Thursday, 19 July 2012


Where does the English language come from?

Most European languages and many others from southern and western parts of Asia belong to the Indo-European group of languages, which includes languages spoken by almost three billion native speakers all around the world. Two of these are the most widely spoken languages in the world: Spanish and English, which come from different branches of the common Indo-European trunk. This picture portrays the main languages that supposedly derive from a common tongue that has disappeared. 
The Indo-European Branches of the Language Tree

 As you can see, English is a Germanic tongue, but it has been largely influenced by Latin and French, and more than half its vocabulary comes from these two languages, making it as much a Germanic as a  Romance language.

Origins of 
English PieChart
The origin of English words. From Wikipedia Commons

But why has it received such a large influence of these two languages? The reason can be found in History. 

Around the 5th century AD some Germanic tribes invaded Britain. They were mostly Angles and Saxons coming from what is now Germany. They brought with them their language and did not mix with the older inhabitants of the British Isles, the Celts, who were mostly pushed towards the westernmost part of the country, a more mountainous and unassailable area where they settled and maintained their culture and language to this day: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are still alive and kicking, however, they have not influenced English, and very few words remain in it, many of them being place names.

Celtic languages today: green: Irish, red: Manx, blue: Scottish Gaelic, yellow: Welsh, orange: Cornish, pink: Breton

The Romans had conquered the British Isles some centuries before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but, unlike in other parts of Europe, their language, Latin, was not widely spoken by the original inhabitants and so, once the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, all influence of Latin died with it. However, it was much later, when the new inhabitants of the Isles became Christians when Latin became important, as it was the language of the church. Many English words such as bishop (from Latin episcopus) entered the language at this early stage. 

Latin kept on exerting some influence on the English language up to the 17th century, because it was the language of culture as teachers and students at universities used it for their studies and spoke and wrote in it. The period of the Renaissance was especially fruitful, with hundreds of words entering the language at the time and many writers, including Shakespeare, are responsible for coining new words of Latin origin.

The Anglo-Saxons suffered invasions from other Germanic tribes such as the Vikings, but the one that brought greater influence on the language was that of the Normans, a Germanic tribe that had previously settled on the north of France and had made French their language. So, when they conquered Britain in the 11th century, after the famous Battle of Hastings (1066), French became the language of the court and the nobility, and English was consigned to the popular classes and mainly spoken at home. 

The Battle of Hastings From Flemish Tapestries 

For 200 years at least French remained the language of ordinary intercourse among the upper classes in England but, eventually, it was English that became widely spoken and the use of French was restricted to some legal terms only. However, this Old English was so much influenced already by French that it is known by a different name: Middle English. That is, the original Germanic language had changed enormously in the course of two centuries losing most of the inflection and adding hundreds of new words which sound perfectly English to us, even though they are originally French. One example is the word table.

Apart from Latin and French, other languages have influenced English to a smaller extent, but that will be dealt with in another blog post!

No comments:

Post a Comment