The history of the English language

16 Aug 2018

What we currently know as the English language, which is developed in Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand and various parts of the world, is an immigrant language. English is rightly traced to Britain. But it did not begin there. It came into Britain through the invading Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century. Before that it was spoken in various parts of the European continent, not far from the North Sea. English is part of a large family of languages called Indo-European languages. What linguists have posited is that many European languages may be traced to one main language known as Proto-Indo-European language (or simply Indo-European language). The indo-European label is reserved for a family of similar languages of Indian and European stock. Like Bantu languages, these languages display some striking similarities. For instance the English word father, resembles Norwegian, Danish and Swedish father, Dutch vader, and German vater. The Latin pater meaning father is not too dissimilar to the English term but it is closely related to Spanish padre, Portuguese pai, French pere, Greek pater, Sanskrit pitar, and Persian pedar. The argument is that all the above languages are historical developments of a no longer existing source. This was first proposed many centuries ago by Sir William Jones, a British judge and Sanskrit scholar in India. He argued that there once existed a language that developed in different ways in the various parts of the world to which its speakers travelled. Such a language is today known by linguists as Proto-Indo-European. Amongst the Indo-European languages is Russian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Albanian, Armenian, Romany and many others. The 19th century philologists called the Indo-European family of languages Aryan, a Sanskrit term meaning noble, which is what some of the languages’ speakers immodestly called themselves. Aryan has also been used to name the branch of Indo-European spoken in Iran and India, now largely known as Indo-Iranian.

English is also part of the Germanic group which was spoken over a large area. The Germanic group is divided into North Germanic, West Germanic and East Germanic. North Germanic includes Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faeroese (spoken in the Faeroe Islands of the North Atlantic between Iceland and Great Britain). West Germanic languages are High and Low German, Dutch, Frisian and English. The East Germanic language is Gothic, which as a spoken language disappeared a long time ago without leaving a trace. It only exists in the written form. Germanic languages in general have two tenses (an inflection of the verb to mark time) of present and past. They also have a large number of words that have no known cognates such as drink, drive, wife, rain, hold etc.

The history of the English language is long and twisted. However, Great Britain underwent waves of invasion by Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Norman French each contributing to the life and language of the islands. As a result English became mongrelized. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a core vocabulary that is English, because we do. Words that are used to talk about everyday things (earth, tree, stone, sea, hill, dog, bird, house), relationships (friend, foe, mother, father, son, daughter, wife, husband) and responses and actions (love, hate, fear, greedy, help, rest, walk, ride), the basic numbers and directions (one, two, three, ten, top, bottom, north, south up, down) and grammatical words (I, you, he, to, for, from, be, have) are all native English words. However, English has borrowed extensively from Latin and Greek. Early loanwords from Latin are concerned mainly with military affairs, commerce, agriculture or refinement of living. For instance wine (vinum) anchor (ancora), butter (butyrum), pepper (piper), sickle (secula), candle (candela), ark (arca), altar (altar), apostle (apostolus), circle (circulus), temple (templum) and many others. The following words were borrowed from Greek into the English language: church, xylophone, kudos, pathos, phone, telegram, agnostic, autocracy, democracy, allegory, character, pharynx, drama, dilemma, electric, history and many others. English has also borrowed the following words from Scandinavian languages: scathe, scotch, scot, scowl, scrape, scrub, skill, skin, ombudsman, geyser, saga, skirt, sky, gill, keel, kilt, and kindle.

The Norman conquest of Britain made French the language of the official class in England. Therefore many words to do with government and administration, lay and spiritual are of French origin. Examples of borrowings from French are government, attorney, chancellor, country, court, crime, state, estate, judge, jury, mayor, noble and royal. Religious words borrowed from French include clergy, preach, sacrament, and vestment. Certain titles of nobility were borrowed from French such as prince, duke, marquess, viscount, and baron. In military usage army, captain, lieutenant, colonel, corporal, major, sergeant and soldier are all of French origin.

Certain names of food were also borrowed from French such as beef, mutton, pork, and veal as well as the culinary processes of preparing them such as boil, broil, fry, roast and stew. Other French loanwords relate to daily life and culture. Amongst these are: dignity, literature, magic, mirror, marvel, oppose, horrible, letter, question, sacrifice, salary, sentence, sober, secret and many others. English has also borrowed extensively from Spanish and Portuguese. Spanish borrowings include alligator (el legarto), anchovy, armadillo, avocado, barbecue, barracuda, cannibal, cargo, chilli, chocolate, cigar, cockroach, embargo, flotilla, guitar, maize, mosquito, negro, peccadillo, plaza, tomato, tornado, bonanza, bronco, canyon, stampede, ranch vamoose. Portuguese borrowings include: albino, palaver, pickaninny, bossa nova, molasses and many others.

While many may be unaware, English has borrowed extensively from African languages. The following are African languages’ contribution to the English language: banana, yam, banjo, zombie, pantsula, samba, rumba, kwasakwasa, tsetsefly, and lately vuvuzela

This brief discussion of the English language demonstrates that a language is a product of its community within which it flourished. It also demonstrates that no language is pure. Language grows and expands by borrowing from other languages with which it comes into contact. Though mongrelized, English is an incredibly powerful language. Its mongrelisation has not weakened it; instead it has strengthened it.