Old English: The Dilution Of Language

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

It is known that there are around 6,000 languages and that they keep on changing, and that change results in the production of dialects. It is also known that all the languages of the world and even dialects of all these languages mix with each other. It has been a natural process. So, how did the dilution of Old English start, and what languages mixed with it to bring it to what it is today?

St. Mary's Parish church with an Old English inscription.
St Mary’s parish church, Breamore, Hampshire with an inscription in Old English over the arch of the south porticus. (Image: Hogweard / Public domain)

For a majority of people, mixing on the level of words is the most intuitive way of mixing of languages. In fact, it is just the start, languages mix at the level of grammar also, and a lot. But the beginning is at the level of words. In terms of the vocabulary of the English language, it is a bastard language. People just speak it without thinking about its correctness. But in reality, the vocabulary is an extreme mixture of origins, and word traces back to French, Latin, Dutch, or Greek can be found by checking in a dictionary. It would be an unexpected thing if it traces back to Old English. It can be assumed that to figure out where even the ordinary words of English came from, someone would be taking a long trip to Europe and to some other parts of the world. 

But in reality, in comparison to the people who speak many other languages, this is more common for English speakers. For example, if someone belongs to Poland and checks out in a dictionary, a majority of the time they will find that most of their basic words have originated from the Slavic ancestral language. When seen against French, Dutch, and all these other places, it does not seem all that exciting. With English, people have a specific experience. This is so because out of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is thought to be a relatively representative, comprehensive sample of all the words that there are, it comes out that 99% of them are taken from other languages. That means only 1% of the words have an origin in Old English. But interestingly, these are also 62% of the words that are spoken most. So when thinking about the Oxford English Dictionary, someone can very well think of various words that are there that are not used very frequently. This is all of the levels of vocabulary.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Old English Words

The Beowulf manuscript.
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript with its opening “Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings…”. (Image: Jwrosenzweig/Public domain)

Of the most used words in spoken language, in particular, almost 62% of them belong to Old English. These are words like and, but, father, will fight, love, to, not, should, from. All such words. But the fact is that most of the vocabulary came from somewhere else. So in terms of words, the way English began and where it stands now are two totally different phenomena. So it is not about things like sushi that is fairly obvious. It is known to be a Japanese word. Then, thinking about the word taco. Did the Old English speakers have a word like ‘tachum’ or something similar to that? No, they didn’t. The word taco is borrowed from Spanish.

Then there are words like adjacent. Many people think that this is one of those Latenese words that is often heard. One of those big words. But in reality, it is a much more exhaustive permeation than that. The following sentence can be taken as an example: “Yet the vast majority of our vocabulary originated in foreign languages, including not merely the obvious Latinate items like adjacent, but common mundane forms not processed by us as continental in the slightest.”

In the above sentence, each word that has more than three letters is not from English, not even Old English. So to provide emphasis, it can be highlighted like this: “Yet the vast majority of our vocabulary originated in foreign languagesincluding not merely the obvious Latinate items like adjacent, but common mundane forms not processed by us as continental in the slightest.”

All the words spoken at higher pitch are from foreign languages, But people don’t even think about that. This is how spoiled the English vocabulary is.

Learn more about when humans first acquired language.

The Vikings and Old Norse

But where have these words have come? It is necessary to take a trip into the history of language to understand the layers. Starting in 787 A.D., when the northern half of the island of Britain was taken over by Vikings from Scandinavia, that was the first major incursion. They spoke Old Norse. Old Norse and Old English languages were related closely. Both of these languages were Germanic languages and were related as closely as Spanish and Italian, or even Spanish and Portuguese. They were not the same languages, but they were close. But the Vikings were not speaking Old English. They spoke a different language. Old Norse is in fact, the ancestor of today’s Scandinavian languages like Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, and of course Islandic which is very similar to it. But during that period, there was only Old Norse and these modern languages had not grown yet just like modern English, and that is what the Vikings were speaking.

Vikings ships in Paris in 845 A.D.
This is a depiction of Viking longships besieging Paris in 845. (Image: german histrory magazine/Public domain)

The Vikings did not just come and beat up people. They were brute but comparatively more kind and gentle. So they came and stayed and then married into society and mixed with it. This resulted in numerous Old Norse words being brought into Old English. By one estimate, there were around 1,000 such words. These are the basic things and not the Vikings things. These were the basic words like both, same, get, again, give, and the form are for to be: you are—here are has come from Old Norse, sky, skin. These words are not the original English words. They are originally Scandinavian words. So that was the first time the English language boat was rocked.

Learn more about how language changes—sound change.

Common Questions About Old English

Q: What were dialects of Old English?

There were four main dialects in Old English. They were associated with specific Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. These dialects were—Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon.

Q: During which period was Old English used?

The earliest form of the English language was Old English. It was used in Anglo-Saxon Britain and was spoken and written from c 450 C.E. until c 1150.

Q: Which of the accents of the English language is closest to Old English?

The counties of Gloucestershire, Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall, and Devon constitute the West Country, and their dialect comes closest to Old English. So someone from the West Country would say “I be” in place of “I am”.

Q: Is Shakespeare’s English Old English?

Shakespeare’s English may seem tough and one may say that it needs to be translated to modern English. However, the truth is that Shakespeare’s English is similar to the English of today. It is in no way Old English.

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