Here at FLYODI we passionately believe that continual learning is a key aspect of a fulfilled life. So, we will periodically present short, fun learning features. This is Episode 1 of the series. We hope these episodes will generate lots of discussion.
Did you ever wonder where the English language comes from? I recently discussed this question with some friends and, while a number of interesting (and well, let’s say innovative) theories emerged, it soon became clear that none of us was sure of the answer.
Does it derive from Latin, from Greek, is it a romance language, is it a combination of several early languages? We seem to use quite a few French words — like rendezvous and bayonet — perhaps, it derives from the French or the Normans? It seems like a question we should all know the answer to, and yet, we didn’t.
So what do you think? How did the English we speak today come to be?
As it turns out, none of the theories put forward by my friends and I, was even close.
Here’s the very short version of the answer; English originates from the Germanic language of a tribe called the Anglo Saxons, made up of the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, that came to England about 1500 years ago. Over time, mostly due to invasions and the spread of Christianity, English absorbed lots of words — Viking words, French (Norman) words, and a smaller number of Latin words. Later the exploring and colonizing exploits of the British Empire led to lots of new words being added from around the world. Now, of course, the Internet is causing a tidal wave of new words and phrases.
But how did it all happen? Well, here’s a bit more detail.
It took a long time for English (from Angle or Anglish) to get to where it is today. It has three distinct periods: Anglo Saxon (early or Old English), Middle English, and the Modern English that we speak today
Old English (500 to 1200): A decline in the fortunes of the Roman Empire forced them to abandon the defense of the British Isles, leaving the natives of the islands, the Britons and the Celts, subject to the invasions of Germanic tribes. Around 500 AD, a tribe called the Anglo Saxons left the area of modern-day Germany, and settled in the south and east of England.
The the term Anglo-Saxon describes both the people and their language, which we also refer to as Old English. This language was spoken in England for about 700 years. Watch the video below (the Prologue to Beowolf) to hear what Old English sounded like. Notice that the Anglo Saxon language is almost unintelligible to our modern ears. Still, we can detect some modern words, such as “was” and “good”. Some words of modern German are also clearly recognizable, such as the word “koenig” for king”, at 0:57 in the video.
Middle English (1200 to 1500): Like all languages, Anglo Saxon underwent changes and by the mid 1200’s, it had evolved into what we now call Middle English. Listen to the following recording of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, spoken in Middle English. A modern English speaker finds it much more understandable. It’s also interesting that you can not only hear what seems to be a distinctive Scottish style of speaking, but also that elements sounding like modern German remain, for example at 0:43 when the narrator uses the phrase; “Thah-nay longen folk”.
The early Romans in England spoke Latin, as did Christians adherents, who arrived later, but only a relatively small number of Latin words, such as martyr, bishop, and altar, were integrated into English. Over time, however, English integrated about 2000 words from Viking invaders and about 10,000 words from the Normans (French).
Modern English (1600 to the Present): The language spoken from about 1500 onward is referred to as Modern English and, of course, over the years the language became closer and closer to what we speak today. The works of Shakespeare are written in early Modern English. Highlighting the constantly changing nature of languages, there is now a lively debate over the appropriate pronunciation of Shakespeare’s works.
So, there you have it, the Reader’s Digest Condensed versions of the origins of English. To give you a bit of a Monty Python take on the whole process, here’s a very “serious” summary of the History of the English language, by the Open University. 🙂
In reality though, our knowledge of history is probably less certain than we were led to believe in school. Here’s an interesting video that suggests a view that’s contrary to the long-held narrative about the evolution of English. The scholars in the film now think that Old English may have been in England long before the Anglo Saxons arrived, and even before the Romans. In addition, modern technologies, such as DNA research, are changing our views.
Find it surprising that DNA evidence could change our view of history? Well, it’s really starting to happen. For example, DNA evidence recently revealed that around 40,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens breed with Neanderthals, and that the much larger Homo Sapien population probably simply absorbed the Neanderthals, rather than causing them to become extinct through competition, as was widely supposed. This is made clear by the fact that modern humans possess some Neanderthal DNA.
History of English Language
As always. we look forward to your thoughts on this post. So, feel free to enter your comments in the box below — in any language!
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