|THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
The first people in Britain about whose language we have definite
knowledge are the Celts. Celtic was, therefore, presumably the first
Indo-European language to be spoken in the country we now know as
England. Another language, Latin, was spoken for a period of time of
about four centuries before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, but its
use by native Britons was probably confined to members of the upper
The Teutonic tribes which settled in Britain after the Romans had
left it, were the Jutes, Saxons and Angles. Before crossing over to
Britain, the Jutes and the Angles most probably had their home in
the Danish peninsula; the Jutes in the northern half (hence the name
Jutland) and the Angles in the South. The Saxons were settled to the
south and west of the Angles, roughly between the Elbe and the Ems.
First came the Jutes who settled in Kent, then, according to the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Saxons who settled in Sussex and Wessex.
Finally the Angles who occupied the east coast and then established
an Anglian Kingdom north of the Humber.
The Celts called their Teutonic conquerors "Saxons" indiscriminately.
But soon the terms "Angli" and "Anglia" were used for the Teutons
The English language of today is the language which has resulted
from the fusion of the dialects spoken by the Jutes, Saxons and
Angles. In the development of English, we generally distinguish
three main periods. The period from 450 to 1150 is known as Old
English. From 1150 to 1500 the language is known as Middle English.
The language from 1500 to the present time is called Modern English.
Questions and Exercises
1. What was the first Indo-European language to be spoken in Britain?
2. What were the Teutonic tribes that settled in Britain after the
Romans had left it ?
3. Where did these tribes settle?
4. What are the main periods in the development of English?
5. Find out as much as you can from other sources about the other
languages of the Teutonic group.
6. Where did the jutes, Angles and Saxons come from?
Saxons and Normans
"What do you call those grunting animals running about on their four
legs?" asked Wamba.
"Swine, fool, swine', said Gurth, "every fool knows that".
"And swine is good Saxon; but what do you call the animal when it is
killed, quartered and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?"
"Pork", answered Gurth.
"I am very glad every fool knows that, too", said Wamba, "and pork,
I think, is good Norman-French. And so, when the animal lives, and
is in the charge of a Saxon slave, it is called by its Saxon name,
but becomes a Norman and is called pork, when it is carried to the
tables of the Norman Lords. And I can tell you more: the ox has a
Saxon name, while it is under the charge of serfs such as you, but
becomes beef, a good French word, when it arrives before the teeth
that are destined to eat it. The calf, too, becomes veal in the like
manner: it is Saxon when it requires tendance, and it takes a Norman
name when it becomes a matter of enjoyment".
"By St. Dunstan", answered Gurth, "you tell sad truths; little is
left to us but the air we breathe. The best food is for their tables,
our best soldiers die in distant lands fighting for their foreign
masters, and few are left here who have either the will or power to
protect the unfortunate Saxon '.
WALTER SCOTT (Adapted from "Ivanhoe")
When I arrived in England I thought I knew English. After I'd been
here an hour I realized that I did not understand one word. In the
first week I picked up a tolerable working knowledge of the language
and the next seven years convinced me that I would never know it
well. This is sad. My only consolation being that nobody speaks
Remember that those five hundred words an average Englishman uses
are far from being the whole vocabulary of the language. You may
learn another five hundred and another five thousand and yet another
fifty thousand and still you may come across a further fifty
thousand you have never heard of before.
If you live here long enough you will find out to your great
amazement that the adjective nice is not the only adjective the
language possesses, in spite of the fact that in the first three
years you do not need to learn or use any other adjectives. You can
say that the weather is nice, a restaurant is nice, Mr So-and-so is
nice, Mrs So-and-so's clothes are nice, you had a nice time, and all
this will be very nice.
Then you have to decide on your accent. The easiest way to give the
impression of having a good accent or no foreign accent at all is to
hold an unlit pipe in your mouth, to mutter between your teeth and
finish all your sentences with the question: "isn't it?". People
will not understand much, but they are accustomed to that and they
will get a most excellent impression.
Do not forget that it is easier to write in English than to speak
English, because you can write without a foreign accent.
(Abridged from "How to be an Alien")
The World of English
We all live in a small unique world, that's why we need at least one
sole common language. Carl william Brown
The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and
know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot
We all speak English, or at least we try!
Because English is so widely spoken, it has often been referred to
as a "world language," the lingua franca of the modern era. While
English is not an official language in most countries, it is
currently the language most often taught as a second language around
the world. Some linguists believe that it is no longer the exclusive
cultural sign of "native English speakers", but is rather a language
that is absorbing aspects of cultures worldwide as it continues to
grow. It is, by international treaty, the official language for
aerial and maritime communications. It is an official language of
the United Nations and many other international organizations,
including the International Olympic Committee. Modern English,
sometimes described as the first global lingua franca, is also the
dominant international language in communications, science,
business, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy. Some years
ago for istance, a decision of the Dutch government shocked the
other European countries: in Dutch universities some courses may be
given in English instead of Dutch. In fact, most courses in
information technology, medicine, engineering, economics and so on
include a lot of English terminology in every other language of the
English is the language most often studied as a foreign language in
the European Union (by 89% of schoolchildren), followed by French
(32%), German (18%), and Spanish (8%). In the EU, a large fraction
of the population reports being able to converse to some extent in
English. Among non-English speaking countries, a large percentage of
the population claimed to be able to converse in English in the
Netherlands (87%), Sweden (85%), Denmark (83%), Luxembourg (66%),
Finland (60%), Slovenia (56%), Austria (53%), Belgium (52%), and
Germany (51%). Norway and Iceland also have a large majority of
competent English-speakers. Books, magazines, and newspapers written
in English are available in many countries around the world. English
is also the most commonly used language in the sciences. In 1997,
the Science Citation Index reported that 95% of its articles were
written in English, even though only half of them came from authors
in English-speaking countries.
English is a West Germanic language that originated in England and
is the first language for most people in the United Kingdom, the
United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the
Anglophone Caribbean. It is used extensively as a second language
and as an official language throughout the world, especially in
Commonwealth countries and in many international organisations.
Historically English originated from the dialects, now called Old
English, which were brought to England by Anglo-Saxon settlers,
beginning in the 5th century. The language was heavily influenced by
the Old Norse language of Viking invaders. The Norman conquest
brought a stage called Middle English with heavy borrowing of
vocabulary from Norman French and modernization of spelling
conventions. Modern English continues to adopt foreign words,
especially from Latin and Greek.
The initial reason for its enormous spread beyond the bounds of the
British Isles, where it was originally a native tongue, was the
British Empire, and by the late nineteenth century its reach was
truly global. It is the dominant language in the United States,
whose growing economic and cultural influence and status as a global
superpower since World War II have significantly accelerated
adoption of English as a language across the planet. Nowadays a
working and cultural knowledge of English has become a requirement
in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine
and as a consequence over a billion people speak English to at least
a basic level. All this has slowly led to another fact: the world's
lingua franca is now English. It is a particular kind of English,
though: it is simpler than the English spoken by native speakers,
and its pronounciation is half way between British English, American
English, and other for of spoken English. This kind of English is
spoken in international conferences, fairs trade, intrenational
organizations, and so on.
They speak English too
I come from Kano in northern
Nigeria. My name is Abubakar Rabat. At home with my family I speak
Hausa, one of the main Nigerian languages. The official language in
Nigeria is English but there are about 250 other languages. We use
English a lot at school. I want to work with computers and English
is essential for this.
My name's Lata Desai. I'm from Kanpur in the north of India. My
native language is Hindi but I also use English very often. People
from other parts of India do not speak Hindi. We have sixteen
official languages in India and over one thousand different dialects!
But most educated people can speak English.
I come from Montego Bay on the island of Jamaica. The population of
Jamaica is an incredible mixture of races, with people from all over
Africa, Europe and Asia. We speak a local version of English called
Jamaican creole. Sometimes it's very different from standard English.
My hometown Hong Kong was a British colony but it is part of China
now. There are two official languages, English and Chinese. In fact,
most people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, a dialect from southern
China. I speak Cantonese with my family. Not many people speak
English. But English is still important if you want to get a good
My name is Teenay Takee and I am an Inuit from Canada. People
sometimes call us "Eskimos" but we don't use that name. We speak
English but we also have our own language, Inuktitut, and traditions.
Now we have our own homeland in northern. Canada called Nunavut.
English isn't the only language in Britain, you know. My name's
Ellen Rees and I come from Wales. In my town most people speak Welsh
as their first language (although everybody can speak English too).
We have Welsh newspapers and Welsh radio and television. English
people are surprised when they come here on holiday.
My name is Jonah Ihimaera and I am a Maori from Rotorua on the North
Island of New Zealand. The Maoris are the original inhabitants of
New Zealand and we still have our own customs. We speak English but
in our own community we also speak our Maori language.
I am an Aborigine from the Arunta tribe in central Australia. Like
most Aborigines, I speak two languages, English and my own tribal
language, Arunta.The land and the natural world are very important
to Aborigines. We want to preserve our traditions but this is
difficult in a modern society like Australia.
I come from the eastern part of South Africa. At home with my
parents we speak Swazi, one of the main local African languages. But
at school I use English. I like watching films and TV in English.
White people in South Africa speak English or Afrikaans. Most black
people can speak at least a little English.
A brief chronology of
BC 55 Roman invasion of
Britain by Julius Caesar. Local inhabitants speak Celtish
BC 43 Roman invasion and occupation. Beginning of Roman rule of
436 Roman withdrawal from Britain complete.
449 Settlement of Britain by Germanic invaders begins
450-480 Earliest known Old English inscriptions. Old English
1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invades and conquers
c1150 Earliest surviving manuscripts in Middle English. Middle
1348 English replaces Latin as the language of instruction in most
1362 English replaces French as the language of law. English is used
in Parliament for the first time.
c1388 Chaucer starts writing The Canterbury Tales.
c1400 The Great Vowel Shift begins.
1476 William Caxton establishes the first English printing press.
Early Modern English
1564 Shakespeare is born.
1604 Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, is published.
1607 The first permanent English settlement in the New World (Jamestown)
1616 Shakespeare dies.
1623 Shakespeare's First Folio is published
1702 The first daily English-language newspaper, The Daily Courant,
is published in London.
1755 Samuel Johnson publishes his English dictionary.
1776 Thomas Jefferson writes the American Declaration of
1782 Britain abandons its American colonies.
1828 Webster publishes his American English dictionary. Late Modern
1922 The British Broadcasting Corporation is founded.
1928 The Oxford English Dictionary is published.
A short history of the
origins and development of English
The history of the English
language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes
who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the
Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what
today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants
of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic speakers
were pushed west and north by the invaders - mainly into what is now
Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from Englaland and
their language was called Englisc - from which the words England and
English are derived.
Old English (450-1100 AD)
Part of Beowulf, a poem written in Old English.
The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in
Britain developed into what we now call Old English. Old English did
not sound or look like English today. Native English speakers now
would have great difficulty understanding Old English. Nevertheless,
about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have
Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example,
derive from Old English. Old English was spoken until around 1100.
Middle English (1100-1500)
An example of Middle English by Chaucer.
In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern
France), invaded and conquered England. The new conquerors (called
the Normans) brought with them a kind of French, which became the
language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business classes.
For a period there was a kind of linguistic class division, where
the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French.
In the 14th century English became dominant in Britain again, but
with many French words added. This language is called Middle English.
It was the language of the great poet Chaucer (c1340-1400), but it
would still be difficult for native English speakers to understand
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
Hamlet's famous "To be, or not to be" lines, written in Early Modern
English by Shakespeare.
Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in
pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being
pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British
had contact with many peoples from around the world. This, and the
Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and
phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant
that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper
and more people learned to read. Printing also brought
standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and
the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the
standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.
Late Modern English (1800-Present)
The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern
English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words,
arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial
Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly,
the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth's
surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many
Varieties of English
From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted
in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. Some
English pronunciations and words "froze" when they reached America.
In some ways, American English is more like the English of
Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some expressions that
the British call "Americanisms" are in fact original British
expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost for a
time in Britain (for example trash for rubbish, loan as a verb
instead of lend, and fall for autumn; another example, frame-up, was
re-imported into Britain through Hollywood gangster movies). Spanish
also had an influence on American English (and subsequently British
English), with words like canyon, ranch, stampede and vigilante
being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the
settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana)
and West African words (through the slave trade) also influenced
American English (and so, to an extent, British English).
Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the
USA's dominance of cinema, television, popular music, trade and
technology (including the Internet). But there are many other
varieties of English around the world, including for example
Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South
African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.
The Influence of Latin on
Latin (L) influenced the development of Old English (OE) more than
any other non-West Germanic language with which OE came into
contact. Most scholars divide the influence of L chronologically
into three time periods. The first time period concerns such
influence as occurred on the continent prior to the arrival of
Anglo-Saxons in England and which arose from contacts between
West-Germanic speaking peoples and L speakers. The second period of
influence spans from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England up
to their Christianization ca. 600/650. The last period of influence
spans from the time of Christianization up to the arrival of the
Normans in 1066.
The most readily apparent influence that L had on OE concerns the
use of the L alphabet. Prior to the Christianization of England,
what little writing there was, was written with runic letters.
Collectively these letters comprised the futharc alphabet (called so
after its first six letters). Through the influence of Irish insular
script, OE scribes adopted the L alphabet. They did so with only
slight modification and the retention of certain runic letters.
Modifications included the use of L <d> with a line through it, <>
("eth"), to represent both /q / and //. Somewhat later, they also
used the rune thorn, <■>, to represent these two phonemes. Finally,
they incorporated the rune wynn, < >, to represent /w/.
It is more difficult to determine L influence on OE syntax.
Naturally, our knowledge of OE syntax is hindered by the general
paucity of extant OE texts. Furthermore, many of the surviving OE
texts are translations of L texts, and even when they are not, many
nonetheless reflect a clear dependence on L models. Consequently, it
is difficult to account for the syntactical irregularities of OE
texts with any certainty. Such irregularities could represent the
influence of L or – just as likely – an otherwise poorly evidenced
aspect of OE syntax. Nonetheless, scholars agree that certain
constructions – whether native to OE or not - likely did find wider
distribution in OE through the influence of L than would otherwise
have occurred. Such was likely the case, for example, with the OE
"dative absolute" construction as modeled on the L "ablative
absolute." While this construction appears rarely in the
conservative prose of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is ubiquitous in
the highly Latinate translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.
Not surprisingly, L held the most pervasive influence on OE in the
area of vocabulary. Moreover, this sphere of influence provides the
clearest index of the changing relationship between OE and L
speakers. In total approximately 450 OE words, mostly nouns, were
borrowed from L (Baugh, 106). Around 170 of these entered the OE
lexicon during the continental period (Hogg, 302; Williams, 57).
These words pertain mostly to plants, household items, clothing and
building materials. As such, they represent the influence of Vulgar
(i.e. spoken) L rather than Classical (i.e. literate) L. It is
uncertain how many words date from the second period of L influence.
In general though, scholars maintain that there are slightly fewer
borrowings dating from this period. With the exception of a
comparatively larger number of words having to do with religion and
learning, borrowings from this period pertain to the same subject
matter as those of the first period (Hogg, 302-3). In strong
contrast with the two preceding periods, the third period shows a
marked increase in words concerning religion and learning. The
influx of such words clearly reflects the influence of the literate,
CL culture associated with the Church following the Christianization
of the Anglo-Saxons. In addition to direct borrowings, L also
influenced the OE lexicon by occasioning the formation of semantic
loans, loan translations (or calques) and loan creations. Consider,
for example, the semantic loan OE cniht for L discipulus, in which
native OE cniht, "boy" or "servant," assumes the additional sense of
L discipulus, "disciple." Such translations are abundant in the OE
lexicon. Equally prevalent are loan translations, in which a L
compound word is translated using morphologically equivalent native
elements: e.g. OE foreberan < L praeferre. Loan creations are also
numerous. Like loan translations, loan creations translate the L
word using native elements but with greater morphological freedom:
e.g. OE restedŠg for L sabbatum.
The overall abundance of semantic loans, loan translations and loan
creations suggests a final and more general truth concerning the
influence of L on OE. Despite the relatively extensive influence of
L on OE, OE clearly shows a strong tendency to rely on native
resources. That is to say, given the linguistic conditions of OE
period, one would expect L to have exerted a far greater influence
than in fact our knowledge of OE suggests.
The Influence of Latin on Old English by Edward Moore
For further reading
Baugh, Albert C. A History of the English Language. 2nd ed. New
York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1957. 86-106
Hogg, Richard M., ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language.
Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Williams, Joseph M. Origins of the English Language: A Social and
Linguistic History. New York: The Free Press, 1975