Influences on the English Language
Influences on the English Language
The English language evolved in what is now the south of England, after the Angle and Saxon tribes colonised the area. These tribes spoke a variety of West Germanic dialects, and the close proximity of the tribes led to the evolution of a single language, which is known as Old English. Despite the name, Old English was vastly different from modern English, and most people who speak English today cannot recognise Old English as the same language. About half of the words in modern English have Old English roots, but they existed in different forms back then, and Old English grammar was very different. Words were given a different order in sentences, and they were even inflected based on gender.
Many people think that English evolved from Latin, but this isn’t entirely true. The Germanic languages evolved from what language scholars call ‘Proto-Germanic,’ which is believed to have evolved from an ancient ‘Indo-European’ language. Latin has its roots in this same language, so it is technically an older cousin of English. The West Germanic dialects had already absorbed many Latin words by the time Old English came into being, and English inherited these words, and continued to borrow more as it evolved. English also absorbed many words from the Celtic languages that were spoken in the British Isles before their colonisation by Germanic tribes. Words like ‘whiskey,’ ‘bog,’ and ‘shindig,’ are Celtic in origin.
The first major change to the English language came about with the Viking invasions of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Vikings conquered large parts of England, and in many cases settled down and mixed with the Anglo-Saxons. The influence of Old Norse on Old English was massive. Over the next two centuries, English grammar changed drastically. The practice of inflecting words for gender was completely thrown out, and today the only survivors of this ancient custom are gendered pronouns such as ‘her,’ and ‘his.’ Thousands of Old Norse words also made their way into the language. Common English words such as ‘anger,’ and ‘sky,’ have Old Norse roots.
At the end of the eleventh century, a second wave of colonisation took place in England. This time the invaders were Normans, a group of people from what is now the north of France. The Normans spoke an ancient Romance language called ‘Old Norman.’ It is because of the Norman influence on the English language, as well as the influence of Latin, that modern English bears many similarities to Romance languages such as Spanish and French.
For a long time after the Norman invasions, the upper class in England consisted of Norman aristocrats and their descendants. These people continued to speak an old dialect of French, and French was even considered an official language of England for hundreds of years. During this time, many French words made their way into the vocabularies of English-speaking peasants. Today, almost a third of English words have French origins. Interestingly, words that have French origins are still considered more formal than words that have Germanic origins, due to the old status of French as a prestige language. For example, ‘a cordial reception,’ sounds more formal than ‘a hearty welcome.’
After the massive changes brought about by centuries of foreign colonisation, the English language was sufficiently different from Old English to be almost unrecognisable. Scholars call the English from this period ‘Middle English,’ and with a little difficulty, most modern English speakers can understand the meaning of texts from this time.
The Middle Ages were marked by a gradual decline of the Norman aristocracy and their influence. By the fourteenth century, the English upper class was speaking English, and the language continued to change and evolve. The practice of making words plural by adding ‘en’ was dropped in favour of adding ‘s,’ and the spelling of many words changed. An English literary scene began to develop, and when the printing press was introduced, it helped standardise English grammar and spelling, and English texts were made available throughout Europe.
Modern English is similar to Middle English, but it has a much vaster vocabulary. For several centuries, English has been incorporating words from languages all around the world, and today English has the largest lexicon of any language. The Oxford English dictionary lists about 250,000 words, but most native English speakers have a vocabulary of closer to 20,000. Spelling conventions continue to change as well, as can be seen in the variations between American and British English. There is no doubt that the English language is still evolving, and people in the future might have as much difficulty trying to understand our English as we have understanding the Old English of the past.