The Origin of the English Language

Alyssa Gould
Mar 25, 2020 · 4 min read
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source

A lot of native English speakers decide to learn Spanish as a second language because they say that Spanish is rather similar to English. But when you look at the two branches of language families that they come from: English is a Germanic language, and Spanish is a Romance language.

How can this be?

The truth is, this hardly begins to uncover the series of exchanges and manipulations of the origin of the English language.

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The Saxon tribe (source)

The German aspect of English is actually from the Germanic tribes — the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes — that inhabited the Great Britain area in the 5th century. They carried several dialects of the Old Germanic language, and as they merged into one, Old English was formed.

In the 9th century, Vikings began to raid Great Britain. The raids eventually led to mass migration as well. As the two communities intertwined, many words were exchanged and borrowed. This led to a lot of early Scandinavian words in English vocabulary, like “sky” and “egg.” One of the greatest influences was the dropping of “grammatical gender” and a drastic decrease in inflections. This was to make communication between the Vikings and the British easier. This is a very evident difference between Modern German and Modern English today.

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The red letters represent inflections (source)

Déjà vu? Reservoir? Souvenir? Why do we use so many French words?

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The Norman Conquest of England (source)

In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded Great Britain. This was the establishment of a new lingua franca — French. The French language became the language of the nobility, the government, and literature. French dominated the upper class, but the majority of the population was not upper class, so they continued using English with major French influence.

So then how would this blend of Scandinavian, French, and German make English so “similar” to Spanish today? Spanish is a Romance language. But what qualifies as a Romance language?

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The Extent of the Roman Empire (source)

A Romance language is a language that comes from Latin, the language spoken during the Roman Empire until its fall in 476 CE. However, when the Roman Empire crumbled in 476 CE, the language did not die with it.

As Christianity was the most widespread religion during the Middle Ages in Europe, Latin spread along with it. The Church’s Catechism and the Bible were all in Latin; therefore, the majority of Europe had to understand Latin for prayer and religious practice. The Middle Ages were also very heavily influenced by religion, as it was a regular aspect of people’s everyday life. This meant these Latin words were also used daily and often.

Now we also have to determine how Latin originated the Romance languages in the first place.

Languages are an aspect of human behavior, as are evolution and speciation — the formation of a species over time. This is why allopatric speciation is an excellent analogy of how Latin evolved around Europe over time.

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(source)

Allopatric speciation is when one population of a species is separated by a geographical barrier. As they are separated and adapt to the new environment over time, they eventually grow to become their own species.

This is exactly what happened to Latin during the Middle Ages in Europe.

Latin was used all across churches and communities in Europe, but as time passed, the language evolved to become their own. Even within the United States, we see this happen with English. The different dialects are demonstrated across the U.S. are because humans adapt very quickly to different environments and cultures.

Well, as Latin spread and speciated throughout Europe, it also adapted as a common aspect of England’s everyday life. This is why Romance words make up a huge percentage of the English vocabulary.

Despite all the influence of other languages, English still remained the primary language of Great Britain. In 1362, English had begun to be used in schools and was now being used in the courts as well (replacing French).

Then came the Renaissance, which led to the printing press, which in turn permitted the widespread use of English reading and writing. The Renaissance also led to a patriotic humanistic movement, which caused people to use English more often than the classical Romance languages.

As English became more and more defined through literature and academics, it grew to become the well-blended Modern English that we speak today.

Thank you!

My name is Alyssa Gould, and I’m passionate about the intersection between Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, and Second Language Acquisition!

Feel free to contact me at alyssa25g25@gmail.com for questions or anything!

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