How Did it All Begin? The Rich Origins of the English Language
Language is a universal tool for every person in this world. It is the connecting link between nations, ethnicities, and people sharing a common background. The world of language is colorful and diverse and provides a glimpse into the very origins of humanity and civilizations. But languages from across the globe are all unique and mutually unintelligible. That’s why a lingua franca is necessary, a common language that all can learn and understand, and use across the planet. In modern times, that language is English. People everywhere can understand it and speak it, even if just a little. But do we ever stop to think about the origins of the English language? Where did it begin, how did it develop, and what makes it so universal to most of the people living on the planet today?
The first folio of the heroic epic poem Beowulf, written primarily in the West Saxon dialect of the Old English language by an anonymous early English poet. (Public domain)
The Historic Root of the English Language: Anglo-Saxon
When we begin the story of the English language and its source, we need to reflect upon the history of England, i.e., Britain. Because it was the many turbulent episodes of the nation of England that have shaped the language that we know today. Different peoples coming in contact with Britain have all left their mark on the English language. For language is like a sponge: it soaks in all the foreign additions that suit it, which makes it better and easier to use.
Of course, English gets its name from the Germanic Anglo-Saxons that settled in England in mid-5th century AD and shaped the very future of what we know as English today. Around 410 AD, the Romans withdrew from Britain, leaving the area open for settlement by new peoples, in this case, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes.
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However, the land of Britain was not empty of language. The remaining Romano-British (Brythonic) Celtic peoples still lived there, but they were now largely influenced by the Romans. It is proposed by scholars that they spoke British Latin at this point, a vulgar Latin dialect that formed through contact with the Celts. To the north, in modern-day Scotland, were the Picts and the Scots, both speaking their own distinct insular Celtic languages.
When the Anglo-Saxon tribes arrived from northern Europe, however, they came by invitation. Ancient chronicles state that Vortigern, King of the Britons, invited these Germanic tribes in 449 AD, in order to repel the Picts who were invading from the north. But the land was too good for the Angles and the Saxons, and they chose to stay for good. From then on, their Germanic language became rooted in Britain, and gradually became the chief language used on the island, which is the English language.
The Anglo Saxons, pictured, brought a new language to Britain. Source: Archivist / Adobe Stock
The Anglo-Saxons Built the Foundations of the English Language
Still, the original or earlier languages of a conquered nation can never fully be eradicated. Even with the Anglo-Saxons firmly rooted in Britain, there were still plenty of words in use that were of Celtic or Latin origin. Many words, like street, wine, mile, kitchen, have their origins in Latin. Both the Brythonic Celts and the Germanic tribes were in contact with the Romans for centuries, and thus these words found their way into the English language from both sides.
However, we can also observe the Celtic words in England, mostly in place names. Places like Kent, Dover, Avon, and hundreds of others retained their original Celtic names over the centuries. Still, commonly used words such as loch, crumpet, gull, lawn, penguin, coombe, all have their roots in the Celtic languages of Britain.
The English language was also heavily influenced by old medieval Latin, especially via Christianity. Shown here is an ancient Catholic Latin inscription. (alehnia / Adobe Stock)
As the Anglo-Saxons solidified their rule in Britain, forming their kingdoms, the so-called “Old English” language developed across England. Today, we know it as the earliest recorded form of the English language. It was divided into closely-related dialects: Mercian, Kentish, Northumbrian, and West Saxon, all of which were named for the separate kingdoms they established. The Anglo-Saxons grew powerful, and their language quickly overshadowed the Celtic and Latin that was spoken before. The Celtic speakers were pushed to the margins of the island, and their languages, such as Welsh and Cornish, are still confined to these areas of Britain today.
Although the earliest form of the English language, Old English sounds almost totally alien to what we know and use today. Here’s a snippet of a text written in Old English during the Anglo-Saxon period, with a modern translation. The differences are immense.
“Ac hē hit on him swīþe wræc, ond hīe him swā lāðe wǣron þæt hē oft wȳscte þæt ealle Rōmāne hæfden ǣnne swēoran, þæt hē hine raþost forceorfan meahte. Ond mid ungemete mǣnde þæt þǣr þā næs swelc sacu swelc þǣr oft ǣr wæs; ond hē self fōr oft on ōþra lond ond wolde gewin findan, ac hē ne meahte būton sibbe.”
Translation: “But he took severe revenge upon them, and they were hateful that he often wished that all Romans possessed a single neck so that he could most quickly cut through it. And with lack of moderation complained that there was no strife as there often formerly was; and he would often go into another land and would find battle, but he would not accept peace.”
The language of the Vikings and their rune letters gave English its grammatical basis. (Pshenichka / Adobe Stock)
English Language Development: from 450 AD to the Present Day
On the whole, the English language is separated into following stages of development:
Old English: 450-1150 AD
Middle English: 1150-1500 AD
Early Modern English: 1500-1700 AD
Modern English: 1700 AD-present day
By the 6th century AD, Christianity had spread to Britain, and new, ecclesiastical words from Latin became an inseparable part of the English language. These included hymn, abbot, altar, priest, paper, school, bishop, and many other words. In the end, more than 400 such words were introduced. And that was just the beginning!
Just a couple of centuries later a new period of English history began with the arrival of the Vikings. Scandinavian seafarers raided Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the 8th to 10th centuries AD, establishing many settlements in the process. Over time, the contact between them and the English left the most important and longest-lasting changes on the English language.
The Vikings introduced crucial new words into English, such as egg, call, crave, bask, keel, ill, fellow, leg, screech, odd, thrive, slaughter, berserk, ransack, husband, steak, skill, bug, wings, muck, myre anger, bag, sky, and hundreds of other commonly used words.
Changes to the language itself also appear during this period. The Old English word endings disappear, and a switch to a stricter word order appears, all under the influence of the Old Norse grammar. All of this points to the close contact between the Vikings and the English, and the fact that a language can never truly stop developing and accepting new features that make it better.
The Norman French language became the spoken language of the British elites who then added many French words to the everyday common people’s English vocabulary. (Serge Aubert / Adobe Stock)
The French Normans Also Influenced The English Language
The next major change in the English language came with the Normans. In 1066 AD, the Norman leader William the Bastard won the critical Battle of Hastings, ushering in the era of Norman rule in Britain. Norman French became the main language of the nobility from that point onward and many French words were tightly woven into the English language as we know it. During this time, English was the language of the common folk, while the elites spoke the Anglo-Norman language. Norman itself had roots in Old Norse and introduced words that were both French and Norse in origin. Many of the Norman words that ended up as English words are connected to law or the military. Examples include archer, bailiff, chivalry, curfew, crime, judge, government, felony, fraud, injury, grief, dungeon, custard, baron, servant, messenger, story, and many more.
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Borrowings from French occurred in two phases. The first one, as we said, was during the Norman period, mainly from 1066 to 1250. Then, from 1250 to 1500, the second phase took place. Only this time, it was the French speakers that started speaking English!
The reason for this historic conundrum is simple: the ruling French-speaking elite of Britain was finding it difficult to preserve the Anglo-Norman language over the centuries. So, the elites also gradually shifted to speaking English, the language of everyone else in the country. This is a simple process of assimilation.
As the elites shifted to English, they introduced further French words into the common, day-to-day vocabulary. And in the process they expanded and enriched the English language even more. Some words from this period are scandal, tavern, coward, vision, damage, aim, apply, serve, prefer, refuse, common, firm, sudden.
Scan of the Canterbury Tales Ellesmere manuscript from the 14th century AD show the first page of the Knight's Tale, written in an English few can understand today. (Geoffrey Chaucer / Public domain)
The English Language as a Sponge
Still, even though the English language shifted from Anglo-Saxon Old English to the much different Middle English, it would nonetheless appear quite odd to the speakers of modern English. One great example surviving from this period is the work of Chaucer, a celebrated English poet. Here’s a snippet - written in Middle English from his 14th-century work, the “ Canterbury Tales.”
“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;”
During the Early Modern Period of the English language, which is dated from the 1500s onwards, the Renaissance period begins to establish itself in Britain. Scholars and other learned men started a great influx of foreign words into English, many of them scholarly Greek and Latin terms. But that was not all.
England began its colonial expansions in this era, which resulted in lasting relationships with other European nations. Thus, more foreign words root entered the English language vocabulary. From Latin and Greek, we have words such as abdomen, anatomy, agile, atmosphere, catastrophe, ecstasy, history, critic, janitor, meditate, ultimate, and so on. However, words such as alcove, algebra, zenith, algorithm, amber, orange, admiral, azimuth, alchemy, and others, all come from Arabic, borrowed from Spanish and other Romance languages.
The British Empire covered 25% of the world, as shown in this 1898 Canadian stamp, and this also gave English lots of new words over the centuries. (Spiroview Inc. / Adobe Stock)
Britain’s Global Colonial Era Introduced More New Words
The expansion of the English language continued steadily from the 1700s as English developed into its modern form. The English language was influenced by major colonial expansions across the globe, by the industrial revolution, literature, and mass immigration to America and elsewhere.
French continued to be a major influence on English, introducing new words associated with the latest trends of the era. Ballet, champagne, chic, salon, bastion, brigade, infantry, grenade, grotesque, shock, niche and other words we use today were introduced during this time.
From Spanish we have armada, canyon, barricade, guitar, mosquito, vigilante; from Italian broccoli, balcony, arsenal, fresco, cupola, piano, opera, viola, umbrella, macaroni, pantaloons.
As the English settled in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere, they introduced many new words adopted from the local inhabitants. Most of these were words for things the English never had: tattoo, pajamas, didgeridoo, boomerang, kangaroo, taboo, bamboo, tsunami, cacao, cannibal, chipmunk, hammock, skunk, squash, tomato, and hundreds of other words.
Today, the English language is the lingua franca of the modern world, spoken by roughly 1.35 billion people! (nito / Adobe Stock)
The Universal Language of the World!
So, as we can see, the English language was constantly changing as it developed. Its origins lie in the migrations of ancient cultures to the British Isles. As they met, clashed, and lived together, their languages melted into one unified, diverse form of speech that is known as English today.
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When it comes to its immense popularity across the world, the English language undoubtedly owes a lot to the British Empire period, which in 1924 covered almost 25% of planet Earth. During the colonial period, Englishmen spread to many corners of the world. And this is how the English language established itself as a global lingua franca, a common tongue that all can use, no matter where they are!
Top image: Monk chronicler writes an ancient manuscript. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock
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