The English Language Was Saved by a Pandemic

Photo by Kuma Kum on Unsplash

In this time of global pandemic it’s worth recalling that the English language would likely have gone the way of the wooly mammoth had it not been for a pandemic, specifically, the Black Death. In the year 1066, William the conqueror of Normandy and his fellow francophone viking descendants (Norman = Northman = Viking) successfully invaded Britain. The linguistic effect of this conquest was that Norman French became the language of the ruling class of society for the next several hundred years. The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) of Beowulf steadily lost ground to the language of the conquerors, only holding on in the countryside and among the lower classes. The English that remained absorbed an incredible amount of French vocabulary in this period, leading to a distinct stage in the language called Middle English. As the influence of French grew among the upper and middle classes, taking over the cities and all literary endeavors, the future of English was in danger.

Enter the Black Death. This plague which attacked the lymphatic system was spread by fleas, rats, and also by airborne transmission. The Black Death devastated the cities of Europe in the mid-1300s, killing as many as 1/3 of the population. This meant that many of the urbanite French speakers who would have continued to advance the victory of French in Britain were instead killed by the plague. The literati and political class were decimated. This aftermath of the plague gave the English language the chance to not only survive, but to regain prominence in Britain, and eventually, to emerge as the first truly global language. Well, first since Babel anyway.

What might be the linguistic effects of this current Covid-19 pandemic? Certainly it will mean the creation of new vocabulary as concepts such as quarantine and social distancing are translated into the official languages of every country. Our local Central Asian language has coined a new verb: “karantîn” + verb form of make/do. Will the pandemic save an endangered language that will one day go on to rule the world? Unlikely, but as history demonstrates, by no means impossible.

*I’m indebted to Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word and John McWhorter’s Words on the Move for the information in this post – great books if you enjoy the combination of language and history.