The Evolution of English: Our History Lives in the Words We Speak
Did you know that English has more words than any other language? This has always astounded me and got me thinking, where did all these words come from and why is it that English has so many?
The truth is that the English language is actually a lot different than it was hundreds of years ago. Over a long time, and many wars and invasions, the English language has proven to be a great survivor. It has managed to adapt and evolve with the times, and today has become one of the most commonly spoken languages, and the language that unites the world. See story of RealLifer Nana from Algeria
So, I guess you are probably starting to become curious about the history of English, and how we came to speak the common day version of this ever-evolving language.
Today I’m going to present you with a very quick video which explains the most fascinating points in time of the English language’s history. Do you know the difference between history and story?
*Remember this is a very quick explanation and there is a lot more to the story. If you’d like to read more about this topic I’m going to put some links at the end of this article.
A Brief Summary of the History of the English Language
To see the original video from Ted ED, see the link at the bottom of this article
Now let’s have a look at the most important information from this video.
400 CE – The Invention of English
In 400 CE, the Celts lived in Britain and were ruled by the Roman Empire. This was good for the Celts because it protected them from being taken over [invaded] by the barbarian Saxon tribes.
When the Roman Empire fell apart [collapse], the Romans left Britain, and shortly after the Saxon tribes (Angles, Saxon, Jutes, Frisians) took over Britain and formed kingdoms in the British Isles. These tribes lived together in Britain for several centuries and formed what we know as old English. Learn more about the British accent
Although old English sounds like a totally different language, if you look and listen closely enough you will see a lot of similarities.
Check out this list of common words from Old English:
art – are
canst – can
dost – do, does
hath – equivalent of modern has
shall or shalt – will
thou – you
thy – your
wit – To know, e.g.,
“Canst thou wit what the day shall bring?”
700’s – Introducing Old Norse
After a long time of these tribes living together in Britain, they were suddenly invaded by Vikings (Danes) who continuously fought until they managed to agree on a treaty which separated the island into two halves. On one half you had the Saxons, and on the other half the Danes. The Danes spoke a language called Old Norse.
After some time, many Saxons married with Danes, and with this their languages started to get mixed up. Many Old Norse words are still part of the English language today.
Click to see English words that were introduced by the Danes
1066 – How English Became a Poor Person’s Language
Now this was a time when the English language took a huge evolutionary jump!
In 1066, the British Isles were subject to war once again when they were invaded during the Norman Conquest. The Normans were Vikings that had settled in France and had become quite accustomed to the French lifestyle. Although they were a little cleaner cut and more sophisticated than your typical viking, they still fought like vikings and managed to take over Britain.
The Normans quickly put a Norman king in rule of Britain and the new royal language became French. This also changed the social classes of Britain. The upper class were the French speaking aristocrats, and the lower class were the Old English speaking peasants. With this, the Normans also brought over many Roman Catholic clergymen, who started implementing Latin into English through church.
During this time, Old English quickly expanded and started including all these new words into the mix and the language evolved more and more from its original form. The English speaking peasants from the lower classes realized that if they started using these new words that had come from French and Latin, they would start to sound more sophisticated than if they were to use the plain old Anglo Saxon English. When using these more sophisticated words, they would start to be considered more intelligent by the higher society aristocrats.
Click to see a list of English words derived form French
Our History Is In the Words We Speak
This is when we arrive at the main point of the video. From this very quick history lesson of the evolution of the English language, we can see how throughout our history the language has continuously been changing, and so has how we perceive ourselves speaking it.
Until this day, we are judged socially by the way we speak.
If you speak with a posh (pompous) British accent and use current sophisticated vocabulary, people are going to automatically assume that you are an intelligent, higher class citizen that is probably well educated. If you speak with a gangster accent, use grammar incorrectly, and your vocabulary is nothing but slang and profanity, then unfortunately people will probably judge you based on that.
As the video suggests, whether we realize it consciously or unconsciously, our history lives in the words we speak. This can be true in the history of a language as a whole, or each individual that speaks it.
How much can you deduce form a person, just by listening to them speak for five minutes?
Usually in just 5 minutes I can guess that person’s Country of origin based on their accent, their typical social group based on their dialect, their hobbies and habits based on their use of slang words.
Is English Still Evolving?
Now that you have a brief idea of the history of the English language and how it has morphed and evolved over all this time, I want you to think about how English is changing nowadays.
- Is English the same now as it was fifty years ago?
- How do you think English will be spoken fifty years from now?
Like what you read?
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Learn more about this subject here:
- How did English evolve (video origin)
- Ages of English timeline (BBC History)
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Very interesting article! English language is constantly evolving. It reflects all changes in life and society.
great information for me. i wonder from which reference book that you read.
Because English is the lingua franca of the world, the goal of truespel is one English-based phonetic spelling for all languages. Phonetics need not be difficult anymore;
wonderful..I like it very much..
There is no such thing as a British accent. You might just as well say that the French speak with a European accent.
Well that's a pretty dumb comment