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The origins of English are in the language Old English (Anglo-Saxon), which derived from the theorized Proto-Germanic language, the ancestor of the Germanic languages (like German, Dutch, Swedish, etc.). Old English then mixed with a little bit of Old Norse (the ancestral language of the Scandinavian languages). About 25% of Modern English words are of Germanic origin.
The next big influence on English was the Norman Invasion, from which English gets a lot of its French-derived vocabulary. About 25% of Modern English words are of Norman/French origin.
Then writers began to adopt words directly from Latin (and some Greek). About 25% of Modern English words are of Latin origin.
English has an extremely large vocabulary because of the amount of borrowing done from other languages. In fact, there are often many synonyms that only differ in their origin languages.
Over many centuries and adoptations of words from many different languages. Because the English language can fit other language words seamlesly into its vocabulary, it has the largest of all vocabularies, about half a million words, next largest is French with about half that, then German with about eighty thousand words. These amounts will not be quite right, they are something I learned at university in the mid-seventies.
There is a standard history of the English language which goes roughly like this:
Old English begins 5th century and on up to roughly 1150.
Middle English begins and lasts up to 1470.
Early modern English from about 1500 to 1650.
* 5th century - Romans finally leave whilst Germanic tribes arrive in Britain and influence the native Britons. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others from northern Europe mingle, battle and spread their way across England.
Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall are left as fringe Celtic and Gaelic speaking lands.
So the English language began to slowly form at this time, a mix of Germanic and local Celtic tongues, with some Latin thrown in amongst the more well to do people.
* 7th and 8th centuries - Scandanavian influences this basic Anglo Saxon language and Norse words appear, especially in the north east (Northumbria).
* 1066 - The French influence begins following their defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings. French dominates the courts and monasteries and spreads into the now well established English language.
And on and on until now!
There's a great book called The Stories of English by David Crystal which is just brilliant. I recommend it if you want to know more!
Very good comment. I learned a good deal here. Thanks for the book idea.
I am surprised by how drawn I am to know more about the history of English, inspired by reading these answers. My interest is not scholarly but more than curiosity, as I will write in an Answer. Thank you for the articulated insights.
To answer when the English language was formed, I would have to say it began with the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisii in Europe prior to the fifth century, but continues to be formed today. How was or is it being formed? The foundation was the languages of the Germanic tribes, Angles, Saxons, Frisii and Jutes. From that basis it has been being formed by assimilation of words from languages which impacted the primary users of English. This would be a tremendous list if given in full, but Roman (Latin and Greek) and Danish (Vikings) must top the list, at least early on. Later, even after English became the legal language of England, French was the language in the legal system.
Therefore, the foundation of English was the languages of the aforementioned Germanic tribes and the superstructure would be those same languages plus the influences of countless other languages, most important of which is French.
..........In my humble opinion.
Another fascinating contribution and insight. I will write more in an answer. I read yours after an answer suggesting 9th century origins. Your comment, if I interpret rightly, points to much earlier beginnings, prior to the 5th century.
It depends on whether you accept the tribal languages as early forms of or the roots of English. I think of them as early forms and French, Latin, Greek etc. as having an influence.
Everybody here had some pretty good answers. So I'll just say read the works of English literature going back in time from Sir Walter Scott and you'll see the language de-evolve into the earlier Norman-English of Geoffrey of Monmouth of the 12th Century and then even further back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the 9th Century. England didn't really form until the Angles and Saxons took over southern Britain in the 6th Century. Prior to the Saxon invasion, it was all called Britannia and the people spoke a Welsh-Gaelic dialect, while the nobility spoke Latin as the court language.
This answers a part of my question that was most pressing, the timeframe when English began to form. A fascinating look, and thank you. So it could be said that the earliest form of English started to be spoken sometime in the 9th century?
Wow! You opened a 'can of worms' with this one. The language is made up of ancient Breton, Celts, Norse, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Norman-French, Spanish. Add a bit of Ancient Roman and possibly a bit of Greek. Plus all of the words which have come in from places which once belonged to the British Empire, such as Indian and African words - you are looking at the most complex and most interesting language in the world.
Not only that, it has been regarded as the 'official International Language' of the world since the Frech lost out towards the beginning of the 20th Century. All International Flight Captains must be able to speak English. - yes English!
There are, we're told, over half-a-million words contained the the greater English Dictionaries. Too bad, that most people get by on a couple of thousands. But there it is. If you want to improve your thinking, improve your vocabulary...You've got a lot of words to choose from in...the English Language.
A cheery toast to all who answered.
I began writing in my mid-teens. A paper I wrote at 15, in 1968, was titled 'Man' and got me into hot water (described in 'Return to the River of No Return.')
But not until 2007 when I entered a course to teach English as a foreign language (after writing in the language for more than forty years) did I know anything about its origins. As we were preparing to move to Germany, my wife's homeland, I was highly surprised and intrigued to learn of the Germanic origins of English.
Kati grew up in a tiny village on the Elbe river between Hamburg and Berlin. I read in my TEFL course that English had its beginnings in the region of the Elbe. With all the various and marvelous perspectives presented here, it is not my intention to make a statement of fact other than the fact that it is what I read.
We moved from Germany in 2008 and moved back here last summer. Now, to meet a requirement to enable me to stay legally in the country (until we move again,) I am attending Deutsch classes.
I haven't formed a complete viewpoint on this yet, but start to get a picture of how language influences the thinking and lives of the people. Our son in Germany made a comment that one reason people in this country in general have a dour expression on their faces is that the language forces the mouth into a certain position. He said the French, with a more musical language, seemed to him to generally have more uplifted faces. I am sure it has to do with many factors such as climate, economics, politics, culture, etc. But an interesting theory.
Today in Deutsch class it struck me that the formal and informal forms of the German language reinforce a separation of social rank. The teacher pointed to a picture of a man and used the formal. She said, 'respect.' She pointed to a picture of a child and used the informal and said, 'no respect.' Well sure, it is not to take too seriously as to how it was meant, but there is definitely something here for me to explore.
In the case of bringing out the individualized thoughts of well informed people such as those expressed in these answers, I love the metaphorical can of worms. Staying in metaphor, now I am going fishing.
Again, vielen dank.
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