Have you ever wondered how English with approximately 750,000 words came to be the wonderfully expressive and multifaceted language it is today?
Unlike languages that developed within the boundaries of one country (or one distinct geographical region), English, since its beginnings 1,600 or so years ago, evolved by crossing boundaries and through invasions, picking up bits and pieces of other languages along the way and changing with the spread of the language across the globe.
Old English (450-1.100)
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.
Middle English (1.100 – 1.500)
The Viking invasion: With the Viking invasions (Vikings were a tribe of Nordic people that ransacked their way through Northern and North-western Europe 1,000-1,200 years ago), Old English got mixed up with Old Norse, the language of the Viking tribes. Old Norse ended up giving English more than 2,000 new words.
The French are coming: Although English was spoken widely on the British Isles by 1,000 AD, the Norman invasion established French as the language of royals and of power. Old English was left to the peasants, and despite its less glamorous status, it continued to develop and grow by adopting a whole host of Latin and French words.
Early Modern English (1500 – 1800): In the 14th-15th century, following the Hundred Years War with France that ended French rule of the British Isles, English became the language of power and influence once again. It got a further boost through the development of English literature and English culture, spearheaded by William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s influence on the development of the English language and its unique and rich culture is hard to grasp; the man is said to have invented at least 1,700 words.
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.
Last 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 English-speaking world was at the center of a lot of scientific progress, scientific advances went hand-in-hand with the evolution of the language.
English goes global: 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.
English of the 21st century: And on that note: the most amazing thing about English is that it’s still evolving. From the development of local dialects and slang in countries as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, and in cities as different as New York, Oxford and Singapore, to the incorporation of tech vocabulary into everyday English. English is in a constant state of flux.
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