Invasion and occupation by the Romans (AD43 – AD410), the Anglo-Saxons (from north-western Europe, AD410 – AD800), the Vikings (800 – 1066) and William the Conqueror’s Normans (1066) all left their mark on Britain and its languages.

In the northern and western extremes of Britain, where these immigrant tribes did not reach, local languages were able to develop relatively uninfluenced. Most notably, these were Cornish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.

But in the east and south of the country, the languages of all these invading peoples had a profound effect upon the native dialects.

Latin gave English some of its more complex, multi-syllable words – for example, ‘litigation’, ‘ultimatum’ and ‘agenda’.

Old Norse, brought by the Vikings, gave English words such as ‘window’ and ‘egg’ (as well as the ‘…by’ ending of place names often found in northern and eastern England – Wetherby, Selby and Grimsby, for example).

And English ‘borrowed’ many words from Old French. In fact, approximately 40% of all words in English – at least 30,000 – are derived from French.

Old English was made up of four main dialects: Mercian and Northumbrian, which were sometimes referred to as Anglian and were largely in use in the north of the country, while Kentish and West Saxon prevailed in the south.

Old English evolved into Middle English between the time of the Norman Conquest and the mid-to-late 15th century. This was influenced by the introduction of the printing press to England in the 1470s by William Caxton and also the literary work of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), who is often credited as the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of English as a native language in its own right.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge provided two points of the most dominant triangular area of England at this time – the third point being London. And within this area, the south-east-midlands version of the Anglian dialect (the dialect of London) emerged to become the precursor of modern Standard English.

Today, among numerous local accents and dialects which still prevail across the country, Received Pronunciation (or ‘RP’) and Standard English are accepted as the dominant standards of spoken and written English (for example, these have at times become known as ‘BBC

English’).

It is worth noting that, as you can tell, the English language is continually changing and evolving. You need only refer to the latest technology to see the most recent linguistic changes (this subject is covered in greater depth in another article on this website) – mobile phones have brought text messaging which in turn has brought its own language (for example, ‘txt spk’ = text speak. You get the idea).

And as language changes, two schools of thought emerge: prescriptive and descriptive.

Prescriptive ideas suggest that language should have set rules which must be followed, regardless of the inevitable change.

Descriptivists, however, look at the way language is actually used by its speakers and then create rules accordingly. These people accept regional differences in language and also forms used in speech that prescriptivists would describe as errors (such as saying, “We was walking…” rather than “We were walking…”, which is merely a form of regularizing a verb, making “We was” the same as “I was” and “You was” and so on).

Who is right? Who knows. What I suggest is this: know the rules and maybe stick to them as best you can. But if you want to break them because something sounds better or looks better, then do so. Your ultimate aim must always be to communicate with clarity, brevity and impact.

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