When you’re learning a new language, understanding its history and origin can enhance your knowledge and make it easier to adopt a native tongue. Being able to identify the root of a word can help you to understand its meaning and pronunciation, for example.
Like all languages, English has developed over many years. In fact, Old English was first spoken in the 5th century, which shows you just how far back the origin of English language goes! Of course, English has evolved greatly since then but some of its roots remain ever-present in today’s language.
Typically considered a Germanic language, English was heavily influenced by the Romans, while Latin and French also had a substantial impact on its development. Read on to get a deeper understanding of the origin of English as you learn the language…
Where Did English Come From?
When the Jutes, Angles and Saxons settled in Britain, they brought their Anglo-Saxon language with them. Over time, this was mixed with Latin and Celtic words, giving a new flair to what we now know as ‘Old English’.
Although Old English is far removed from today’s version of the English language, it’s estimated that approximately 4,500 Anglo-Saxon words are still commonly used by English speakers, including ‘heart’, ‘day’, ‘eat’, ‘think’ and ‘fear’.
Britain continued to use Old English until the arrival of Ivar the Boneless in the mid-9th century. When the Vikings invaded England, their presence meant that many words from the Old Norse language were absorbed into Old English. ‘Club’, ‘loan’, ‘bark’ and ‘scrape’ are just some of the words that originated from Old Norse that continue to be used to this day.
Anglo-Norman and Middle English
Another invasion of British soil led to further linguistic evolution. The Normandy conquest and the reign of William I added another layer to the origin of English language – Anglo-Norman. This dialect was associated with the elite and was often used in conjunction with existing Old English words as synonyms. ‘Mindful’, from Old English, and ‘pensive’ from Anglo-Norman, are two words that have very similar meanings, for example.
As Anglo-Norman became more prevalent, we moved into a linguistic era known as ‘Middle English’. Spoken until the late 1400s, Middle English can be differentiated from Old English by its grammatical changes. In addition to this, Old English frequently altered the endings of words to denote a particular meaning or relationship. In contrast, Middle English rarely did the same. Instead, the construction of sentences evolved so that varying meanings and relationships were expressed differently.
The Rise of Modern English
Considering that Modern English first arose in the 15th century and we’re still using it today, it has certainly stood the test of time! When you examine the origin of English language, it’s the linguistic changes that happened during the 15th to 18th centuries that are most interesting to English language students.
If you’ve ever wondered why some words are pronounced differently in English, despite being spelled in a similar way, you’ve got Modern English to thank! Throughout 1400 to 1700, the way that words were pronounced changed significantly.
Known as the ‘Great Vowel Shift’, long vowels were often shortened. Prior to 1400, ‘mice’ would have been pronounced ‘meese’, for example, but the Great Vowel Shift gave it a new pronunciation. Confusingly, the Great Vowel Shift didn’t apply to all words, which is why some English words sound so different despite their spelling. ‘Heat’ retains its long vowel sound when its spoken, for example, but ‘head’ was modified by the Great Vowel Shift to give it its shorter sound.
How Does Language Evolve?
We might still be speaking Modern English today, but that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed since the 15th century. Language is continually evolving, which is why it gives us such a descriptive view into a region’s history. As English speakers spread to other parts of the world, they took the language with them, giving rise to new forms of English, such as American English, Canadian English and Australian English.
However, you don’t necessarily need to leave the British Isles to hear how the English language has continued to evolve. Even within the country, different dialects evolved at varying rates and in distinct ways, which is why there are so many different accents and modes of speaking from one part of the UK to another.
Furthermore, the increase in international travel and immigration meant that new arrivals to these shores brought their own language with them. Often, words, phrases and intonation were merged with Modern English, creating new subcultures and speech patterns.
Learning English Today
Now that you’ve got an insight into the origin of English, you’ve got the foundation you need to develop your English speaking, listening and writing skills. Whether you’re taking an intensive course, having one-to-one lessons or combining your learning with a vacation, there’s no doubt that understanding the origin of English will make it easier to pick up this wonderful language.