Who Made the English Language? An In-Depth Look at its Origins and Evolution
Wednesday, Apr 20 2022
English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with there being an estimated 1.3 billion people speaking it either as their first or second language as of 2021 . Naturally, many historians and linguists have wondered about the origins of the English language and who made it exactly. To answer this, we will examine English’s origin point, discuss its development from Old to Modern English, and explore the influences that have made it a global tongue.
The English language is classified as West Germanic, descending from the Indo-European family of languages. This makes English closely related to other Proto-Germanic languages such as Frisian, German, and Dutch (Flemish). It is believed that these languages came from a parent dialect called Proto-Indo-European, which was spoken by nomads who traveled across the European plains well over 5,000 years ago. This is where we begin with the origin point of English [2, 3].
It is believed that during the mid 5th Century (post-Roman period), three Germanic tribes called the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, crossed over the English Channel and invaded Britain . While historians are questioning whether these tribes simply invaded the land to conquer it, or simply immigrated to Britain, what we do know is that at this time, English as we know it did not exist. Rather, the inhabitants of Britain spoke in several dialects of Brittonic Celtic. These Celtic languages can still be seen in the names of places in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, which is where the native inhabitants were pushed to during the Germanic invasion.
As the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled in the British Isles, they initially spoke in different dialects. These dialects were eventually blended to create Anglo-Saxon, or Old English (Englisc), which is the earliest form of the English language that we know of. This dates back to 450-1100 AD, and it was during this time that English began to take on many of its distinctive features, such as the use of inflections to mark verb tense, gender, and number. It was also during this time that English adopted many words from Latin and French.
During the 5th to 7th century, there is little to no documentation or literature referencing this time period. The only examples we have of Old English during this time period are Anglo-Saxon runes, which were used by the Anglo-Saxons as an alphabet for their writing system . However, between the 7th-10th centuries, we get some changes to Old English and documentation of the language.
For example, Aldhelm was a West Saxon abbot and one of the most well learned teachers during the 7th century, according to Britannica . Known among the Anglo-Saxons for his Latin prose and verse, he was considered a pioneer in the field. Cynewulf, on the other hand, is known for his religious compositions and is regarded as a pre-eminent figure of Anglo-Saxon Christian poetry during the 9th century .
During the late 8th century (860 AD), the Anglo-Saxons reference Danes, Norsemen, Northmen, as the Vikings which were invaders from Northern countries like Norway and Denmark . During these invasions, Norse words were picked up and integrated into Old English, such as: Bairn - Child, Syk - Sick, Traust - Trust, Systir - Sister. You can see a longer list here. Finally, during the 10th and 11th centuries, Late Old English was brought about by the Norman invasion of England.
In the 11th century (1066), a new group of Germanic invaders arrived in England - the Normans . This marks a significant change in English history, as the Normans spoke French, forcing the English language to adapt once again. When the Normans invaded England, they quickly took control (Battle of Hastings) which saw French become the language of choice for the educated. Those who were considered “commoners” spoke Old English. Old English ended up dying out around 1300 AD.
With the influence of hundreds of years of French, Early - Late Middle English developed between the 11th - 15th centuries. During this time, the English language changed and grew substantially as new phrases were added, and English’s syntax evolved due to the loss of Old English’s inflections.
An inflection is the change in the form of a word to mark distinctions like a person, number, gender, voice, or tense. Due to the lack of inflections, it was often difficult to understand what someone was trying to say, so the set word order was changed to subject, verb, and then object. This change helped give clues to the listener as to what the word or sentence’s meaning was. Some of the most famous works of English poetry and prose were written during this time, including The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
When William Caxton brought printing press technology to Britain, we saw the shift from Middle English to Early Modern Day English . It was at this time that the printing press developed a more standardized English, so that tales like Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (interpretation of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table), could be read by all.
In addition to this, the 15th-17th centuries saw the Great Vowel Shift . During this time, massive changes to the pronunciation of long and short vowels occurred. Even some silent consonant sounds were also changed. Despite the spelling of the words being unchanged, the vowel sound changes created a disconnect between written and spoken English, which still exists today.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, changes to the English language no longer came primarily from conquest, but instead from literary translation. The Bible was one of the most well-known translated and printed books in circulation at this time, which helped to bring the Church’s language (phrases, structure) to the common folk . Plus, the language of the educated was still considered to be Latin, and thus numerous texts were being translated from Latin into English , which is where words like nausea, genius, focus, and lens came from. Other words like orbit, horrid, frugal, and atmosphere were altered to be what they are today.
It was at this time that we saw the works of John Milton’s Paradise Lost , and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . Shakespeare was writing at the time when the English language was undergoing serious changes due to war, trade, and colonization, and as such he was able to adopt and modify numerous words and phrases like fool’s paradise, gloomy, brittle, and out of thin air. With Shakespeare’s invention of 1,700 some-odd words and phrases, he is arguably one of the most influential individuals the English language has ever had.
With the rise of the British Empire at the end of the 17th century, colonialism brought the expansion of English to nations now under British rule. Britain saw this as a way to share their newly found scientific and technical discoveries via the Industrial Revolution, as well as their cultural traditions, with overseas nations.
While this has been an in-depth look at the evolution of the English language, it is important to note that this article only touches on the major influences of who made the English language what it is today. We encourage you to take a deep delve into the English language and treat it like living history; subject to the ever-changing influences of trade, migration, and culture.