A brief history of the English Language

Etymology is the study of the history of words, the words we use today in English are a culmination of thousands of years or interplay between cultures. Some of our words reached us by invasions, some by migrations and some through trade. It’s useful to have a vague idea of where our influence came from so this is a brief overview of how the English language has become what it is today. Dates are approximate because the evolution of language is a gradual process with overlaps and mixing, but the dates given should help put everything in order.

4500 BCE: Proto-Indo-European

Our story starts with Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, proto meaning ‘original’ – as in prototype; as the name suggests, it was the common tongue from which all modern Indian and European languages came. It was spoken in around 4500 BCE. The language was a lot more basic than what we have now and there were far fewer words; words would convey messages which were largely necessary for survival, ‘fire near cave’ and that sort of thing.

During the neolithic expansion (up to around 1700 BCE), the PIE language spread across Europe from its original home in and around what is now Ukraine. Most of the animals that hunted humans were wiped out by the last ice age allowing humans to switch from hunter-gatherers to farming civilisations, to advance and to expand. As we expanded local differences were created, much like the local dialects of today. Eventually, the changes became so marked that it was really the case that there were several different languages. The most important of these languages for us is ‘Proto-Germanic’, as this is the one from which most of modern English came. But it’s also worth noting ‘Hellenic’ which gave us Greek and ‘Italic’ which gave us Latin, both of which influenced our language dramatically.

1500 BCE: Greek

In around 1500 BCE The Greeks were inventing the alphabet – it wasn’t the first written language of course, but it was the first that used the system of consonants and vowel sounds that we use today. The word alphabet actually comes from Alpha Beta – the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.

500 BCE: Proto-Germanic Language

So, Proto-Indo-European has spread around Europe and Indian and formed distinct languages; the earliest of the Germanic languages is dubbed ‘proto-Germanic’ it was spoken in around 500 BCE and came to England with the Celts as they expanded from their German origins during the iron age – Britain was mostly local tribes at this point ruled by local strongmen.

100 CE: Ogham

Here we come across one of my favourite languages – Ogham, Ogham is often called ‘old Irish’ and was the language of the druids in around 100 CE, one of the ways the druids maintained power – as in seen throughout history religion created a hierarchy of power which intertwined with and paralleled the main system of government – was by being the keepers of knowledge, it was their understanding of this secret language that allowed them to record and read information about religion, medicine and farming practices. So if you were suffering from a poor harvest, the druidic leaders could help you out with what to plant and how so that you would have a better harvest next year, must have seemed pretty impressive huh? That’s not the reason I love Ogham though, the reason I love Ogham is because it was written along trees, starting on the main trunk and following the growth pattern of the tree. Also, because agriculture was so important to the farming society at the time, instead of letters, Ogham had symbols which represented trees; cedar, beech etc, rather than A, B etc.

400 CE: Latin

The Roman empire grew and spread from Italy between 100 and 400 CE taking Latin with it, the Romans took an interesting approach to culture – everyone should be Roman, so Latin was really pressed upon the British people during the Roman occupation. Again religion played a part, this time it was the Christians who were the keepers of the knowledge, as reading and writing in Latin was part of religious training and most common people needed to spend their time working the fields rather than studying religious texts. The knowledge here moved from information that helped with farming (although this was still a part) to more knowledge about governing society and social etiquette (no sleeping with your neighbour’s wife etc). Keeping in favour with the high ups in Christianity became an important part of climbing the social ladder and the way to do this was to practice Christian principles and this included understanding Latin, so if you had aspirations and wanted to do well, you learnt Latin.

600 CE: Anglo-Frisian

In about 400 CE the Roman empire began to fall, and Britain, which was on the edge of the known world, was abandoned in a very short amount of time. With the Roman government and Roman soldiers gone there was a power vacuum in Britain and again people lined up behind local strongmen – a system of kingdoms was formed. The Celts, who has been pushed to Wales, Scotland and Ireland by the Romans tried to regain control of the island and the country was suffering from continuous battles. A few of the English kings had a neat idea, they had come into contact with people from Germanic tribes who were pretty tough and loved to trade, so they hired some of them as mercenaries, they were Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They came over, fought back the Celts and then decided to stay and since they’d done all the fighting, they decided to be in charge – they were known as the anglo-Saxons, they spoke something called ‘Anglo-Frisian’ and they changed the English language considerably, bringing in many of their own words to create what is called ‘Old English’ in around the 600s, this is why most of the English language is based on Germanic words.

1066 CE: Anglo-Norman

In 1066 the Normans (what is now Northern France) invaded England and took over, they brought their language with them and created a language called ‘Anglo-Norman’ which was a sort of mix of Old English and Old French, but they had trouble making it stick, it was mostly spoken by the ruling classes but didn’t fully reach the common people.

1214 CE: Anglo-French

Britain was ruled by a Norman leader until 1214 when Philip Augustus of France took over Normandy and brought it under French rule, gaining England in the process. ‘Anglo-French’ was then the official language of the courts in Britain. The ruling classes really tried to push French as the language of the elite, which is why we have a lot of words from French but that generally relate to government, religion, law and the military.

1300 CE: Middle English

Following the death of the obvious heir to the throne which was being held by a Norman Duke, Britain went into ‘The anarchy’ and there was a war of succession which eventually resulted in the French being out and the Magna Carta being created – this paved the way for the united kingdom. As soon as the French were out, English literature started to reappear and it wasn’t long until English was again the official language of the government. This version of English is generally called ‘Middle English’, the main changes being that most word endings which were e based (-el, -en) etc started to end in just ‘e’, and the way of denoting plurals became an ‘s’, with a few exceptions such as ‘Children’.

1400 CE: Early Modern English

Middle English then went on to become ‘Early modern English’ in the 15th Century, during what is called ‘the great vowel shift’ where the pronunciation of so-called long vowels changed, for example, the word ‘bite’ would have been pronounced as we say ‘beat’ today, before the great vowel shift. This was the result of standardisation, the country was better connected and people became aware of dialects, the sense of a right and a wrong way to pronounce things came about.

1755 CE: Modern English

The final step along our historical journey is ‘Modern English’, marked by the creation of the first dictionary by Samuel Johnson in 1755, now English was even more standardised, each word had an officially correct way to be spelt and pronounced, of course, dialect still existed. In the early 1800s, Britain underwent the ‘industrial revolution’ and the language grew dramatically as we needed new words for new inventions and concepts.

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