This is part 1 of 6 in a brief series describing the history of English and its grammar.

What is Grammar?

A grammar is a set of rules for the communal use of a language. A language can never become a truly national language unless all users of that language share common rules for how words are invented, used and strung together in sentences.  When by some means the users of a language no longer share these rules, the language fragments into dialects and eventually, new languages.  It is useful to think of dialects as not being quite so large an obstacle as different languages are to trade, commerce and exchange of ideas between regions.

A grammar is an art when it is used as a set of rules or guidelines for people to follow. The advantage of a communal guide to speaking and writing is that all users of a language, by using the same rules, can understand each other without effort.

Grammar is a science when it examines how language is used by ordinary people in their daily lives.  In this case, scientists are trying to find out how language works.  The findings of science gradually trickle through to the formal teaching of language, so that there is some overlap between grammar as an art and grammar as a science.

Apart from the grammar of Sanskrit, for many centuries the most widely studied grammar has been the grammar of English.  This scientific study has its foundations in the grammar-as-art of the Greeks and the Romans.  For many centuries there was no study of the grammar of English, hence there were no rules to teach in the schools.  The early grammar schools were schools of Latin grammar.  Before a grammar can be used to stabilise a language, the language must be stable and universal enough to warrant study by grammarians. That initial stability comes, not from formal teaching but from the popularity of storytellers and their styles.  This mechanism is clearly shown in the history of the English language.

A Brief History of the English Language

It was about the fifth century CE that the Angles and the Saxons settled in Britain.  It is their language that was the foundation of all variants of modern English.  Their language thrived and developed, it became the language of common people and scholars, kings and shepherds.  English was the English of Wessex, of King Alfred  and his court.  That one dialect was the language of people of culture. Until 1066.

Following the death of Edward the Confessor, a challenge arose between Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy.  Each claimed a right to the throne of England.  While Harold was away north fighting Harold Hardrada's invading army, William landed his forces on the south coast, near Hastings.  Harold's men, after defeating the Norsemen, made a forced march south and confronted the Normans.  In the ensuing battle, Harold's men were getting the best of it until they broke ranks to pursue a group of fleeing Normans.  William took advantage of that brief indiscipline and broke defender's ranks. The rest, as they say, is history.

Norman England

The Normans imposed their language on the whole country.  Before long there was no opportunity for advancement for anyone who didn't speak Norman French.  French was taught in the schools, not as a foreign language, but as a national language. English became mostly the language of the uneducated classes, with few exceptions.  Robert of Gloucester, writing in 1298, suggested that children should be taught French from the time that they are rocked in the cradle.

It is often found that rural people and the poor look down on the snobbery of those who insist on speaking with what the 'lower classes' consider a false accent.  So it was with the competition between French and English. In 1263, Mathew of Westminster wrote that whoever was unable to speak English was considered 'vile and contemptible' by the common people.  In a brief span of years there was a pressure from the bottom ranks upwards to restore English to its place as the national language.

The Rise of English

In 1272, Edward 1st became the first English king since Harold to have a Saxon English name. Within a comparatively short time, it became a matter worthy of note that an educated man might travel widely and not meet anybody who could speak French. The greatest leap forwards for English as a national language started about 1350 onwards.

In 1362, Parliament was opened with the customary Chancellor's address.  But in English, not French.  In the same year a statute decreed that English was to be the official language of the courts. In the same brief period, English replaced French in the schools.

In his Polychronicon written in Latin, circa 1350, Ralph Higden observed that French was the language of instruction in English schools.  John Trevisa, translating that book in 1385 observed in a translator's note "in all the grammar schools of England, children have abandoned French and construe and learn English ... Children in grammar schools know no more French than does their left heel."

When a language is the official language of a nation there are forces both natural and official continually at work tending to a common standard. When a national language is supplanted by another the forces tend towards a fractioning of the language. Thus it was with an English language supplanted by French.  Writings from a period from about 1066 to about 1360 appear in various dialects, some seeming entirely foreign to the modern reader.  Here are the first lines of  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe bor3 brittened and brent to bronde3 and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe:
The siege and the assault was ceased at Troy
the burg destroyed and burnt to ashes,
he who had planned and wrought that treason
was tried for his treachery, the truest on Earth:

The First Fyndere of Our Faire Langage

Before a language can truly be said to be a national language it must to a large degree employ standards of choice of words, spelling and word order.  Such standards in the English language can be attributed in large part to Geoffrey Chaucer.   He has been well described as the first founder of our fair language, and father of modern English.  Here we have a storyteller writing in the new national language: English.  Not the 'official' English of the court and the academic, but rather, the English of the common people.  It is strange that an author's caricature of the English of ordinary people should be adopted as a standard and a model by academics.  Strange, but true.

Part 2 describes Chaucer's influence on the development of English.
Part 3 covers the period from Chaucer to the Elizabethan age.
Part 4 describes processes in the natural evolution of English.
Part 5 presents a brief overview of Early Modern English.
Part 6 briefly covers the rise of English as a global language.