The History of the English Language

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The History of the English Language

According to many philologists and linguists, history of the English language is divided into three periods: Old English, Middle English and New English. However, this division is rather conditional because the English language existed among the tribes inhabiting the British Isles long before the conquest of Britain by Caesar or spread of Christianity in the country.

Celtic culture at the beginning of the history of English

The first mention of the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles in the chronicles refers to the 800 BC. At that time, the island was settled by the Indo-European tribe – the Celts. Those tribes who lived on the islands before the arrival of the Celtic people have left no trace in history.

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The era of the British Celts begins from the 800 BC, and so does the Celtic language in Britain. Many linguists stand for the opinion that the word “Britain” comes from the word of Celtic roots – “brith” that means “colored”. Chronicles state that at the time of the conquest of the British Isles by Caesar the Celts had developed in Britain their own culture. Besides, it is mentioned that the British Celts spoke a special dialect. Such words as “whiskey”, “plaid”, “slogan” were derived from the Celtic language much later.

Roman influence on the development of the English Language

A century after the conquest of the British Isles by Caesar in 44 BC, British Isles were conquered again by the Roman Emperor Claudius who made them a Roman province. During that period, there was a close contact of the Celtic people with the Romans, which is certainly reflected in the language.

There are many words in modern English that have Latin roots, for example, the word “castra” (from lat. “camp”). This root is found in many geographical names in modern Britain – Lancaster, Manchester, Leicester, etc.

Such common words as “street” (“via strata”), “wall” (“vallum”), “wine” (“vinum”), “pear” (“pirum”) and “pepper” (“riper”) are derived from Latin.

Old English period (450 – 1066) in the history of the English language

Direct progenitors of the English people are Germanic tribes of the Saxons, Jutes, Angles and Frisians, who came to the British Isles in the 449. Since those tribes were far larger in number than Celtic ones, Anglo-Saxon dialect completely replaced Celtic dialect.

Due to the Anglo-Saxon tribes, the English language got a lot of geographical names, which have lasted to the present day. Such words as “butter”, “pound”, “cheese”, “alum”, “silk”, “inch”, “mile”, “mint” have German roots. The word Saturday stands for the day of Saturn – a father of the god Jupiter in Roman mythology.

In 597 AD, general Christianization of Britain begins. The Anglo-Saxons were pagan tribes before. The Roman Church sent to the island monk Augustine, who gradually began diplomatically turning the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Augustine’s and his follower’s activities produced great results – by the 700 AD most of the inhabitants of the British Isles were Christians.

A close fusion of cultures was reflected in the language. There are many words that have been borrowed at that time. For example, “school” from the Latin word “schola”, “bishop” from “episcopus”, “mountain” from “montis”, “peas” from “pisum”, “priest” from “presbyter” and others.

Linguists state that in that period, the English language borrowed more than six hundred words from Latin, not counting their derivatives. Basically, these are the words that are related to religion, church and state management.

Influence of the Scandinavian Language Group

In 878, the Anglo-Saxon land was conquered by the Danes, who lived there for many years, intermarrying with the Anglo-Saxons. As a result, a number of new words that derived from Scandinavian languages appeared in the English language. Among them are such words as “wrong”, “anger”, “auk”, “awe”, “axle”, “always”, etc.

According to Oxford Dictionaries,

The distinct North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had great influence on English, most obviously seen in the words that English has borrowed from this source. These include some very basic words such as “take” and even grammatical words such as “they”. The common Germanic base of the two languages meant that there were still many similarities between Old English and the language of the invaders.

Combination of letters “sk-” and “sc-” at the beginning of words in modern English is also very often an indication of Scandinavian origin, for example, “sky” (originally in English – “heaven”), “skin” (originally in English – “hide”), “skull” (originally in English – “shell”).

Middle English period (1066-1500) in the History of the English Language

The Development of the English Language in the middle Ages

In the middle of the XI century, the rulers of France conquered Britain. William the Conqueror, who had a Norman origin, became the king. Since then, the nation entered the era of the three languages: French – the language of the aristocracy and courts, Latin – the language of science, and English – the language of the common people. The mixture of these three languages ​​ has given rise to the formation of modern English.

Mixture of Languages

Linguists interpret modern English as a mixed language because many words have common roots. For example, in English, the following words have different roots in spite of the common sense: “head” – “chapter” – “chief”. Why did it happen? All is explained by the mixing of the three languages. The Anglo-Saxon words designated specific items, like the word “head”. From Latin, the language of science and education, English took the word “chapter”. The word “chief” was derived from French since aristocracy used it at that time.

The same distinction can be found in many meaningful combinations of words in English. For example, different words that denote the animal (the words of German origin) and its meat (these words came from the Old French) do not have a common root as well.

During that period, English words also underwent changes in the grammatical structure. Many verb endings just disappeared. Adjectives acquired degrees of comparison with the addition of the words “more” and “most”. Phonetics of the language also underwent significant changes. By the end of 1500, London dialect gained considerable popularity in the country – more than 90% of people started speaking it.

New Period (1500 – today) in the History of English

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is rightly considered the founder of the English literary language. He is credited with creating the set of idiomatic expressions that are used in modern English. In addition, Shakespeare invented many new words that have taken roots in the language. For example, the word “swagger” first appeared in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

History of the English Language in the Age of Enlightenment

An image of Britain, symbolizing British national character, appeared in 1712. In that year, John Bull, the hero of political pamphlets, was created by John Arbuthnot. Even today Bull is taken for satirizing Englishman.

In 1795, the first textbook “English Grammar” was published by Lindley Murray. Almost for two centuries this textbook was considered fundamental in English grammar. All educated people studied English according to Murray’s grammar.

Modern English

Modern language in the British Isles is not static. Language is constantly gaining neologisms, as well as losing words, which are not used any more.

English continued to borrow from foreign languages throughout the 20th century and will most likely continue to do so indefinitely. In fact, in a July 2003 editorial, a journalist for the prestigious Wall Street Journal wrote, “What makes English so strong, after all, is its openness to new words from the four corners of the world. While English is a crucible of languages, the French seem to think of their language as a soufflé—extremely delicate and always in danger of falling.” (“History of the English Language”)

However, the most important difference between the English language and many other European languages ​​is that in the UK there are no static linguistic rules. Moreover, there are different dialects that differ not only in the pronunciation of words or its phonetics, but also in the way how some words may have different structure and yet the same sense.

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Media and members of the government use British English, but the most popular is considered American English. There are also Australian English, Canadian English, and many other dialects. On the territory of Great Britain, there are several smaller dialects that are spoken in different provinces. As one can see, the English language has preserved its traditions of “mixing the languages” until our days.

Popularity of English is mainly due to the British colonization of Australia and North America. After World War II, the importance of the United States was considerably increased; this contributed to the popularization of English as well. In today’s world of Internet community, scientists and artists mostly communicate in English.

The exact number of people who speak English in our time is difficult to count. Results of various studies differ considerably, but on the average, the number of people speaking English comprises nearly 1 billion. This let us consider the English language the most important means of communication in the modern world.