I've always been fascinated with words and their origins, wondering where they came from and how they came to mean what they do today. I studied enough Latin in high school, and know enough French, to know where quite a few words of English come from. However, even a quick glance at other words will tell you that there's no way they could have roots going back to either French or Latin. So it didn't come as much of a surprise to learn that English not only has its origins in about a half dozen older languages, but every time it's contacted another language, it's sucked up new words like a vacuum.
Now I had always joked about English being a mongrel language but I wasn't prepared for just how many different cultures had contributed to building the words I work with on almost a daily basis. Watching The Adventure Of English, the four-disc set of the British television show just released by Athena, a division of Acorn Media, was therefore an eye-opening experience. Hosted by British author Melvyn Bragg, the series traces the history of the English language from its roots in the mists of time to the language of mass communication and commerce it's become today. It may not sound like the most thrilling of topics, but in the hands of Bragg the journey is nearly as exciting as any adventure story.
The early history of the English language revolves around a series of invasions of the British Isles that took place over a 500-year period. English as we know it today has its earliest European roots in the North Sea. It was Germanic tribes from the Friesian Islands invading in 500 AD that brought the beginnings of English to Britain. They conquered the native Celts and established kingdoms in the east, west, south, and north of England with only a small enclave of Celts surviving in what is now known as Wales. However those kingdoms weren't to last long as the Danes under their king soon followed and drove the Saxons out of the north and east and established their own holdings there.
Bragg shows us how each of these two initial waves of invaders left their mark upon present day English through offering examples of their tongues presence in today's speech. In the north and east of England, for instance, names that end in "son" — Robinson, Harrison, and Williamson — can be traced back to the Norse tradition of naming people "son of." He also shows how place names have retained traces of the former dominant language. However it was only after peace and trade between the two sets of invaders were established that "Anglo-Saxon" began to thrive (the Anglo comes from the name of one of the Kingdoms, East Angles, which is now known as East Anglia).