How old is English?




















I thank prof. David Crystal for his book The Stories of English.






[1] AM: O.E. eom "to remain," (Mercian eam, Northumbrian am), from PIE *esmi- (cf. O.N. emi, Goth. im, Hittite esmi, O.C.S. jesmi, Lith. esmi), from base *es-, *s-, the S-ROOT, which also yielded Gk. esti-, L. est, Skt. as-, and Ger. ist. In O.E. it existed only in present tense, all other forms being expressed in the W-BASE (see were, was). This cooperative verb is sometimes referred to by linguists as *es-*wes-. Until the distinction broke down 13c., *es-*wes- tended to express "existence," with beon meaning something closer to "come to be" . O.E. am had two plural forms: sind/sindon, sie and earon/aron (Mercian). The s- form (also used in the subjunctive) fell from use in the early 13c. (though it continues in Ger. sind, the 3rd person plural of "to be") and was replaced by forms of be, but aron (aren, arn, are, from Pgm. *ar-, probably a variant of PIE base *es-) continued and encroached on some uses that had previously belonged to be as the two verbs merged. By the early 1500s it had established its place in standard Eng. Art became archaic in the 1800s.






Dialect evolutions and the British reality


In general we can state that an impulsive language transition of a whole and structured population follows a number of steps:

(1) The population learns the new language and mix it with the old one. A number of original, local words are maintained and introduced into the new language. Once adopted, the sound of the new emerging language is different from the foreign, imposed language.
(2) The new mixed language is consolidated and becomes, locally, a standard.
(3) After a long time, dialects emerge, the standard language diversifies itself.
(4) The increasing centralization of the country creates a new, common language.
(5) This central, 'royal' language imposes itself upon the dialects and becomes the official one. The dialects fade away.

The whole process takes at least 1000 years. An example of step 1 is French: basics and most words are derived from Latin, some old Gallic words remained in use, the sound of French is completely different from Italian. Were important people meet each other, all coming from various parts of a country with different dialects, a compromise language emerges. This happened in all royal courts in Europe in the past. This compromise ‘court’ language later became the official ‘standard’ language. According to the country, some dialects obtained the upper hand within this official language. In France it were the northern dialects of Normandy and Picardie that won the game. Official French is for 80% the result of the merge of both in Paris.

If we accept previous considerations, then we have a problem with Old English.

Let us follow official history for a while: The Anglo-Saxons were few, and remained in the Southeast during the 5th and 6th century. The Midlands were ‘conquered’ later, probably since the middle of the 6th century. 

Suppose that English was introduced in the Midlands by the Anglo-Saxons. To conquer the Midlands the Anglo-Saxons army must have been assembled from the south-eastern regions, which were already under firm Anglo-Saxon dominion. This army must have spoken a multitude of different variants of Anglo-Saxon (some must still have spoken Saxon, Fries, or Jute). Once the conquest of a region finished, the new Anglo-Saxon settlers developed a compromise language, a mixture of the composing ones.

Kingdom of Mercia: core and greatest extent. The yellow region was proto-Welsh.

In 584 the kingdom of Mercia (Midlands, the region around Birmingham) was established. That's 159 years after the first Anglo-Saxon set foot on British soil. The problem is that the kingdom of Mercia wrote old English texts during the eight century with a distinctive dialect. So distinct that the words for Anglo-Saxon ‘he sindt' (they are) were ‘he arun’ ('-un' = plural, with aphonic 'u' / ‘they’ as the third person plural was introduced later from Northumbria). The modern ‘are’ form of the verb ‘to be’ originated from the Mercian dialect. [1]

By contrast, in West Saxon it was ‘(t)he(y) sind’. The use of ‘sind’ or ‘bent’ was common in all early Anglo-Saxon (south+east) regions. It was consistent with the classic German conjugation of the verb ‘to be’. In southwest England people still say: "Yes, we be".
The only equivalent for the ‘are’-form of 'to be' in the nearby German-like languages is in Scandinavia. The closest forms are found in Old Norse, Gothic, Hittite, Old Church Slavonic, Lithuanian [1]. All those language are on the outer edge of Europe, and amongst the oldest. The only way 'are' in English can be explained is to suppose a strong Scandinavian influence.

Following the idea that Anglo-Saxons introduced English, the 'am'-form could only have been introduced into Mercia by Scandinavians whom previously lived in Northumbria. But the Mercian and Northumbrian dialects differ. According to our previous reasoning, 200-250 years after the initial conquest is a much to short time for a dialect to be formed, even if only the tiny Anglo-Saxon upper class spoke the language. There is no text mentioning a massive invasion of Mercia by the people of Northumbria.

We can’t say that Mercia was very isolated in the middle of England. The new rulers must have kept contact with their relatives in the South, East and Southeast for a very long time. Family bonds were very important within the Anglo-Saxons society. It is also known that monks dwelled Britain during the Anglo-Saxon period. Unlikely is that they were the only ones to do so. Merchants and other travelers must have done the same, bringing along their dialects, speaking a language that was understandable for anyone.

The time span (some 200 years between the foundation of the kingdom of Mercia and the first texts) is simply too short for a whole population to learn a foreign (Anglo-Saxon) language, let alone to develop a distinct dialect. As official history states that the local population of Mercia spoke Welsh before the conquest, this dialect didn't emerge from the local population. As the new local upper class would have spoken a compromise Anglo-Saxon language (English), mixing all linguistic elements from the South and East, inventing nothing new, the dialect cannot have its origin from within this upper-class either.

So, we can draw conclusions: or the Britons proved once more to be absolute and exceptional champions in language matters, not only in learning but also in developing a dialect at a record speed, or the official history is wrong.