Archivi dei tag: History

The Origins of the English Language

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!

British Food: the Victorian Way

During Victorian England urban poverty was visible in degraded areas of London. The diet of English workers at that time was based on bread and potatoes, with bacon when extra earnings could be saved, as well as one of the most famous British fast food: fish and chips. The main problem of Londoners during the period was to get fresh food because the latter had to travel long distances before getting to London. In fact, one of the main causes of many diseases that flooded London during those times was the low consumption of fruit and vegetables that took too much time to reach the town.

The railways were the most influential factor for both the quality and the quantity of food available in the cities. Before the massive construction of railway infrastructures, bulky goods had to be carried by sea, river and canals. The long time needed for transportation prevented fresh foods from arriving intact in London.

Cookery books also had a great impact on the 19th century cooking style. However, their influence had little to do with the genre: they were in fact more related with the fact that women’s education level was growing. The first example is Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton (1845). The book is stuffed with essays, engravings, illustrations and poetic descriptions, making it a collection of poems more than a cookery book. A second important example is Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management by Isabella Beaton (1861). This one is much more pragmatic and is the first cookery book to mention aspects concerning costs, quantities, and preparation times.

Still today television baking competitions are incredibly famous all around the world. Let’s think about England: The Great British Bake Off, Nigella Bites (by Nigella Lawson) and Mary Berry Cooks. Many of these tv shows still use some of Acton’s or Beaton’s recipes such as in the Mary Berry’s Ginger and treacle spiced traybake. Speaking of ginger, the first recorded mention of gingerbread being baked in London dates back to 1793, although this was probably earlier, as ginger had been stocked in high street businesses since the 1640s. Today one of the most popular shapes of gingerbread is the gingerbread house which has become a common Christmas staple.

Enjoy your meal and Merry Christmas!

Questo articolo è stato scritto da Arcadia Fiorini, postgraduate student in Foreign Languages, Literatures and Modern Cultures, UNITO.

12 commonly mispronounced UK place names

Let’s be honest, English pronunciation is not easy, nor are some place names we often come across when we travel through the UK, look at a map or read an article.

The reason why there are so many exceptions in pronunciation is due to the fact that the language of the British Isles has undergone a series of transformations throughout ages of History and, since the very beginning of English, different populations have contributed in shaping the language and adding new words or pronunciations to it. Many place names in the UK date back to the Celts, the Picts, the Romans and then to the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. It is therefore clear that from such cultural and linguistic diversity a similar mix of sounds was bound to spring.

Here is a list of 12 common place names in the UK that many people around the world commonly mispronounce. Each place name contains its transcription in the International Phonetic Alphabet and a short history of its origins:

Towns ending in –wich

wich is a common suffix in place names in England and means “town”. There are in fact several cities in the UK ending with this suffix. It comes from the Old English wīc, a loanword from the Latin vicus, meaning “dwelling, village, hamlet, town”.

GREENWICH /ˈɡrɛnɪtʃ/ The famous area in South East London, where you can step on the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and where the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was calculated at the Royal Observatory. The place name “Greenwich” was first documented in a Saxon charter of 918, written as Gronewic. A later spelling Grenewic dates back to 964, and also Grenawic is present in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1013. It is also written as Grenviz in the Domesday Book of 1086, and Grenewych in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291. You can really see how the name evolved during the Medieval period. The name means “green wic” i.e. “green town”.

NORWICH /ˈnɒrɪdʒ, -ɪtʃ/ a city in Norfolk, in East Anglia, England. The name comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “north-town”.

Towns ending in –cester

The suffix –cester is the Old English word ceaster, meaning “fortification” and is a borrowing from the Latin word castrum. The same Latin word is also found in another spelling: -chester, which we can find in place names such as Manchester or Chichester.

WORCESTER /ˈwʊstər/ a city in Worcestershire, England. The name of this city underwent different variations, from Old English to Norman French. It was known as Weogorna as a settlement of the Angles of Mercia in the 7th century. After the Viking period it became a centre for the Anglo-Saxon army (Weogorna ceastre, the Worcester Camp). It then became Wirccester in 1100. Interestingly, the name of the county is a common nightmare for all barbecue enthusiasts around the world: “Would you mind passing me the Worce… Worset… never mind, just pass me that sauce!”

LEICESTER /ˈlɛstər/ a city in the East Midlands of England. The name derives from the Latin Legorensis civitatis which then took an Old English spelling, Ligera ceastre, as we can read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The first part of the name is how the people living in that area called themselves: Ligore; you can find the genitive plural form of this name in Ligera ceastre. The name is linked to the river Ligor (which is now called Soar) flowing close to this people’s settlement. The name of the river is probably of Briton origin.

As we have seen, -cester means fortification, so we can assume that the name meant “fortification of the Ligera people”. Again, the name was later transformed, as we can read the spelling Ledecestre in the Domesday Book.

GLOUCESTER /ˈɡlɒstə/ a city in Gloucestershire in South West England. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon transformation gloyw /(meaning “bright, shiny or glowy”) of the Welsh word loyw. The place name in Welsh is in fact Caerloyw, where the word caer means “castle”. It is therefore easy to assume that the name Gloucester is a mix of a Welsh word (caer) and a Latin word (-cester, from castrum) meaning “bright fort”.

If you still have doubts regarding the pronunciation of this city, read aloud this famous, old nursery rhyme from the 19th century:

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester,
In a shower of rain;
He stepped in a puddle,
Right up to his middle,
And never went there again.

(There’s a catch here: the word “puddle” in some earlier pronunciations, had to rhyme with the word “middle”. Try pronouncing it as “piddle”).

READING  /ˈrɛdɪŋ/ a large historic market-town in Berkshire, South East England. The name probably comes from the Readingas, an Anglo-Saxon tribe whose name means Reada’s People in Old English.

FROME /ˈfruːm/ a town in Somerset, England. The name Frome comes from the Brittonic word *frāmā (Modern Welsh ffraw) meaning “fair, fine or brisk” and describing the flow of the river. It is one of the most famous mispronounced place names in the UK.

WARWICK /ˈwɒrɪk/ the county town of Warwickshire, England, near the river Avon. The name Warwick means “dwellings by the weir”. A weir /wɪər/ or low head dam is a barrier across the width of a river that alters the flow characteristics of water and usually results in a change in the height of the river level. You can find many weirs in several towns. The word weir probably dates back to the Middle English were, Old English wer, from the verb werian, meaning “to defend, to dam”.

DERBY /ˈdɑːrbi/ a city in Derbyshire, England. The Viking name Djúra-bý, recorded in Old English as Deoraby, means “village of the deer”. It is interesting to notice the suffix –by, of Viking origin, meaning “farmstead, village, settlement” which we can also find in other place names, such as Whitby or Selby. The name of the city comes from a lot of variations: the original Roman name Derventio became Derbentio, and then Derby, but there also seems to be a link to the river Derwent, the city river – from the same Celtic word meaning “valley thick with oaks” .

EDINBURGH /ˈɛdɪnbərə/ the capital of Scotland. “Edin”, the root of the city’s name, derives from Eidyn, the name for this region in Cumbric, the Brittonic Celtic language which was once spoken there. However, there is no knowledge regarding the meaning of the name. Eidyn had its centre in Din Eidyn, “the hillfort of Eidyn”. The fort was probably at Castle Rock, where nowadays’ Edinburgh Castle stands. The name then lost the Brittonic din and saw it replaced with burh, subsequently creating the name Edinburgh.

YNYSYBWL [ənɪsəˈbʊl] a village in the south of Wales. Ynys means ‘island’ or ‘river meadow’ in Welsh and probably refers to a meadow on the banks of the Clydach stream flowing nearby. As far as the word bŵl is concerned, some theories suggest a connection with the word “bowl or ball” a possible reference to the shape of the river-meadow or to a handball game played there.

HEREFORD /ˈhɛrɪfərd/ a town in Herefordshire, England, close to the border with Wales. There are theories stating a Welsh origin of the name and some others going for some Saxon ancestry. The Welsh origin of the name refers to the name Henffordd, meaning “old road”, referring to and old Roman settlement and road nearby. On the other hand, the word “here” in Anglo-Saxon meant “an army or formation of soldiers” and “ford” meaning “a place for crossing a river”. You can also find this word in the place name Oxford, “the place where oxen would ford the river”.

This was just a selection of some difficult place names that non native and even native speakers of English sometimes find hard to pronounce but it was also an occasion to delve into the fascinating world of topography and etymology.

It’s incredible how much you can learn of the origin of a place by removing the dust which covers its name and being able to let that past come to the surface once again.

Keep following our blog for other fascinating insights into the multicoloured world of the English language!


  • Eilert Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names.
  • Cameron, Kenneth (1961). English Place Names. Oxford, UK: Taylor & Francis.
  • The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names Based on the Collections of the English Place-Name Society, ed. by Victor Watts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • Warwickshire History, Warwickshire County Council.
  • Ekwall, Eilert (1960) [1936]. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names (Fourth ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Room, Adrian (2006). Placenames of the World. McFarland.

Viking and Norman words in English

In medieval times, the English language was enriched by a large number of words coming from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, and French, after the Norman conquest of 1066.
Words such as sky, skull, berserk, bull, cake, egg, fog, guest, kid, knife, knot, lad, mistake, plough, race, reindeer, saga, skin, skirt, wing, window, troll, they or verbs such as take, whirl, whisk, shake, haunt, hit are of Viking origin. Words beginning with “sk-” (e.g. skull, skill, sky, …) are typically Scandinavian; some of these words maintained the “sk-” sound, while others changed it into “sh-“, e.g. the verb “shall“, “sceal” in Old English and “skola” in Old Norse and Swedish.

After 1066, French became the language spoken at court and several words of French origin started to be used: beef, mutton, salad, sausage, cabbage, carrot, cherry, parish, prayer, mail, portcullis, friar, mass, dolphin, elephant, ostrich, falcon, state, guard, soldier, cavalry, officer, vault, belfry, aisle are just some examples we still use nowadays.