How old is English?





Language borders in Europe


languages around 150 AD

The languages around 150 AD. Note that 'pure' Brythonic was spoken in a 'banana' starting from Bretagne (Brittany) up to the Rhone valley.

Each language was subdivided into strong dialects. Brythonic is proto-Welsh or wrongly called 'Celtic language'. There was no such thing like a Celtic language. The main reason is that the Celtic language existed way before Celtic art was developed and spread. Para-Brythonic is the language spoken in the centre of France. This language was based upon Brythonic but had been intensively influenced by Occitan and German. A bit like modern English is based upon a Germanic language, but 60% of all its words are foreign, mostly of French origin. People who spoke para-Brythonic could not understand Brythonic.

In reality para-Brythonic is a complete mystery. The existence of para-Brythonic is an assumption. We have no texts in this language. Para-Brythonic will change into 'northern Occitan' and later into French. The supposition of the existence of Brythonic and para-Brythonic is partially based upon genetic findings. Both people differ greatly in their genetic markers (Oppenheimer).

The Occitan or Roman language is the real 'Gallic' language. The qualification 'Roman' is misleading as it suggests that the Romans imported the language. That's not the case. Latin was initially just one of the Occitan dialects. The name 'Gallic' referred to the Occitan dialects in northern Italy and southern France.

At the time of Julius Caesar, the Brythonic-Germanic language border was situated to the south of modern Belgium, roughly in the neighbourhood of the Seine river.

Meanwhile in Britain

But the language border did not end at the Channel. In fact, as we continue the line straight over the Channel we find ourselves somewhere around Bristol. From there, it goes almost straight north to Scotland. There is an overwhelming amount of proof that Brythonic was the language of the west, but how sure are we that the east of Britain spoke a similar language? The most logical answer is that those eastern Britons spoke a language, long before the Romans came, that resembled mostly West Flemish (=coastal German). In other words: the language simply continued over the Channel. Eastern Britons spoke a genuine and original Germanic language.

The main problem is to know where English stopped and Brythonic began. We know that language border moved slowly and continuously from east to west. But we realize that it will be very difficult to determine where the language border was at one given time.  But there could be exceptions.

The gap between Old English and Middle English

Written proto-English is called Old English. There is a major difference between Old English and Middle English (medieval English).  What happened? It is simple: Old English was a language that was maintained as an intellectual language by the contemporary upper-class in England: aristocracy and clergy, more specifically: monks. They translated new foreign concepts in new English compound words.

Protected languages translate and even create new words to express a new notion. Unprotected languages simply introduce the word 'as is' and adapt it to the native way of speaking.

To give a fictitious example: the French invented the concept of the dictionary and called it: dictionnaire. The English monks took over the idea but not the word itself. They agreed that it would be 'wordbook'. Sadly, this a fictional example, because the word dictionary exists in English and not 'wordbook'. Compare with Dutch woordenboek and German Worterbuch. Had the dictionary been invented before the Middle Ages, then the chance was not negligible that the English word would be wordbook.

During the Middle Ages, not English but French was the dominant language in England. The reason is the conquest by William the conqueror and the replacement of the old English aristocracy by a Norman one. For 400 years, French was spoken in the House of Lords and not English.  It is only because of the war with France that French became unpopular in the fifteen century and that English was gradually restored as a native language. Sadly, a lot had happened in Europe and England in the mean time and a lot of new notions had emerged.  The English intelligentsia failed to defend the English language for 4 centuries and all intellectual words had become French. Example: I count six words of French origin in the previous sentence and five in this one. The result is a mixed language were almost 50% of all words are of foreign, mostly French, origin. Amazing.

I recall the famous words of G.W. Bush junior, former president of the U.S.A. : "The French have a problem: they have no word for entrepreneur". How ignorant can you be? All underlined words above are of French origin...

Without the conquest by the Normans, the English language would have had a completely different vocabulary. For instance the word vocabulary would be 'wordscat', where 'scat' is an old Germanic word for treasure (and the latter is, yes, French).

Virtually the same phenomenon could be observed in Brussels during the first half of the 20th century. Native Flemish citizens, who had no chance to study (all higher studies had to be done in French in those days), used French words when they needed more 'intelligent' words. For instance, they used the word 'dictionnaire' instead of the Dutch 'woordenboek'. The reason is that most of the intelligentsia and upper-class in Brussels spoke French at the time. Flemish (Dutch) was considered to be a lower-class language or even a non-language. That francophone attitude toward Dutch has changed a lot since Flanders has regained its ancestral wealth. The opposite is now going on. French speaking youth, who study at a Flemish school, use Dutch words in their French language when they need 'intelligent' words.