The Story of English

What do German, Latin, and Old Norse have in common with each other? Nothing much, except the fact that these languages have made modern English what it is today. English throughout the ages has gone through  different versions of the language it is today. Vocabulary, grammar and structure have all changed throughout the ages.


If you have studied French or Spanish, you know that English shares many words with these Romance languages. When the Normans from France invaded England in 1066, they became the ruling class and a massive number of French words were added to the English dialect spoken at the time. The language spoken in England before the Norman invasion is called Old English. This language had more in common with German than the English spoken today. It was brought to England in the mid-5th century by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, and hence is also called Anglo-Saxon. This is the language epic poems like Beowulf were written in. The Vikings invaded in the 8th and 11th centuries and added some Old Norse into the mix. Historical linguists have traced an even older ancestor of modern English, called Proto-Germanic. Languages like Swedish and German also descend from this language. This language can trace its roots to a language spoken in the Pontic steppe in modern day Ukraine and Russia about 6,000 years ago.


Languages are constantly evolving. Every year about 1,000 new words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The English Language has about 170,000 words currently in use, with each individual using 20,000-30,000 of these words throughout their lifetime. Even throughout an individual’s life, new words come into use, some words fall out of fashion, while many others get recontextualised and take on completely new meanings. To give an example, a few years ago, the word “meme” didn’t hold the same meaning it holds today, and “sick” and “wicked” actually meant sick and wicked.


Why does this happen? Why do we continue to add more words to the society’s collective vocabulary when we already have so many? Science, technology and culture are never constant; they are ever-changing and new words are required to further our understanding of the world. To elaborate on this, let us look at early man. The first colours to be recognised were black and white because they could describe light and darkness, and made it easier for man to communicate. Later, red, green, yellow and blue entered the vocabulary when words were needed to describe dirt, plants, the sun and the sea. When humans started producing dye, words like burgundy and indigo entered common use.


English isn’t the same language as what was spoken in Britain centuries ago. It is influenced by every language and every paradigm shift it has come in contact with. Modern English isn’t the final edition of English, and neither will any other future version of English be. Every word we speak has thousands of years of history associated with it. Like all languages, English keeps evolving every day, with every conversation, with every word spoken. Languages have centuries of history and culture associated with them. All these languages are connected in unexpected ways. Wherever we live in the world, we are connected by the common roots of the languages we speak, and that is truly beautiful.