Tag Archives: English History

Political Intrigue and the English Language

Political intrigue has played a role in shaping the English language. In this post, we will look at one example from history of politics shaping the direction of the language.

Henry VII (1491-1547), King of England, had a major problem. He desperately needed a male heir for his kingdom. In order to do achieve, Henry VIII annulled several marriages or had his wife executed. This, of course, did not go over well with the leaders of Europe as nobles tended to marry nobles.

In order to have his first marriage canceled (to Catherine of Aragon) Henry VIII needed the permission of the Pope as divorce is normally not tolerated in Roman Catholicism. However, the Pope did not grant permission because he was facing political pressure from Catherine’s family who ruled over Spain.

Henry VIII was not one to take no for an answer. Stressed over his lack of a male heir and the fact that Catherine was already 40, he banished Catherine and married his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Much to the chagrin of his in-laws in Spain.

This resulted in the Pope excommunicating Henry VIII from the church. In response to this, Henry VIII started his own church or at least laid the foundation for Protestantism in England, with the help of German Lutheran Princes. It was this event that played a role in the development of the English language

Protestantism in England

Until the collapse of his first marriage, Henry VIII was a strong supporter of the Catholic Church and was even given the title of “Defender of the Faith.” However, he now took steps to flood England with Bibles in response to what he saw as a betrayal of the Catholic Church in denying him the annulment that he sought for his first marriage.

During this same time period of the mid-1500’s William Tyndale had just completed a translation of the New Testament from Greek to English. His translation was the first from the original language into English. Tyndale also completed about half of the Old Testament.

Although Tyndale was tried and burned for translating the Bible, within a few years of his death, Henry VIII was permitting the publishing of the Bible. Tyndale’s translation was combined with the work of Miles Coverdale to create the first complete English version of the Bible called the “Great Bible” in 1539.

With the bible in the hands of so many people the English language began to flow into religion and worship services. Such words as “beautiful”, “two-edged”, “landlady”, and “broken-heart” were established as new words. These words are taking for granted today but it was in translating the phrases from the biblical languages that we have these new forms of expression. How many men have called their woman beautiful? or how many people have complained about their landlady? This is possible thanks to Tyndale’s translating and Henry VIII’s support.

All this happen not necessarily for the right motives yet the foundation of the use of common tongues in worship as well as the audacity of translating scripture into other languages was established by a King seeking an heir.

Conclusion

Henry VIII was probably not the most religious man. He did not have any problem with divorcing or killing wives or with committing adultery. However, he used religion to achieve his political goals. By doing so, he inadvertently influenced the language of his country.

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Disease and the English Language

There are many different factors that have influenced and shaped the English language. In this post, we will look specifically at the role of disease in shaping the English language. We will do this by looking at one example from the 14th century, the Bubonic plague.

Background

During this time period, English was an oppressed second tier language. The French were in control even though they were no longer French due to Philip II of France seizing the Norman lands in Northern France. Normandy was where the French-English came from and their original home was taken from them in 1295. Nevertheless,  with the French in control English was little more than a low-level language in a diglossia context.

Latin was another major language of the country but primarily in the religious sphere. Virtually all priest were fluent in Latin. Mass was and other religious ceremonies were also in Latin.

The Plague

The “Black Death” as it was called, sweep through what is now known as England in the mid 14th century. The disease killed 1/3 of the population of the country. This is the equivalent of almost 2.5 billion people dying today.

The clergy of England were especially hard hit by the dreaded disease. This has to do with the role of the priest in society. The duties of a priest includes visiting the sick (gasp!), anointing the dieing (gasp!), and performing funerals (gasp!). As such, the priests were called on to come into direct contact with those who were suffering under the plague and they began to die in large numbers themselves. Those who did not die often would run away.

The loss of the professionally trained clergy led to replacements that were not of the same caliber. In other words, new priest came along who only knew English and did not have a knowledge of Latin. This meant religious ceremonies and services were now being performed in English and not Latin, not for Protestant reasons but just out of necessity.

So many people died that it also lead to economic chaos. Land prices collapsed as homes of the wealthy were empty from entire families being wiped out. Fewer workers meant wages skyrocketed and this caused people to abandon their feudal lords and work in the towns and cities.

The rich who survived did not care for paying higher wages and tried to force the peasants back to their feudal slavery. This led to the Peasant Revolt of 1381. The rebellion was only crushed when the shrew Richard II spoke to the peasants in English to calm them and then quickly betrayed them.

Richard II was not the first to use English to rally the people. This began in 1295 when Normandy was taken. However, in the context of disease and death, there was a recommitment to the use of English.

Conclusion 

Disease led to economic and political catastrophes in 14th century England. Yet there was also an influence on the language itself. Latin decreased in use due to the loss of clergy. In addition, the French-English were being forced more and more to use English to deal with the unruly locals who wanted more freedom.

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

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.