First records of the English language show it had its beginnings in Britain around 700CE.
Now, there are over 400 million native speakers worldwide and English is recognised as the official language in 67 countries. English does trail a little behind Chinese and Spanish in terms of native speakers, however, English is the most commonly taught second language, making it the most widely spoken and written language in the world.
English is used globally in business and trade and an ever increasing number of people want to learn English for this reason.
English has gone through many changes since its beginnings. Three stages of evolution are identified:
- Old English — spoken and written in England from the 5th to mid-12th century, it's part of the Anglo-Frisian group of languages and influenced by the West Germanic tribes.
- Middle English — was influenced by the French language and prevalent from the late-11th century through to mid-15th century.
- Modern English — began to develop in the 1500s through to the language we speak today.
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The Three Stages of the English Language
The history of English, with the story of how the language developed from a somewhat obscure Germanic dialect to the worldwide force it is today, is fascinating.
Pre-700∼1100CE: Old English
Also referred to as Anglo-Saxon, the initial development of Old English is directly associated with the migration of Germanic peoples into Britannia, ousting the Celtic tribes from the region.
These tribes, Angles, Frisians, Jutes and Saxons, spoke a range of languages, including Anglian, Frankish, Frisian, Old Norse and Saxon. Linguists have made direct comparisons between these Germanic dialects and the earliest forms of the English language. 'English' and 'England' both came from the Angles.
Between 700 and 1100CE, the various dialects of the Germanic peoples evolved into Old English. Futhark (the runic alphabets used by Germanic tribes) was initially used before the Latin alphabet was adopted. Phonetically, the linguistics was similar to Old Frisian and were very formal, and some say even boring.
Further invasions, most notably that of the Vikings, continued to influence Old English. The Vikings spoke Old Norse (Old Irish) and introduced many Scandinavian words, a significant number of which are still in use today, including 'husband', 'bug' and 'sway'. Not only do a lot of our words have origins in Old Norse, so too does much of our basic grammar. Rules, such as the use of third-person pronouns (they, them etc.) and the simplification of inflectional word endings.
A brilliant way to become familiar with the English language is to engage with English media outlets.
1100∼1500CE: Middle English
The inciting event which began the transition from Old English to Middle English was the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans had descended from the Vikings but had abandoned the Norse language in favour of a rural dialect of French.
When it came to sentence structure (syntax), Middle English became a conglomerate of Latin-based languages, including Old Scandinavian and Norman French. Both the Danish and Irish languages, also with Germanic roots, are comparable to many English phrases.
William the Conqueror only spoke Norman French so, after he was crowned King at Westminster Abbey and settled in Britain, the Norman language became the language of the courts, while English was spoken by the common people.
This diversity had the effect of completely transforming the English language as hundreds of new words were introduced into the vocabulary. Saxon words (from the Germanic) were used by the commoners and Norman words were used by the nobility — to describe the same items, such as 'pig' and 'pork'.
Over time, words were adopted from the Norman language — bachelor, escape, dance, govern, onion, liquor, question and vacation, to name only a few.
The diagraph 'th' which often causes great pronunciation difficulty for non-native speakers of English, was also introduced by the Normans.
Up until the 1300s, with the nobility speaking French and commoners speaking English, Britain really did not have its own identity — separate from France. The One Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between Britain and France changed that and significantly influenced the language.
English became the official language of the courts in 1362. At the time, the reigning King of England, Henry IV, spoke English as a second language (with French as his first language), however, government documents were written in English in future generations.
It should also be noted that the growth of the Catholic Church, with Latin as its official language, also had a considerable influence on the development of Middle English during this time.
1500∼Present: Modern English
Modern English is divided into two distinct chapters:
- Early Modern English (1500-1700CE) — known as the Great Vowel Shift (distinctive changes in pronunciation) and categorised by the English Renaissance, the printing press, the bible and Shakespeare.
- Late Modern English (1700CE-present) — initially marked by the Industrial and Scientific Revolution, colonialism and the development of the British Empire.
In the current day, we often divide English into contemporary, basic or business categories.
One key shift in Early Modern English was the increased use of vowels, compared to Old English words. A greater focus on grammatical structures, word order and spelling is also an important feature, exemplified in Shakespearean literature.
The influences of Greek and Latin languages cannot be discounted. Latin was the language of science, law and literature, and was considered superior to Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words during the Renaissance. In fact, around 60 percent of our modern-day words, such as 'linguistics', 'medication' and 'sensation', have Latin roots. From Greek, we have many words, including 'biology', 'periscope' and 'octopus'.
Languages from other European countries also influenced English during the Renaissance. From Italy, we have words such as 'graffiti', 'concert' and 'broccoli'. Elizabeth I spoke Spanish, among other languages.
In the years that followed, colonialism meant exploration and trade, which lead to further exposure to other languages. What this meant, in terms of the history of English, was more and more 'foreign words' made their way into the English language. A few examples are:
- Arabic — alcohol, coffee, lemon, safari, lilac
- Dutch — freight, wagon, dock
- Hindi — verandah, chutney, shampoo
- Native American — cashew, avocado, cocoa, hammock, kayak
- Persian — tiger, shawl, musk, bazaar
- Turkish — yoghurt, caviar, kebab
Latin continued to make significant contributions to the language during the Late Modern English period of the 1700s and 1800s. This was a period of greater industrial and technical advancement, and the technical/scientific vocabulary used at this time was derived from Latin, with words such as 'sanatorium', 'agriculture', 'circumnavigate' and 'postmortem'.
At one point, scholars carried out purification campaigns to rid English of its Modern French and Italian influences. They failed.
Eventually, however, by the close of the 18th century, English had begun to take its predominant place in the world of global trade and business.
The British Empire grew — taking the English language with it. At the start of the 19th century, 50 percent of people in Ireland spoke Irish; now, around 98 per cent have English as their native language.
Colonisation lead to a vast spread of English throughout Canada and the United States. Over time, American English, with its varied pronunciation and differing vocabulary, evolved from British English. These differences are evident in English language literature, and particularly in the media and film industries.
Convicts, sent to Australia and South Africa, borrowed words from the local Indigenous languages.
In the 1920s, writer and linguist, C.K. Ogden, devised Basic English. Favoured by Winston Churchill in the 1940s, it used simplified grammar and only the 850 words deemed necessary for everyday life.
Churchill is also credited with a great many inspirational English quotes, including:
Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.
Contemporary English, with its broad lexicon, has been spoken since the beginning of the 20th century. It is said that English has the most words of any language in the world, although this is hard to verify and is highly dependent on whether we choose to include slang and jargon, or loan words, or if we count every individual inflection as one word.
Despite this, it is undeniable the English has the most international influence of any language, and is the language of both business and culture. No wonder English is the most widely spoken language in the world!
If you've been inspired, you may also now have the desire to look at other elements of English and Australian culture.
What about traditional Aussie food?
Or perhaps you would like to start learning English? You can easily find a private tutor, an ESL course, or online English classes with Superprof.