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Where does the English language come from?

Updated: May 19




Have you ever wondered why there are at least two completely different words for almost everything in English? The simple answer is that English has developed from two and a half different sources.


You can download the PDF version of the transcript here:





English is a Germanic language

Most linguistic family trees show English as a Germanic language: a close cousin of German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages, and this is indeed how things started. The original inhabitants of our islands spoke a variety of Celtic dialects, but they were pushed to the peripheries by the invading Angles and Saxons in the 5th century CE, which explains why Irish, Scottish, Cornish and Welsh exist as separate languages in the furthest-west areas of the UK. And over the Channel, the Breton language of Brittany is closely related to these.

So, for 500 years we spoke a form of English. Let’s call it Old English.

 

French influence

1066 was a good year for a certain William of Normandy. All it took was to win one single battle, and his nickname changed from William the Bastard to William the Conqueror. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that ‘everything’ changed on that day, but our language certainly did.

Normandy was separate from France at that time, but William and his entourage spoke a form of French, and for several generations all the kings and queens of England spoke the language of their conquering forefather. In fact, the first king to speak English fluently was not until Henry III two hundred years later (1216-1272), but even then it was not his first language. Henry IV (crowned in 1399) was the first king of England to speak English as a mother tongue. For the next few centuries the royals spoke English, until the German-speaking Hanoverians came to the throne in 1714.

Enough history, back to the language. When William arrived in 1066 there were not many language schools to help the common people learn French. So, they...

...used their hands, working in the fields, and ate cow and pig to stay alive.

And the noble ruling class did not...

...exert themselves with any manual labour, but preferred to reside in castles, consuming beef and veal and pork in order to survive.

 

Can you see what’s happening here? It was not just people’s lives that were different but the very words that came to describe them. Even now, a thousand years later, the French (Latinate) word is always the higher register alternative. In the sentences above, the former consists almost entirely of Anglo-Saxon words, while the latter uses many more Latinate words, instantly giving it a more formal feel.

More examples:

Sentiment sounds rather more elegant than feeling. Fragrance much better than smell.

A prior arrangement sounds more formal than something I planned before.

Shall I stop there or carry on? Or should I say “finish or continue”? 

And so on. There are hundreds of examples. A century is a classier way of saying a hundred years!

 

While the royals and their hangers-on spoke French, the peasants in the fields still spoke English, but a version that would be unrecognisable today. Why? Because over time, the English borrowed French words and began incorporating them into their everyday speech. Norman Britain was not renowned for its social mobility, so using French-style words was not necessarily a bid to curry favour with their Frenchie overlords, but rather, it was just something that happened - which is the answer to many “Why” questions in language.

Interestingly, the same thing did not happen to nearly the same extent in the opposite direction. To this day the French are notoriously reticent to allow foreign words, especially English ones, to pollute the purity of their language. The Academie Française is an institution which exists mainly to pass judgement on whether to allow words like le fast-food or le blue-jean, and how strictly to punish those who contravene the rules. In the old days it might have been the guillotine – using non-French language was a sure sign of hoity-toity anti-republicanism – but nowadays it’s ‘merely’ a hefty fine.

 

Latin influence

French is in the inner circle of Latin languages, but it is fair to make a distinction between the words and phrases that we took from Norman French, and Latin itself. In the Middle Ages, Latin was the language of scholarship, science and medicine, the judiciary, and the church. It was also the lingua franca of diplomacy in Europe – the most obvious language to use in a multi-national gathering, which explains why so many terms found their way into English. Originally these would have only been used by the educated classes, but nowadays more or less everyone uses a few Latinisms here and there, often without realising!

e.g. / ad hoc / circa / alumni / per se / ad nauseam / vice versa / status quo / in situ / etc.

 

 

 

The upshot of all this: in the couple of hundred years after 1066, and ever since, our language has absorbed so much French and Latin that it can no longer be called Germanic. Some linguists therefore consider it a unique outlier; such an equal blend of the two – or three – that English should properly be referred to as “Germano-Romance” or “Romano-Germanic”, or whatever, to show that both sources are equally significant.




According to one study* the percentage of modern English words derived from each of various language groups are as follows:

French 29%

Latin 29%

Germanic 26%

Greek 6%

Others 10%

*Source: Origins of the English Language, by Joseph M. Williams

 

 

This is just a brief introduction to where English has come from, and why we have so many more words, and more varied spelling patterns, than many languages that have evolved from one just direct source. Do you see now why I said two and a half in the intro? French derived from Latin, so in a way they are the same original source, but they have arrived for two different reasons, so I split the difference.

 




Andrew Wenger is the founder and lead teacher of SameSky Languages, which has been in existence since 2015. We offer group and individual lessons in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and English as a foreign language.

The level of most classes might be described as intermediate, but we can also cater for beginners, and especially now that we have an expanding team of native speakers, we can also offer more lessons to advanced learners.

Before the pandemic we were functioning almost entirely in classrooms, then we went 100% online. Now it is a hybrid model. Some groups have stayed online, as they prefer the convenience of being able to log in from anywhere in the world, but we are constantly looking for opportunities to set up new in-person classes, wherever there is sufficient demand of enough people living in roughly the same area.

Please contact me here if you would like more information on how to join a group. Our new term starts on January 8th, but you are welcome to try a session at any point.

 

Happy New Year

 

Andrew Wenger

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