History of English Language

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Anupama Nair



English is considered as the ‘lingua franca’ and is spoken from the Western shores of US and Canada to the Eastern shores of Australia and New Zealand. In fact, English is spoken in almost all the countries of the “great empire where the sun never sets” ruled. Would you be surprised if I tell you that today India has more speakers of English than England, the mother country of the language. So, it is imperative for us to learn about the history of the language.

The history of the English language began when three Germanic tribes called the Angles, Saxons and the Jutes invaded Britain the 5th century AD. They crossed the crossed the North Sea i.e., modern day Denmark and northern Germany. Before the invasion the inhabitants of Britain spoke Celtic. However, most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders into Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from "Englaland" and their language was called "Englisc", the origin of English and England.

The invading Germanic tribes spoke a language which we now call Old English. However, Old English nowhere sounded like English of today. We would now have great difficulty in understanding Old English. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words like ‘be, strong and water’, are derived from Old English. Old English was spoken till 1100 AD.

In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy from France invaded and conquered England. The Normans spoke French, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business classes. For a period, there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French. However, by the 14th century, English again became dominant in Britain but, with many French words added. The mixture of English and French used in England came to be called Middle English. It was the language of the great poet Chaucer who wrote a magnum opus called ‘The Canterbury Tales’, but we still would not understand today.

Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation i.e., the Great Vowel Shift started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British had contact with many people around the world, as it was the time of the Empire. The Renaissance of Classical learning also meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard and was called Queen’s English. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

There were two types of Modern English called the Early and Late English. The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising due to the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words and the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. Some English pronunciations and words ‘froze’ when they reached America. In some ways, American English is more like the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some expressions that the British call ‘Americanisms’ are in fact original British expressions that were preserved in the colonies and was lost for a time in Britain (for example trash for rubbish, loan as a verb instead of lend, and fall for autumn). Spanish also had an influence on American English and later British English, with words like canyon, ranch, stampede and vigilante being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the settlement of the American West, French words through Louisiana and West African words through the slave trade also influenced American English and so, to an extent, British English).

Today, American English is very influential, due to the USA's dominance of cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology including the Internet. But there are many other varieties of English used around the world, like Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.




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