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The story of English

Updated Thursday 28th July 2005

We look at the history of English, where it comes from, where it's heading, and how we understand the world through language

Four elderly people by a lake Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Where does English come from?
All languages can be seen as a record of who’s been talking to whom about what. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Language is a city, to the building of which every human being brought a stone’. So why should English be singled out as a particularly ‘hybrid' or ‘mongrel’ language?

Apart from a few surviving place names and geographical features, the original Celtic language (similar to modern Welsh), which was spoken across Britain even under Roman rule, was supplanted in most of England by the languages of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from across the North Sea, leaving Celtic to flourish only in parts of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. From this Anglo-Saxon merger the foundations of Old English were created. Towards the end of the first millennium, when the Norsemen or Vikings from Scandinavia invaded, and eventually settled north-east of a line running from the Wirral to London, there was a further struggle for dominance between Old English and Old Norse which is reflected in British regional vocabulary to this day.

Northumberland: Burn; Cumbria, North Yorkshire, the North East and northern East Anglia: Beck; the rest of England: Brook or Stream Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

English past: dominant words for a 'stream' recorded in the 1940s

To find out more read Marisa Lohr's expert article on from Old English to Modern English.

Where is English heading?
All languages are constantly evolving, as their speakers come into contact with new people or need to express new concepts. But English, in the words of Emerson, has been a ‘sea which receives the tributaries from every region under heaven’. Largely as a by-product of British colonialism, the vocabulary of English has been enriched by many words derived from non-European languages. Most nations of the world now use English, if not as a first language, then as an official second language or lingua franca, and the language has taken on a life of its own in the various contexts where it is used. As David Graddol, an expert in this field, says in the British Council publication The Future of English, ‘Native English speakers may feel the language belongs to them, but it will be those who speak English as a second or foreign language who will determine its future’ (Graddol, pp 10-11).

To find out more, read David Graddol's article on Global English.

Understanding the world through language
Why should anyone be interested in studying language variation? A simple answer is that it reveals a lot about us. We obviously use language every day to refer to things, events and ideas, but each time we open our mouth we also convey a great deal of social information about who we are and how we want to relate to others. The study of language can be a way of exploring social structure, family or local history - and, as every child knows, it can be great fun!

Joan Swann, an expert in this field, explores this further in her article on the Study of Language Variation.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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