Where did the English language come from?

English is an Anglo-Frisian language brought to Britain in the 5th Century AD by Germanic settlers from various parts of northwest Germany. The original Old English language was subsequently influenced by two successive waves of invasion. The first was by speakers of languages in the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic family, who colonised parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries. The second wave was of the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Norman (an oïl language closely related to French). The history of the language can be traced back to the arrival of three Germanic tribes to the British Isles during the 5th Century AD. Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from what is the present day Denmark and northern Germany. The inhabitants of Britain previously spoke a Celtic language. This was quickly displaced. Most of the Celtic speakers were pushed into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. One group migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants still speak the Celtic Language of Breton today. The Angles were named from Engle, their land of origin. Their language was called Englisc from which the word, English derives.

It is convenient to divide English into periods-Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; to c.1150), Middle English (to c.1500), and Modern English.

Old English

The invaders dominated the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants, whose languages survived largely in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. The dialects spoken by the invaders formed what is now called Old English. Later, it was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Norse, spoken by the Vikings who settled mainly in the north-east. The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distant, including the prefixes, suffixes and inflections of many of their words. The Germanic language of these Old English inhabitants of Britain was influenced by the contact with Norse invaders, which may have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). The most famous work from the Old English period is the epic poem "Beowulf", by an unknown poet.

The introduction of Christianity added the first wave of Latin and Greek words to the language. It has been argued that the Danish contribution continued into the early Middle Ages. The Old English period ended with the Norman conquest, when the language was influenced, to an even greater extent, by the Norman French-speaking Normans. The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development. According to Lois Fundis, (Stumpers-L, Fri, 14 Dec 2001) "The first citation for the second definition of 'Anglo-Saxon', referring to early English language or a certain dialect thereof, comes during the reign of Elizabeth I, from a historian named Camden, who seems to be the person most responsible for the term becoming well-known in modern times."

Middle English

For the 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and the high nobility spoke only a variety of French called Anglo-Norman. English continued to be the language of the common people. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until AD 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old French or Latin. A large number of Norman words were assimilated into Old English, with some words doubling for Old English words (for instance, ox/beef, sheep/mutton). The Norman influence reinforced the continual evolution of the language over the following centuries, resulting in what is now referred to as Middle English. During the 15th century, Middle English was transformed by the Great Vowel Shift, the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration, and the standardising effect of printing. Modern English can be traced back to around the time of William Shakespeare. The most well-known work from the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Various contemporary sources suggest that within fifty years most of the Normans outside the royal court had switched to English, with French remaining the prestige language largely out of social inertia. For example, Orderic Vitalis, a historian born in 1075 and the son of a Norman knight, said that he only learned French as a second language. English literature starts to reappear circa AD 1200, when a changing political climate, and the decline in Anglo-Norman, made it more respectable. By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched back to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in specialised circles for a while longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

Modern English

From the late 15th century, the language changed into Modern English, often dated from the Great Vowel Shift. English is continuously assimilating foreign words, especially Latin and Greek, causing English to have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. As there are many words from different languages the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, notably in the West Country. In 1755 Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary.

It is basically a north-european Germanic language like German but with a strong helping of French as a result of the Norman conquest and a strong helping of Latin because that was the language of the Church and the Law. Also the Viking invasions in the north of England introduced many words which are more common in the north than the south. (eg south = hill, north = fell) Lastly, during the several hundred years of conquest and Empire the language imported many words from countries like India. This is why English is so rich with over 500,000 words.