English is the official language of over 50 countries throughout the world. With 20% of the world speaking English, the questions beckon, “where did it start? How did English travel to such a vast area spanning the entire globe? Where does the English language stand today?”
As we explore the popular language’s depths, consider how understanding the twists of English’s journey helps you fully realize why the language’s rules appear complicated and often in contradiction to each other. A thorough understanding of the interwoven nature of the language yields a deeper appreciation of the rules’ exceptions. In turn, your English proficiency test scores likely will reflect this comprehension of history.
Where English started
As one would expect, the English language came from England. Experts believe the language originated from nomads, people who travel from place to place without a specific home. These nomads are believed to have traveled amongst the European plains about 5,000 years ago. Their dialect was called Proto-Indo-European, and its speakers were located in southeastern Europe north of the Black Sea.
Over time, Proto-Indo-European morphed into the ancient variations of Latin, Greek, and German. Latin changed into Spanish, French, and Italian. Ancient German evolved to become Dutch, Danish, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and eventually English.
The blending of languages to English
There is not one specific point where English transformed into what we speak today. One thousand five hundred years ago, a southern Danish tribe called the Angles crossed the English Channel. Following the Angles were the German-Dutch originating Saxons and the northern Danish Jutes.
The three fought the Celts, invading them and ultimately killing or enslaving their people. Those who escaped found a new home in Wales. The land the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled in was named ‘Angle-land’, or England. Recently, historians have questioned this well-known origin story’s accuracy, wondering instead of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Celts were simply all immigrants of the land.
Moving past this debate, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes eventually mixed within themselves. Out of this blending, the language began to form into what is known today at “Anglo-Saxon” or “Old English.
Very few can understand Old English, although several stories and pieces of literature are written using it. Perhaps the most famous was written over 1,000 years ago: Beowulf. This poem is regarded as one of the most important pieces of Old English literature.
During the Old English period, some significant contributions are words such as heart derived from Old English heorte, come from Old English cuman, and old from Old English eald. As for grammar, irregular verbs such as drink, drank, drunk hold a similar tone to what was Old English’s drincan, dance, drunken.
The Vikings changed Old English
Starting around 860 AD, invaders from Denmark, Norway, and other northern countries invaded Britain’s coastal areas. These individuals were called Vikings. They were notoriously fierce fighters, overpowering and conquering where they sought. The Anglo-Saxons referenced these fighters as Danes, Norsemen, Northmen, the Great Army, sea-rovers, sea wolves, or the heathen.
As a consequence of their invading and, at times, settling, the English language once again changed. New words were picked up such as egg, they, get, sky, steak, law, bread, fog, window, husband, slaughter, and lump. The name for the weekdays came from Norse gods, such as Tiw for Tuesday, Woden became Wednesday, and Thor for Thursday.
The Norman Conquest brings new English words
In 1066, William the Conqueror led the Norman Conquest. The Normans were from the northern part of France and spoke French. At the time of the conquest, French was considered the most important language of that time, and the rulers spoke French alone for the next few hundred years. While the educated spoke French, the commoners of England spoke Old English.
The influence of the hundreds of years of French and the language changes caused historians to refer to this period as Middle English. During it, English’s language grew to include words such as damage, prison, pork, beef, jury, parliament, justice, and marriage. “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer is an example of this Middle English period’s language and writings.
Middle English may have influenced how an English sentence is delivered: subject, verb, object. Due to the inflection in the pronunciation or lack of it, it was often difficult to understand what the speaker was trying to say. As a result, this set word order of subject, verb, and object helped give clues to the listener of the word or sentence’s meaning.
From Middle English to Modern English
The final shift from Middle English to Modern English is believed to have transpired with the invention of printing. At the end of the 15th century, the first books used an East Midlands/London variety of English. As this style was used in the books, it developed into a more standardized format with spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, and grammar.
During the 15th and 17th centuries, the Great Vowel Shift also took place. During this time, English speakers changed the way they pronounced long and short vowels. Despite the vowel sounds changing, the words’ spelling did not change, as they were nearly permanent, perhaps due to the distribution of printed materials. Today, the disconnect between the written and spoken English language still exists and is unique compared to most other European languages. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an example of early Modern English.
The English Renaissance and the English language
During the 16th and 17th centuries, both Queen Elizabeth and Shakesphere profoundly influenced the English language’s continued development. Unlike the previous changes to the language primarily influenced by conquest, the changes during this time were due to literary translation. The Bible was one of the major translated and printed books to circulate during this time, which brought the church’s language to the commoner.
Latin was still considered a language of the educated, and thus, numerous texts needed to be translated from the Latin language into English. Some words came straight from Latin, such as focus, lens, paralysis, nausea, and genius, while others were altered, e.g., horrid, frugal, explain, orbit, atmosphere. The suffixes -ize and -ism were also added to the English language during this period. Often, it appeared as if words were being invented or reintroduced from Old English.
Throughout this period, numerous books of grammar rules and dictionaries were printed. These could be seen as attempts to create order in the midst of what seemed a chaotic language. It is debated if, in the end, the set of rules whose words often were in contrast to the rules made the language even more confusing.
If one person arguably changed the English language, this man was William Shakespeare. Through his immense vocabulary and ability to create original words, he invented some 2,000 words. Some examples of these are eyeballs, homicide, brittle, lonely, gloomy, and majestic. Further, Shakespeare coined phrases that are still in use today such as out of thin air, as luck would have it, and fool’s paradise.
Trade influencing language
Amid such development of words, trade influenced the English language. Trade with the French brought words such as chocolate, crew, salon, duel, shock, and garage. With the Italian came the words carnival, casino, design, studio, umbrella, ballot, and piano. The Portuguese contributed breeze, tank, fetish, and molasses, while the Dutch/Flemish added spool, stripe, dam, booze, bugger, knapsack, landscape, leak, sleigh, and brick.
How and where the English language spread
The English language ultimately spread its influence outside of England. Mainly with the English’s immigration, the language traveled as an unknown stowaway, ready to make its presence known once unpacked in the new world.
With the 17th century came the migration of Pilgrims from England to America. Because the settlers came from different areas of England, the language was influenced by the originating location. The Southern drawl and Boston-accent are directly the effects of those who immigrated to those areas. In this particular case, the Puritans to Boston and the Royalists to the South. Today’s American English is closer to 18th century British English than the English spoken in Britain today. Present-day America is home to some 231 million English speaking citizens.
In the late 1700’s, mostly convicts from the British Isle found their way to Australia. Unlike America, Australia does not seem to differ significantly in accent from place to place; however, with the aborigines’ influence, new words were introduced, such as kangaroo, wombat, and boomerang. Today, nearly 70% of Australia’s current population speaks English.
During the American Revolution, Canada found itself the receiver of British loyalists. While Canada’s English can sound similar to American English, certain words’ spelling reflects more British influence. For example, colour instead of color. Like Australia, Canada does not seem to have a high irregularity of dialects, as seen in America. Canada currently has nearly 19 million English speaking people.
In the 17th century, the British East India Company introduced India to the English language. As a result of British colonialism, English was considered the governing language and still is today due to the variety of India’s languages. Like Australia, India added words to the English language. We can thank the country for pajamas, shampoo, cash, and bungalow. Today, India has approximately 125 million English speakers.
The state of the English language today
One in five people or about 20% of the world speaks English, breaking down to nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide and over 50 countries listing English as their official language. With 6,500 languages spoken globally, Harvard Business Review declares English as the language of business.
|Countries with English as an Official Language
|Antigua and Barbuda
|Ireland, Republic of
|Trinidad and Tobago
|Turks and Caicos Islands
|British Virgin Islands
|Canada (except Quebec)
|Papua New Guinea
|St. Kitts and Nevis
|St. Vincent and the Grenadines
English proficiency tests and the history of English language
While studying the development of the English language may be an exceptional use of thirty minutes, you may be wondering, “how does this translate to my English proficiency tests?” Quite simply, knowledge is power.
By merely memorizing rules that do not always apply, the best English learners and the most skilled native speakers will nevertheless find themselves at a point of memorization that meets frustration. Without context behind why a word may be spelled with a silent letter or an unnecessary “ou.” the language seems near impossible to master.
With the knowledge of the influences on the language, the mystery of irregularities starts to unravel. Instead of reeling in frustration, you can dissect when a word came to be and admire the journey which gave space for a penstroke’s ability to paint a visual. In short, by recognizing the influences throughout the centuries, one can stop memorizing and appreciate the various influences in a single language.
Rest assured, by practicing speaking, reading, and writing, you will find yourself correcting mistakes once overlooked, teaching others about the reasons behind mismatched pronunciations and spellings, and frankly finding yourself more confident in your English speaking ability. Who knows, in the next few decades, we could see the English language change once again.