Learning the Language–Dr. Schleifer Educates Students on the History of English


Amanda Platz

On October 31, 2018, Dr. Paul Schleifer addressed the professional writing class at Southern Wesleyan University, regarding a topic they had recently been learning about: the development of the English language and the Oxford English Dictionary.

We had recently read the book The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, in which he spoke about the development of the English language, and then the development of the Oxford English Dictionary. In order to learn more about this fascinating subject, I invited Dr. Schleifer, an English professor at Southern Wesleyan University, a grammar and linguistics expert, and a Shakespeare aficionado, to speak on the subject. He was more than willing to share his love of the subject with an enthusiastic group of students, two other English professors whose curiosity had been piqued by the subject of choice, and his son Kit.

The chosen subject, the one that Dr. Schleifer could have happily spoken on for another two hours, was the development of the English language, ranging from its origins all the way to its present state. The English language has had a long and colorful history that is best traced by understanding the history of the country from which it originates: England.

“The English language is the best language there is,” he opened. Spoken like a true lover of the language. Dr. Schleifer spoke about the beauty of the English language and why he loved to study it, before diving headfirst into a history of the language.

English is an Indo-European language that originated and developed in England. The Celts were the first inhabitants of the island. They lived in England for quite a long time and contributed such things as Stonehenge and place names. The English language didn’t get much else from them.

However, when the Norse and other Germanic tribes came to England, the language truly began to form. English is a Germanic language, after all. A Germanic language heavily influenced by Latin and a multitude of other languages. Germanic tribes such as the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons invaded England and decided they liked it there and wanted England to be their home—especially the Anglo-Saxons. After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxon kings Hengest and Horsa were invited by the Celtic King Vortigurn to England to help them fight off the Picts. The Anglo-Saxons never left. As Dr. Schleifer said, “they liked England and the fighting, so they decided to stay.” When they came, they brought their language and all it’s beauty.

When discussing Old English, Dr. Schleifer played a video of a man performing Beowulf in the original Old English on YouTube. Originally, Beowulf would have been performed with a musical instrument, such as a lyre or harp of some sort. We did not, in fact, watch the entire two-hour long performance of the poem, but enjoyed a part of it played in class. Then, Doctor Schleifer read the Lords Prayer in Old English to the class. We attempted to convince him to read more, but he responded that he could continue talking for two more hours and he hadn’t even gotten out of old English yet, and so declined.

Then, Dr. Schleifer moved on to discuss Middle English. In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded England, wiped out the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy so he could give their land to his followers, and set up shop in England. The top 10% of the population, therefore, were Norman French, while the rest were Anglo-Saxon. According to Dr. Schleifer, the Norman French were Norseman who settled in France and became ‘frenchmen.’ Dr. Schleifer referred to their version of the French language as “the hillbilly version of French.”  William and his followers were basically still Vikings. Naturally, the invaders and the invaded did not get along. However, eventually, their languages did. Their languages blended together into what is known as a Creole language—a blending of two languages. This is where we get a lot of the duplication in our language (such as the words “deer” and “venison.”)

Documents such as the Magna Carta and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were originally written in Middle English, although the Magna Carta was also written in Latin and French. John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible was also translated into Middle English. Essentially Middle English looks like badly spelled Modern English but sounds like Old English.

Then, Dr. Schleifer discussed Modern English. Modern English was marked by the Great Vowel Shift, which was basically when there began to be more vowel sounds or something. Apparently Linguists aren’t entirely certain about what happened. But the Great Vowel Shift, followed by some diphthongs, and you’ve got the beginnings of Modern English. However, spelling in Modern English was rather awful. Prior to the 18th century no one cared, as spelling was just a graphic representation of what a person said. Spoken words came first, and the written word came after. Shakespeare, for example, spelled his own name five different ways.

Latin influences were huge. After around 1000 AD, Latin became the official language of the church. It was a lot easier for people to communicate cross-culturally in Latin as most educated people knew Latin. So there were many Latin influences on spelling and words, and also on grammar as well.

The Modern English period was an age of discovery. Francis Drake was the first captain to circumnavigate the whole globe. English people were discovering new people groups and subsequently new languages. When English met new people and new creatures or places or objects they had never encountered before, they borrowed the native words for those things instead of making up their own. Shakespeare, however, also coined approximately 2000 words.

In the 17th century, we became more bookish, and the need for a dictionary was beginning to be seen. Samuel Johnson took seven years to write the first dictionary based on historical principles. After him came many others, until we encountered the Oxford English Dictionary.

At about this point in the lecture, Dr. Schleifer realized that he was over the time limit for the class. He quickly wrapped up with some fun facts about the English language, such as the fact that the OED is comprised of more than 600,000 words, or that English is the language of transportation. After he was done, we applauded him, I thanked him again for coming to speak to us, and people began to file out. As I left the room, I encountered my classmates, all of whom were excited about the lecture, commenting on both the things we learned and the way in which it was delivered to us—Dr. Schleifer is known for a dry sarcasm and quick-witted humor that is enjoyed by many of the English students at Southern Wesleyan University. In total, the afternoon’s event was a success. We all learned a great deal more than we had known about the history of the English people and their language, and how that language developed as a result of the historical events, and were very grateful for Dr. Schleifer’s appearance in our class that afternoon.