The history of English
By John Whelpton
1. BEFORE ENGLISH
The IndoEuropean Language Family
English is one of a large group of
languages spoken over most of
Europe and also in Iran, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Nepal, Northern India and
Sri Lanka. They developed from a
parent language probably spoken
somewhere in Eastern Europe or
Western Asia around 5000 years ago.
The Celts
• Two thousand years ago, people speaking
Celtic languages, one of the main branches
of Indo-European, occupied most of what is
now Britain, Ireland, France, Spain and
northern Italy
WHAT A CELTIC VILLAGE IN
BRITAIN AROUND 40 A.D.
PROBABLY LOOKED LIKE
Celtic languages are still spoken in some parts of Britain, especially in
Wales. Here are some lines from the oldest surviving Welsh poem, Y
Gododdin, which was written in the 7th century A.D. It describes
fighting between Celts and English in southern Scotland, which was
then still a British (Welsh)-speaking area
Gwyr a aeth Gatraeth, oedd ffraeth eu
llu,
Glasfedd eu hancwyn a gwenwyn fu,
Trychant trwy beirant yn catau,
A gwedi elwch tawelwch fu.
Men went to Catraeth, their group was swift
Fresh mead was their drink, and it was bitter
Three hundred fighting under orders
And after the cries of joy there was silence
CELTIC WORDS IN ENGLISH
• Very few words were taken from Celtic when Englishspeakers first entered Britain and almost all of these were
place or river names (e.g. Avon, Severn, Kent, Trent,
Thames etc.)
• Words borrowed later included:
– (from Welsh): penguin (= head+white), maggot, flannel
– (from Cornish): gull, puffin (names of seabirds)
– (from Irish/Gaelic): slogan, whisk(e)y, hooligan, pony,
trousers
• Some scholars believe that the very frequent use of the
present continuous tense in English is a grammatical
borrowing from Celtic as this structure (gerund + the verb
be) is common in Celtic but not in other European
languages
THE COMING OF LATIN
Latin was the language of the Romans, who first invaded
Britain in 55 B.C. England and Wales were actually a part
of the Roman empire from 43 A.D. to 410 A.D.
Latin never became the speech of the common people in Britain but it
remained important for many centuries for communication with the rest of
Europe, for record-keeping and for academic writing. Sir Isaac Newton
wrote his Principia Mathematica (1687) outlining his theory of gravitation
in Latin and only switched to English for his Opticks (1704).
2. THE CREATION OF
ENGLISH
English developed from the dialects
spoken by the Germanic tribesmen
who settled in Britain from the 5th
century onwards
OLD ENGLISH – ENTRY IN THE
ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE FOR
867 A.D.
• Her for se ilca here innan Myrce to Snotingaham 7
þær wintersetl namn. 7 Burhred Myrcna cing 7 his
witan bædon Æþered Westsexna cing 7 Ælfred his
broðor þæt hie him fultmodan þæt hie wiþ þone
here gefuhton. 7 þa ferdan hie mid Westsexna
fyrde innan Myrce oþ Snotingaham 7 þone here
þær metton on þam geweorce 7 hie hine inne
besætan, 7 þær ne wearð þeahnam hefelic gefeoht,
7 Myrce friþ naman wiþ þone here.
THE ENTRY IN MODERN ENGLISH.
• In this year that army (i.e the Danish) went into
Mercia to Nottingham and settled there for the
winter. And Burhred king of the Mercians and his
council asked Athered king of the West Saxons
and Alfred his brother to help them fight against
that army. And they went with the West Saxon
forces into Mercia up to Nottingham and they
found the Danish army inside its fortified position
and surrounded it. However, there was no serious
fighting and the Mercians made peace with the
Danes.
THE VIKING INVASIONS
From the 8th century onwards Germanic peoples from
Scandinavia came to Britain as raiders and then as settlers
THE DIVISION OF ENGLAND BETWEEN
ALFRED’S ANGLO-SAXON KINGDOM
AND THE DANES
Anglo-Chinese Viking (Janet Whelpton, 華美
恩 ) with a Viking warrior’s helmet and shield
ENGLISH AND OTHER GERMANIC
LANGUAGES
Norse influence on English
• The new settlers, known as Norsemen,
Danes or Vikings contributed some basic
words to English:
– E.g. sky, anger, axle, husband, knife, seem, ill,
give
• The main influence was perhaps to begin a
simplification of English words: English
and Norse words often had similar stems
but different endings, so the endings were
sometimes omitted completely.
In 1066 the Normans, Scandinavians who had settled some
generations earlier in northern France, defeated the English
army in the Battle of Hastings and their leader, Duke
William, became the new king of England.
The ordinary people farmed the land as before and continued
speaking English but the ruling class was now French-speaking.
Gradually the Normans became more English but you still needed
French to show you were important. In 1300, more than two hundred
years after the Battle of Hastings, an English writer, Robert of
Gloucester, wrote these words (translated from the French he wrote
in).
• `... unless a man knows French he is thought
little of. But humble men keep to English
and their own speech still. I reckon there are
no countries in the whole world that do not
keep to their own speech, except England
only.'
During the 14th century English finally replaced French as
the language of the law courts and of the schools but the
English language was now very different from the English
spoken before the Battle of Hastings:
• Before 1066, English, like modern German, still had many
different endings which had to be added to verbs and
nouns to show their grammatical role. By 1400, most of
these endings had disappeared.
• Before the Normans came, English usually combined
simple words and syllables of its own to make new words,
just as modern German and Chinese do. After 1066
English began to borrow foreign words instead – chiefly
from French (which was itself a later form of Latin) and
Latin but later also from many other languages.
Examples of English words borrowed from Latin
or from French (which developed out of Latin)
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
In Congress, June 4, 1776
The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of
America.
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary
for one people to dissolve the political bands which have
connected them with another, and to assume among the
powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which
the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a
decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that
they should declare the causes which impel them to the
separation.
The introduction to the Declaration re-written using only
native English words and syllables
(from http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/Saying_Forth_of_Self_Rule)
THE SAYING FORTH OF SELFSTANDING
In Lawmaker Body, Afterlithe 4, 1776.
The anmood saying forth of the thirteen Banded Folkdoms of
Americksland,
When in the flow of mannish happenings, it becomes needful
for one folk to break up the mootish bands which have
bonded them with another, and to take among the mights
of the earth, the freestanding and even post to which the
laws of life and of life’s God give them, a good worth to
the thoughts of mankind must needs that they should say
forth the grounds which bring them to the sundering.
3. EXPANSION BEYOND
THE BRITISH ISLES
Settlement of immigrants from Britain in North America began in
the late 16th century and increased after the `Pilgrim Fathers’
reached New England aboard the Mayflower in 1620
When the British took control of Quebec from the French in 1759,
there were around 1 million English-speakers in North America.
As well as the independent United States, English spread to lands which remained or
became part of the British Empire. Canada, Australia and New Zealand became largely
English-speaking through settlement by immigrants from Britain or elsewhere in Europe
and English became the language of administration in territories such as India, even
though most of their inhabitants still spoke other languages.
Some words borrowed from nonEuropean languages
• Native American languages (sometimes borrowed
via Spanish):
– tomato, avocado, shack (= a hut), axolotl (a kind of fish), coyote
(wild dog), maize, wigwam (a conical tent), jaguar, puma
• Chinese:
– typhoon, coolie, ketchup, lychee, tycoon, chop suey, dim sum
• Hindi and other Indian languages:
– jungle, bungalow, cot, loot (= goods captured by fighting), curry,
mango, avatar, guru, chit (short note or letter)
Shortly before his death in 1898, Otto von Bismark, former chancellor of
Germany, was asked what would be the most important factor for the 20th
century and he replied: `North America speaks English’
French had replaced Latin as the link language between European
countries in the 18th century, but after America’s participation in World
War I, the French government agreed to English becoming a co-official
language with French at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. Since then
the international role of English has continued to grow.
How many people now use English?
• Estimates of the number of native speakers vary, but it is
somewhere between 330 and 400 million. Chinese
(counting all dialects together) and probably now also
Spanish have more.
• The number using English as a second or foreign language
is even more uncertain because of difficulty deciding how
many of those who study English become fluent users. The
total is probably between 300 million and 1 billion.
• We also do not know just what percentage of internet
pages are in English. A figure of 80% was widely quoted a
few years ago. This must have gone down with increasing
Internet usage in China and elsewhere but there are
probably still more pages in English than any other
language.
Tasks
1.
2.
What pictures do you remember from slide 1?
What is the name of the language family English
originated from?
•
3.
4.
5.
6.
Can you remember the countries where languages from
this‘family’are now spoken?
What countries did the Celts occupy?
What did a Celtic village probably look like?
Name one country where a Celtic language is still
spoken.
Why and how did Latin become an important part of the
English language?
7. Where did English first develop from?
8. Can you remember what parts of the British Isles were
NOT settled by Germanic tribesmen?
9. Who were the Vikings and what was their influence on
Britain and the English language?
10. When did French start to play an important role in Britain
& why was it so influential?
11. What countries were part of the British Empire & how did
they contribute to the development of the English
language?
12. What do you think was the legacy of the British Empire?
13. What would the world be like if the British Empire had
never existed?
14. What would your country be like?
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