The History of the English Language
by Owen Alun and Brendan O'Corraidhe
In the beginning there was an island off the coast of Europe. It had no
name, for the natives had no language, only a collection of grunts and
gestures that roughly translated to "Hey!" "Gimme!" and "Pardon me, but
would you happen to have any woad?"
Then the Romans invaded it and called it Britain, because the natives
were "blue, nasty, br(u-i)tish and short." This was the start of the
importance of u (and its mispronounciation) to the language. After
building some roads, killing off some of the nasty little blue people
and walling up the rest, the Romans left, taking the language
instruction manual with them.
The British were bored so they invited the barbarians to come over
(under Hengist) and "Horsa" 'round a bit. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes
brought slightly more refined vocal noises.
All of the vocal sounds of this primitive language were onomatapoeic,
being derived from the sounds of battle. Consonants were derived from
the sounds of weapons striking a foe. "Sss" and "th" for example are
the sounds of a draw cut, "k" is the sound of a solidly landed axe blow,
"b", "d", are the sounds of a head dropping onto rock and sod
respectively, and "gl" is the sound of a body splashing into a bog.
Vowels (which were either gargles in the back of the throat or sharp
exhalations) were derived from the sounds the foe himself made when
The barbarians had so much fun that decided to stay for post-revel. The
British, finding that they had lost future use of the site, moved into
the hills to the west and called themselves Welsh.
The Irish, having heard about language from Patrick, came over to
investigate. When they saw the shiny vowels, they pried them loose and
took them home. They then raided Wales and stole both their cattle and
their vowels, so the poor Welsh had to make do with sheep and
consonants. ("Old Ap Ivor hadde a farm, L Y L Y W! And on that farm he
hadde somme gees. With a dd dd here and a dd dd there...")
To prevent future raids, the Welsh started calling themselves "Cymry"
and gave even longer names to their villages. They figured if no one
could pronounce the name of their people or the names of their towns,
then no one would visit them. (The success of the tactic is
demonstrated still today. How many travel agents have YOU heard suggest
a visit to scenic Llyddumlmunnyddthllywddu?)
Meantime, the Irish brought all the shiny new vowels home to Erin. But
of course they didn't know that there was once an instruction manual for
them, so they scattered the vowels throughout the language purely as
ornaments. Most of the new vowels were not pronounced, and those that
were were pronounced differently depending on which kind of consonant
they were either preceding or following.
The Danes came over and saw the pretty vowels bedecking all the Irish
words. "Ooooh!" they said. They raided Ireland and brought the vowels
back home with them. But the Vikings couldn't keep track of all the
Irish rules so they simply pronounced all the vowels "oouuoo."
In the meantime, the French had invaded Britain, which was populated by
descendants of the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. After a
generation or two, the people were speaking German with a French accent
and calling it English. Then the Danes invaded again, crying "Oouuoo!
Oouuoo!" burning abbeys, and trading with the townspeople.
The Britons that the Romans hadn't killed intermarried with visiting
Irish and became Scots. Against the advice of their travel agents, they
decided to visit Wales. (The Scots couldn't read the signposts that
said, "This way to Lyddyllwwyddymmllwylldd," but they could smell sheep
a league away.) The Scots took the sheep home with them and made some
of them into haggis. What they made with the others we won't say, but
Scots are known to this day for having hairy legs.
The former Welsh, being totally bereft, moved down out of the hills and
into London. Because they were the only people in the Islands who
played flutes instead of bagpipes, they were called Tooters. This made
them very popular. In short order, Henry Tooter got elected King and
begin popularizing ornate, unflattering clothing.
Soon, everybody was wearing ornate, unflattering clothing, playing the
flute, speaking German with a French accent, pronouncing all their
vowels "oouuoo" (which was fairly easy given the French accent), and
making lots of money in the wool trade. Because they were rich, people
smiled more (remember, at this time, "Beowulf" and "Canterbury Tales"
were the only tabloids, and gave generally favorable reviews even to
Danes). And since it is next to impossible to keep your vowels in the
back of your throat (even if you do speak German with a French accent)
while smiling and saying "oouuoo" (try it, you'll see what I mean), the
Great Vowel Shift came about and transformed the English language.
The very richest had their vowels shifted right out in front of their
teeth. They settled in Manchester and later in Boston.
There were a few poor souls who, cut off from the economic prosperity of
the wool trade, continued to swallow their vowels. They wandered the
countryside in misery and despair until they came to the docks of
London, where their dialect devolved into the incomprehensible language
known as Cockney. Later, it was taken overseas and further brutalized
by merging it with Dutch and Italian to create Brooklynese.
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