Modern English And Its Surprisingly Complicated Past

English has taken the crown for being the global language, seeing as how it is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Often thought as a single language, the language actually has several similarities with other languages and dialects. No, it doesn’t stop at mere borrowed words.

With culture and society, languages tend to evolve and embrace changes over time. This is the same case for English as well. Before Modern English, the language has undergone several stages. Take a look below to find out how this language has morphed into the global language that it is today.

Prior To Old English

As some of you may know, Modern English is an amalgamation of Romance languages, Germanic language and derived from names. At its core, its Germanic roots hint at an evolution of an ancient language spoken in 500 BCE, Proto-Germanic.

If you were to go even further into history, language scientists could trace the origins of Proto-Germanic to a language called Proto-Indo-European. Dated back to 6000 years ago, this language forms the fundamentals of almost all European countries, and even some in South and West Asia.

Then Came The Angles, Saxons and Jutes

Old English came at the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th-6th century. They were the first Germanic tribes to settle in the British Isles and had successfully formed the very basis of Anglo-Saxon. From the vocabulary, grammar and syntax, Old English resembles its cousins, Dutch and German, more than the English that we know today.

The Vikings

The Anglo-Saxons and their neighbour, the Vikings, have what you would say, a tensed relationship. From the 8th century, the Vikings have been trying to take over Britain. They reached an armistice when the English king Alfred the Great gave eastern England, Danelaw, to the Vikings in the 9th century.

Of course, as with most land transactions, it didn’t last. The kings thereafter slowly recaptured the given land and even went up to Scotland. The Vikings agreed to be under English’s rule when their last king, Eric Bloodaxe, was killed in battle.

History took another turn when the Vikings took advantage of England’s weak king, Etherald the Unready. The latter promised land and gold if the Vikings promised not to invade. Of course, the Vikings took the gold, land and invaded anyway. In 1016, King Canute managed to absorb England into the Viking empire, along with Denmark and Norway.

With all this interaction, the Norse language is bound to have sneaked into Anglo-Saxon English, and it did! Unbeknownst to many, we still use Old Norse today. The term ‘berserk’ is derived from Old Norse’s ‘berserkr’, which insinuated a Viking warrior who wore nothing for armour except for animal skin, or ‘bear-shirt’.

The cross-cultural fermentation that happened in Danelaw and during King Canute’s rule suggests that Old English was not only derived from West Germanic languages but also North Germanic languages!

The Normans

Etherald moved back to England in hopes to recapture the thrown. He died before he could and his son, Edward, managed to become king in 1042. After Edward’s death, Harold, son of the Earl of Wessex, was chosen as the next king.

This provoked two invasions with the Norwegian army and the Norman army. As you could’ve already tell, the Normans won the battle. With the arrival of the French-speaking Normans and became its ruling class, they brought their speech with them. Old English started undergoing drastic changes. They were the first to introduce Romance languages, both French and Latin, into the English language then.

Early Modern English

Early Modern English strived under the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Under Henry VII, England saw the formation of a centralised government. When the government had decided to expand England via overseas commercial venture and colonisation, English had started to take its first few steps into becoming a global language.

In the early period, however, English was frowned upon as it was deemed far inferior compared to Latin. It was described as an inelegant and uneloquent language, primarily due to its mixed origin. Ironically, this very same attribute caused a shift in attitude and it was praised for its extensive vocabulary, along with its simple grammar. When the 17th century rolled around, Latin was experiencing a decline and English came to take its place. Within a few more decades, the language underwent another transformation to be what it is today.

And there you have it! This is a mere brief rundown of its history as a language, and a lot of it still very much obscure, especially prior to the Proto-Indo-European period. The fascinating history of this language will, unfortunately, be taught in the English courses you’ve signed up for, but at the very least, you now have a deeper appreciation for the language every time you do sit for class. Perhaps enrol in one of those IELTS preparation classes out there and obtain a certificate to show that you’ve truly mastered this global language.


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