English Language & Literature The History of English Language - Britain Assignment: Choose a short passage from a Middle English text (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) and identify the origins of...

English Language & Literature

The History of English Language - Britain

Assignment: Choose a short passage from a Middle English text (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) and identify the origins of the words to establish when, and from where, they entered the English Language.  In addition, note any changes in spelling, pronunciation, grammar etc.  that the words have undergone.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The history of English is the history of several peoples. First, the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, who drove out the Britons from the eastern, central, and southern portion of the island that was to be called "Angles' land or England (In fact, the French word for England is this same word: Angleterre/terre=land). Of course, important early conquerors of the island were the Celts, one group who was called the Gaels settled in what is now Ireland. In 55 B.C. the Romans invaded; then came the Anglo-Saxons, then the Vikings, men of Norway and Denmark. There was a second Danish Invasion and then the Norman Conquest of 1066, which had a tremendous impact upon the English language as French became the official language of the king and the court. Since the official documents and the literature was written in French, the influence of this language was great.

Before the reign of Alfred the Great, all important prose was written in Latin. But, after the Normans occupied England, they transformed the English of the Anglo-Saxons. Thus, Old English evolved into Middle English, which brings us to The Canterbury Tales.

One passage that demonstrates the variety involved in the history of the English language is taken from The Wife of Bath's Tale:

Mercurie loveth wisdom and science,
And Venus loveth ryot and dispence.
And, for hir diverse disposicioun,
Ech falleth in otheres exaltacioun;
And thus, God woot, Mercurie is desolat
In Pisces, wher Venus is exaltat
And Venus falleth ther Mercurie is reysed;
Therfor no womman of no clerk is preysed

  • Mercurie is Medieval Latin; Pisces is also Latin, as is Venus
  • dispence is derived from the French verb dispenser and the Latin dispendere.
  • disposicioun is derived from the Latin dispositio
  • Ech (each) comes from Old English (aelc) and Gaelic and Old High German.
  • exaltacioun and exaltat are derived from the Latin verb exaltare
  • woot is a form of the verb wit, which means to know is derived from Old English (wat); which is a cognate of the German verb weiss, and the Old Norse veit.
  • desolat
  • reysed is a derivative of the Scandinavian word reisa and the Old English raeran, to raise.
  • clerk is derived from the Old English clerc, cleric and Latin clericus
  • preysed is derived from the Old French word preisier

Some noticeable changes are in the use of -cioun for what is now -sion or -tion; also, y is used much less in Modern English:  preysed is now praised. Another spelling change comes from the hard /c/ of Latin and French being changed in English to the letter as in the word clerk.  
Verb conjugations have also changed in Modern English from Middle English. i.e. The verb falleth, which is third person singular of the present tense is nowadays spelled falls.

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