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By Miranda Howell

English is a language which has developed over 15 hundred years and has adopted words from over 350 languages. As a result, English has a rich tapestry of vocabulary and spelling patterns which can confuse learners. Having a brief background knowledge of the historical influences on the English language can support our teaching to both first language learners and EAL learners, especially around decoding words when reading. 

Only 25% of English speakers are native speakers, making English a global language, spoken by 1.5 billion people (Statista 2023). It is more than a means of social or academic communication as it is “the language of science, aviation, computing, diplomacy and tourism. It is the official or co-official language of over 45 countries.” (Katsiavriades and Qureshi, 2002).

History shows that English has been shaped in three major stages known as Old English, Middle English and Modern English. During each of these periods, new words were added and often two languages spoken with contrasting phoneme constructions. Hence, English today has a huge number of synonyms.

Old English

The original people living in Britain were the Celts. The words England and English derive from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded in the fifth century, this being the start of Old English. Typical Anglo-Saxon words are street, kitchen, cup, cheese, candle and house. Old English also acquired some Latin-based words with the spread of Christianity including martyr and bishop.

In the mid-ninth century, the Viking invaders from Scandinavia brought with them old Norse words such as strong, egg, sky, cake, skin, die, give and take. Vocabulary became larger as the people used both Anglo-Saxon and Norse words to express the same meaning. The equivalent of the English words wrath and sick were spoken in addition to the Norse words anger and ill.

William the Conqueror, from Normandy in Northern France, invaded England in 1066. The new authorities imposed French as the official language of government. This meant that whilst the commoners continued to refer to cow, sheep and swine meat, the aristocracy would call the same meat, beef, mutton and pork. To this day, sophisticated eating is often associated with the use of French-rooted vocabulary. Again, vocabulary expanded as both French and English words were spoken and absorbed into the language. For example, the French words: reply, odour, annual and demand were spoken in addition to the English alternatives answer, smell, yearly and ask. Middle English emerged three centuries later, in a form that had absorbed huge numbers of French words.

Middle English

Early Modern English began with the Renaissance. During this time, Shakespeare became the most significant influence on English, introducing around 2,000 words and phrases. Examples are critical, majestic, dwindle; ‘vanish into thin air’ and ‘flesh and blood’. Crystal describes Shakespeare as one of the finest ‘word-benders’. It could be said that Shakespeare set a trend in creative word use, as “English speakers delight in bending and breaking the rules when it comes to word creation.”(Crystal 2012).  

With the invention of the printing press and the first English dictionary, published in 1604, spelling and grammar became fixed. This meant that ancient words such as the Germanic-origin word,  ‘goose’ retained their plural version of ‘geese’, whereas newer words such as the Algonquian moose introduced in the 17th century do not follow the ancient rule. Then there are words where the pronunciation changed over time but the spelling remained constant. For example, knife lost its /k/ sound. Similarly, contracted Latin words such as debt maintained the /b/ in the spelling to reflect the Latin origin debitum but lost the spoken sound. And so the list goes on.

In 1600 AD England colonised North America which led to a distinct American dialect where some of the pronunciations and usages remained unchanged so that today American English is closer to Shakespearean English than modern British English. For example, Americans still say fall for autumntrash for rubbish, and loan for lend. Native American words such as tomato, canoe, barbecue; and Spanish words such as canyon, stampede, and vigilante have also been adopted into American English.

Modern English

Late Modern English started around 1800 and was marked by changes in vocabulary. The two influential factors were the development of science and technology and the rise of the British Empire. As Britain began its reign of imperialism, occupying approximately one quarter of the world, English adopted many foreign words, such as bungalow and pyjamas from India, zombie from Africa and nugget from Australia.

In recent years, with America’s rise to the position of a super-power, English gained its status as a Lingua Franca and so began the spread of English around the globe. 

References

Crystal, D. (2012) History of English in 100 Words  Profile books Ltd 

Durkin, P. (13 February 2014) The international swap trade in useful words  BBCNewsMagazine 

Dyvik, E. H. (16 June 2023)  The most spoken languages worldwide  The most spoken languages worldwide 2023 | Statista 

Field, M. History of the English language British Council 1943  History of the English Language (1943) (youtube.com) 

Henry, M.. Words: (1990) Integrated decoding and spelling instruction based on word origin and word structure. Austin: Pro-Ed. 

Katsiavriades, K & Qureshi, T. ( 2002) The Origin and History of the English Language    KryssTal  KryssTal : The English Language

The Open University  (29 June 2011) The History of the English Language in Ten Animated Minutes.   The Open University  The History of the English Language in Ten Animated Minutes | Open Culture 

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