‘the Story of English’, Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil
First published in 1986 by Faber and Faber Limited, 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU and BBC Publications. A division of BBC Enterprises Ltd, 35 Marylebone High Street, London W 1 M 4AA.
Designed by Julia Alldridge. Typeset by Keyspools, Golborne, Warrington. Colour reproduction by Wensum Graphics, Norwich, Norfolk Printed in Great Britain by W S Cowell, Ipswich, Suffolk. Bound by Butler & Tanner, Frome, Somerset. All rights reserved ÇJ Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil 1986
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data McCrum, ·Robert l. ‘Title The story of English I. English language -Hlistory ISBN o 571 13828 4 (Faber and Faber) ISBN o 563 20247 5 (BBC)
The Mother Tongue
The making of English is the story of three invasions and a cultural revolution. In the simplest terms, the language was brought to Britain by Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes influenced by Latin and Greek when St Augustine and his followers converted England to Christianity, subtly enriched by the Danes, and finally transformed by the French‑speaking Normans.
From the beginning, English was a crafty hybrid, made in war and peace. It was, in the words of Daniel Defoe, ‘your Roman‑Saxon‑Danish‑Norman English’. In the course of one thousand years, a series of violent and dramatic events created a new language which, by the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, was intelligible to modern eyes and ears without the aid of subtitles.
The English have always accepted the mixed blood of their language. There was a vague understanding that they were part of a European language family, but it was not until the eighteenth century that a careful investigation by a gifted amateur linguist began to decipher the true extent of this common heritage.
The Common Source
In the early days of the Raj, Sir William Jones, a British judge stationed in India, presented a remarkable address to the Asiatick Society in Calcutta, the fruits of his investigations into ancient Sanskrit. A keen lawyer, Jones had originally intended to familiarize himself with India’s native law codes. To his surprise, he discovered that Sanskrit bore a striking resemblance to two other ancient languages of his acquaintance, Latin and Greek. The Sanskrit word for father, transliterated from its exotic alphabet, emerged as pitar, astonishingly similar, he observed, to the Greek and Latin pater. The Sanskrit for mother was matar; in the Latin of his school days, it was mater. Investigating further, he discovered dozens of similar correspondences. Though he was not the first to notice these similarities, no one before Sir William Jones had studied them systematically. The Sanskrit language, he announced to the Asiatick Society on that evening of 2 February 1786, shared with Greek and Latin a stronger affinity … than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists
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