There comes a point for many new readers where they discover: THIS WORD DOESN’T FOLLOW THE RULES I LEARNED. The reader either throws herself writhing on the floor (if youthful enough to get away with it) or designs a snarky meme that trends on Pinterest. These memes contrast aspects of English and announce, “See? English makes no sense! Stop trying to understand it!”
This offends my inner language nerd and makes my inner educator twitch. Actually, there IS a reason English did the thing. You just don’t know it yet. Go find out, peasant.
In any case, to quote a less nasty meme, English doesn’t borrow words from other languages. It follows them down dark alleys and goes through their pockets for loose grammar. That ruthless magpie-collector nature, my friends, is why every rule in English has exceptions, and you have to be okay with this in the depths of your soul. The exceptions are where history waves at you from across the years. I’ve developed some empathy for English by learning its life story.
Like Any Superhero, English Has an Origin Story
The Roman Britons, Boudicca and that crowd, did not speak English. They spoke a Celtic language, similar to Welsh. Then, when Rome officially withdrew from Britain in 410 AD, Germanic invaders wandered in. The Venerable Bede tells us they came from three tribes: the Saxons, the Jutes, and the Angles. The Saxons did math, the Jutes made rugs, and the Angles used protractors.
Actually, no. I am making that part up.
But they did bring the language we call Old English. The Old English word “wealh” means “foreigner” or “Welshman” or “servant,” which tells you exactly how much respect the native British language maintained once the invaders settled in. A wealh-nut, or walnut, is a nut that only a Welshman would eat.
Old English is basically incomprehensible to us. I appreciate the Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf because it has the Old English printed on the opposite page, so you can glance back and forth and say, “Yup, that needed translating.”
Old English overflowed with word endings. Old English had declensions, or word-families, each with its own set of endings to show “case”; what it was used for. Nouns also had gender, which Modern English basically does not. My Guide to Old English lists 18 forms for the word “the,” with some duplicates, but not counting regional/dialect spellings. Verbs likewise came in a cheerful assortment of “strong” or “weak,” with subcategories and endings and internal vowel changes everywhere.
Then Vikings Made Us Speak French?
Then the Vikings came. They raided and then they stayed. When they came, they brought their Old Norse with them. A lot, a lot, of our ordinary everyday words are descended from the Scandinavian version of the word instead of the Old English version—words like sister, egg, cake, and window. This language mixing was more a thing in Scotland and Northern England, where more of the Vikings landed, but it changed English throughout Great Britain.
Then the French Vikings, also known as Normans, came over in 1066. They brought Frenchified Latin, because of course they did, and all the cool people spoke French for the next few hundred years. French never totally displaced English in the way that Old English replaced the Celtic languages, but it did toss vast heaps of Latin and Latin-descended words into everyday use. I don’t think it was until the Hundred Years’ War with France that English became socially respectable again. Meanwhile, of course, all the educated people used Latin, just like they had since Julius Caesar and would until after the Reformation.
Old English Gives Up, We Switch to Middle English
It’s around the Norman invasion that we divide Old English from Middle English.
Ordinary English users apparently decided their grammatical abundance was ridiculous, especially since they had to learn French and Latin cases too now, so Middle English started economizing. Most of the words got regularized. Now in Modern English, we have one case ending for nouns: an S. We use it for plurals and possessives. The weird forms of words we have—such as “man,” which has a plural of “men”—are mostly leftovers from Old English.
Middle English underwent a massive change in pronunciation, ominously called the Great Vowel Shift. They shifted right after spelling and vocabulary had been loosely agreed on and matched up with Latin spellings, about the time of the printing press, which was terrible timing. English is constantly changing anyway, and loan words start following the rules of sound-changes from whenever they enter the language and not according to where they logically should go, so a lot of untidiness occurred and is still occurring.
So whenever someone complains about a word, I usually blame the Great Vowel Shift and go Google it, and more often than not, that’s true!
In Conclusion, Pillage Everything
So, what other use is this history? Well, it helps me read dictionary etymologies. Take the word “pan,” an ordinary cooking pan. Merriam-Webster.com and dictionary.com relate it to the Middle English “panne” from the Old English “panne.” It’s used before 1200 or before 900 AD, respectively, so is solidly in the Old English timeframe. It’s from Old English, not Old Norse, so apparently if there was an Old Norse twin-word, the Old English won out. I notice it’s a humble word, so it didn’t get replaced by a Norman word. I also observe that the Old English “-ne” suffix fell off in the Middle Ages.
Finally, I like knowing enough English to give the girls an answer when they have a teachable moment. Meg asked last week why a “W” is called a “double-U” instead of a “double-V,” and I was able to make an educated guess. I think it has to do with the fact that U and V used to be interchangeable—instead of using them for different sounds, they used V at the beginning of words and U in the middle of words, and both worked for both sound values. Later, they divided the sounds between the two letters. I’m guessing that a W originally was two U’s typed next to each other.
Oh, and the word “peasant?” That’s a Norman-English word, first noted down in the 1400s. Very useful.
Photo Credit: Graphic design by Charity Klicka.
 The real facts, including the quote from Bede, are from Charles Barber, The English Language, pages 100-103. He is reputable, and it’s not his fault I brought imaginary rugs into the discussion.
 Grammatical gender is not the same as gender of the thing being discussed. Exasperatingly.
 A Guide to Old English, sixth edition, by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, page 18.
 Barber, pages 130-133.