With an estimated 360 million native speakers on the planet, English is now the most widely used language in the world. However, not much is known about how the spoken version used in medieval England was converted to the written form that evolved into common usage today.
But a Southern University professor believes he’s got a good shot to explain that evolution.
English Professor David Porter recently won a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write the definitive treatise on the origins of the English language in written form.
Porter’s proposal was one of roughly 80 chosen for funding out of 1,200 reviewed by the NEH.
Southern University spokesman Ed Pratt said Porter’s award is especially noteworthy for Southern, considering similar research grants are typically awarded to professors at much larger universities.
Porter’s project, “Launching English Intellectual History: The Construction of the First English Encyclopedia at Canterbury in the Seventh Century,” will take at least a year to complete, he said.
The research will require the reading and understanding of ancient handwritten manuscripts, said Porter, who is a fluent reader of both Latin and Old English.
Porter said he will spend the majority of this year researching his project with hopes of publishing a book on the topic next year or in 2015.
The research will be centered on the work done by late seventh-century students and scholars at the Canterbury School in England — a school dedicated to producing a community of highly literate, book-savvy Englishmen.
The school was also a tool to ensure that people of the time retained their Christian beliefs, Porter said in his proposal to the NEH.
Porter explained that two scholars — Saint Hadrian the African and Theodore the Asian — arrived at the school in 669 A.D., bringing with them a number of books including a 20-chapter encyclopedia of sorts with entries on fish, herbs, trees, tools, diseases and weapons.
Some of those texts, Porter said, became sources of early Latin-Old English glossaries.
For students and scholars to have named hundreds of English herbs, trees and animals, and paired them to Latin equivalents with a model or precedent to work off of, was an extraordinary feat that could have taken years to complete, Porter said.
“The process underlying their achievement makes a riveting story, but so far it remains completely unexplored,” he said. “The Endowment Fellowship will for the first time give this narrative to the scholarly world.”