English language

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English is a West Germanic language which arose historically from a number of Germanic varieties in England. As a result of the colonial history of the United Kingdom, it is the native language of many populations in numerous countries, such as Ireland, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It is also the most used lingua franca in international business, education and diplomacy, and is widely taught as a foreign or second language. Today, many other countries use English for official purposes or have adopted it as a national language, creating new varieties of English in nations such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.

History of English

Initially, Old English was a group of dialects reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. Because of the Viking raids and settlements in the north-eastern part of Britain from the late 8th century onward, the West-Saxon dialect, spoken in the only remaining free Anglo-Saxon kingdom (Wessex), naturally dominates the surviving written record. The Vikings, mostly from Denmark, but also to some extent from Norway, influenced the English language in the areas where they mixed with the Anglo-Saxon population.


The Germanic tribes who gave rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and perhaps even the Franks), traded with and fought with the Latin-speaking Roman Empire in the process of the Germanic invasion of Europe from the East. Many Latin words for common objects therefore entered the vocabulary of these Germanic people even before any of these tribes reached Britain; examples include camp, cheese, cook, dragon, fork, giant, gem, inch, kettle, kitchen, linen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, oil, pillow, pin, pound, punt (boat), soap, street, table, wall, and wine. The Romans also gave English words which they had themselves borrowed from other languages: anchor, butter, cat, chest, devil, dish, and sack.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern, King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles led by Hengest and Horsa) to help him in conflicts with the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the south-east of England. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes). The Chronicle talks of a subsequent influx of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. Modern scholarship considers most of this story to be legendary, and politically motivated, and the identification of the tribes with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes is no longer accepted as an accurate description (Myres, 1986, p. 46ff), especially since the Anglo-Saxon language is more similar to Frisian than any single one of the others.

Old English

See also: Old English

English emerged from many Germanic dialects that were brought by Germanic invaders from northwestern Europe, from what is now Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. The previous, mostly Celtic languages of the British Isles were largely driven westwards as their speakers retreated or intermingled with the new settlers, and today there is little evidence of their presence in the vocabulary of English. Eventually, the Saxon tribes of Wessex came to dominate, and it was their dialects that provided most of the foundations of what later came to be seen as a new language, now called Old English, which was spoken between the fifth and the twelfth centuries.

Middle English

See also: Middle English

Later Old English became heavily influenced by Old Norse, brought with later Northern European Viking invaders, most of them from Denmark. The subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 by the Normans led to swift change for their language. Its status declined quickly, as Norman French became the exclusive language of court and government. Latin has long been studied in England, but under the Normans its use also increased. English was still the everyday language of most people, however, as the country had entered a period of diglossia where the 'high' languages of French and Latin co-existed in separate levels of society from the 'low' language of English. However, as the centuries passed, Norman lords and barons adopted ever-more English, and Norman French fell out of favour. By the end of the fourteenth century, Richard II of England had taken his kingly oath in his native English tongue, and the language was restored to the dominant position it had enjoyed prior to the conquest. After 300 years of Norman French and Latin, however, plus the continued influence of Scandinavian dialects, the language had absorbed a tremendous amount of vocabulary from those languages, as well as shifting towards new patterns of syntax and phonology which would strongly distinguish Middle English from its later modern descendants.

Modern English

See also: Early Modern English

From about the middle of the fifteenth century, significant changes began in the phonology of English: the pronunciation of vowels in particular began to change. This 'Great Vowel Shift' saw the vowels of English move upwards in the mouth or diphthongise; for example, house was originally pronounced with the high back vowel [uː], as in ruse; it lowered and centralised slightly to [aʊ] over time, with the process most active in southern England and absent altogether in Scotland (where house is still [huːs]). In turn, as the highest vowels diphthongised, lower vowels moved up to replace them. The English lexicon also changed, with more words being borrowed from Latin and modern French, plus a significant number from Greek. This has continued to the present day, with languages worldwide adding to the vocabulary of English. For example, some words now frequently used in English and many other languages have been borrowed from the Austronesian languages, such as kangaroo.

Historical spread of English

The 'journey' of English around the world began with its movement throughout the British Isles, eventually becoming the language most commonly spoken throughout the modern states of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile, the language reached North America though colonisation, and subsequently became widely spoken in Britain's colonies, such as the settlements of Australia and Canada. As these outposts developed in economic and political importance over the centuries, so the language became an essential lingua franca - to do business other peoples inside and outside the British Empire found it advantageous to learn English as a foreign or second language.

English as a global language

See also: Varieties of English
An example of written English.


Today, English may be identified as a global language, due to its widespread use in business, the internet and amongst diverse groups of people who wish to overcome a language barrier. Estimates put the number of fluent speakers at upwards of half a billion,[1] a majority of whom are probably native speakers. However, there are many millions more with some knowledge of the language.

English as a threat to other languages

One argument concerning the apparent worldwide dominance of English is that it might be a threat to linguistic diversity, with many languages going extinct as speakers switch to English. However, evidence of this phenomenon is actually thin on the ground. Outside the 'English-speaking nations' (countries historically most closely associated with English, such as England, New Zealand and Australia), most speakers of English learn it in addition to or alongside a native language. In addition, English is by no means dominant in every sphere of influence; some evidence suggests that more blogs are written in Japanese,[2] for example, and other tongues enjoy lingua franca status in various regions of the world. French and German, for example, are still much-used in Europe, and Swahili remains an important language for cross-cultural communication in East Africa.