Episode 72: The Dark Ages of English

The early part of the 12th century represented the darkest days of the English language.  English writing had almost disappeared, and spoken English was divided among a variety of regional dialects that were often incomprehensible to speakers in other parts of the country.  For most prominent people in England, both Latin and French were considered to be far superior languages.  English was mocked and ridiculed.  This view even extended to Anglo-Saxon names which started to disappear during this period.  The English language that everyone knew was dying out. In parts of the country, it was already dead.  In its wake, a new English was emerging, but that new language had not yet been revealed in writing.


Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

5 thoughts on “Episode 72: The Dark Ages of English

  1. My partner had a funny realization of the surname process at work in the modern world. It made us think of all those people we’ve met and exchanged phone numbers with but whose last names we don’t know. Or people whose last names we wouldn’t remember in a few months. So what have we done? Given them surnames based on their location, something distinguishing, what instrument they play, and, of course, their occupation. Some examples from our phones: Michael Electrician, Adam Banjo, Amelia Pdx (lives in Portland), Andrew Honky Tonk, Chris Oly Redhead (lives in Olympia), Robin Seabk (lives in Seattle and Brooklyn). And my favorite: Rose Oly Mushroom. There’s even Linda Wrong Number, who kept calling me thinking I was someone else.

    Maybe other people have done this too, or maybe it’s just millenial thing!

  2. The part about how few names there were was interesting, as that tended to remain the case until relatively recently, at least among the lower-middle and working classes. A while ago, I did some research based on the 1911 census in one particular street, and I was struck that (with a few anomalies) most people used one of about a dozen names each for male and female. The male names were mostly the same ones as those popular Norman names, although the female names were a bit more diverse.

    In one household, consisting of a father, three unmarried daughters, two married sons and their wives and children, there were three people called Florence Brooks.

    • Plays havoc when you are trying to do genealogy. In my Scottish family, both my grandmothers were named Margaret, and both grandfathers were James. I too am a Margaret (although usually known by Shirley, my middle name), and so was my Mother. On my Dad’s side, there were at least 4 generations of James.

  3. Most modern English people would be surprised to learn that London, Oxford and Cambridge were in the East Midlands! Funny how linguistic boundaries can be different to perceived geography.

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