Where Did English Come From?
I suppose you could say that the short answer to that question is ‘From England!’ It is true that English did spread out from the small island of Britain to the rest of the world. But what helped to form the language as we know it?
In our look at British place names, we saw that the Celts arrived in Britain, and in Ireland roughly three thousand years ago. The islands had been inhabited from about 8,000 BC but we do not really have any information about the ancient languages used by those early inhabitants. However, the Celtic languages came into widespread use from when the Celts arrived, and some of them continue to be used in parts of the United Kingdom (Britain), and in parts of Ireland even today.
In 43AD, a Roman army landed in Britain and the Romans remained a force in the country, probably up until the beginning of the 5th century. The lack of manpower, and the presence of native tribes who were strong, brave and warlike prevented the Romans from ever taking control of the island the way that they had done so elsewhere. However, they did have an impact in certain areas, especially in southern towns and cities, where Latin, the Roman language, was widely known.
As most of the population outside the towns did not speak Latin, it quickly died out as a spoken language. However, Latin remained in use in the Christian church and in the legal system for much longer. Roman Catholic church ceremonies were still held in Latin up to the beginning of the 1970s, for example.
Here are just a few of the words that English speakers borrowed from Latin:
actor, administrator, animal, apostrophe, bonus, camera, circus, colour, cranium, creator, creditor, crisis, December, doctor, editor, ego, exit, factor, focus, genius, gymnasium, interest, interior, labour, major, maximum, minister, museum, narrator, operator, par, per cent, plus, pollen, quantum, recipe, rumour, senator, senior, sinister, sinus, status, superior, terror, translator, tutor, ulterior, veto, virus and visa.
A major step forward in terms of language took placed when a group of Germanic migrants, who became known as the Anglo-Saxons, arrived from what is now the northwest of Germany and The Netherlands, around the 5th century. In effect, the invaders were a mix of Anglos, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and Franks who mainly settled in the east and south of Britain. Largely, the foundations of English were based on the Germanic languages that they spoke, which developed over the four hundred or so years that they lived in Britain before the next band of invaders arrived.
The Vikings, most of whom came to Britain from Denmark, spoke Old Norse. They first began to attack settlements on the east coast of England around 793. However, they gradually took over most of the east of England, in the period from 850 to about 950, but continued to be important up until at least 1035, though they were no longer as powerful as they had been earlier.
Some of the words that entered our language from Old Norse include words containing ‘th’ and ‘sk’ such as ‘they’, ‘there’, ‘then’, ‘skirt’, ‘sky’, ‘skate’, ‘skin’, and ‘skull’. We also have the Vikings to thank for the origins of words such as ‘anger’, ‘bun’, ‘cake’, ‘egg’, ‘gate’, ‘husband’, ‘knife’, ‘slang’, and ‘window’. Thursday was called Thorsdag in Viking Britain, after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Erik (now generally Eric) was a Viking first name, while the -son suffix on the end of a family name literally meant ‘son of’ and was of Viking origin.
The Norman invasion began in 1066 and changed Britain, and English, greatly. The Norman French king, William the Conqueror, established a network of castles to defend and control the country, giving land to his loyal knights and counts, and introducing the feudal system. He made Anglo-Norman the language of the royal court, though Latin was largely used in government documents. The Normans did not have a significant effect on place names but many of the first names we use today came from them, such as Richard, Robert and William.
As the Normans made Norman French the language of the king’s court, it also became important in certain parts of the language, such as terms related to the church, courts, government and culture, as well as food. For instance, the English word ‘beef’ came from the Old French buef, probably around 1300. However, we still use the word ‘cow’ (from Old English) to refer to the animal that provides the beef. Similarly, we get ‘mutton’ meat (Old French moton) from ‘sheep’ (Old English). Other examples of words we adopted include bacheler, now bachelor, conestable or constable and parlement, now parliament. Incredibly, up to 50% of the vocabulary that we use in modern-day English came from Anglo-Norman!
Old English to Middle English
By the end of the 12th century, Old English had largely evolved into Middle English, which continued to be used until the late 15th century. The use of Middle English in literature by writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer helped to define and refine the language and helped to spread its usage. Similar situations arose in Italian, for example, due to writers such as Dante Alighieri, and in French due to the development of the roman, or romance tales including the stories of Arthur and his knights.
Early Modern English
Over the next two to three centuries, there were more changes such as the introduction of the printing press and the standardisation of the language with the dialect spoken in London because of its use in government, led to a shift to Early Modern English. This was the language of William Shakespeare. This period was when the first English dictionary was published. By now, widespread changes in pronunciation patterns had also taken place.
The final significant shift from Early Modern to Modern English took place from the 17th century onwards. However, the main differences were that spelling became much more standardised and English vocabulary grew enormously. This was due to increased travel and new ideas such as industrialisation.
Most of the important changes in the English language had taken place by the time English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish soldiers, sailors, traders and adventurers began to set up home in America, Australia, New Zealand, India and elsewhere. The happy result of this is that it has allowed us to communicate in a common language that we can all understand.
As language is always evolving, we do sometimes use different vocabulary, expressions or even grammar in different native-English speaking countries. Similarly, every language and culture touched by those who left Britain and later returned with tales of their adventures has added new words to the language. For instance, here are some words from India: bangle, bungalow, chai, cheetah, cot, curry, dinghy, guru, hullabaloo, jungle, jute, khaki, loot, nirvana, polo, pyjamas, shampoo, shawl, typhoon, veranda and yoga.
Last, but far from least, English has borrowed a number of Japanese words. So, thank you, and please forgive us if we do not always use these as a Japanese speaker would. Borrowed words generally fill a gap in our culture, or get adapted to fit with how we think, not how those who originally used them did.
Here’s a short A-Z list: aikido, akita, bento, bonsai, dojo, futon, geisha, haiku, hibachi, ikebana, judo, jujutsu (often written jiu-jitsu), kabuki, kaizen, kanban, karaoke, karate, kendo, kimono, koi, manga, mirin, miso, noh, nori, origami, ramen, sake, satsuma, sensei, shiatsu, shiba inu, soba, soy, sudoku, sumo, sukiyaki, sushi, tempura, tofu, tsunami, tycooon, udon, wasabi, and zen.
That seems like a good place to draw this potted history of English to a close.
Bye for now!