West Germanic languages
English is a West Germanic language of the “Ingvaeonic” subgroup, spoken in the British Isles since the arrival of continental Germanic groups (the “Anglo-Saxons”) during the fifth century AD, and currently far more widespread, due to more recent migrations of English speakers to eg. North America, Australia and New Zealand, and due to the use of English as a lingua franca or an official language in many countries.
English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This broad family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches:
• Latin and the modern Romance languages;
• The Germanic languages;
• The Indo-Iranian languages, including Hindi and Sanskrit;
• The Slavic languages;
• The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian (but not Estonian);
• The Celtic languages; and
The influence of the original Indo-European language, designated proto-Indo-European, can be seen today, even though no written record of it exists. The word for father, for example, is vater in German, pater in Latin, and pitr in Sanskrit. These words are all cognates, similar words in different languages that share the same root.
Of these branches of the Indo-European family, two are, for our purposes of studying the development of English, of paramount importance, the Germanic and the Romance (called that because the Romance languages derive from Latin, the language of ancient Rome, not because of any bodice-ripping literary genre). English is in the Germanic group of languages. This group began as a common language in the Elbe river region about 3,000 years ago. Around the second century BC, this Common Germanic language split into three distinct sub-groups:
• East Germanic was spoken by peoples who migrated back to southeastern Europe. No East Germanic language is spoken today, and the only written East Germanic language that survives is Gothic.
• North Germanic evolved into the modern Scandinavian languages of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic (but not Finnish, which is related to Estonian and is not an Indo-European language).
• West Germanic is the ancestor of modern German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and English.
Old English (500-1100 AD)
1.1 West Germanic invaders
West Germanic invaders from Jutland and southern Denmark: the Angles (whose name is the source of the words England and English), Saxons, and Jutes, began populating the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. They spoke a mutually intelligible language, similar to modern Frisian–the language of northeastern region of the Netherlands–that is called Old English. Four major dialects of Old English emerged, Northumbrian in the north of England, Mercian in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the Southeast.
These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland, leaving behind a few Celtic words. These Celtic languages survive today in Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland and in Welsh. Cornish, unfortunately, is now a dead language. (The last native Cornish speaker, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777 in the town of Mousehole, Cornwall.) Also influencing English at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions, beginning around 850, brought many North Germanic words into the language, particularly in the north of England. Some examples are dream, which had meant ‘joy’ until the Vikings imparted its current meaning on it from the Scandinavian cognate draumr, and skirt, which continues to live alongside its native English cognate shirt.
The role of the Latin language in Medieval Britain was clearly a manifest. It was determined by such historical events as Roman civilization and the introduction of Christianity.
The majority of words in modern English come from foreign, not Old English roots. In fact, only about one sixth of the known Old English words have descendants surviving today. But this is deceptive; Old English is much more important than these statistics would indicate. About half of the most commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Words like be, water, and strong, for example, derive from Old English roots.
1.2 Etymological survey of the old English vocabulary
Native OE words can be subdivided into a number of etymological layers coming from different historical periods. The three main are: 1) common IE words, 2) common Germanic words, 3) specifically OE words.
Words belonging to the common IE layer constitute the oldest part of the OE vocabulary. They go back to the days of the IE parent-language. Among these words we find names of some natural phenomena, plants and animals, agricultural terms, names of parts of the human body, terms of kinship, etc. This layer includes personal and demonstrative pronouns and most numerals. In addition to roots, this portion of the OE (and Germanic) heritage includes word-building and form building elements. OE examples: beard, broðor, ic, min, twā.
The common Germanic layer includes words, which are shared by most Germanic languages, but do nor occur outside the group. Being specifically Germanic, these words constitude an important distinctive mark of the Germanic languages at the lexical level. Common Germanic words originated in the common period of Germanic history, i.e. in PG when the Teutonic tribes lived close together. Semantically these words are connected with nature, with the sea and everyday life. OE examples: hand, sand, fox.
The third etimological layer of native words can be defined as specifically OE, that is wors which do nor occur in other Germanic or non-Germanic languages. These words are few, if we include here only the words whose roots have not been found outside English: OE clipian ‘call’, OE bird (NE bird) and several others. However, they are far more numerous of we include in this layer OE compounds and derived words formed from Germanic roots in England. For instance, OE wifman or wimman (NE woman) consists of two roots which occurred as separate words in other OC languages, but formed a compound only in OE (cf. OHG wib, O Icel vif, OE man, Gt mann(a), NE man).
1.3 Old English Written Records
The records of OE writing embrace a variety of matter: they are dated in different centuries, represent various local dialects, belong to diverse genres and are written in different scripts. The earliest written records of English are inscriptions on hard material made in a special alphabet known as the runes. The runic alphabet is a specially Germanic alphabet. Our knowledge of OE language comes mainly from manuscripts written in Latin characters: Anglo-Saxon Charters, the Corpus and Epinal glossaries in the 8th c., Bede’s historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (8th c.). We have about 30,000 lines of OE verse from many poets of some 3 centuries. The greatest poem of the time was Beowulf(7th c.). Old English, whose best known surviving example is the poem Beowulf, lasted until about 1100. This last date is rather arbitrary, but most scholars choose it because it is shortly after the most important event in the development of the English language, the Norman Conquest.
Later appeared new war poems: The battle of Brunanburh, the battle of Maldon (10th c.); elegiac (lyrical) poems: Widsith (“The Traveler’s Song”), The Wanderer, The Seafarer and others; religious poems: Genesis, Exordus, Elene, Endreas, Christ, Fate Of The Apostles.
OE poetry is characterized by a specific system of versification and some peculiar stylistic devices. The lines are not rhymed and number of the syllables in a line is free, only the number of stressed syllables being fixed. The style of OE poetry is marked by the wide use of metaphorical phrases or compounds describing the qualities or functions of the thing. OE prose is valuable source of information for the history of language.
The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500)
William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England and the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD. The new overlords spoke a dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman. The Normans were also of Germanic stock (“Norman” comes from “Norseman”) and Anglo-Norman was a French dialect that had considerable Germanic influences in addition to the basic Latin roots.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, Latin had been only a minor influence on the English language, mainly through vestiges of the Roman occupation and from the conversion of Britain to Christianity in the seventh century (ecclesiastical terms such as priest, vicar, and mass came into the language this way), but now there was a wholesale infusion of Romance (Anglo-Norman) words.
The influence of the Normans can be illustrated by looking at two words, beef and cow. Beef, commonly eaten by the aristocracy, derives from the Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic cow. Many legal terms, such as indict, jury, and verdict have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. This split, where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and words frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can be seen in many instances.
Sometimes French words replaced Old English words; crime replaced firen and uncle replaced eam. Other times, French and Old English components combined to form a new word, as the French gentle and the Germanic man formed gentleman. Other times, two different words with roughly the same meaning survive into modern English. Thus we have the Germanic doom and the French judgment, or wish and desire.
It is useful to compare various versions of a familiar text to see the differences between Old, Middle, and Modern English. Take for instance this Old English (c.1000) sample:
Fæder ure þuþe eart on heofonum
si þin nama gehalgod tobecume þin rice gewurþe þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.
Rendered in Middle English (Wyclif, 1384), the same text is recognizable to the modern eye:
Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name;
þi reume or kyngdom come to be. Be þi wille don in herþe as it is dounin heuene.
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us.
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.
Finally, in Early Modern English (King James Version, 1611) the same text is completely intelligible:
Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen.
Giue us this day our daily bread.
And forgiue us our debts as we forgiue our debters.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliuer us from euill. Amen.
In 1204 AD, King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France. This began a process where the Norman nobles of England became increasingly estranged from their French cousins. England became the chief concern of the nobility, rather than their estates in France, and consequently the nobility adopted a modified English as their native tongue. About 150 years later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed about one third of the English population. The laboring and merchant classes grew in economic and social importance, and along with them English increased in importance compared to Anglo-Norman.
This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English. The most famous example of Middle English is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unlike Old English, Middle English can be read, albeit with difficulty, by modern English-speaking people.
By 1362, the linguistic division between the nobility and the commoners was largely over. In that year, the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts and it began to be used in Parliament.
The Middle English period came to a close around 1500 AD with the rise of Modern English.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
The next wave of innovation in English came with the Renaissance. The revival of classical scholarship brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and many bemoaned the adoption of these “inkhorn” terms, but many survive to this day. Shakespeare’s character Holofernes in Loves Labor Lost is a satire of an overenthusiastic schoolmaster who is too fond of Latinisms.
Many students having difficulty understanding Shakespeare would be surprised to learn that he wrote in modern English. But, as can be seen in the earlier example of the Lord’s Prayer, Elizabethan English has much more in common with our language today than it does with the language of Chaucer. Many familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by Shakespeare, some 2,000 words and countless catch-phrases are his. Newcomers to Shakespeare are often shocked at the number of cliches contained in his plays, until they realize that he coined them and they became cliches afterwards. “One fell swoop,” “vanish into thin air,” and “flesh and blood” are all Shakespeare’s. Words he bequeathed to the language include “critical,” “leapfrog,” “majestic,” “dwindle,” and “pedant.”
Two other major factors influenced the language and served to separate Middle and Modern English. The first was the Great Vowel Shift. This was a change in pronunciation that began around 1400. While modern English speakers can read Chaucer with some difficulty, Chaucer’s pronunciation would have been completely unintelligible to the modern ear. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would be accented, but understandable. Long vowel sounds began to be made higher in the mouth and the letter “e” at the end of words became silent. Chaucer’s Lyf (pronounced “leef”) became the modern life. In Middle English name was pronounced “nam-a,” five was pronounced “feef,” and down was pronounced “doon.” In linguistic terms, the shift was rather sudden, the major changes occurring within a century. The shift is still not over, however, vowel sounds are still shortening although the change has become considerably more gradual.
The last major factor in the development of Modern English was the advent of the printing press. William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476. Books became cheaper and as a result, literacy became more common. Publishing for the masses became a profitable enterprise, and works in English, as opposed to Latin, became more common. Finally, the printing press brought standardization to English. The dialect of London, where most publishing houses were located, became the standard. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the first English dictionary was published in 1604.
Late-Modern English (1800-Present)
The principal distinction between early- and late-modern English is vocabulary. Pronunciation, grammar, and spelling are largely the same, but Late-Modern English has many more words. These words are the result of two historical factors. The first is the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the technological society. This necessitated new words for things and ideas that had not previously existed. The second was the British Empire. At its height, Britain ruled one quarter of the earth’s surface, and English adopted many foreign words and made them its own.
The industrial and scientific revolutions created a need for neologisms to describe the new creations and discoveries. For this, English relied heavily on Latin and Greek. Words like oxygen, protein, nuclear, and vaccine did not exist in the classical languages, but they were created from Latin and Greek roots. Such neologisms were not exclusively created from classical roots though, English roots were used for such terms as horsepower, airplane, and typewriter.
This burst of neologisms continues today, perhaps most visible in the field of electronics and computers. Byte, cyber-, bios, hard-drive, and microchip are good examples.Also, the rise of the British Empire and the growth of global trade served not only to introduce English to the world, but to introduce words into English. Hindi, and the other languages of the Indian subcontinent, provided many words, such as pundit, shampoo, pajamas, and juggernaut. Virtually every language on Earth has contributed to the development of English, from Finnish (sauna) and Japanese (tycoon) to the vast contributions of French and Latin.
The British Empire was a maritime empire, and the influence of nautical terms on the English language has been great. Words and phrases like three sheets to the wind and scuttlebutt have their origins onboard ships.
Finally, the 20th century saw two world wars, and the military influence on the language during the latter half of this century has been great. Before the Great War, military service for English-speaking persons was rare; both Britain and the United States maintained small, volunteer militaries. Military slang existed, but with the exception of nautical terms, rarely influenced standard English. During the mid-20th century, however, virtually all British and American men served in the military. Military slang entered the language like never before. Blockbuster, nose dive, camouflage, radar, roadblock, spearhead, and landing strip are all military terms that made their way into standard English.
Also significant beginning around 1600 AD was the English colonization of North America and the subsequent creation of a distinct American dialect. Some pronunciations and usages “froze” when they reached the American shore. In certain respects, American English is closer to the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some “Americanisms” that the British decry are actually originally British expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost at home (e.g., fall as a synonym for autumn, trash for rubbish, frame-up which was reintroduced to Britain through Hollywood gangster movies, and loan as a verb instead of lend).
The American dialect also served as the route of introduction for many native American words into the English language. Most often, these were place names like Mississippi, Roanoke, and Iowa. Indian-sounding names like Idaho were sometimes created that had no native-American roots. But, names for other things besides places were also common. Raccoon, tomato, canoe, barbecue, savanna, and hickory have native American roots, although in many cases the original Indian words were mangled almost beyond recognition.
Spanish has also been great influence on American English. Armadillo, mustang, canyon, ranch, stampede, and vigilante are all examples of Spanish words that made their way into English through the settlement of the American West.
To a lesser extent French, mainly via Louisiana, and West African, through the importation of slaves, words have influenced American English. Armoire, bayou, and jambalaya came into the language via New Orleans. Goober, gumbo, and tote are West African borrowings first used in America by slaves.
The most significant of phonological changes is probably the Great vowel Shift. One element of the Great Vowel Shift had begun to move in Early Middle English. Recall that the vowel in stone, home, and road is, in Old English, a low back vowel: stan, ham, rad. In Middle English, this vowel had moved up to the position now present in Standard Modern caught or bought. (The words were variously spelled in Middle English: stoon, hoom, road, rod, stane, hame can all be observed.)
In Standard Modern American English, of course, the vowel in these words is /o/ –it has gone up still further since the Middle English period. That’s the basis of the whole Great Vowel Shift. It is a moving-up of positions of long vowels.
So in Old and Middle English we have words like bote, fode (boot, food); nu, hus (now, house); make and take (with a “Spanish” value for “a”); me and thee (with a “Spanish” value for “e”), and like and mind (with a “Spanish” value for “i”). Along with stoon and home, these words illustrate the six major shifts of the Great Vowel Shift.
Why is this interesting? First, because it explains why the letters for the front vowels a, e, and i have such different values in Spanish, French, Italian and German than they do in English. Second, because vowel shifts are still going on. For instance, the Standard American pronunciation of stone and home is /ow/ but the Received Pronunciation reflects yet another shift in the vowel, to a much different diphthong. The American pronunciation is conservative; the RP has shifted since Early Modern English.
The Great Vowel Shift
Beginning in the twelfth century and continuing until the eighteenth century (but with its main effects in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) the sounds of the long stressed vowels in English changed their places of articulation (i.e., how the sounds are made).
Old and Middle English were written in the Latin alphabet and the vowels were represented by the letters assigned to the sounds in Latin. For example, Middle English “long e” in Chaucer’s “sheep” had the value of Latin “e” (and sounded like Modern English “shape” [/e/] in the International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA]). It had much the same value as written long e has in most modern European languages. Consequently, one can read Chaucer’s long vowels with the same values as in Latin or any continental European language and come pretty close to the Middle English values.
The Great Vowels Shift changed all that; by the end of the sixteenth century the “e” in “sheep” sounded like that in Modern English “sheep” or “meet” [IPA /i/]. To many it seemed that the pronunciation of English had moved so far from its visual representation that a new alphabet was needed, and in the sixteenth century we have the first attempts to “reform” English spellings, a movement still active today. In 1569 John Hart (in his Orthographie) went so far as to devise a new phonetic alphabet to remedy what he considered a fatal flaw in our system of language. (His alphabet and the work of other language reformers provides us with our best evidence for the pronunciation of English in his time).
To understand how English changed (not why; no one knows) one must first note that vowels are articulated in particular parts of the mouth; we make the sound in Modern English “deep” [/dip/] with our tongue forward and high in the mouthr, and the sound in Modern Enlish “boat” [/bot/] with our tongue lowered and drawn toward the back of the mouth and the jaw relatively low (open). Say “ee” (or “beet”) and “o” (or “boat”) in succession and you may be able to feel the movement of your tongue from front to back.
This chart roughly represents the places where the “long vowels” are articulated:
FRONT CENTER BACK
HIGH /i:/ [Modern “beet”] . /u:/ [Modern “boot”]
MID /e:/ [Modern “bait”] . /o:/ [Modern “boat”]
LOW /æ:/ [Modern “bag”] /a:/ [Modern “father”] “au” [Modern “bought”]
[The “au” representing the low back vowel above is there because I cannot find a way to print a backward c, the usual means of representing this sound.]
The Great Vowel shift invloved a regular movement of the places of articulation: The front vowels each moved up a notch, except for /i:/, which formed a dipthong. Likewise the back vowels moved up, except for /u:/, which formed another dipthong:
Position . Middle English Modern English
FRONT VOWELS HIGH /i:/ —> /ai/
. MID (CLOSED) /e:/ —> /i:/
. LOW (OPEN) /æ:/ —> /e:/ (later –> /i:/)
CENTRAL VOWEL LOW /a:/ —> /e:/
BACK VOWELS HIGH /u:/ —> /au/
. MID (CLOSED) /o:/ —> /u:/
. LOW (OPEN) “au” —> /o:/
To hear the sounds Click here. Then Click here.
Note that the change affects only long, stressed vowels. The “y” in Middle Enghlish “my” was affected because it has primary stress, and we say /mai/; the “y” in a word like “only” was not affected (the primary stress is on the first syllable and -ly lacks stress, so we say /li:/, making the -ly of “only” rime with “see.”
The change is not as neat as is shown; /æ:/ (“open e,” as it is called in most discussions) did not complete the movement from /æ:/ to /e:/ to /i:/ (contrast Mod. Eng. “break” and “beak”). Moreover, when Middle English “e” represents /æ:/ and when the spelling “o” or “oo” represents the open vowel often can be determined only by the etymology of the words. Modern spellings offer a clue: as a general rule, where modern English uses “ea” (as in “read”) or “oa” (as in loaf), the Middle English equivalent was the open vowel sound. (“Open” and “close” or “closed” refer to the jaw — lowered for “open” and raised for “close” vowels.)
There are other, more exact but more complex, ways of representing the change. (There is also an excellent presentation — See and Hear the Great Vowel Shift on The Great Vowel Shift site maintained by Melinda Menzer at Furman University.) Moreover, our best attempts at recovering Chaucer’s pronunciation can be only approximations. Nevertheless the following chart will provide a guide to the pronunciation of Chaucer’s “long vowels”:
Middle English Sounds like Modern
y,i “myne, sight” “meet”
e, ee “me, meet, mete” (close e) “mate”
e “begge, rede” (open e) “bag”
a, aa “mate, maat” “father”
u, ou “hus, hous” “boot”
o, oo “bote, boot” (close o) “oak”
o “lof, ok” (open o) “bought”
Many of the differences between RP and Standard American can be seen in terms of vowel shifting. The causes of such vowel shifting are mysterious. How does a shift in any cultural preference begin? In the early 19th century, British and American gentlemen stopped wearing knee breeches and hose, and began to wear trousers. In the mid-19th century, the same class of gentlemen began to wear beards, which were unknown in the 18th century among upper class men. In the early 20th century, the same class of men became clean-shaven again and have largely stayed so ever since. We don’t know the reasons for these cultural shifts in largely arbitrary markers like dress and grooming, but we can chart their existence. And these cultural items come with meanings attached to them, just as “accents” do in language, despite their arbitrariness. Even today we surely attribute social meaning to the possession of a standard accent, and a different social position to RP than we do to standard American.
How Many Words Are There In The English Language?
This question is only tangentially related to word and phrase origins, but enough people ask it that I thought I’d provide a permanent answer.
This is an indeterminate question. First, there is the problem of what exactly is a word. Are mouse, mice, mousy, and mouselike separate words or just forms of one root word? Is a computer mouse the same word as the rodent? (To demonstrate the difficulty in counting words, over the centuries many scholars have attempted to count how many different words Shakespeare used in his corpus of work. The counts run anywhere from 16,000 to 30,000.)
Second, unlike French, English has no official body to determine what is proper and what is not. English dictionaries are (usually) descriptive in nature, not prescriptive. That is they describe how the language exists and is used, they do not prescribe its use. Just because a word “is not in the dictionary,” doesn’t mean that it is not a legitimate word. It simply means the dictionary editors omitted it for one reason or another.
The OED2, the largest English-language dictionary, contains some 290,000 entries with some 616,500 word forms. Of course, there are lots of slang and regional words that are not included and the big dictionary omits many proper names, scientific and technical terms, and jargon as a matter of editorial policy (e.g., there are some 1.4 million named species of insect alone). All told, estimates of the total vocabulary of English start at around three million words and go up from there.
Of these, about 200,000 words are in common use today. An educated person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words and uses about 2,000 in a week’s conversation. (These estimates vary widely depending on who is doing the counting, so don’t take them as absolute.)