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When Does English Become English?

Gennaio 2020
La volontà dell’Oxford English Dictionary di registrare la lingua e documentarne l’uso nei secoli dovette fare i conti con una difficile decisione: in che momento la lingua parlata nelle isole iniziò ad essere l’“inglese”?

di Sarah Presant Collins

Alec Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare
Alec Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare

The ambitious idea behind the Oxford English Dictionary is to record the English language in its totality, from the first known use of a word in English until now. But that raises the tricky question: When does the English language begin?
The English we speak today is a wonderfully rich mixture of words derived from Old English — also known as Anglo-Saxon, the language brought to Great Britain by Germanic tribes who migrated to the island from continental Europe sometime in the mid-5th century—, Scandinavian languages, Latin, Anglo-Norman (or Old French), Celtic languages and many more. How many centuries back do we have to go to find the point at which English became English?
The OED editors decided to draw the line where so-called Old English becomes Middle English — a form of the English language spoken after the Norman conquest in mid-eleventh century until the late 15th century. For the third edition of the dictionary, which is currently in progress, the editors have dated this change to 1150. In theory, then, that’s how far back the dictionary goes. But in fact there are plenty of references that go back to Old English words to help explain etymologies.


How different was Old English from the language we speak today? Here’s an example from Beowulf, a poem written in Old English in the eighth century. This is from the original text:  “ða wæs on morgen mine gefræge ymb þa gifhealle guðrinc monig. ” And this is a loose translation into Modern English (from the 15th century CE to the present): “The next morning many soldiers came to the banqueting hall.” It doesn’t look at all similar!
Grammatically, Old English was much more complicated than Modern English. For a start, all nouns were either masculine, feminine or neuter, like in German. So, for example, ‘mann’, meaning ‘person’ was masculine; ‘?iefu’ meaning ‘gift’ was feminine; and ‘w?f’ meaning ‘woman’ was, rather confusingly, neuter.


During the period of Middle English, which lasted from approximately 1150 to 1500, there was a gradual simplifying of the English language. By the late 1300s, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous story collection The Canterbury Tales, the language looked much more like Modern English. Here’s an example from the beginning of The Canterbury Tales in which the narrator explains that he’s going to describe each of the pilgrims travelling to Canterbury with him. This is the original text: “to telle yow al the condicioun / Of ech of hem, so as it semed to me.” And this is a literal translation into Modern English: “to tell you all the condition / Of each of them, as it seemed to me.” Pretty similar really.


The OED aims to include every meaning of every word in the English language. That includes meanings that words used to have but which have now changed. When I spoke to writer Simon Winchester about his fascination with the OED (see interview page 26), he used the word ‘sophisticated’ to illustrate how meaning can change dramatically over time. In Modern English a sophisticated person is cultured and knowledgeable; a ‘sophisticated computer programme’ is advanced and complex. So, today, ‘sophisticated’ has a positive connotation. But the OED shows that in 1850, ‘sophisticated’ meant “diluted or adulterated”. For example, sugar could be sophisticated with sand. So, at that time ‘sophisticated’ clearly had a negative connotation. Although that negative meaning is now obsolete, it remains in the OED. There are thousands and thousands more examples like this.


If you’re still prepared to risk a vertiginous descent through the history of English, can I suggest we start by browsing the OED for the simple noun ‘book’. Within seconds we will have travelled through the centuries via spellings like ‘booke’, ‘buik’ and ‘bogke’, all the way back to the ‘boecum’ of Anglo-Saxon Times. After an etymological tour of Scandinavia, we’ll land in Friesland (Holland) with the word ‘b?k’. Ready to dive in? 



Some exceptions explained

Plurals in Old English were formed in various ways but not by simply adding an ‘s’ as they usually are now. In fact, some of the strange, irregular plural forms that still exist in Modern English go back to Old English. The plural of the Old English word ‘mus’ (mouse) was ‘mys’ (mice); the plural of ‘t?þ’ (tooth) was ‘t?þ’ (teeth).
Don’t be alarmed by the strange symbol ‘þ’ on the end of ‘t?þ’ and ‘t?þ’. It’s not a ‘p’ it’s a rune (a bit like in Games of Thrones) and represents the sound “th”. It should probably be mentioned here that from the 8th century, the Old English alphabet was more or less the same as the Latin alphabet that we use today but had four additional letters; ‘þ’ was one of them. Before that, Anglo-Saxon was written entirely in runes.

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