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Old and Middle English


The sole surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf (British Library)

I used to teach a unit about the history of the English language. It sounds like a very academic (i.e. "boring") topic, but I think it turned out to be be more interesting than most of my students expected.

It all starts with invasions. Three Germanic tribes invade Britain during the 5th century AD. The Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany.

The people of Britain spoke a Celtic language and the invaders pushed them west and north into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Which tribe dominated? Well, the Angles who came from Angleland were successful enough to give us - through some mispronunciations  of Angleland - "Englaland" later England. Their language was called "Englisc."  And most of us have heard the term Anglo-Saxon.  The Jutes, who settled in Southern Britain, didn't fare as well.

When I was in college, a professor played us recordings of Old English. I expected it to sound like Shakespeare or Chaucer, but it sounded like a foreign language. You could hear hints of German, Norse an, as I was taught, some Latin and Celtic.

Old English is the English of Beowulf, and it sounds like another language. To me it sounded more like German, with some Latin, Norse, and Celtic influences.

Listen to this brief excerpt:


Beowulf might sound like something J.R.R. Tolkien made up for his elves to speak in The Lord of the Rings.

So, we had speakers of “Old English,” “Middle English,” and “Modern English.” Shakespeare, much to my freshmen English students' disbelief, was speaking Modern English.

A few, but not that many, modern English words come from Old English. Some of them are commonly used ones like our articles, pronouns and prepositions.


That Middle English period (1100-1500) got a kickstart from William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), in 1066 when he invaded and conquered England.

These "Normans" spoke a form of French that became the language of the Royal Court, the ruling class and business classes. there was certainly a class division based on language. The lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French.

But, by the 14th century, English became dominant again, though many French words had been added. Enter Middle English.

This was the English of the poet Chaucer. A bit more understandable to us today that Old English, but still difficult - as any student who had to study Chaucer's Canterbury Tales will tell you.

Take a listen to his Prologue:


Around 1500, there is a distinct change in pronunciation (actually called "The Great Vowel Shift") with vowels being pronounced shorter. The British are much more global and connecting with other languages. Add in the Renaissance of classical learning, and the invention of printing and we get a much more common language. Books being cheaper meant more people learned to read and that led to standardization of English spelling and grammar.

The dialect of London, home of the publishing houses, was the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

Though the Early Modern English of Shakespeare still sounds odd to students, the big change that comes after this to late Modern English (1800+) is mostly vocabulary.

For that, we can point to the Industrial Revolution and technology which created many new words (and still does today) and at that time the British Empire was at its height globally. English was spoken around the world and also took on many words from around the world.

Here is a brief History of the English Language in 10 Animated Minutes - from the Open University


Is the African Continent Splitting Up?


Plenty of news reports this week saying "An Enormous Crack Just Opened Up In Africa, Evidence Africa Is Literally Splitting In Two." But is the continent splitting apart because tectonic plates are at work?

You probably learned in school that a continent can split in two. That is what led to the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. I remember a teacher showing me in elementary school Africa and South America fit perfectly together because they were once one landmass. I was mazed! They were split apart by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Scientists have known that there was rifting in Africa, but they are split on the cause. Is it from a superplume upwelling along the eastern edge of Africa?



In the past week, a massive crack suddenly appeared in Kenya's Rift Valley and that got the attention of the media. Heavy rainfall is also helping the crack continue to grow in size to being a kilometer-sized chasm.

A regional zone of weakness figures into the hypothesis that the breakup of the continent is caused by that underlying superheated plume that is "burning" through the land.

Yes, this large crack in East Africa is evidence of the continent splitting in two. But, like many geologic changes, the rifting process will take many millions of years as the crust begins to thin and sink and a small seaway begins to intrude the rift zone. Still, to see it happening is pretty amazing. Yes, one day there will be another smaller continent and a new ocean.


Find Out What Facebook Knows About You


Facebook has been in many headlines the past month. Most of those stories are negative about the company in regards to its use of your data and the way it protects it from others using it.

I believe that we often overlook our own responsibility to monitor what data we willingly give networks, and what happens to the data companies can "pull" from our online clicking.

Anyone can download their data (on a computer, not on mobile) from Facebook. From the down arrow menu at the top right, go to Settings and at the bottom of the central panel, click “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

It can take 5 - 20 minutes to download (mine took only 5 minutes and I think I have a lot there). What will you find in there? There really is a record of everything you’ve done or clicked on its website since your account’s creation. Besides a lot of photo metadata and times when you accessed the site, you will also see which advertisers have your contact information. This is not wonky data. It is quite human-readable.