English History and Its Development

(this summary of English history is continued from the Get Words home page)

In the history of English, there are two particular groups which are of central importance to the development of modern English

The first group of significance is the Romance languages: classical Latin, the literary language of ancient Rome; and French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian, which evolved from Vulgar Latin, the language of the common people, who had spread through the Western Roman empire.

The role of Latin and French, in particular, in the growth of English vocabulary has been immense. We acquired a sizable proportion of our English words from one or the other of these two sources.

The second important group, of course, is the Germanic languages: because that is the group to which English itself belongs. The existence of the Germanic people as a separate speech community dates back at least 3,000 years.

At this time, they all spoke the same language, which is generally known as Common Germanic. About the second century B.C., this began to split up into three distinct dialects.

One was East Germanic. The only east Germanic language of which any written evidence survives is Gothic. Now extinct, it was spoken by Germanic people who migrated back eastwards to the area of modern Bulgaria and the Crimea.

It provides us with our closest glimpse of what prehistoric Common Germanic must have been like. The second was North Germanic, which has evolved into modern German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic.

The forerunners of English crossed the Channel in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.

The major Germanic contributors to English were brought by people from the northeastern corner of the European mainland, around Jutland and southern Denmark: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

They spoke a mutually intelligible set of Germanic dialects (whose closest modern continental relative is Frisian), which formed the basis of what is now known as "Old English" (the alternative term "Anglo-Saxon" is no longer used as often).

This was a more, or less, homogeneous llanguage, but with marked geographical differences reflecting the areas in Britain into which the various Germanic people had moved: the Angles into the Midlands (where Mercian was spoken) and the North (whose form of Old English is now called Northumbrian); the Jutes into Kent; and the Saxons into the rest of southern and western England (their speech was known as West Saxon).

The end of the Old English period is conventionally associated with the Norman Conquest of 1066

In practice, the transition into the next historical phase of English, which we term "Middle English", was a gradual process not a sudden result of the Norman Conquest.

Its crucial feature, from the point of view of vocabulary, was the beginning of the importation of non-native words which over the centuries have transformed English from a limited and narrow character of a northeast European dialect into a lexical tapestry of astonishing richness and diversity.

Some Latin words entered English following the conversion of the English to Christianity in the seventh century, but it was the Vikings who first introduced new ingredients to the lexical blend in a big way.

Their introductions began in the mid-eighth century and lasted for several hundred years. Their impact on English was greatest in northern areas of Britain, where thy settled, but the language as a whole is indebted to Old Norse for such basic words as anger, egg, knife, law, and leg.

Undoubtedly the single most significant event in the history of the English language was the Norman invasion of 1066

The Norman invasion provided the impetus for a huge influx of vocabulary from Normandy, France, across the English Channel into Britain.

These new words came both by way of Anglo-Norman, the dialect of Old French spoken in England by the new ruling classes, which was based on the northern variety of French; and directly from Old French itself (Old French, the ancestor of modern French, was spoken from the ninth century to roughly the middle of the sixteenth century).

It was this lexical infusion, which lasted from the eleventh to the sixth centuries, which truly laid the basis for the hybrid English language of today.

It would be useless to try to give a representative sample of the words Anglo-Norman French introduced into English, because they are so all-pervasive. From supper to justice, from action to money, from village to receive; they all came in by the thousands.

Some words were Gaulish in ultimate origin. Gaulish was the Celtic language spoken in what is now France before the French language deleted it from common usage. The great majority of these French imports were descended from earlier Latin ancestors.

It was Latin itself, together with Greek, that formed the next wave of lexical innovations in English. With the Renaissance, came a revival in classical scholarship, and in the sixteenth and seventh centuries, hundreds of Latin and Greek words were naturalized into English; among them: apparatus, area, crisis, maximum, poem, and pollen, to name just a minute fraction of them.

English is still growing, probably faster since the late twentieth century than at any previous time in its history. Over half of the new words come from combinations of old ones, and there continues to be a lot of borrowing from other languages.

—Much of this page is based on information from the introduction of
Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto, Arcade Publishing, Inc., New York, 1990.

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