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Go Back in Time: Learn About the History of the English Language

Rita Putatunda May 6, 2019
English has emerged as a global language in the last century. Very few of us usually assume Great Britain to be the origin of the language and do know very little about the same. Let's get to know more of this language, spoken widely around the world, next only to Mandarin and Spanish.
English is a Germanic language which belongs to the Indo-European family and is the third most spoken language in the world.
According to estimations, there are about 330-360 million people who are native speakers, and another 470 million to 1 billion who use it as a second language, plus, another 750 million who use English as a foreign language.
It's designated as the official or co-official language in more than 82 countries and is widely spoken in many other countries where it doesn't have an official recognition. It is part of the political, cultural, or economic life of over 50 countries, which range from African countries, to India, to New Zealand, Australia, the US, and the United Kingdom.
That compares to 17 countries where Arabic is dominant, 20 where Spanish is used, and 27 where French is prevalent. This kind of worldwide domination of a single language is historically unique. Although the speakers of French, Arabic, and Spanish may dispute it, English is well on its way to becoming the international language of the globe.
Although more people may speak Mandarin (Chinese), but English is the most widespread language in the world. English is the language in which half of all business deals in the world are conducted. It is the English language which is used to write two-thirds of all scientific papers. More than 70 percent of all postal mail is addressed and written in English.
It is the language in which most international tourism, diplomacy, and aviation is conducted. And, of course, English is overwhelmingly the main language used in the epochal global communication system that has evolved in the 20th century - the Internet.
Since so many of us use this language today to communicate with each other, it would be interesting to know what the history of the English language is.

English Language: A Rewind

The history of the English language can be traced back to the 5th Century AD, with the arrival of three Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, to the British Isles. They came across the North Sea from what is today known as northern Germany and Denmark.
The native inhabitants of Britain used to speak a Celtic language, which was displaced quickly. Most of the people who spoke the Celtic language were driven away to Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall. One group made their way to the Brittany Coast of France where the Celtic language of Breton is still spoken by their descendants today.
The Angles got their name from their land of origin, Engle, and their language was called Englisc - which is the word from which English has been derived. The oldest sample of the English is an Anglo-Saxon inscription, which is dated between 450 and 480 AD.
During the following centuries, four dialects of English developed:
  • West Saxon, which developed in the Kingdom of Wessex
  • Mercian, which arose in the Kingdom of Mercia
  • Northumbrian, which grew in Northumbria
  • Kentish, which was spoken in Kent
Northumbria's language and culture was predominant in Britain during the 7th-8th Centuries. This domination was brought to an end in the 9th Century by the Viking invasions, along with Mercia being wiped out. The only kingdom that remained independent was Wessex, hence the West Saxon dialect was made the official language of Britain by the 10th Century.
The alphabet that was used to write it was called Runic, which was derived from Scandinavian languages. Later, Christian missionaries from Ireland brought the Latin alphabet into Britain, which has remained the writing system of the language.
During this period, Old English's vocabulary had an Anglo-Saxon base, with words being borrowed from Latin, and the Scandinavian languages, Norse and Danish. English borrowed words from Latin like kitchen, cup, kettle, street, bishop, angel, wine, candle, wine, etc.
Many Norse words were added by the Vikings such as cake, egg, sky, window (wind eye), leg, skin, skill, fellow, husband, odd, flat, anger, give, get, ugly, call, raise, take, die, them, their, they. Words from the Celtic language also survived, mainly in the names of places and rivers: Kent, Dover, Devon, Avon, Severn, Trent, Thames.
Several pairs of words from English and Norse coexisted, which gave us two words that meant the same thing or were slightly different in meaning, such as:
  • Norse -- English 
  • anger -- wrath
  • fro -- from 
  • nay -- no
  • ill -- sick 
  • raise -- rear
  • skill -- craft 
  • bask -- bathe 
  • skin -- hide 
  • skirt -- shirt 
  • scatter -- shatter
  • dike -- ditch 
  • skip -- shift
Britain was conquered by the Normans in 1066, and the Norman aristocracy adopted French as their language, which added more words to English, which gave rise to more pairs of similar words:
  • French -- English
  • reply -- answer 
  • close -- shut
  • ire -- wrath / anger 
  • annual -- yearly 
  • odor -- smell
  • demand -- ask
  • power -- might 
  • desire -- wish 
  • chamber -- room 
Because the food that the Norman aristocracy ate was cooked by the English underclass, the words domestic or game animals are in English, like calf, cow, ox, swine, sheep, deer, whereas the words for the meats that were derived from those animals are in French such as veal, beef, bacon, pork, mutton, venison.
The Germanic system of forming plurals, e.g. shoe, shoen; house, housen, eventually was displaced by the French system of pluralizing, by 's' being added, e.g. shoe, shoes; house, houses. Only a few words in English have kept the Germanic system of plurals: oxen, men, children, teeth, feet.
French also influenced spelling, therefore, the cw sound was written by using qu, so that cween was changed to queen. It was only in the 14th Century that English regained its dominance in Britain. It came about with King Henry IV becoming the first ruler of England, since the conquest by the Normans, whose mother tongue was English.
By the time the 14th Century ended, the dialect that was spoken in London became the standard dialect of what is now known as Middle English. This was the language in which Chaucer, the author of Canterbury Tales, wrote.
Modern English had its beginnings in the 16th Century, and like all evolving languages, it is in a constant process of change. One early change that occurred was when some of the verbs changed from 'th' to 's', e.g. hath, has; loveth, loves. Auxiliary verbs also altered, e.g. he is risen, he has risen.
After the 16th Century, since the British came into contact with many cultures and people across the world, and the revival of classical learning, many words have found their way into English, directly and indirectly. Also, there was an increase in the creation of new words. It is said that Shakespeare coined more than 1600 words.
The languages that English has borrowed words from are Latin, French, Greek, German, Sanskrit (ancient Indian language), Hindi (Indian language), Arabic, Malay, Italian, Farsi (from Afghanistan and Iran), Nahuatl (Aztec language), Spanish, Portuguese, Ewe (African), and Tupi (South America).
The number of borrowed words is huge, and the vocabulary of the English language is thought to be the largest of all languages. This process of continuous evolution has continued to this day, with American English adding new color and flavor to the language, then of course, the advent of new technologies like the Internet, computers, cell phones and so on.
However, despite all these words being borrowed and new words continuing to be coined, it's core still is the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. Although only 5000 words from that period stayed unchanged, they're the building blocks like parts of the body, household words, natural elements, common animals, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, pronouns and conjunctions.
Grafted on this base of original words are the rich contributions of many other languages; which has created what many consider one of the richest languages of the world.