In this series for the website I’m doing a series on the history of the English language, looking at the languages in use today and how they evolved over time. So far the series has also discussed the languages of Europe and the countries that developed around them in the fifteenth century. This month’s subject: the English language.
While the world of language has been divided into a vast range of languages, it is in fact a single world language and is spoken by one-twelfth of the world’s people. But why is English the one we are so fascinated with? Is it the one we like – perhaps even feel is the most interesting? Or is it because of a story which has been told, a story which has a special resonance for us?
In early times, while writing was still rudimentary – the earliest written records of Anglo-Saxon are in the 10th century – there seemed to be no distinction in the world of language between the spoken and written worlds. Words were interchangeable, the language of every society was interchangeable – and to speak in an American would have been the same as to speak it in a German.
As people became more sophisticated, using the written word for more and more things, however, the world of language became more complicated.
This had an impact on language in its own right. As a result of changing ideas about language, various groups of people began to use different words when referring to the same objects. In some cases, words became ambiguous, as did the meanings of names and place names. There was no clear standard meaning. In others, words became much less flexible.
The resulting confusion was not easy to clear up. This confusion could be overcome if one could use the same word in multiple ways. The English language had two such words: we and they.
But then came the Renaissance and various theories were put forward that all the words of the language were connected to one entity: the King. In medieval times people were divided into Kings and vassals. In England this was called the common law. It was supposed that if a King used different words in different places, it meant he was breaking the common law. The King of France, for example, should be allowed to use the name of his father as well as the name of his mother. But if he came within a certain distance of the English Channel or the Rhine, then these words had to be changed as well.
The resulting confusion could be overcome by using a single
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