Why Study Old English? Part 2

In a recent post I offered you some information about the history of the English language. I explained that in the 11th century, Old English began to lose its genders, conjugations, declensions, and grammatical cases. The great poets and storytellers in Anglo-Saxon England would barely recognize our language today.

In spite of those losses, English is still capable of great subtlety, variety, and beauty. If you know something about the history of our sturdy and vigorous language, you get the sense that English can survive just about anything that comes along.

So – for me, at least –  there’s no reason to panic about texting, slang, and the gradual disappearance of whom, shall, and other grammatical features of our language. Trust me: English is going to be just fine.

Today I’m going to talk about another reason why every writer should know something about the history of the English language. You might be surprised to know that there was a point in English history when our language almost disappeared.

Happily for us, the English language came roaring back, and today it’s studied and spoken all over the world. But there’s a lingering problem that every writer needs to know about.

Here’s what happened. In 1066, William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel and – with the help of a French army – conquered the British Isles. French became the official language of England, and everyone who wanted a good job made it their business to learn French.

Gradually English disappeared from everyday life for most people. Even the kings and queens in England conducted all their business in French. Only the lowest-paid laborers continued to speak English.

Eventually the French army left, and English again became the dominant language of the British Isles. But the Norman Conquest left us with an uneasy sense that French was better than English. After all, French was the language spoken by people who were wealthy and powerful.

You can still hear that uneasiness today. “Residence” (French) sounds fancier than “house” (English). We “express” (French) a feeling instead of “talking about it” (English). The problem is especially noticeable in business writing: “terminate” instead of “end,” “initiate” instead of “begin,” “facilitate” instead of “help” – you see this pattern everywhere.

The truth is that French words aren’t better than English ones. (I just wrote “aren’t inherently superior” – and crossed it out! I’d better practice what I’m preaching today.) A sentence written entirely in English often has more clarity and power than one clogged with French and Latin imports. Why say “Extinguish the illumination” when what you really mean is “Turn out the lights”?

English is a wonderful language! Let’s use it as much as possible. The next time you’re tempted to trot out a fancy French word, please pause for a moment. Could you substitute a plain and familiar English word that would do the job perfectly well?

                         William the Conqueror

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