Have you ever wondered how English, with nearly 750,000 words, became the wonderfully expressive and multifaceted language it is today?
Unlike languages that developed within the boundaries of one country (or one distinct geographic area), English has evolved, from its beginnings 1,600 or so years ago, by crossing borders and through invasions, picking up bits and pieces of other languages along the way and changing as it spread. language around the world.
Old English (450-1.100)
The history of the English language began with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the fifth century AD. These tribes, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what is today Denmark and northern Germany. At that time, the inhabitants of Britain spoke the Celtic language. But most speakers of the Celtic language were pushed west and north by invaders – mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The word Angles came from ‘Englaland’ [sic] and their language was called ‘Englisc’ – from which the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ are derived. Their language, now known as Old English, was soon adopted as the lingua franca in this relatively remote corner of Europe. Although Old English was difficult for me to understand, it provided a solid foundation for the language we speak today and gave us many key words like “be,” “strong,” and “water.”
Middle English (1.100 – 1.500)
Viking Invasion: With the Viking Invasions (the Vikings were a tribe of Nordic people who made their way across northern and northwest Europe 1,000 to 1,200 years ago), Old English mixed with Old Norse, the language of the Viking tribes. Old Norse ended up giving the English language more than 2,000 new words, including “give,” “take,” “egg,” “knife,” “pair,” “run,” and “viking.”
The French are coming: Although English was widely spoken in the British Isles by AD 1000, the Norman invasion established French as the language of royalty and power. Old English was left to the peasants and, despite its less glamorous status, continued to evolve and grow by adopting a whole host of Latin and French words, including such everyday words as “beer,” “town,” “fruit,” and “people,” As well as half of the months of the year. By adopting and adapting French words, the English language has also become more sophisticated by including such concepts and words as ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’.
Early Modern English (1500 – 1800) – Storm ends with storm: In the 14th and 15th centuries, after the Hundred Years’ War with France ended French rule in the British Isles, English became the language of power and influence again. It was given an additional boost by the development of English literature and English culture, led by William Shakespeare.
It is hard to fathom Shakespeare’s influence on the development of the English language and its unique and rich culture. The man is said to have invented no less than 1,700 words, including “crocodile,” “puppy dog,” and “fashion,” in addition to writing classics like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet!
Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the great vowel shift) begins, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. Since the 16th century, the British have been in contact with many peoples from all over the world. This, and the renaissance of classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was a lingua franca in typography. Books are getting cheaper and more people are learning to read. Printing also brought about the standardization of the English language. Spelling and grammar were reformed, and the London dialect, in which most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.
Late Modern English (1800 – Present): The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is the vocabulary. Late Modern English contains many words, arising from two main factors: first, the industrial revolution and technology created the need for new words; Secondly, the English-speaking world has been at the center of much scientific progress, and scientific progress has gone hand in hand with the development of language.
English has become global
From about 1600, English colonization of North America created a distinct American group of English. Some English pronunciations and words “froze” when they reached America. In some ways, American English is more similar to Shakespearean English than it is to modern British English. Some of the expressions that the British call “Americanism” are actually original British expressions that were kept in the colonies while they were lost for a while in Britain (eg, litter for rubbish, loan as a verb rather than lend, Fallfor autumn; another example, frame-up, was reset
ported into Britain through Hollywood gangster movies). Spanish also had an influence on American English (and subsequently British English), with words like canyon, ranch, stampede and vigilante being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana) and West African words (through the slave trade) also influenced American English (and so, to an extent, British English).
Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the USA’s dominance of cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology (including the Internet). But there are many other varieties of English around the world, including for example Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.
English of the 21st century
And on that note: the most amazing thing about English is that it’s still evolving. From the development of local dialects and slang in countries as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, and in cities as different as New York, Oxford and Singapore, to the incorporation of tech vocabulary into everyday English. English is in a constant state of flux.
Vocabulary alone is increasing at a pace of approximately 1,000 new and approved words per year; And these are just the words that are considered important enough to get added to the online version of the English Dictionary! This dramatic increase in new words is largely due to technology, and how people spontaneously coin new words in their email and text transmissions that spread quickly and efficiently via social media. A large percentage of new words are portmanteau words, also called blended words — a word that combines the meaning of two discrete words; for example, cineplex is formed from cinema and complex, bromance is formed from brother and romance, staycation is formed from stay and vacation. You get the idea.