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The Making of English
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The Making of English

by Henry Bradley

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Deeply educational yet not overwhelming, this compact culmination of a philological life uses nontechnical terms to explain the links between English and other tongues — Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, and French.


Deeply educational yet not overwhelming, this compact culmination of a philological life uses nontechnical terms to explain the links between English and other tongues — Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, and French.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books on Language Series
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The Making of English

By Henry Bradley

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12255-7




An Englishman who begins to learn German cannot fail to be struck by the resemblance which that language presents to his native tongue. Of the words which occur in his first lessons because they are those most commonly used in everyday conversation, a very large proportion are recognisably identical, in spite of considerable differences of pronunciation, with their English synonyms. The following examples will suffice to illustrate the remarkable degree of similarity between the vocabularies of the two languages: Vater father, Mutter mother, Bruder brother, Schwester sister, Haus house, Feld field, Gras grass, Korn corn, Land land, Stein stone, Kuh cow, Kalb calf, Ochse ox, singen to sing, hören to hear, haben to have, gehen to go, brechen to break, bringen to bring, gut good, wohl well, grün green, hart hard, blind blind, ich I, wir we, selbst self, hier here, unter under, bei by, vor be-fore. At a very early stage of his progress, the learner will find himself able to compile a list of some hundreds of German words which have an obvious likeness to the English words with which they agree in meaning.

In addition to these resemblances which lie on the surface, there are many others which can only be perceived by the help of a knowledge of the general laws of correspondence between German and English sounds. A few of these general laws may be mentioned by way of illustration. An English t is usually represented in German by z, tz, or ss; an English th by d; an English p by pf or f; an English d by t; and an English v in the middle of a word by b. There are similar laws, too complicated to be stated here, relating to the correspondence of the vowels. By the study of these laws, and of the facts that are known about the history of the two languages, scholars have been enabled to prove the fundamental identity of a vast number of English words with German words which are very different from them in sound and spelling, and often in meaning. Thus, for example, Baum, a tree, is the same word as the English 'beam'; Zaun, a hedge, is our 'town' (which originally meant a place surrounded by a hedge, a farm enclosure); Zeit, time, is our 'tide'; drehen, to turn, wind, is our 'throw,' and the derivative Draht, wire, is our 'thread'; tragen, to carry, is our 'draw'; and so on.

But it is not merely in their stock of words that English and German have a great deal in common. In their grammar, also, they resemble each other to a very remarkable extent. Our way of forming the genitive by adding s is paralleled in many German words: 'the king's house' is in German'des Königs Haus.' The syllables -er and -est are used in both languages to form the comparatives and superlatives of adjectives. In the conjugation of the verbs the similarity is equally striking. 'I hear,' 'I heard,' 'I have heard' are in German ich höre, ich hörte, ich habe gehört; 'I see,' 'I saw,' 'I have seen' are ich sehe, ich sah, ich habe gesehen; 'I sing,' 'I sang,' 'I have sung' are ich singe, ich sang, ich habe gesungen; 'I bring,' 'I brought,' 'I have brought' are ich bringe, ich brachte, ich habe gebracht. Our 'thou singest' is in German du singst.

The explanation of these facts is not that English is derived from German or German from English, but that both have descended, with gradual divergent changes, from a prehistoric language which scholars have called Primitive Germanic or Primitive Teutonic. Low German or Plattdeutsch, the dialect spoken (now only by the common people) in 'Low' or Northern Germany, is much more like English than literary High German is; and Dutch and Frisian resemble Low German. The Scandinavian languages, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, are also of Germanic (or Teutonic) origin; and so is Gothic, a dead language known to us chiefly from a translation of portions of the Bible made in the fourth century.


But while modern English and modern German have so many conspicuous traces of their original kinship, the points of contrast between the two languages are equally striking and significant.

In the first place, the grammar, or rather the accidence, of German is enormously more complicated than that of English. The German noun has three genders, which in many instances have no relation to the sex of the object signified, or to the meaning or form of the word. Kopf, head, is masculine, though the synonymous Haupt is neuter; Hand is feminine, but Fusz, foot, is masculine, and Bein, leg, is neuter; Weib, woman, and Mädchen, girl, are neuter. The foreign student of English has no such difficulties to encounter. Properly speaking, we have no 'genders' at all: we say 'he,' 'she,' or 'it' according to the sex, or absence of sex, of the object to which we refer. English nouns have only one case-ending, the s of the genitive; and practically only one mode of forming the plural, as the few exceptions can be learned in half-an-hour. German nouns have four cases, and are divided into several declensions each with its own set of inflexions for case and number. The English adjective is not inflected at all; the one form good corresponds to the six German forms gut, guter, gute, gutes, gutem, guten, the choice of which depends partly on the gender, number, and case of the noun which is qualified, and partly on other grammatical relations. In conjugating an English verb, such as sing, we meet with only eight distinct forms, sing, singest, sings, singeth, sang, sangest, singing, sung; and even of these, three are practically obsolete. In the conjugation of the German verb singen the number of distinct forms is sixteen.

In addition to these differences in the grammatical systems of the two languages, there are others no less noteworthy which relate to the character of their vocabulary.

We have already pointed out that of the English words which occur in familiar conversation, the great majority are found to exist also in German, with certain regular variations of form due to the difference in the sound-systems of the two languages. If, however, instead of confining our attention to that part of the language that serves the needs of everyday life, we were to examine the whole English vocabulary as it is exhibited in a dictionary, we should find that by far the greater number of the words have no formal equivalents in German, being for the most part derived from foreign languages, chiefly French, Latin, and Greek. It is true that many of these non-Germanic words are very rarely used; still, if we take at random a page from an English book which treats of history, politics, philosophy, or literary criticism, the majority of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs are usually of foreign etymology. An ordinary page of German, on the other hand, contains very few words that are not derived from native roots. German, in fact, is, comparatively speaking, an unmixed language; modern English, so far as its vocabulary is concerned, is a mixed language, in which the native Germanic elements are outnumbered by those derived from foreign tongues.


The differences between German and English, so far as they have been described above, are entirely due to the gradual changes that have taken place in English during the last thousand years. The ancient form of our language —the kind of English that was written by King Alfred in the ninth century—had every one of those general characteristics which we have mentioned as distinguishing modern German from modern English.

Before proceeding to the illustration of this statement, let us briefly explain the meaning of certain terms which we shall have to use. By 'Old English' we mean the language (by some persons called 'Anglo-Saxon') spoken by Englishmen down to about 1150; 'Middle English' is the language spoken between about 1150 and about 1500; and 'Modern English' means the English of the last four centuries. The reader must not, however, suppose, as young learners sometimes do, that in 1150 or in 1500 one kind of English was superseded by another. The English language has been undergoing constant change ever since it was a language, and it is changing still. For purposes of study it has been found useful to divide its history into three periods; and if this is done at all, it is necessary to specify some approximate dates as the points of division. The dates 1150 and 1500 have been chosen because the one is the middle and the other the end of a century of the common reckoning; and they are also convenient, because about those years the process of change was going on somewhat more rapidly than usual, so that if we compare a book written a quarter of a century before the end of a period with one written a quarter of a century after it, we can see clearly that the language has entered on a new stage of development.

In considering the characteristics of Old English, we will refer especially to the southern dialect as it was written by King Alfred just before goo. In the first place, Alfred's English had all the grammatical complexity which exists in modern German, and indeed a little more. It had the same irrational system of genders: hand was feminine, fot (foot) was masculine, while mægden (maiden) and wif (wife, woman) were neuter. The Old English nouns had five cases, and the system of declensions was intricate to a degree which modern German does not nearly rival. Some nouns made their genitive singular in -es, others in -e, others in -a, and others in -an; and in a few nouns the genitive had the same form as the nominative. The endings which marked the nominative plural were -as, -a, -u, -e, -an; moreover, many plural nominatives coincided in form with the singular, and others were formed (like our modern teeth and mice ) by change of vowel. The adjectives had an elaborate set of inflexions, which have now utterly disappeared, so that the solitary Modern English form glad represents eleven distinct forms in Old English: glœd, glœdre, glœdne, glœdra, gladu, glades, gladum, glade, gladena, glada, gladan. In the conjugation of the verbs there were twice as many different forms as there are in Modern English. The persons of the plural, for instance, differed in form from those of the singular: where we now say 'I sing, we sing, I sang, we sang,' the Old English forms were, 'ic singe, we singath, ic sang, we sungon.' The subjunctive mood, of which there are only a few traces left in modern English, occupied as prominent a place in Old English grammar as it does in Modern German.

Further, Old English differed from Modern English in being—like Modern German, but in a greater degree—comparatively free from words of foreign origin. It had, indeed, incorporated a certain number of Latin words, chiefly relating either to the institutions and ritual of the Church, or to things connected with Roman civilization. But these formed only a very small proportion of the entire vocabulary. Even for the technical terms of Christian theology, the Old English writers preferred, instead of adopting the Latin words that lay ready to their hand, to invent new equivalents, formed from native words by composition and derivation.

After what has been said, the reader will not be surprised to be told that a page, even of Old English prose, not to speak of the poetry, has quite the aspect of a foreign language. The following specimen is taken from a sermon by Ælfric, who died about A.D. 1025:

Tha the ne gelyfath thurh agenne cyre hi scoriath, na thurh gewyrd; for-than-the gewyrd nis nan thing buton leas wena: ne nan thing sothlice be gewyrde ne gewyrth, ac ealle thing thurh Godes dom beoth geendebyrde, se the cwæth thurh his witegan, 'Ic afandige manna heortan, and heora lendena, and ælcum sylle æfter his færelde, and a genre afundennysse.' Ne talige nan man his yfelan dæda to Gode, ac talige ærest to tham deofle, the mancyn beswac, and to Adames forgæ gednysse; ac theah swithost to him sylfum, thæt him yfel gelicath, and ne licath god.

They who do not believe refuse through their own choice, not through fate, because fate is nothing but a false notion; nor does anything truly come to pass by fate, but all things are ordered by the judgment of God, who said by his prophet, 'I try the hearts of men, and their reins, and give to every one according to his conduct, and according to his own device.' Let no man impute his evil deeds to God, but let him impute them first to the devil, who deceived mankind, and to Adam's transgression; but chiefly to himself, in that evil is pleasure to him and good pleases him not.

It is impossible here to give any complete rules for Old English pronunciation; but some approximate notion of the sounds of the language may be obtained by reading the above passage according to the following directions. Pronounce y and like the German ü or the French u (short and long), œ like a in 'hat,' œ like e in 'there,' and the other vowels like the italic letters in the words father (a not marked is the same sound but shorter), bed, vein, pin, machine, hot, stone, put,ru le; pronounce h when not beginning a syllable like the German ch, and f in gelyfath, yfel, deofle, sylfum, as v. Sound c as k, except in sothlice and ic, in which the letter was pronounced as ch in 'church'; sc should be pronounced sh. The g in agen, God, witegan, god may be pronounced (though not quite correctly) as in the modern 'good'; in the other words in the extract it happens to have the less usual sound of y in 'young.' All other letters are to be pronounced as in modern English, and final e is always to be sounded.

It may be useful to append a few remarks on some of the words ocurring in the extract. Tha is the plural nominative of the demonstrative pronoun corresponding to our that; the nominative singular is se (masc.), seo (fem.), thœt (neut.); the word serves also as the definite article. The is an indeclinable relative, standing for 'who,' 'whom,' 'which.' In ge-lyf-ath the middle syllable is the same as the second syllable in 'believe'; the verb ge-lyf-an corresponds to the German g-laub-en. Ne, not, is in Old English put before the verb. With thurh, through, compare the German durch. A genne is accusative masculine singular of agen own; compare the German eigen. Cyre, choice, is a masc. noun related to the verb ceosan to choose; the corresponding German word is Kur. Hi, they, is the plural of he. Scoriath is the present tense plural of scorian, to refuse, a verb not preserved in modern English or German. Na, here used for 'not,' is the modern provincial 'no' in 'that's no true.' Ge-wyrd, fate, is the word which in later English became 'weird.' For-than-the, because, is literally 'for-that-that.' Nis (=ne is) nan thing, 'is none thing'; in Old English two negatives did not 'make an affirmative,' but were combined for emphasis as in Greek. Leas, false, lying; compare 'leasing,' falsehood, in the King James Bible. Wena, opinion; connected with wenan, to 'ween,' think. Sothlice, 'soothly,' truly; compare 'forsooth,' 'in good sooth.' Gewyrth, 3rd person sing. of ge-weorthan to take place, akin to the German werden to become. Ac, but; not found in modern English or German. Ealle thing, all things; the word thing had the nom. plural like the singular. Cwœth, the same word as 'quoth.' Witega, prophet; the word existed also in old German, and was corrupted into Weissager (as if it meant 'wise-sayer'). Afandige, from a fandian, to try. Manna, genitive plural of mann. Heora, genitive plural of he. Ælcum, dative masc. sing. of ælc, now 'each.' Sylle, give, is the modern 'sell'; the word has changed its meaning. Fœrelde, dative of fœreld, behaviour; connected with the verb 'to fare.' A-funden-nyss (dative -nysse), is from afunden = Ger. erfunden, invented, with the ending nyss, now ness; the word is fem., so that 'agen-re' (own) corresponds to the German 'eigen-er.' Talige, from talian, to impute, count; compare 'tale.' Ærest, first=Ger. erst. Mancyn, mankind; the last part of the compound is our 'kin.' Be-swac, past tense of be-swican, to deceive. Theah is related to the modern English 'though' and the German doch. Swithost, superlative of swithe, strongly, very. To him sylfum: note the ending -m of the dative singular. Ge-licath, licath, are identical with the modern verb 'to like,' the former having the prefix ge-, frequently occurring in Old English and German verbs.


Excerpted from The Making of English by Henry Bradley. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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