The Origin of the English Language II

As you will remember from my previous article on the origin of English, it is a close relative of German, even if Present day English does not bear much resemblance to its “cousin”. We must take into consideration that although both languages had a great part of their vocabulary in common to begin with, in the case of English, only 85% of it survived the Norman invasion – above all basic vocabulary -. Now, let’s see some basic similarities.

 

We can find several similarities in lexicon, such as the existence of some words in Present day English and German whose origin can be traced right back to Old English:

OE sprecan / PdG sprechen / PdE speak

OE nū / PdG nur / PdE  now  

OE cū / PdG Kuh / PdE cow 

OE cyning / PrG König/ PdE king

and others whose resemblance to Modern German is patent, while the equivalent terms in Present day English are no longer their descendants:

OE burg / PdG Burg (castle) / PdE fortress

OE beame / PdG Baum / PdE tree

OE þū / PdG du / PdE you

OE oððer / PdG oder / PdE or

OE scīene / PdG schön / PdE beautiful

OE niman / PdG nehmen / PdE take

another similarity which links Old English to Present day German is the prevalence of self-explained compounds:

hydrogen – Wasserstoff (water-stuff), telephone – Fernsprecher (far speaker)

lēohtfæt – lamp-lēoht (lēoht = light, fœt = vessel)

fiellesēocnes – epilepsy (falling sickness)

If we look at its grammar, Old English resembles German more than it does Present day English:  nouns and adjectives have four cases, adjectives have three separate forms, one for each gender, and verb inflection is less elaborate than that in Latin but yet it has distinct endings for person, number, tense and mood, and we can also find a remarkable resemblance since we start studying verb conjugation:

infinitive – bīdan(remain) / present simple, second person singular – bītst, third person singular – bīt(t)

Old English, a synthetic language just like Modern German, contrasts in the most striking manner with Present day English due to the complete absence of inflections in the latter, where this kind of complexity is unnecessary, as it conveys meaning – as an analytic language – through the placing of the words alone, without resorting on inflectional morphemes. As a Germanic language, Old English developed a twofold declension; a strong declension which is used with nouns when they are accompanied by a definite article or similar (demonstrative, possessive pronoun), and a weak declension, used when the noun is preceded by such determinants, which has remained in use in Present day German, whereas in Present day English adjectives bear no inflections at all.

gōd cnæpling- gut Junge

sē gōda cnæpling-der gute Junge

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The origin of the English language I

Within the Indo-European family tree, surviving languages show various degrees of similarity due to their common origin, bearing a more or less direct relationship to their geographical distribution. They fall into eleven different groups: Indian, Iranian, Armenian, Hellenic, Albanian, Italic, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Hittite and Tocharian.

indoeuropean-language-family-tree

Germanic, which antedates the first written records, can be divided into three branches: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

East Germanic comprises languages such as Gothic – which accounts for the first written record of Germanic, in the shape of runes in Scandinavia – Burgundian and Vandalic.

North Germanic, which gave way to Old Norse, or early Scandinavian and from which two branches grow out of dialectal differences; on to the East, developing into Swedish and Danish and the other to the West, developing into Norwegian and Icelandic -the most literary of all, with an important body of heroic literature such as the Elder or Poetic Edda compiled by Snorri Sturluson (12th-13th centuries) -.

edda

Finally, there is West Germanic, to which English belongs, and which separates in High German and Low German due to the operation of the 2nd Sound Shift, by which West Germanic voiceless plosives /p, t, k/ and voiced plosive /d/ changed into other sounds in AD 600 in the southern mountainous Germanic area, but not in the lowlands (North). This phenomenon of unknown origin is often assumed to have its origin in the contact with non-Germanic population due to the migration of foreign tribes into Germanic territory.

Thus, High German is the origin of Rhenish, East Franconian, Bavarian and Alemannic, and Low German divides into Old Saxon (essential constituent of Plattdeutsch), Old Low Franconian (basisfor Dutch and Flemish), Old Frisian and finally, OLD ENGLISH.

map 1

Old English is not entirely uniform, though. It comprises four dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian – each bearing their distinctive features and their common ones -, West Saxon and Kentish. Nearly all Old English literature preserved in manuscripts come from West Saxon, which attained the position of literary standard and was eventually cut short by the Norman invasions, giving way to a standard based on the dialect used in the East Midlands.

map2