Today, you can go almost anywhere in the world, and you’ll find someone who can communicate with you in English. Some speak it well, and some speak it with difficulty, but almost everyone knows at least a few words.
With that in mind, it occurred to me recently that I would like to know a little more about how the English language got its start, how it developed, what influenced it, and how it rose to such a position of prominence in the world.
In this piece, we’ll take a brief look at the origin of English and its evolution from the fifth century to the early 21st century and look at what influenced English along the way, including the Industrial Revolution, colonialism, and the rise of the United States, all leading to English being established as a world language.
First, let’s take a look at the roots of English.
Between 3500 and 2500 B.C., the inhabitants of Eastern Europe and Central Asia started to fan out across Europe and Asia. These people, Indo-Europeans, or Proto-Indo-Europeans, spoke what we call Indo-European, which by around 1000 B.C. split into a dozen or more language groups, one of which was Germanic, which itself split into different varieties over time.
Jumping forward to the latter fifth century, we see the arrival in Britain of Germanic tribes (the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes) from what is now Denmark and Germany.
But before the Germanic tribes arrived, Britain was inhabited by the Celts, who were instrumental in the early development of Britain. They spoke Latin and a Celtic language (the ancestor of modern-day Welsh and Cornish).
The Celts, although more advanced than the less civilized Germanic tribes, were eventually overtaken and minimalized by the arrival of those tribes. The Celts would eventually adopt the Germanic languages and intermarry with the Germanic peoples.
Although very few Celtic words were adopted into English, a number of English place names do have a Celtic origin: Kent, York, London, Dover, and more.
The languages spoken by the Germanic tribes eventually developed into a language with its own distinctive features, different from those of the tribes on the Continent, and became what we call Old English.
If you ever studied the English poem Beowulf in school, you probably didn’t realize what it looks like in its original Old English. Here’s a sample from Beowulf in Old English:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Difficult—no, impossible—to read. What do you think?
You may wonder how this incomprehensible language (to us, anyway) became English—well, keep reading.
Old English continued developing until around the time when William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded Britain.
And conquer the Normans did. William confiscated the lands of the well-to-do Anglo-Saxons, distributing it to a handful of Normans; established the feudal system in England; and reorganized the Church, bringing men from Normandy to become abbots and bishops.
Meanwhile, the masses were left to work the lands of their new Norman landowners. And the women were not spared. They feared abuse and forced marriage with Norman soldiers. Some women even became nuns to avoid becoming wives of Normans.
Since the Normans became the class in power, their language (called Anglo-Norman, or Norman French) became the language of the court, administration, and culture in Britain; meanwhile, the lower classes and the peasantry continued to speak English, considered a low-class, vulgar tongue by the Normans.
But, slowly, the two languages began to merge. The Normans introduced many words into the language, words related to the crown and nobility (castle, prince, count), the court and law (verdict, traitor, contract), and other areas such as war and combat, authority and control, and art and literature.
Yet, many of the Old English words survived, especially words related to the humble trades (baker, miller, shoemaker) and animals of the field (sheep, cow, ox).
Over time, French words would replace English words (crime replaced firen, place replaced stow), or words would be combined to form new words, such as the French gentle combining with the Germanic man to make gentleman. And some words from both English and French survived but with different meanings, such as the Old English doom and the French judgment.
During this period, English grammar and pronunciation were greatly simplified, and by the 14th century, Old English, influenced by French, became the new language we call Middle English.
They even started using the subject-verb-object word order we use today. (That’s a biggie.)
Many of you will remember this Middle English work from your high school or college days: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c1340–c1400). Look at these lines from it:
A cook they hadde with hem for the nones
To boille the chiknes with the marybones,
And poudre-marchant tart and galyngale.
Do you understand it? I don’t either—not much, anyway, although I can guess that “a cook they hadde with hem” probably means “a cook they had with them,” and “boille the chiknes” looks like “boil the chickens.” And I do see the French influence: poudre-marchant?
Want to hear what Middle English may have sounded like? Listen here (click the link near the top of the page).
Let’s continue into a little more familiar territory, Early Modern English; that should be easier to understand.
Toward the end of the 15th century, we see the beginning of the Early Modern English period.
The emergence of the “Great Vowel Shift,” a shift in how vowels were pronounced (becoming shorter and shorter), and the Renaissance of classical learning resulted in many words being introduced into English.
Those factors along with the invention of the printing press meant that a common language was now in print, leading to the standardization of English grammar and spelling.
Those changes resulted in an Early Modern English that we should be able to understand with little trouble, finally.
These are the same lines we saw above in Old English from Beowulf, but in Early Modern English:
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
You might be able to take a guess at what those lines are saying.
And look at these lines from Hamlet’s soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet by Shakespeare:
To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.
Old-fashioned, yes, but you should be able to understand them without much trouble. (Finally, we’re getting somewhere.)
The two factors contributing to this Late Modern English period are firstly that the Industrial Revolution and technology gave rise to the introduction of new words into the language—words that were necessary in order to describe the new inventions and technological advances of this new era.
Secondly, by the early 20th century, the British Empire would come to cover 25 percent of the earth’s surface, including large swathes of North America, Australia, Africa, and Asia, resulting in many words being adopted into English from other countries.
(By the way, in 1879, there was even an attempt to compile a dictionary of words from Anglo-Saxon onward; five years later, they had only reached the word ant. The first Oxford English Dictionary was finally produced almost 70 years later in 1948.)
The 18th century saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. Characterized by a change from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and manufacturing, the Industrial Revolution resulted in technological, socioeconomic, scientific, and cultural advances that the world had never seen.
The initial advances of the Industrial Revolution happened in Great Britain with the harnessing of steam engines to drive machinery and the development of new techniques, materials, and equipment related to manufacturing.
With the new advances came a need for neologisms (newly coined words or expressions), since most of the technological and scientific material was written in English.
Terms like self-acting mill, power loom, and steam press were developed during this period.
And by the late 19th century, the United States had overtaken Great Britain as the world’s fastest growing economy and leader in technology and innovation. This American influence resulted in the coining of new words to deal with the new innovations and inventions, words like electricity, telephone, telegraph, and sewing machine.
The spread of English took different forms in different parts of the world.
In the colonies of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, English settlers brought the language with them, changing it to create new varieties of the language. These varieties of “colonial English” were generally considered inferior to the English spoken in fashionable London circles.
In other parts of the world (Asia, India), English became an official language used in administration and all areas of learning (the sciences, literature, culture).
English also “borrowed” words from different parts of the world not just due to colonialism but also due to trade with colonists from other countries. Some borrowed words include jungle, pajamas, and juggernaut from India; beleaguer from Dutch; and trek from Afrikaans.
In the 20th century, English would continue its spread and influence throughout the world but from a different direction.
After World War I, Great Britain had to face the reality that they could no longer afford an empire. They had no right to rule countries that did not want to be ruled, and their navy was not strong enough to protect the empire anywhere in the world.
In addition, the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which promoted self-determination, or the right to rule yourself, meant that Great Britain could no longer hold on to an empire while supporting this right for other countries.
Eventually, Great Britain would grant independence or commonwealth status to all its former colonies.
World War II left Great Britain economically and politically weak, its prestige, wealth, and authority severely reduced.
And with the eventual loss and partition of India in 1947, a new “English” power was on the rise.
After the Second World War, Europe, in disrepair, was concerned with rebuilding more than with anything else.
Meanwhile, the United States was booming. The influence of American enterprise combined with the spread of English during the centuries of the British Empire would result in English becoming the number-one language of international trade in the 21st century.
English is not an official language in 25 European Union member states, but even in 19 of those states, English is still the most spoken foreign language.
Culturally, the entire world has become obsessed with everything American: music, dress, movies, television, etc. The world can’t have enough of Americana, and English.
Coupled with its economic boom after World War II, the United States led the world in science and technology. And the language of science and technology was, and still is, English. It’s the language behind advances in science, computer technology, and space exploration.
Just about everything we see, hear, use, and invent is in English or at least translated into English.
If two individuals anywhere who speak different languages want to communicate for any reason (business, governmental issues, academics, technology), chances are they will do it in English.
When products are produced for the general public, the instructions are in English and possibly other languages.
In international airports, it is common to hear announcements and see signage in English, usually alongside the local language.
English has become universal.
English is now spoken in over 100 countries, and it has many varieties. Even so, its use has been standardized in many areas, such as print and broadcast media.
And in the world of information and the internet, communication (emails, messages, websites) is done using standard English—an English that is widely accepted as the correct form.
So, from its early beginnings as a language that evolved from Germanic languages with elements of the Celtic language, to an advanced language with a formal and simplified structure, we now have World English.
World English is accepted, widely used, and even necessary in countless areas of communication throughout the world.
What do you think? Do you like the idea of World English—a language that is easy to learn, use, and communicate with, and not subject to any standards?
Perhaps English is being corrupted by influences, both intentional and unintentional, that are ruining it. Or maybe it’s being enhanced to make it more popular and useful than ever before. Stay tuned for a follow-up piece that will go into how various influences are causing and will continue to cause “changes” in English as we know it.