Category Archives: English History

English Language and the Church

The English language during the middle ages had a serious struggle with the church of its time. Church officials supported that the bible should only be published in Latin. This led to a large number of people having no idea what was happening during a worship service. Even though church attendance was mandatory.

One response to this problem was the development of “mystery plays.” These were theatrical performances based on the bible. The topics ranged from Genesis to Revelation and were performed in local languages. However, watching pseudo-movies and reading the text for yourself are widely different experiences.

This post will look at the role of several prominent people’s response to the suppression of English in religious text.

John Wycliffe

The lack of scripture in the English language led to John Wycliffe translating the Latin Vulgate into English. Naturally, this was illegal and Wycliffe faced significant trouble over doing this. Despite this, his translation was one of the first translations of the bible into what was called at the time a “vulgar” language.

Wycliffe’s translation was not from the original text but rather from the Latin. This means it was a translation of a translation which nearly destroys the comprehensibility of the text.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale attempted to deal with the challenges of the Wycliff translation by translating the bible from the original greek and Hebrew. Tyndale’s translation heavily influences the English language as he literally had to create words to capture the meaning of the text. Such phrases as “scapegoat”, “sea-shore”, and “my brother’s  keeper” were developed by Tyndale to communicate ideas within the bible.  For his work, Tyndale was put to death.  It took him about

Naturally, many were not happen with what Tyndale had accomplished. For his work, Tyndale was put to death.  It took him about four years to complete his work

King James Bible

However, the move away from Latin to English was made complete with the development of the 1611 King James bible. The KJV is named as King James the I of England who sponsored the translation of the bible for political reasons.  By the 17th century, there were so many versions of the bible that scholars wanted a definitive translation and King James I sponsored this.

Over fifty scholars worked on this translation for five years. Despite all this work, the 1611 KJV is 60-80% based on Tyndale’s work a century prior. This makes Tyndale’s work all the more amazing that he did the work of 50 scholars in the same amount of time. From this moment English became know as the language of the preacher

Conclusion

The role of English in religious matters today is due in part to the work of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the scholars of the KJV. Their efforts led to supplanting Latin as the language of worship while also contributing many idioms to the English language

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Post Norman Conquest Decline of the French Language

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, French dominated England for three hundred years. The decline French can be traced to at least two main reasons, which are…

  • War/politics
  • Disease

This post will examine briefly the role of these two phenomena in shaping the decline of the French language in England as well as the reemergence of English.

War/Politics

The King of Normandy was also the King of England. In 1204, John, King of Normandy and England, lost his Norman territory to the King of France. This left a large number of Norman nobles living in England with any property back in France unless the swore allegiance to the King of France, Philipp II. The consequence of forced loyalty was the development of an English identity among the elite.

In 1295, Philip IV, King of France, threaten to invade England. Edward I, King of England, communicated with the people in English in order to unite the people. While speaking to the people in English, Edward I stated that Philip IV intended to destroy the English language. When the French invasion never came, Edward set aside his use of English

Disease

In the mid-1300’s, the Bubonic plague spread through England and wipe out 1/3 of the population. The plague was particular hard on the clergy killing almost 1/2 of them and removing the influence of Latin on English. The replacement clergy used English.

The loss of so many people allowed English-speaking peasants to take over empty homes and demand higher wages. The price of land fell as there was no one to work the fields nor was there as much demand for products with so many dead. The bonds of serfdom were severely broken.

When the nobility tried to push the peasants back onto the lands as serfs, it led several revolts. When communicating both the nobility and peasants used English. The nobility used English to make promises that were not kept and destroy resistance their rule.

Aftermath

Through war and disease, English rose to prominence again. By the 1400’s English was the language of education and official business. In 1399, Henry IV was sworn in as king with the use of the English language. After three centuries of oppression, the English language emerged as the language of the elite as well as the commoner again.

Norman Conquest and the English Language

The year 1066 is highly significant in the English language. This is the year that William, the Duke of Normandy, conquer most of what today is known as Great Britain. The effects of this upon the English language was significant.

Background

As a background, when the King of England, Edward the Confessor died, he named William, the duke of Normandy, as King of England. Edward was childless but his mother was from Normandy, which is located in France.  As such, the English court was already full of French speaking Normans as Edward’s supporters.

Naming a Norman to the throne of England did not sit well with one Edward’s biggest rivals, Earl Harold Godwineson. Harold quickly led a rebellion against Willam but was defeated and William of Normandy became known as William the Conqueror and was crowned King of England Christmas day of 1066

Aftermath

Over the next three centuries under French rule, the English language was invaded by as many as 10,000 French words. Such words as “city”, “bacon”, “biscuit”, and “felony” to name a few. The English court quickly became a French court.

The English court quickly became a French court. All positions of power were taken by Normans. This was not only because of conquest but also because most of the English nobility and leadership were killed in the Battle of Hastings.

The only way to get ahead in this context was to learn French and leave English in the home. In many ways, French became a high language and English was relegated to a low language almost as a diglossia situation. English was the language of the poor and French of the elite. Most documents during this time were produced in French and even written English was pushed aside.

The division by class has led some to allege that this kept English alive. This is to say that the rich and the poor had their own separate languages and both work to preserve their own manner of communication.

Conclusion

War is yet another factor to consider when looking at the development of a language. Even without intending to do so William the Conqueror made a major impact on the English language simply by sticking to his mother tongue of French when he took the English throne. To this day, loan words from French play a major role in communication in the English language.

The Beginnings of English

What we now know as English today has a long and complex history. With any subject that is complex, it is necessary to pick a starting point and work from there. For this post, we will date the origins of English from the early 5th century.

Early History

English was not born in England.  Rather, it came to England through the invasion of Germanic warriors. These “barbarian” hoards push the indigenous Celts and Britons almost into the ocean.

However, it was not only war and conquest that brought English. The roots of English arrived also in the immigration of farmers. Either way, English slowly grew to be one of the prominent languages of England.

In the late sixth century, the Roman Catholic Church came to England. This left a mark on English in the various words taken from Latin and Greek. Such words as “angels”, “pope”, and “minister” all arrived through the Catholic Church.

Vikings and Alfred the Great

By the 8th and 9th century the Vikings were invading lands all over Europe. It was the Danes in particular that almost wiped out the inhabitants of England. However, thanks to the craftiness of Alfred the Great the Danes were defeated and their leader Guthrum was so shocked at Alfred’s comeback victory that he was baptized and became a Christian.

Alfred set to work using the English language to unite the people. He supported education in the English language and the use of language in general. Furthermore, to try and prevent future conflicts with the Danes, Alfred gave them some territory called “Dane Law” where they could live. Naturally, staying in the area meant that the Danish language had an effect on English as well.

Alfred also supported religion. Thanks to the Viking invasions, there was almost no priest left in the entire country. Alfred could barely find a priest who could read Latin. Without religious scholarship, there could be no passing on of religious teachings. This lead Alfred to encourage the translation books in other languages (like Latin) into English.

Conclusion

The story of English is not one continuous rise to prominence. There were several experiences of up and down as the language was in England. For example, there was a time when the French language almost overran the country. Yet this is a story for another day.