Street Used To Be Strata – The Development of English

streetTaken from http://www.israelpictures.org

By Olga Koliichuk

Sometimes while reading English texts you can come across strange words with unfamiliar roots. Words like these usually are of foreign origin, although they have been used in English for a long time. In this article we’ll take a closer look at some of them. But first we’ll talk about the history of English to provide you with some background.

Indo-Europeans and Germanic Peoples

Until 4,000 years ago, the Indo-European language was spoken all over Europe, Turkey, India and Persia (now Iran). As peoples started to migrate over the continents, the language they spoke changed. At first, their language changed only a little bit; they spoke a dialect. But once people lived farther and farther away and their communities didn’t contact each other that much, they developed their own separate language. A language is, you could say, when you can’t understand a speaker of another language without taking lessons in that language. Whereas if you speak another dialect, you can still understand each other. Today, Arabic is a good example of a language with many dialects. Speakers from Morocco can understand Arab speakers in Iraq, 4,500 km away!

Some other languages that have developed from Indo-European are: Greek, Latin, Persian, Armenian, Russian, Swedish, German, French, and hundreds more. There are two European languages that do not belong to this language family: Finnish and Hungarian. If you listen to these languages, you won’t find anything resembling English whatsoever. But in all the Indo-European languages you will find words similar to English. The English words for father and mother in Persian (or Farsi), for instance, are pedar and madar.

The Origins of English

So how did English start? English was one of the dialects in the Germanic language. This was spoken in northern Europe. The Germanic language split up into East Germanic (not spoken anymore), North Germanic, which evolved into the Scandinavian languages (spoken in Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden), and the West Germanic languages, which evolved into English, German, Dutch and Frisian.

Did you know that English went through a few phases? Modern English as we speak it today is only spoken from the year 1500, so it’s only 500 years old!

The previous forms of English are Old English (450-1100 CE) and Middle English (1100- 1500 CE).

Want to hear some examples of Old English? Here you go:

Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, “Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað.”

(ð = the th-sound in brother).

And Middle English?

(From Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”):

Yclothed was she fressh, for to devyse:

Hir yelow heer was broyded in a tresse

Bihynde hir bak, a yerde long, I gesse.

Want to know what these two excerpts mean? If you’re a good guesser, you may be able to figure it out yourself. Solutions are at the end of this article.

Borrowed Words

When English was already an established language, it borrowed many words from other languages.

The earliest borrowings were from Latin. The Romans first appeared in Britain in the Germanic period. Latin-speaking merchants and soldiers introduced words for all sorts of things they imported: wine, wall, belt, candle, butter, chalk, cheese, dish, kitchen, kettle, pepper, sack, and street.

During the Old English period (450-1100 CE), Celtic tribes were pushed out to Cornwall, Scotland and Wales by Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) who had come from various parts of northwest Germany and Denmark.  The word “English” stems from this period. I presume you were able to guess it came from the name of one of the Germanic tribes – the Angles.

In 597, Christianity arrived in Britain. New words (from Greek) appeared that had to do with the Church such as: church, bishop, baptism, monk, Eucharist and presbyter.

In 878, the Vikings invaded the country. They introduced many words from their own Germanic language: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window, husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they, their, and them.

Middle English Period

In 1066 England was invaded by the French king William the Conqueror. The court he established consisted of French-speaking nobles. Soon, Old French became the language of high society while English was considered a vulgar spoken tongue.

It’s no wonder we find lots of French in English. Many of these words have something to do with power: crown, castle, court, parliament, army, mansion, gown, beauty, banquet, art, poet, romance, duke, servant, peasant, traitor and governor.

It is interesting to note that the English underclass used to cook for the French nobles. The names of animals are English, while the meats that are made from them come from French:

English: ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, deer.

French: beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, venison.

Early Modern English is marked by the impact of the Renaissance. There were many exciting discoveries in science, and the leading languages for science were Latin, Greek and Arabic.

Latin: discuss, gradual, habitual, anatomy, meditate, orbit, peninsula, ultimate, physician.

Greek (many of them came via Latin): anonymous, atmosphere, autograph, catastrophe, climax, comedy, critic, data, ecstasy, history, ostracize, parasite, pneumonia, skeleton, tonic, tragedy.

Arabic (via Spanish): alcove, algebra, zenith, algorithm, almanac, azimuth, alchemy, admiral.

Modern English Period

The Industrial Revolution greatly influenced the development of the English language. Many new words were needed to describe new inventions: train, engine, pulley, combustion, electricity, telephone, telegraph, and camera.

Britain was an empire until well into the 20th Century. The languages that were spoken in its colonies had an impact on English. Here are some examples:

French: ballet, cabernet, champagne, chic, cognac, corsage, rouge, roulette, sachet, salon, sang froid, savoir faire.

Spanish: armada, adobe, alligator, alpaca, armadillo, barricade, bravado, cannibal, canyon, coyote, desperado, embargo, guitar, marijuana, mosquito, mustang, tornado, tortilla.

Sanskrit : avatar, karma, mahatma, swastika, yoga.

Hindi: bandana, bangle, bungalow, chintz, cot, cummerbund, dungaree, juggernaut, jungle, loot, maharaja, nabob, pyjamas, punch (the drink), shampoo, thug, kedgeree, jamboree.

Russian: apparatchik, borscht, czar/tsar, glasnost, icon, perestroika, vodka.

Pacific Islands: bamboo, gingham, rattan, taboo, tattoo, ukulele, boondocks.

Australia: boomerang, budgerigar, didgeridoo, kangaroo (and many more in Australian English).

As we speak, English vocabulary continues to change and enrich itself through borrowing and creating of new words. It is a nonstop process which shows that the language is very much alive.


Exercise. Do you know what language the following words come from?

boomerang,  habitual, bishop, armada, history, tortilla, butter, monk, skeleton, cognac, budgerigar, cheese, meditate, sputnik, anatomy, vodka, didgeridoo, geisha, chalk, champagne, kangaroo, street, wine, desperado, orbit, meditate.





Merriam-Webster Dictionary at www.merriam-webster.com

Solutions to the Old English and Middle English samples:

Old English sample:

Again he [St. Gregory] asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, “Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels.”

Middle English sample:

She was gaily clothed, so to say:

Her yellow hair was braided in a tress

Behind her back, a yard long, I guess.

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