The origins of the English language

July 23, 2015 12:43 pm

“Where did English come from? When we talk about English, we often think of it as a single language. But what do the dialects spoken in dozens of countries around the world have in common with each other?” These are the questions raised in this illustrative video by Claire Bowern, which shows how English has evolved through generations of speakers:

What is certain is that like most languages, English has evolved through generations of speakers. Undergoing many changes over time, now it is possible to trace the language from the present day back to its ancient roots.

Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius_A_XV_f _132rModern English shares many similar words with Latin-derived Romance languages like French and Spanish. They started entering the language with the Norman invasion of England. This meant adding a big amount of French and Latin vocabulary to the English language previously spoken there. Today that language is called “Old English”, the language of “Beowulf”, which probably doesn’t look very familiar. It may be more recognisable if you know some German, because Old English belongs to the Germanic language family.

Here you can see the first page of the epic poem “Beowulf” written in Old English. It is considered the oldest piece of literature in the English language and is the basis of the English we speak today.

introduction-to-beowulf-11-728In this other picture you can also compare the Old English and Modern English versions and notice the differences in the language. It’s perhaps hard to see the roots of modern English, but linguistic experts have helped us by focusing on details and nuances related to structures and vocabulary. English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects and was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders (8th and 9th centuries AD). One second invasion took place by the Normans of the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and developed an English form of this. That is why a large portion of the modern English vocabulary comes from the Anglo-Norman languages. A new vocabulary introduced at this time heavily influenced many organizations, including the church, the court system and the government. European languages, including German, Dutch, Latin and Ancient Greek influenced the English vocabulary during the Renaissance. The Old English period was from the mid-5th century to the mid-11th century, the Middle English period from the late 11th century to the late 15th century, the Early Modern English period from the late 15th century to the late 17th century, and the Modern English period from the late 17th century to the present.

Due to several historical influences over time, English frequently makes use of loanwords originating from other languages.

In any case, the amazing fact remains: nearly 3 billion people around the world, many of whom cannot understand each other, nevertheless speak English, using the same words shaped by six thousand years of history.

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By Lidia Capitan Zamora. Journalist, web editor and social media expert.

Communication Trainee at TermCoord

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