences - the most notable being, I think, chester - but they seem to me to be too small to be significant.)

Best regards,

Oliver W.

Dear Oliver,

Your question is pertinent.   I wrote before that Old English lacks Latin loanwords, but I received the reproach from specialists in Old English that there are a lot of Latin loanwords in Old English.  You forgot wine for instance.

Actually, there seems to be no lack of Latin loanwords, but more a lack of Brythonic loanwords.

But, there is more. Indeed, there should be more Latin or Greek in OE. I therefore presume that OE was not a fortunate accident. It was not like some monk with too much spare time, had the idea to write down his native language, instead of this foreign Latin, and succeeded in inventing OE. The language is far to elaborate for that. I suspect that OE was a standardized language from the very beginning. I think that the rules for OE were fixed very early on in analogy to Latin. Consequently, OE was an old fashioned language from the earliest texts, because it was a sort of compromise language between the various dialects and moreover, the huge differences between northern Scandi-proto-English and southern Coastal-proto-English. The aim must have been that all intellectuals of England must have been able to read and understand the newly written language.  In other words, OE had to be universal in England like classic Latin was universal in Europe.  Did you know that Caesar spoke differently than how he wrote? Compare it with our modern way of writing: English is indeed written in a very different way than how it is pronounced. The same must have been the case for OE. One of the consequences was that OE was 'protected', in a sense that foreign words, like words in Latin, had to be translated in OE, mostly by building or constructing newly composed words. To give a fictive example: the word democracy would have been translated into something like 'folksrule'. I do have the confirmation that OE was a protected language. A modern protected language is e.g. French, for Frenchmen do not use a computer but an 'odinateur'.

I recently searched the origin of the '-en' plural in OE, as we still can find in 'children' and 'oxen'. I though that it would be piece of cake, that it was a sort of standard OE plural, but no.  To my amazement, such a plural is NOT (standard) Old English. Yet it is the most common plural in (modern and old) Dutch.  So where does this '-en' plural comes from? I eventually found the answer: it is Kentish Old English. There, a lot of words had '-en' as a classic plural. Which brings me again to what I suspected since long: Old English is too uniform to be honest. It is a standardized language with a lot of compromises between the sometimes hugely different occurrences. But even so, not all differences between the various regions could be smoothed out. 

Knowing this fact should entice the specialists to be more cautious when they state something about Old English: the language did NOT reflect the local language like it was spoken. The only language I know which is written as it is spoken is Spanish. All other (European) languages differ written from how they are spoken. Old English was no exception, neither were the continental local languages of the time

This solves your problem, but does not make it more easy.

Best regards,
Michael G.