Thursday, March 23, 2023

English in the Modern Idiot by Victoria Chatham



I was sorting my way through homonyms, homographs, and homophones, those tricky little similarities that can and do trip up the unwary writer. In case you are unfamiliar with them, homonyms are spelled and pronounced the same way but with different meanings, like the word pen: an enclosed area or a writing tool.

Next are homographs, words spelt the same but with different pronunciations and meanings, as in these two examples. The wind is blowing indicates moving air and rhymes with pinned. I have to wind my watch, which rhymes with find. 

Lastly are homophones, words with the same pronunciation but different spelling and meanings. Do you think it will (rain, rein, or reign) today? Or: Can I come to the park (to, too, two)? Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to insert the correct word. In this, Google is not your friend, as all of them are proper words. If you fail, I promise you will not self-destruct. (Sorry, Charlie.)

The vagaries of the English language are numerous and devious, but how did we get into this mess? English as we know it developed like good wine over time. Going back in history, we would likely not understand a word said then, as a person from A.D.-whatever would be unlikely to understand us today. 

Historians tell us that five invasions of Britain contributed to the development of the English language. The earliest people to inhabit the British Isles were the Celts, an Indo-European group from before the common era. Spreading westward into Southern France, Spain, and Central Europe from as far east as the Black Sea coasts, the oldest evidence of the Celts was found in Hallstatt near Salzburg in Austria. The languages they spoke still survive today in the forms of Gaelic found in Brittany, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and more familiarly, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Although innovative farmers and artisans, the Celts did not have a developed form of writing. We know of them mostly from Greek and Roman historians, who did. Bear with me while I throw a few dates around. The Romans had already made contact with the Celts about 55 B.C. Still, the Roman invasion didn’t begin until later, around A.D. 43. They brought with them not only their road and fort-building skills but their language too, and Latin became the universal language of the time.

The Romans remained in Britain until the fall of their Empire in A.D. 420. When they decamped, Britain and her shores were left undefended. Roll forward to A.D. 450 or thereabouts, and along came the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes who raided the coastal areas but by a couple of hundred years later had settled in different parts of Britain, and guess what? Each tribe had its own dialect. What we now call Old English mostly came from the dialect of the West Saxons, who settled an area in the south of England known as Wessex.

After the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons came Christianity, not a military invasion as such. The religion was not unknown in Britain, but the Anglo-Saxons suppressed it as much as they did the Celtic tribes. That all changed in A.D. 597 with the arrival of St. Augustine, who was determined to Christianize pagan Britain. The monks who inhabited the early monasteries began to record the oral stories of the Anglo-Saxons. This assimilation of Anglo-Saxon oral tradition into the Christian culture led to many words with Latin roots finding their way into common parlance.

Did you think that was it? Sorry, not a bit of it. Next came the Vikings, those invaders from Scandinavia, raiding and pillaging their way around Britain between A.D. 750 and A.D. 1050. Sharing many similarities with the Anglo-Saxons, their language was absorbed into the emerging English language. In addition to their oral traditions, they carved marks into bone, stone, and wood. These marks were called futhark, the runic alphabet.

With me so far? Not to worry, we’re nearly done. So after the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Christians, and Vikings, next came the Normans. I, and every English school kid of my era, knew that the Normans invaded Britain in 1066, dispatching the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Along with William, the Duke of Normandy, forever more known as William the Conqueror, came a new language and culture, adding another layer to those already in existence. The language used in court, government, and the church was now Old French. Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, only existed in the lower orders of society.

Over the next few hundred years, this mix of oral and written history developed into the English language as we know it today, along with our love/hate relationship with its glorious, sometimes messy, grammar. However, we are not done yet. So far this year, no less than twenty new words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, so English as we know it continues to evolve.


Victoria Chatham



  1. I find the evolution of language fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for dropping in Vijaya. Where and how words originated can be a bit of a rabbit hole but fascinating, as you say.

  2. English can be something to make the hair gray.


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