Over 650 million people use it. Seventy-five percent of the world’s mail, and sixty percent of the world’s telephone calls are in it. You use it too! It’s the English language. But how did it develop into the language we know today?
The early inhabitants of Britain were the Celts. In the first century, The Romans invaded Britain and stayed almost four hundred years until returning to central Europe to protect their frontiers.
Following their departure, three tribes from Northern Europe invaded Britain; they were the Jutes, Saxons and Angles. The language they spoke was similar to Frisian, the language of the Northeastern region of the Netherlands. The Celts fled to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and South West England and the English language started to develop.
The name England comes from Engla-land, meaning land of the Angles. The language developed slowly until the Norman invasion of Britain, led by William the Conqueror, in 1066 A.D. This first stage of the language is called Old English and bears little resemblance to Modern English.
Here is an example of Old English.
Feder ure u,e cart on heofonum
si in nama gehalgod tobecume in rice gewure in willa on eorôan swa swa on heofonum
The Normans spoke an old French dialect called Anglo-Norman and this language mixed with Old English creating new words and phrases. The language from 1100 A.D. to 1500 A.D. is known as Middle English.
Here is the same text in Middle English.
Oure fadir at art in heuenes haiwid be i name;
reume or kyngdom come to be. Be i wille don in here as it is doun in heuene.
The standardization of the language came after William Caxton brought the first printing press to England in 1476, and the production of the first English dictionary in 1604. The language from 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.D. is called Early Modem English.
Here is the same text in Early Modem English.
Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen.
Now it is recognizable.
The English from 1800 A.D. to present is called Late Modem English. The main difference is the amount of vocabulary, which increased dramatically because of the industrial revolution and the rise of the British Empire. The first gave rise to new words being needed for new inventions and the second encouraged the adoption of foreign words. Old English had a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words; Modem English has over six hundred thousand.
But how are new words created?
New words usually come from one of five sources. Some words are made-up from nothing. Shakespeare invented over 1600 words and phrases. Some words are created in error; the word buttonhole comes from the mis-hearing of the word button-hold.
Many words are borrowed from other languages. The Aztecs made a drink using cocoa beans and water called choco-atl meaning bitter water. The Spaniards came across the drink in Mexico and changed the name to chocolato. The drink came to Europe with the addition of sugar and became chocolate. The word checkmate in chess comes from the Farsi language of Iran and Afghanistan, shah-k-mate meaning the king is dead. The word pajama comes from India.
Many words have changed their meaning since they were first used. The word tell used to mean to count which is why people who count money in banks are called bank-tellers. The expression, “you’re fired” comes from the fact that historically, clans used to get rid of unwanted neighbors by burning their houses down.
Finally, new words are created using suffixes and prefixes. For example, argue to argument and interest to disinterest. Words can be joined together to form new words such as hair and brush to form hairbrush. Many words our grandparents used have changed. We now say bus not omnibus, pram, rather than perambulator and exam instead of examination.
There are also regional variations; in South Wales they are called daps, In Northern England, pumps, in Southern England, tennis shoes and in North America sneakers. What in Britain is a flat in North America is an apartment. In Britain, people walk on the pavement, drive cars and fill them with petrol. In The USA, people use the sidewalk, drive automobiles and fill up with gas. These differences in the language prompted Oscar Wilde to say, “We have everything in common with America nowadays, except of course, language.”
Though only about sixteen percent of known Old English words have descendants today, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots, such as be, water and strong. An educated person knows about twenty thousand words and uses on average two thousand per week. But why has English become such a popular language?
This is due to its adoption by other countries as the native language, as in North America, Canada, and Australia among others. The number of people who speak English is only surpassed by the number of people that speak Mandarin Chinese. English, however, is more widespread with over forty-five countries listing it as the official or co-official language of the country. Many people choose to learn English as a foreign language whether out of interest or necessity, which increases its dominance over other languages.
Without doubt, the language will continue to grow and change, and even though the Queen speaks English, she is not the only one by a long shot.