Languages evolve all the time.
English, too, was born a long time ago, and has never stopped changing since then. It was born from a mixture of different languages brought by different peoples over more than 2000 years of history. You can imagine English as a big soup, where everybody contributed by putting in some ingredients. Let’s have a look at the evolution of this fascinating language.
Before 43 CE, Britain was inhabited by Celtic populations who spoke Celtic languages. When the Romans arrived in 43 CE and founded the city of Londinium (yes, nowadays London!), the Celtic populations were conquered, and Latin became the official language. Romans didn’t like the cold weather of Britain, and the Celtic populations didn’t like them either, so, in 409 CE, the Romans left, and Latin stopped being used there.
Around 450 CE, many tribes from the north of Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark conquered the British land and the populations of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes started to settle in. These populations, known as Anglo-Saxons, mixed with the Celtic populations, and so did their languages. The Britons started to use Anglo-Saxon words, which everybody preferred than those difficult Latin words, and the primitive English welcomed new words such as “arm”, “baby” “man”, “woman”, “friend”, the verb “can” and many more.
During the 5th century CE, Christianity came to Britain and Christian monks reintroduced the Latin language which became very popular again with the spread of the Christian religion among poor and rich people. The Latin alphabet was introduced, and many religious manuscripts were written in the language. Many monasteries flourished, both in the south and in the north of England. But in 800 CE, the north of England was ransacked and raided by some populations coming from the North Sea on board of monstrous boats: the Vikings. They stayed in the area for more than 300 years and their language offered some 2000 words such as “sky”, “knife”, “husband” “law”, “skill”, the names of the days, e.g. “Thursday” from the god Thor, or verbs such as “take”, “kindle” or phrasal verbs, all entered the English vocabulary.
In 1066, England saw the invasion by another country: The Normans from France.
William the Conqueror from France became the King of England and introduced the French language at court. French was used in castles, among knights and noble men, while English was still used among the poor. It’s interesting to notice that at this time, many nouns and verbs started to have a double nature: an English version and a French version. The best examples come from food: at court, people talked about “pork”, which is the cooked version of the animal “pig”. “Pork” was used in castles, where the nobles were interested in the meat of the animal, while “pig” was used by poor people, who had to look after the living animal; so “sheep” became “mutton”, and “cow” became “beef”, once these were cooked and served at the table of princes, barons, dames and other royals. Verbs got this double nature as well: e.g. the French “search”, and the Anglo-Saxon “to look for”.
In 1600, Shakespeare, one of the greatest poets of all times, introduced more than 2000 new words and expressions and the whole language was transformed again.
British Imperialism also contributed in shaping the language. Many colonies around the world meant that new cultures and new objects entered the English language. Words such as “pyjamas” coming from the Urdu language, or “safari” from Swahili, “raccoon or opossum” from Native American languages, “kangaroo” from Aboriginal languages are some examples.
Even the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the revolution in technology of the 20th century with the introduction of computers and new devices, made the English vocabulary bigger and bigger.
By the way, did you know that the English Language used to be much more difficult in the past than it is today? In the past all verbs were irregular, and nouns and adjectives had cases just like Latin! If you tried to read a text written in Old English or Middle English, you would probably understand nothing! English in the Middle Ages looked like a completely different language! However, like all languages across centuries, it evolved towards simplicity, verbs became more regular and nouns and adjectives lost their cases. English is still transforming itself now, but at the same time, it is adding new words into its vocabulary each year. One of the most recent words to be included in English dictionaries was the word “selfie”. Who knows how the English language will be in 500 years’ time… but one thing we know for sure, like all languages, it will never stay still!