The history of the English language, 100 – 600 CE

We’re looking at the history of English and following the stories that most of our words have followed too. Last time, we’d stopped off at Greek and this time, we move on to Latin.

The Roman empire grew and spread from Italy between 100 and 400 CE taking Latin with it, the Romans took an interesting approach to culture – everyone should be Roman, so Latin was really pressed upon the British people during the Roman occupation. Again religion played a part, this time it was the Christians who were the keepers of the knowledge, as reading and writing in Latin was part of religious training and most common people needed to spend their time working the fields rather than studying religious texts. The knowledge here moved from information that helped with farming (although this was still a part) to more knowledge about governing society and social etiquette (no sleeping with your neighbour’s wife etc). Keeping in favour with the high ups in Christianity became an important part of climbing the social ladder and the way to do this was to practice Christian principles and this included understanding Latin, so if you had aspirations and wanted to do well, you learnt Latin.

In about 400 CE the Roman empire began to fall, and Britain, which was on the edge of the known world, was abandoned in a very short amount of time. With the Roman government and Roman soldiers gone there was a power vacuum in Britain and again people lined up behind local strongmen – a system of kingdoms was formed. The Celts, who has been pushed to Wales, Scotland and Ireland by the Romans tried to regain control of the island and the country was suffering from continuous battles. A few of the English kings had a neat idea, they had come into contact with people from Germanic tribes who were pretty tough and loved to trade, so they hired some of them as mercenaries, they were Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They came over, fought back the Celts and then decided to stay and since they’d done all the fighting, they decided to be in charge – they were known as the anglo-Saxons, they spoke something called ‘Anglo-Frisian’ and they changed the English language considerably, bringing in many of their own words to create what is called ‘Old English’ in around the 600s, this is why most of the English language is based on Germanic words.


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