European Day of Languages 2019

The Origins of the English Language

Most adult native English speakers have a vocabulary range of about 20,000–35,000 words. We learn almost one new word a day until middle age, and then vocabulary growth stops.

Have you ever wondered how the c.750,000 words in the English language came about, and how it became the magnificent multi-dimensional language it is today?

Unlike languages that developed within the boundaries of one country or region, English, since its beginnings nearly 2,000 years ago, evolved by crossing boundaries and invasions, picking up snippets of other languages along the way and changing with the spread of the language across the globe.

Alternative Description

The English language itself started with the invasion of Britain during the 5th century. Three Germanic tribes were seeking new lands to conquer, and crossed over from the North Sea.

During the invasion, the native Britons were driven north and west into lands we now refer to as Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The word England and English originated from the Old English word Engla-land, literally meaning ‘the land of the Angles’.

Old English from the 5th to 11th century was where it all started. Around 85% of Old English is no longer in use, but surviving elements form the basis of modern English language today. This period ended with the resulting development of the English language towards Early Middle English. It was during this period that the English language, and more specifically English grammar, started evolving with particular attention to syntax – the arrangement of words and phrases to create sentences in a language.

Next came Late Middle English, and during the mid-1400s Chancery English. Clerks working for the Chancery in London preparing the King’s official documents were fluent in both French and Latin. Prior to this, both French and Latin were only mainly used by royalty, the church and wealthy Britons.

Early Modern English then followed, and the changes in the English language during this period from the 15th to mid-17th century meant not only a change in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar but also the start of the English Renaissance. It was William Caxton’s creation of the early printing press that allowed Early Modern English to become mainstream through distribution of the English Bible. It was during Henry VIII’s reign that English commoners were finally able to read the Bible in a language they understood, which then helped spread the dialect to the common folk. The end of the 16th and start of the 17th century saw the writings of William Shakespeare which also proved very popular.

Late Modern English saw the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the British Empire during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, and this in turn further saw expansion of the English language. The advances and discoveries in science and technology during this time necessitated new words and phrases, and due to the nature of these inventions, scientists and scholars created words using Greek and Latin roots.

English in the 21st century has become exceptionally refined (even though our smartphone usage has increased!) and it is still growing – faster probably now that at any previous time in its history, and on average around 800 neologisms are added to the working vocabulary of the English language every year.

 

To give you some insight into the origins of the English language we have picked a handful of random words:

Budget

Originally a budget was a ‘pouch’. English got the word from Old French bougette, which was a diminutive form of bouge ‘leather bag’ (from which we get bulge).

Earn

The underlying sense of earn is ‘gain a result from one’s labour’, which comes from a prehistoric Germanic verb.

Fiasco

In Italian, a fiasco is literally a ‘bottle’, stems from the phrase ‘far fiasco’ literally ‘make a bottle’, used traditionally in Italian theatrical slang for ‘suffer a complete breakdown in performance’.

Ketchup (not quite European but fun nevertheless!)

Surprisingly, a Chinese word in origin, kê-chiap ‘brine of pickled fish or shellfish’ and acquired by English probably via Malay kichap.

Manage

Originally via Italian word maneggiare meaning to ‘control a horse’.

Ombudsman

Introduced in to the English language from the Swedish ‘investigator of public complaints’.

Quick

Originally ‘quick’ meant ‘alive’ (as in ‘the quick and the dead’) and from the 13th century it was applied to the Germanic word for ‘rapid’.

Robot

A Czech contribution to English. It comes from robota ‘forced labour, drudgery’ also used in a 1920’s play for ‘mechanical people constructed to do menial tasks’.

Uproar

It originally meant ‘uprising, insurrection’, borrowed from the Dutch word ‘oproer’.

 

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