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The Story Of English Language

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Philologists in the 17th to the 19th century worked out there was a connection between many European and northern Indian languages by comparing different languages and sound laws to find a common ancestor. For example, in figure 1, the word for ‘father’ is similar in English, Latin (Pater) and Sanskrit (Pitar). We can see that throughout figure 1, this pattern continues. Due to the consistent correspondence of the initial constants, it cannot be a coincidence; therefore, the three languages must derive from a single ancestor.

Jacob Grimm worked out that specific Indo-European languages have consonants which undergo regular changes. This pattern is seen only in the germanic languages. Grimm states that the consonant ‘p’ shifts to an ‘f’ which in figure 2 where the English word for ’foot’ has a different starting constant than the Sanskrit, Greek and Latin languages in these languages, the word for foot starts with the letter ’p’. Grimm continued to notice these patterns and thus concluded that the germanic languages such as English and German had undertaken a consonant shift from their Indo-European counterparts.

Migration into Europe often started in Ukraine. The Indo-Europeans migrated from Ukraine into Balkans stretching across the Black sea to the east Caspian. They split into three chains: Italic-Celtic, Germanic and Baltic-Slavic (seen in figure 3) The pre-germanic branch of migration developed in eastern central Europe where Proto-Celtic developed in Austria and southern Germany. Pre-Italic developed in Hungary spreading to Italy via Villanovian culture. Pre-Baltic-Slavic was established in Ukraine. Due to internal language change, the Indo-European migrators began speaking with different dialects which allowed the various branches of the Indo-European languages which exist today.

English and Spanish both have the common ancestor of the Centum Indo-European language; however English splits into the Germanic branch and Spanish splits into the Italic branch. A language like Punjabi stems from the Statem Indo-European language forming from the Indo-Iranian branch. Therefore, the most common ancestor between English, Spanish and Punjabi is the Proto-Indo-European language.

Old English

The end of the Roman occupation in 500AD ushered in the Anglos, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians into England from Urheirmat (modern-day Germany and The Netherlands). The tribesmen initially settled on the West Coast fighting the Welsh who occupied most of England. Eventually, the Jutes settled in Kent, the Saxons in Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Middlesex and the Anglos settled on the East coast occupying the North of the Umber (Northumberland). Throughout many generations, the small individual tribes began to form alliances with each other, creating small kingdoms and marking the start of the Heptarchy. England, now split, had five domains: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex and Kent. During this time, one kingdom had the most political power; this fell to Northumbria (7th century) Mercia (8th century) and Wessex (between 802AD and 889AD). During this time, Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries to the Jutish ruler of Kent (King Æthelbert). Æthelbert married Christian princess Bertha and was eventually converted to Christianity by St Augustine leading to the majority of England being converted to Christianity. Not long after the English conversion, the Vikings began to invade. They destroyed monasteries and attacked one area until the relevant leader would pay them to stop fighting to exploit any animosity and feuding from the settled communities. Eventually, in 878AD, Alfred the Great won a great victory of Edington against Norseman leader Guthrum. Upon signing the treaty of Wedmore, the Danes settled in East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria with an east line running from London to Chester. This kingdom was called the Danelaw. After 41 years of peaceful coexistence, Athelstan becomes king of all England in 927AD.

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Linguistic contact between Old Norse and Old English catalysed the creolisation of Old English. This lead to changes in the lexicon due to the loss of certain words or phrases. For example, the Old Norse plural of ßai, ßeim, ßeiere was taken rather than the Old English alternative. Through marriage between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons and the high degree of mutual intelligibility, the lexicons mixed. Old Norse and Old English synonymously bonded with OE cognates meaning one or the other dropped from the lexicon. There was also semantic differentiation. For example, both Shirt and Skirt originally meant garment with the old house favouring the ‘sk’ and old English favouring the ‘sh’ both if these were taken into the language with the meanings changing slightly. There are many loanwords from Old Norse, including anger, egg, ransack, law, boatswain and riding. All of these morphological changes lead to Old English having linguistic instability preventing it from further creolisation with Norman French from the Norman invasions.

Middle English

Many of the semantic fields of the Norman-French invasions relate to leadership and authority. Many high-class words entered into Middle English, such as parliament, debt, court and justice, that are coined from French. The language of the king’s court was French, but the common folk spoke English suggesting that there was limited social interaction between the two. Other semantic fields that relate to the French loan words relate to food (such as beef, ginger and bacon), religion (such a chastity, sermon and chaplain) and colours (such as purple). These semantic fields suggest that French was adapted into the church, which facilitated the integration of these words into middle English. These indicate that the only social relations between the Normans and the English were for ruling, supplying food, literature and religion. A prominent semantic field in the Lord’s Prayer is that of leadership. In Middle English translation, there are three words of Norman-French origin relating to this. These are glory (for example the glory of battle), gracious (for example gracious in defeat), and power (for example the power of the king). Another semantic field in the Lord’s prayer is authority. This can be seen in the words deliver (meaning saving from evil), trespasses (a crime) and temptation (referencing crimes in the middle English period such as adultery).

The morphology and word order between Old English and Middle English due to the conquest of the norm and, forcing lexical contact between Norman-French and Old English. Due to creolisation, Middle English was formed. Old English was free-flowing which changed in Middle English. Grammatical relationships are expressed with the word order shown in the text with the phrase ’our father’. In Middle English, ’oure Fadir’ takes president however in both dialects of Old English it reads ’fæder ure’ showing that the word order in middle English. There was also the addition of -s for plurals which was introduced during this period seen throughout the lords’ prayer (detrouris changes to the plural dettis).

Early modern English to modern English

During 1530-1600, there was a large amount of lexical contact bought in by trade with faraway countries. Education facilities were expanded leading to the increasing amount of English literature. Because of this, scholars noticed that there were shortcomings in the English language due to centuries use of languages (such as Latin) in particular disciplines. This lead to the development of stylistic conventions in subject-specific terminology. Educators in this period were focussed on filling the gaps by using loanwords and coinages. Latin was mainly used for biology, philosophy and law, thus many words coined from Latin were based on these subjects. For example, ’naysay’ was coined from the Latin ’negato. In 1585-1613, William Shakespeare was a well-known play write. He made 34,000 words for Early Modern English, many of these were his own creations. Examples of Shakespeare terms are ’arch-villain’ and ’assassination’. All of these new terms we’re called the inkhorn terms which were seen by the sceptics as overly ambitious and pretentious however they grew to so social ambition allowing the creation for modern English.

Haugen’s stages of standardisation have four steps: a selection of the norm, the codification of the norm, eleboartion of function acceptance by the community. There are many variations and dialects of one particular language. Standardisation helps reduce these dialects reducing the variability. Haugen’s stages start with selecting one of these variants to be elevated to the standard variation. The grammar rules and norms are then laid out in dictionaries. Through the spread of the standard variety, the selected norm becomes the standard variety accepted by the population.

After the Black Death, there was a rise in the middle classes due to a huge population decline leading to a peasants revolt which was crushed in 1380. Ushering in the end of serfdom, there was a rise in the middle-class variety of English. English began to be used in court and for leadership due to the decline of the French, Chancery English was created. This was a standard form used from 1430. In 1476 the introduction of the printing press began and thus so did the levels of English literature written in the Chancery Standard. The Bible was also translated from Latin into this form of English which allowed all classes to have access to the new standard. There was three main dialects in England: East midlands (Cambridge), South-Western (London) and West Midlands (Oxford). There was different grammar and pronunciation. For example, in the East Midlands, ’loves’ was the variation, in the West Midlands, ’love’ was the variation and in the South Western ’Loveth’ was the variation. 1755 was the year Samuel Johnson created the first dictionary. This symbolised the codification of the chancery standard. After the publication of a book on English grammar, scholars accepted the standard form of English, realising that language was an ever-changing phenomenon.

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The Story Of English Language. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from
“The Story Of English Language.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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