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The Origin and History
of the
English Language

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English is a Germanic Language of the Indo-European Family. It is the second most spoken language in the world.

It is estimated that there are 300 million native speakers and 300 million who use English as a second language and a further 100 million use it as a foreign language. It is the language of science, aviation, computing, diplomacy, and tourism. It is listed as the official or co-official language of over 45 countries and is spoken extensively in other countries where it has no official status. English plays a part in the cultural, political or economic life of the following countries. Majority English speaking populations are shown in bold.

This compares to 27 for French, 20 for Spanish and 17 for Arabic. This domination is unique in history. Speakers of languages like French, Spanish and Arabic may disagree, but English is on its way to becoming the world's unofficial international language. Mandarin (Chinese) is spoken by more people, but English is now the most widespread of the world's languages.

Half of all business deals are conducted in English. Two thirds of all scientific papers are written in English. Over 70% of all post / mail is written and addressed in English. Most international tourism, aviation and diplomacy is conducted in English.


The history of the language can be traced back to the arrival of three Germanic tribes to the British Isles during the 5th Century AD. Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from what is the present day Denmark and northern Germany. The inhabitants of Britain previously spoke a Celtic language. This was quickly displaced. Most of the Celtic speakers were pushed into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. One group migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants still speak the Celtic Language of Breton today. The Angles were named from Engle, their land of origin. Their language was called Englisc from which the word, English derives.

An Anglo-Saxon inscription dated between 450 and 480AD is the oldest sample of the English language.

During the next few centuries four dialects of English developed:

During the 7th and 8th Centuries, Northumbria's culture and language dominated Britain. The Viking invasions of the 9th Century brought this domination to an end (along with the destruction of Mercia). Only Wessex remained as an independent kingdom. By the 10th Century, the West Saxon dialect became the official language of Britain. Written Old English is mainly known from this period. It was written in an alphabet called Runic, derived from the Scandinavian languages. The Latin Alphabet was brought over from Ireland by Christian missionaries. This has remained the writing system of English.

At this time, the vocabulary of Old English consisted of an Anglo Saxon base with borrowed words from the Scandinavian languages (Danish and Norse) and Latin. Latin gave English words like street, kitchen, kettle, cup, cheese, wine, angel, bishop, martyr, candle. The Vikings added many Norse words: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window (wind eye), husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they, their, them. Celtic words also survived mainly in place and river names (Devon, Dover, Kent, Trent, Severn, Avon, Thames).

Many pairs of English and Norse words coexisted giving us two words with the same or slightly differing meanings. Examples below.


Norse English
angerwrath
nayno
frofrom
raiserear
illsick
baskbathe
skillcraft
skinhide
dikeditch
skirtshirt
scattershatter
skipshift


In 1066 the Normans conquered Britain. French became the language of the Norman aristocracy and added more vocabulary to English. More pairs of similar words arose.


French English
closeshut
replyanswer
odoursmell
annualyearly
demandask
chamberroom
desirewish
powermight
irewrath / anger


Because the English underclass cooked for the Norman upper class, the words for most domestic animals are English (ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, deer) while the words for the meats derived from them are French (beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, venison).

The Germanic form of plurals (house, housen; shoe, shoen) was eventually displaced by the French method of making plurals: adding an s (house, houses; shoe, shoes). Only a few words have retained their Germanic plurals: men, oxen, feet, teeth, children.

French also affected spelling so that the cw sound came to be written as qu (eg. cween became queen).

It wasn't till the 14th Century that English became dominant in Britain again. In 1399, King Henry IV became the first king of England since the Norman Conquest whose mother tongue was English. By the end of the 14th Century, the dialect of London had emerged as the standard dialect of what we now call Middle English. Chaucer wrote in this language.

Modern English began around the 16th Century and, like all languages, is still changing. One change occurred when the th of some verb forms became s (loveth, loves: hath, has). auxiliary verbs also changed (he is risen, he has risen).


The historical influence of language in the British Isles can best be seen in place names and their derivations.

Examples include ac (as in Acton, Oakwood) which is Anglo-Saxon for oak; by (as in Whitby) is Old Norse for farm or village; pwll (as in Liverpool) is Welsh for anchorage; baile (as in Balmoral) is Gaelic for farm or village; ceaster (as in Lancaster) is Latin for fort.


Since the 16th Century, because of the contact that the British had with many peoples from around the world, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, many words have entered the language either directly or indirectly. New words were created at an increasing rate. Shakespeare coined over 1600 words. This process has grown exponentially in the modern era.

Borrowed words include names of animals (giraffe, tiger, zebra), clothing (pyjama, turban, shawl), food (spinach, chocolate, orange), scientific and mathematical terms (algebra, geography, species), drinks (tea, coffee, cider), religious terms (Jesus, Islam, nirvana), sports (checkmate, golf, billiards), vehicles (chariot, car, coach), music and art (piano, theatre, easel), weapons (pistol, trigger, rifle), political and military terms (commando, admiral, parliament), and astronomical names (Saturn, Leo, Uranus).

Languages that have contributed words to English include Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic, Hindi (from India), Italian, Malay, Dutch, Farsi (from Iran and Afghanistan), Nahuatl (the Aztec language), Sanskrit (from ancient India), Portuguese, Spanish, Tupi (from South America) and Ewe (from Africa).

The list of borrowed words is enormous.

The vocabulary of English is the largest of any language.

Even with all these borrowings the heart of the language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. Only about 5000 or so words from this period have remained unchanged but they include the basic building blocks of the language: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Grafted onto this basic stock was a wealth of contributions to produce, what many people believe, is the richest of the world's languages.

© 1997, 2002 KryssTal


English - A Historical Summary

History of English


English - A Family Tree

Indo-European Family of Languages

Languages in the same box as English (the Germanic Languages) are sister languages to English and are its closest relatives. Languages in other boxes are "cousin" languages - still related but not as closely. The further the box, the more distant the relationship. The Indo-European family is one of many language families. Languages belonging to other familes are not related to English. Examples of unrelated languages include Arabic, Basque, Hungarian, Mandarin, Malay, Quechua, Tamil, Turkish and Zulu.


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KryssTal Related Pages

A collection of words in the English language that were originally borrowed from other languages. The list features languages as diverse as Old Norse, Norman French, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, Cree, Italian, Quechua, Malay and Ewe.

Grammatical terms and concepts like noun, verb, subject, object explained.

London is a collection of villages that sprang up and slowly amalgamated into the 1500 square kilometre city of the present. Here we look at the origin of place names in London.

Where do words come from? Where do people and place names come from?

English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, which is a large collection of languages with a common ancestor.


External English Language Links

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The English Server
A large collection (over 29,000) of English writings, books and articles.

Bibliomania
An excellent web site for finding and downloading classic novels, poetry and references.

World Wide Words
Investigates international English from a British viewpoint.

Using English
An interesting forum about using the English language.

English
English language guide, the right site to learn English language.

Whiffling
The Wonder of Whiffling is a tour of English around the globe (with fine coinages from our English-speaking cousins across the pond, Down Under and elsewhere). Discover all sorts of words you've always wished existed but never knew, such as fornale, to spend one's money before it has been earned; cagg, a solemn vow or resolution not to get drunk for a certain time; and petrichor, the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell. Delving passionately into the English language, I also discover why it is you wouldn't want to have dinner with a vice admiral of the narrow seas, why Jacobites toasted the little gentleman in black velvet, and why a Nottingham Goodnight is better than one from anywhere else.

Language Courses
The easy way to book English language courses.

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