How old is English?

























in France..

Populations who adopt a new language are likely to have no dialect (merely a ‘variant’) during the first centuries. Examples in France are Brittany (were the old Gallic language survived beyond the Middle-Ages), the Alsace (previously German - French since 1630) and Corsica (became French around 1770). People in Corsica for instance speak today a language that is very close to the tongue of Paris, in other words: it’s official French. There is no relation with the dialect of nearby Marseille.




Dialects and imported languages


Imported languages


The English language, as used today in Australia, can be traced to its earliest colonisers. It is known that the British stuffed the colony with criminals. This lower class English is still very much present in the local language. Australians use words like ‘mate’ which are shunned by the (upper-class) British.
Similar is the distinction between Belgian French and French French. Officially there is no distinction, but the reality is different.  French speaking Belgians have a slightly divergent pronunciation and use some expressions they learned from the Flemish. These characteristics can be found in the respective former African colonies.  Example given: the black Africans in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo – former Belgian Congo) still speak French with a Belgian accent and use the typical Belgian-French expressions. 

My point is: when a language is imported, then it can be traced to the people who imported it. 

This means that, if one supposes that English was imported by Angles, Saxons, Fries and Jutes, that those respective languages should be traceable in England. We know that there was not one single version of Old English, but that there are several ones, and each of them can be attributed to an English region. Some Old English texts should resemble (pick one) Old Saxon, Old Fries, Old Norse (= also Old Danish), etc.  One can suppose for instance that the oldest texts from Sussex (= South Saxonia) should bear a resemblance to continental Old Saxon.  Perhaps one can state that the names of those old kingdoms do not necessarily reflect the majority of its conquerors. But at least, some old English texts should have some resemblance with some old texts of some regions in northern Germany. At least, that was supposed. That was to be expected. But is it?

In fact, Hans Frede Nielsen wrote in 1979 a paper "The Old English Dialects and the Continental Germanic Languages" in which he tried to demonstrate the existence of linguistic links between the old continental Germanic languages and their local British counterparts. Example: is the Old English variant of Wessex (West-Saxonia in England) really closely related to Saxonia in Germany?
After an assiduous study Nielsen should have discovered some strong indications in a number of language details, called innovations. But to his great surprise Nielsen came to exactly the opposite conclusion: no link between regional Germanic variants in Britain and their continental homologues could be demonstrated, au contraire. He was unable to show for example that Wessex was populated by Saxons or that east Anglia was by Angles and so on. He found a complete chaos. For instance, Northumbria is reputed to be conquered by Angles, but local language innovations do not refer to north Germany (where the Angles came from) but instead refer to Old High German (south Germany) and Old Flemish.  No logic whatsoever could be found. The Old English dialect behaved fully independently from the Continent. For me, this all points in one direction only: English evolved independently way before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. Sadly, this highly important paper was superbly ignored. Actually, Nielsen himself was sorry.

Dialects: general considerations

The study of dialects is a relative recent science. It’s only the last 50 years or so that it is taken seriously. Before that time, dialects were ‘not considered worth to be studied’.

As this science is so young, there is little consensus even about the definition of what a dialect is, or when a local tongue can be considered to be a dialect. The boundary between a dialect and another language is also not clearly defined.
Some linguists consider the major Scandinavian languages like Norwegian, Swedish and Danish as dialects of each other. Officially they are distinct languages.

The distinction has until today more to do with politics than with objective criteria.

South-Afrikaans was considered until 1926 to be a form of Dutch. Since then, it is supposed to be a derived, but distinct language. South-Afrikaans speaking people can understand easily official Dutch, and Dutchmen need little time to adapt to the South-African language.

Is American English a dialect of Standard English? Most scholars believe that there is little to distinct both tongues.
A softer type of dialect is ‘variant’, so American English can be considered as a variant of English.

One of the most used criteria is whether both people do understand each other without great difficulties. The fact is that Americans have no trouble at all in understanding British English. On the other hand is West-Flemish regarded as a dialect of general Dutch. But people from Holland, for instance Amsterdam, can by no means understand what the West-Flemish are saying to each other. They almost would understand general German better.

Up to how far is West-Flemish a dialect and not a separate language? Little is known about the mechanism of the emergence of dialects. Most scholars will however agree that 2 conditions are important: isolation and time. South-Afrikaans is a good example: it is relatively old (± 400 years) and was pretty isolated. But as we saw, the distinction with official Dutch is smaller than with some Dutch sub-languages such as Fries or West-Flemish. Point of fact is that these are not dialects but distinct (sub-) languages. West-Flemish is said to be a dialect until now for political reasons. Confused? You should be. UNESCO declared West-Flemish to be a distinct language.

Time is the most important condition to form a dialect. The more dialects there are within a language group, the older this group is. For Dutch with its official 29 dialects, this means: very old, some 6000 years at least. English is most probably not much younger.

By comparison, France has much less dialects. It is true that French is a relative young language as it has originated from 'northern Occitan-Romance' (mixed with its official dialect: Latin). We can state that French is ‘only’ some 1400 years old.

We should also not confuse a dialect with a poor knowledge of the language. People who do not use English as their primary language have sometimes an accent, make errors, but this cannot be judged as a dialect.