is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we present the first of two programs
about the history of the English Language.
people are trying to learn English than any other language in the world. English is the language of political
negotiations and international business. It has become the international
language of science and medicine.
International treaties say passenger airplane pilots must speak
is the major foreign language taught in most schools in South America and
Europe. School children in the
Philippines and Japan begin learning English at an early age. English is the official language of more
than seventy-five countries including Britain, Canada, the United States,
Australia, and South Africa.
countries where many different languages are spoken, English is often used as
an official language to help people communicate. India is a good example.
English is the common language in this country where at least twenty-four
languages are spoken by more than one million people.
did the English language come from? Why
has it become so popular? To answer
these questions we must travel back in time about five thousand years to an
area north of the Black Sea in southeastern Europe.
say the people in that area spoke a language called Proto-Indo-European. That language is no longer spoken. Researchers do not really know what it
Proto-Indo-European is believed to be the ancestor of most European
languages. These include the languages
that became ancient Greek, ancient German and the ancient Latin.
disappeared as a spoken language. Yet
it left behind three great languages that became modern Spanish, French and
Italian. Ancient German became Dutch,
Danish, German, Norwegian, Swedish and one of the languages that developed into
English language is a result of the invasions of the island of Britain over
many hundreds of years. The invaders
lived along the northern coast of Europe.
first invasions were by a people called Angles about one thousand five hundred
years ago. The Angles were a German
tribe who crossed the English Channel.
Later two more groups crossed to Britain. They were the Saxons and the Jutes.
groups found a people called the Celts, who had lived in Britain for many
thousands of years. The Celts and the
while, most of the Celts were killed, or made slaves. Some escaped to live in the area that became Wales. Through the years, the Saxons, Angles and
Jutes mixed their different languages.
The result is what is called Anglo-Saxon or Old English.
English is extremely difficult to understand.
Only a few experts can read this earliest form of English.
written works have survived from the Old English period. Perhaps the most famous is called
Beowulf. It is the oldest known English
poem. Experts say it was written in
Britain more than one thousand years ago. The name of the person who wrote it is not known.
is the story of a great king who fought against monsters. He was a good king, well liked by his
as Warren Scheer reads the beginning of this ancient story in modern English.
Spear-Danes in days gone by
kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
terror of the hall-troops had come far.
foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
powers waxed and his worth was proved,
end each clan on the outlying coasts
the whale-road had to yield to him
begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
great invasion of Britain came from the far north beginning about one thousand
one hundred years ago. Fierce people
called Vikings raided the coast areas of Britain. The Vikings came from Denmark, Norway and other northern
countries. They were looking to capture
trade goods and slaves and take away anything of value.
areas, the Vikings became so powerful they built temporary bases. These temporary bases sometimes became permanent. Later, many Vikings stayed in Britain. Many English words used today come from
these ancient Vikings. Words like
"sky," "leg," "skull," "egg," "crawl," " lift" and "take" are from the old
languages of the far northern countries.
invasion of Britain took place more than nine hundred years ago, in ten
sixty-six. History experts call this
invasion the Norman Conquest. William
the Conqueror led it.
Normans were a French-speaking people from Normandy in the north of
France. They became the new rulers of
Britain. These new rulers spoke only
French for several hundred years. It
was the most important language in the world at that time. It was the language of educated people. But the common people of Britain still spoke
English took many words from the Norman French. Some of these include "damage,"
"prison," and "marriage." Most
English words that describe law and government come from Norman French. Words such as "jury," "parliament," and "justice."
French language used by the Norman rulers greatly changed the way English was
spoken by eight hundred years ago.
English became what language experts call Middle English. As time passed, the ruling Normans no longer
spoke true French. Their language had
become a mix of French and Middle English.
English sounds like modern English. But
it is very difficult to understand now.
Many written works from this period have survived. Perhaps the most famous was written by Geoffrey
Chaucer, a poet who lived in London and died there in fourteen hundred. Chaucer's most famous work is "The
Canterbury Tales," written more than six hundred years ago.
"The Canterbury Tales" is a collection of
poems about different people traveling to the town of Canterbury. Listen for a few moments as Warren Scheer
reads the beginning of Chaucer's famous "Canterbury Tales."
that aprill with his shoures soote
droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
bathed every veyne in swich licour
vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
hath in every holt and heath.
listen as Mister Scheer reads the same sentences again, but this time in Modern
April with his showers sweet with fruit
drought of March has pierced unto the root
bathed each vein with liquor that has power
generate therein and sire the flower;
Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
again, in every holt and heath,
tender shoots and buds, and the young sun.
language experts say Geoffrey Chaucer was the first important writer to use the
English language. They also agree that
Chaucer's great Middle English poem gives us a clear picture of the people of
prologue you just heard describes a group of religious travelers going to
Canterbury. To entertain themselves, they agree to tell stories while they
Knight's Tale is about two men who compete for the love of a beautiful woman.
The Miller's Tale is a funny story that tells about a young man who is in love
with a married woman. The two play a mean trick on the woman's old husband.
the most famous characters in the series of stories is the Wife of Bath. She is
a strong, and opinionated woman who likes to talk about her many adventures in
life and marriage.
Some of the people described in "The Canterbury Tales"
are wise and brave; some are stupid and foolish. Some believe they are extremely important. Some are very nice, others are mean. But they all still seem real.
history of the English language continues as Middle English becomes Modern
English, which is spoken today. That
will be our story next time.
program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Shirley Griffith.
is Steve Ember. Join us again next week
to hear the second part of the History of the English Language on the VOA
Special English program, EXPLORATIONS.
Correction: English has not been declared the official language of the United States. This story incorrectly says it has.