The Origins of the English Language

What is the origin of the English language? Few languages in the world can claim that their own language is foreign. That holds true for the English language. The first Viking invasions all but wiped out the Celtic group of languages that can actually be considered native. Their Germanic languages, mostly old Danish and Norwegian were the bases for today’s English, Anglo-Saxon. Though less than 1,500 words from that language remain today, and more modern words were added, those words make up 90% of everyday’s conversation, being the most frequently used in everyday life. The Normans, who introduced French as the official language, however, created a unique blend that made the English language probably the oddest Germanic language there is, and, as British colonization extended its influence to what is today’s Commonwealth made it even more apt at absorbing – and learning from more languages and cultures. The video sums up the history of the English language – to read more, scroll on and jump to the article!

From a historical point of view, English is a Germanic language derived from a mix of a number of Low German dialects spoken in Southern Denmark and part of the Netherlands around 4-500 A.D.

The first peoples to introduce Germanic dialects at the fall of the Roman Empire came from that area. As they landed in Britain, they were pushed westward by more Germanic tribes along with the same Romanized Celts they had once driven away themselves.

Although the first English settlers we know of from prehistoric times are the Celts (though, ironically, the original meaning of ‘Welsh’ is ‘foreign’), it is almost certain that more Mediterranean peoples must have been there for some time, especially in some parts of Scotland. Unfortunately, little remains in the English language of the Celtic and Mediterranean substratum, and little more of Rome’s later presence.

When the invaders landed in England, the English natives retreated westward into the forests of Wales with the few Romans that had not returned to Europe at the fall of the Empire (476 A.D.) The refugees that settled in Wales were Romanized Celts, spoke Latin as their standard language but often used the Celtic language in their homes – they were Roman and Celts who still felt part of the Roman Civilisation and fought to defend and preserve that culture.

The legend of King Arthur is said to have originated from these Roman Celts – it might have been inspired by an attempt to fight off the German invaders. Britain’s prehistoric settlement dates back much earlier, to the last years of glaciation, about 15,000 years ago when the island was freed from the bank of ice that linked it to the continent.

Polar winters ended in the North about 8,500 years ago, attracting migration from continental people looking for free lands. The first peoples likely came from Southern Europe, paddling their way from the Mediterranean. The Celts may have arrived later – in the ninth or eighth century before Christ. Apparently, they were coming from Belgium and Northern France. They inaugurated the Iron Age, their presence increases as more Celtic tribes leave the continent from the 5th century B.C. in search of land.

Caesar’s Roman conquest of England dates to 55-54 B.C., but scholars estimate that their impact on the local language must have been minimal, since there is almost no trace of Latin words until the Norman Conquest. The Roman influence extended to England – but caused less linguistic change than in Europe, where Celts had spoken Latin decades before they were annexed to the Roman Empire because of their frequent commercial exchanges with Italy. In Britain, Roman influence was limited to England. The Scots stopped the Romans at Hadrian’s Wall.

However, colonisation of England would not be accomplished until the next century. Much later, around 400 A.D. The Romans started to leave the Island to defend the continent, particularly the Italian peninsula, from the same wave of invasions that were pushing the Celts westward, eventually turning England into a land run by a number of low German (North Germany and the Netherlands) tribes.

“Beowulf”, a war saga written in Anglo-Saxon times, is the epic that perhaps best captures the spirit of Britain in the early Middle Ages

The Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons, the largest groups to colonise Britain were followed by the Danes a few centuries later. Initially, the Viking Danes periodically raided the eastern shores of Britain and sometimes went inland going up rivers, but retreated to their homeland as soon as they pillaged the lands. They did not want them, they had rather have the natives pay hefty sums of money in exchange for their ‘protection’.

Giving the military weakness of the English natives at that times, they tried to integrate the invaders into their society by granting them land titles so that they would be subject to the Crown. Those who became faithful to the King severed their ties with their homeland. However, it was not always the case.

Some of the Danes also settled in France in much the same way. Here, they were named Normans (North-men), and occupied what is today’s Normandy. Ironically, two centuries later the Normans would take arms against their own race by claiming England for the King of France.

Those that settled down in France would soon lose command of their Danish: in the 11th century their language and culture was French, they had all converted to Christianity, all of them were part of the landed aristocracy.

The ‘French’ invaders extended their conquests from England (1066) to Southern Italy (1059) down to the Holy Land with the crusades. The reason the English language shows such strong romance traits as compared with German, for instance, is that Norman colonisation (1066-1200) introduced French as the official language, eventually creating blending German and French dialects.

In spite of the Norman Invasion, Middle English would keep most of its German features until the Norman rulers fully integrated into the culture of their subjects. This happened when England severed its ties with France in 1200. At this point the French-speaking élite started to unlearn their language when learning to speak Anglo-Saxon.

In trying to adapt to that culture they introduced most of their own vocabulary into the local German languages. Anglo-Saxon words competed with French ones with losses on both parts. The old inflections disappeared, leaving only room for a limited use of genitive (once written without the apostrophe) ‘whose’ while confining the dative to ‘whom’.

In the 11th century the divide between French and English speakers was more ethnic than linguistic, but in the 12th intermarriage between the rich natives and the Normans gradually turned French into a language to use in official acts and ceremonies. The mixed couples of the aristocracy were bilingual, but would educate their sons in France, a telling sign that French was no longer widely spoken. When in 1200 King John married Isabel d’Angouleme, already betrothed to Hugh of Lusignan, attacking his home, the divorce with France was official – and inevitable.

John’s subsequent refusal to submit to the King’s justice and return Isabel to Hugh was punished with the forced annexation of the dukedom of Normandy to the Crown from 1205. However, England became de facto an independent nation. The quarrel with the French meant that the Anglo-Normans would no longer send their sons to the continent to learn the language and recognise English as their primary language.

Independence from France stopped English from turning into a romance language. In the 14th century, few were the nobles who could speak fluent French. Chaucer says in the Canterbury Tales that the Prioress in the Canterbury Tales that

“Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetishly After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe”. (Prologue, vv.124-6)

The prioress had less command of French than she pretended to, she had only studied it far from France, in an English convent, the joke that “she knew know French from Paris” suggest, maybe, that the rivalry between England and France prevented the English aristocracy, more so less wealthy, from sending their scions to the continent or avail themselves of native French speakers in England.

However, the French heritage in the English language is neither marginal nor superficial. Many French words could be clearly identified as French even when spoken. In Chaucer’s times and until the late 1400s the pronunciation was nearer to French than modern English. The Great Vowel Shift accomplished in the 1500s changed that pronunciation. This may help explain why many French words are not clearly identifiable by a native French speaker.

The Vowel Shift was a profound change that affected vocals, especially the long vowels which lost their original value, (oo /o:/ > /u:/, ee /e:/ > /i:/) and were replaced by diphthongs of A, I, O, U in words as fame A=/ei/, fine /fain(, tone /toun/, fume /fju:m/. The result of the shift was Shakespeare’s English, which sounded much like today’s English.

By the start of the English Renaissance in the late 1500s, the old -th ending for the third person singular was often replaced by -s. That is apparent from the uncertain spelling found in Elizabethan dramas, official documents and correspondence. Though many spelling variants would not disappear for a couple of centuries, King James Bible (1611) brought Shakespeare’s, and therefore modern English into the household.

Even with words and phrases that certainly sound old-fashioned to our ear, Shakespeare’s English can be read – and listened to – without too much effort – also being the standard of the Authorized Version (1611). Changing “ Ay, she goeth not thither, she hath a fever ” for “Yes, she won’t go there, she has a fever” does not affect comprehension. Many English counties have also kept these old-fashioned phrases within their dialects – many of which flourished, again in America when the first settlers set foot in Plymouth, Massachussets.


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