So I’m teaching the spelling rule: English words do not end in I,U,V, or J; and my 9 year old says, “What about the word ‘you’? It ends in ‘U’.” To which I automatically responded, “It must not be of English origins.”
Her question stayed with me though, to the tune of me ordering the following books through inter-library-loan.
- The Mother Tongue, English & How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson
- The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil
- Hastings by Philip Sauvain (children’s book on the Norman Invasion of 1066)
Robert McCrum opens his second chapter with this paragraph:
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.
Fascinating stuff to say the least…that our language is the result of three invasions to Britain in the 400’s, 800’s and in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. That last Battle resulted in the use of English being banned in Britain for almost 300 years! This is an exciting concept to present to young ones, from the perspective of what if? What if another country conquored America and said we could no longer speak our native tongue? For hundreds of years, French was the mandated language. Society became two-tiered: Norman nobility spoke French and illiterate peasants continued to speak English.
Knowing that the majority of English was preserved thanks to the lower class, consider the following breakdown in Bryson’s book on pages 54-55:
First the more humble trades tended to have Anglo-Saxon names (baker, miller, shoemaker), while the more skilled trades adopted French names (mason, tailor, painter). At the same time, animals in the field usually were called by English names (sheep, cow, ox) but once cooked and brought to the table, they were generally given French names (beef, mutton, veal, bacon).
According to Bryson, we adopted 10,000 French words as a result of this siege, and three-fourths of them are still in use today. Words such as: justice, jury, felony, traitor, petty, damage, prison, countess, duchess, duke and baron… He points out that nearly all of our words relating to government and ranks of aristocracy are of French origin.
Back to the word, “You.” All our pronouns have germanic roots (Anglo-saxon). In original English, “I” was spelled “ich” and “you” was spelled “euw” which falls right in line with our English standards of pronunciation. During the rule of the Normans (French), they changed what they considered our awkward spelling of “euw” to “you”…so we kept the Anglo-saxon pronunciation, but adopted the Norman-French spelling.
“ich” became “ic” by the Middle Ages, and then “i” by the 1400s. William Caxton brought the printing press over to England in 1476 and he had to choose a version of English to print that would find favor with a huge region with many different dialects. He decided to print “London English”. He decided to capitalize “i”…”I” to make it distinguishable when printing.
Those old printing presses were far from perfect, in fact, a & o and g & q were confused so often from the printing stamp not coming down evenly, that the fix decided upon was to add the fancier swirls: a & g. From printing presses we also get our “upper and lower case” letters. The capitals were stored in the “upper case”, and the others in the “lower case”.
Our English language contains more than 500,000 words, with new ones being added each year. One begins to see the importance of breaking them down into 70 phonograms and 26 spelling rules! And knowing the history and word origins is not only key to winning spelling bees, it’s stimulating!
The above info is just another reason why I love our Spell to Write and Read curriculum by Wanda Sanseri! English doesn’t have to be difficult, it’s something you and yours can get excited about!
Newest book on my wish-list: The Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto