The History of English

Have you ever wondered where our language came from?  The following poem which  I've been asked to post up so very many times... was done as a pechua kucha at IATEFL 2010.  I hope you'll enjoy it:

The History of English
Karenne Joy Sylvester
(cc-sa-nc-nd) 2010

I'm going to take you on a journey through time
from the shores of Friesland
to Norway, Normandy and Ireland.
Raiding Latin, Greek & French
adding new words from new worlds
I'm going to take you on a journey through history
to tell you the story
of our global language.

4000 years ago a movement of people began
travelling west from India
crossing Eurasia
and settling on a cold, wet island.
But it was not these people
nor their language which determined English's fate.
In fact, they left us with few words with which to perpetuate.

In the fifth century,
Germanic warrior tribes arrived 
- like a fury from hell
divvying up the spoils of the departed Roman Empire,
battling the Celts for a hundred years.
In the end,
it was they who made the language theirs.

But Rome came back
this time with a cross instead of spears.
and the missionaries' alphabet
unleashed on us
an intellectual fire
Random signs and symbols
suddenly gave us
and stories
and philosophies
and pushed our imaginations ever higher.

It was English's first
but not its last invader of thought.
There lies a hidden power in words:
they create visual maps in the mind
provide hope, leave memories behind.
In emotions bought
they tell where fears are fought
and lessons taught.

Just as English
had come from over the seas
in the late eighth century, a destroyer gathered his ships
and armies
The Viking warriors tore through our manuscripts
ripping out their jewels
and in multiple raids
threatened to wipe out the languages of this age.

It took a young king -
Alfred the Great -
to defeat the Danes.
He intuitively understood
Guerrilla tactics are no good
and set out to teach the English
sure that unified
they would flourish
When Guthrum came again in 878
the Vikings were made to subjugate.

But some of them stayed
to indulge in trade
leaving us their names in
towns, villages and valleys.
Most of all, they caused
the Great Grammar Shift:
Word endings fell away
Word order in disarray
Prepositions had come to play.

Although Alfred's victory had saved English
Harold's defeat almost annihilated it.
After William was crowned in 1066,
three centuries of French rule followed:
their language
their culture
English spoken by
only those under indenture.

In 1348
a ship docked in Weymouth.
On board, the most unlikely savior
it's cargo
the deadliest of plagues.
The rats scurried East
then North
killing a third
of England's population
Priests, politicians and princes could not be cured.

Those untouched by the Black Death suddenly had leverage.
Wages rose.
Properties fell.
Serfs moved into farms and abandoned mansions.
By the late 14th century, English was the language of the classrooms
appeared before the magistrate,
when Henry the fourth took his crown
the home language was finally resurrected,

the Bible was still in Latin.
A philosopher and theologian
who believed that knowledge belongs to the people
and not to a religion
started his translation
transforming Oxford into
the most dangerous place in all the nation.

The Holy Roman Catholic Church
struck a heavy hand.
Wycliffe's Bible damned.
All were banned.
Were it not for the greatest technological advance of all time:
The Printing Press.
Now even God was on English's side.

A renaissance swept across Europe
bringing with it
a tide of immigrant words.
Zealots arose to protect her
to keep her pure.

But language is a woman who knows no master
and she refused to obey.
Instead, painting herself in the tapestries of thought
she gave birth to a honey-tongued bard.
Shakespeare slammed his words together:
synonyms and antonyms forever to be wed.

But darkness lay ahead.
The American continent conquered,
the people humbled
their lands adopted.
The masters were those of religious philosophies
which condoned the sacrifice of human dignities.
Nothing so singularly characterizes English's abilities
as the absorption of those
they traded and sold.

The rise of the novel began to influence our sense and sensibility.
Suddenly everyone wanted to tell English how to be.
Dictionaries compiled
Grammars written
Coarse words removed
Body parts forbidden.
The language of the street
locked out
Spelling and pronunciation locked in.
Telling others of your class
and the status of your kin.

But then
Sound began to travel through the air
Lights shone brightly
The industrial revolution
put Greek and Latin in cahoots
as new words sprung out from old roots.

English didn't only look backwards,
it reached outwards
Hungry navies trawled the oceans
from Malaysia to Australia
bringing home an Empire's devotions
and... Hong Kong's magic potions.
After colonization grew globalization.

And now,
just as in Alfred's day
we are united
by common words recited.
Through Hollywood, Radio and Television we are delighted.
Poetry reignited
by men who make up words to fit their beats -
the rappers are the Shakespeares of our streets.

Today we google, text
we send out tweets.
We blog and surf on waves
so there are those who fear
who think English will disappear
English is a survivor.
She is a traveller
a trader
a writer
a poet -

English is a warrior.

And if you feel that your students would enjoy reading this and would like to use it in class, here's the link!  The slides, if you'd like to do this as a digital storytelling exercise, can be downloaded from  here.


10 Responses to “The History of English”

  • Brad Patterson says:
    March 22, 2011

    LOVE IT!

    i am such a language-etymology-history geek so I ate this up like gelato! Yummy!

    Looking forward to trying it out in class sometime soon. Thanks for sharing :)

  • Unknown says:
    March 22, 2011

    That guy Harmer had better watch out! I've sometimes found it worthwhile telling some of the story of English to students. It makes a lot of sense to point out the Saxon/Romance linguistic divide, especially to L1 Romance speakers, and this is so much more. Look forward to using it!

    PS Is it as necessary to mention this to German speakers?

    March 22, 2011

    Hi ya Brad,

    Thanks so much for the feedback... I've been so nervous about putting it out there. A PK or reading is so temporary but putting it on the blog makes in permanent and there--- forever to be critiqued.

    Hi Alan,

    Sweet of you :-) actually my German students were unbelievably involved in the production of this poem... my investment bankers group, LOL - I'd mentioned fairly early on that I was going to do a PK which led to talks about what a PK is and then they insisted that I practice with them before IATEFL - my funny guys got so involved in the whole process and told me when the lines didn't make sense, faltered in rythmn and even helped choose some of the photos!

    (And yes I did try to tell them we should focus on investing instead of poetry but they...)

    and of course, all my students just love knowing that English is really German in disguise! LOL

  • Tara Benwell says:
    March 24, 2011

    Yippee! It's here! This is such a work of art. Something tells me this is going to be one of your most popular posts. I understand your nerves, but you made the right decision. As our pal Seth would say, you shipped it! Now take a second bow.

  • Mike Church says:
    March 24, 2011

    Amazing, Karenne! What talent! And I'm very impressed that you managed to get bankers doing a Pecha Kucha.

    As I think I've told you before, I always leave this site a little bit wiser, and today is no exception. I'd never heard of a Pecha Kucha before, among other things. Had to go to Wikipedia!

    OK, here's a challenge for your brilliant students: the history of banking in a haiku?

  • David Warr says:
    March 24, 2011

    This is really great. As Alan says, telling the history of English appeals to many learners, and this is perfect. I love the style, the story, and the endless possibilities for its use in class.

  • David Powell says:
    March 25, 2011

    I was at your Pecha Kucha and found it very moving. It was the highlight of IATEFL for me. Thanks for posting it.

  • Anna Varna says:
    March 25, 2011

    I was in Harrogate too and was looking forward to you posting this too! I actually wanted to ask you this week and I just found out it's already here. Thanks a million but most of all for writing this!

    March 26, 2011

    Thank you for your thank-yous, guys. :-)

  • michellet says:
    May 04, 2011

    Love your poem, history of a language in an accessible form!
    I enjoyed your blosphere event and my class now has a blog!


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