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The History of English (and how knowing that improves your English), part 1

Jul 2, 2020

In this blog, I wanted to share the way I start every single course: the history of English.  Knowing the history of English gives you a new look at what sort of language English is, but it comes with some practical uses (particularly for Dutch speakers!)

So, what is the history of English?

I’ll spend a short paragraph overviewing the constant changes that occurred to English, but if you prefer a Youtube video, here’s a fun one. For starters, English belongs to the Germanic language family. This may seem strange since English has a lot of words that aren’t shared by Dutch or German or Danish.  In fact, the biggest chunk comes from French and Latin:

So, why is English considered Germanic, when only 26% of English vocabulary is actually Germanic?

Let’s take a look:

  1. The first existent language in modern-day UK was Brittonic; this belonged to the CELTIC languages, like Scottish and Irish Gaelic. We don’t have many of those words left, except in dialect, but some words include:

    Bog, crag, pet, and smidgen

  2. Then, there were the Romans.  They brought LATIN; however, they weren’t entirely uniform and left the local languages generally untouched. More on Latin words in a bit.
  3. Then there were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (and Frisians).  They fought their way onto the British Isles and overtook the local language(s).  This became Anglo-Saxon or Old English.  The peasantry commonly spoke this new dialect, and now our simplest words are GERMANIC. People who are just learning English from the beginning will come across a lot of Dutch/German-like words, such as:

    Cow, Cheese, Thursday, Good, Great, Stool, Friend, Hello, Night, Food, Eat, Sleep, and Work.

  4. The introduction of Christianity in the 6th/7th century brought back LATIN:

    Martyr, bishop, priest

  5. Not long after, the Frisians and Vikings came knocking (pillaging), bringing more GERMANIC and NORSE vocabulary with them, like

    Wife, thrust, are, (and just about anything with Th)

    Another important contribution of the Vikings is pronunciation. English derived some new sounds like the A in apple, as well as Th-sounds like in there and three.

  6. 1066. The year everything changed.  The FRENCH (Norman) invasion by William the Conqueror brings a new ruling class.  What’s interesting, though, is just that: French became the language of the ruling class, not the peasantry.  So, since 1066, French (and its Latin roots) influence has mainly been an accessory to Germanic words or for abstract concepts or more ‘bourgeois’ language, like:

    Enemy, chair, beef, enthusiasm, substitute, government, jacket, rent, property, tax

  7. The Hundred Years War ended the onslaught, but the damage was done. For years, English developed more or less on its own, standardizing its spelling, making up new words (thanks, Shakespeare!), and becoming a unified kingdom.  Colonization around the world brought new words, new pronunciations, and new language development. (more on that later too). The important part is American English development.  This had two effects: One, it brought new vocabulary, like Cliff, raccoon, Texas. Second, it preserved English.  It’s like taking a pot ofsoup and dividing it in half; after that, you spice one but not the other, making really two soups with a lot in common.This gives us the split of American and British English, with British English being more developed by arguing with the French and American English mostly about growing up and finding themselves (and dealing with the isolation from European languages). Because of that isolation, American English has slightly more Germanic tinges to it; it’s more direct and intelligible (and far less intelligent, refined, blah blah)

    So you get:
    [US vs UK]
    Cookies (NL) vs Biscuits (FR)
    Sidewalk vs Pavement
    Mail vs Post

  8. This brings us to now: GLOBAL ENGLISH.  Since the colonies brought all sorts of vocabulary, we’ve also gained a little thing called ‘the Internet’, inheriting the ‘sun never sets’ of the British Empire in a digital way; Hollywood, gaming, and Netflix further spread the reach of English — now to 1.5 billion people (that’s 20% of the world population — one out of every 5!) and is the most widespread language in the world.  Loan words, made-up words, and new trends have taken English on a wild ride since:Kimono, Robot, Pancho, LOL, Chuddies, Jungle, Kosher, Coffee, Guerilla


Very interesting… but this is practical… how?

For one, my clients/students usually begin to think about English in a new way and, thus, think about English learning in a new way. English is not a pure language. Many people classify English as a creole language, meaning it’s made of parts of other languages, with very little original or ‘pure’ (bleck!) language.

What I generally show is how the repeated influence of other languages made English a very versatile and straightforward language.  Our word order is (to my knowledge) only matched in ease by Chinese, but is far simpler than German (das die der) or French (manger, mangé, mangerais, etc.).   Taking the most practical and handiest vocabulary or elements of the languages imposed on it, English became a very efficient language with a HUGE dictionary (only matched by Korean and double the size of Spanish).

Second, for Dutch speakers, it’s important to see that, while many things are common between English and Dutch, many words from French have made it into English but not into Dutch.  Using English words in Dutch is trendy, but using French words in English has been trendy for nearly 1,000 years.

That is to say, however, the tides are shifting:  Collins English Dictionary named Danish ‘hygge‘ a word of the year in 2016.

For more on how to use the fact that Dutch and French influenced English to improve your English, stay tuned for future blogs and check out my blog about improving writing. Also, we can help you succeed in a foreign language, especially English.  If you like our blogs and feel like being successful in more than one language, we’re the people to call.  Contact us now to learn more!


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