A while back I posted a blog entitled “Beowulf & Moses” where I compared the language evolution of Biblical Hebrew to English. However, a friend of mine wrote me an email about how this probably isn’t a proper comparison. She is a well-educated teacher and Jewish, so I thought I should listen. Here is what she said:
Anyway, about Biblical Hebrew and Old English, there is a vast difference in purpose and culture here. We believe that the Beowulf poem was written in the vernacular or vulgar tongue of the Anglo-Saxons. There you already have the melding of two people groups, cultures and languages. We also think the original poem may have been recited in Old Norse, a very similar language to modern Icelandic. Even though Britain and Iceland are two island nations, Britain’s culture and its language suffered many invasions by other European peoples, the Danes the Norse, the Norman French. Its original languages have not fared well because of this.
Several of the old languages of the Celts, most notably Cornish and Manx are no longer spoken as a first language by anyone, though that may be changing thanks to Cornish radio and TV. They are following the Welsh strategy to reintroduce the language. The only reason I know this is because I am a member of the International Reading Association and attended one of their World Congresses in July of 2002 in Edinburgh. There I met teachers from these areas who told me how they were trying to revive speaking, reading and writing in the ancient languages.
English, as Leah likes to say, is a Creole, a mixture of many languages and cultures. Because of politics and trade, the language seems to be constantly changing for the last 1,000 years. England has never had an isolated culture. According to Robin McNeill, Iceland has a very different history. It traded almost exclusively with Norse peoples for several hundred years. It also has never been invaded like England. Its language has changed very little in all that time. This point was made in a recent indie film named “Beowulf and Grendel.” The writers and producers of the film were mainly Icelandic, and in an interview I read, said they could read the old English pretty easily, unlike us.
So, the point is well taken. How much a language changes really does depend on its exposure to other cultures and languages, whether through invasion or trade. In any case, I found this information very interesting.