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Regardless of the many languages one is fortunate to be fluent in, English takes its place as one of the world’s predominant forms of communication with its influences extending over as much as +2 billion people globally. Unlike languages that developed within the boundaries of one country (or one distinct geographical region), English, since its beginnings 1,600 or so years ago, evolved by crossing boundaries and through invasions, picking up bits and pieces of other languages along the way and changing with the spread of the language across the globe.

Old English 

The history of the English language really started with the arrival of Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders – mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from “Englaland”   and their language was called “Englisc” – from which the words “England” and “English” are derived. Their language, now known as “Old English“, was soon adopted as the common language of this relatively remote corner of Europe. Although you and I would find it hard to understand Old English, it provided a solid foundation for the language we speak today and gave us many essential words like “be”, “strong” and “water”.

The Norman Conquest and Middle English

The event that began the transition from Old English to Middle English was the Norman Conquest. When William the Conqueror invaded the island of Britain from his home base in northern France, and settled in his new acquisition along with his nobles and court. William crushed the opposition with a brutal hand and deprived the Anglo-Saxon earls of their property, distributing it to Normans (and some English) who supported him.

 The Normans spoke a rural dialect of French with considerable Germanic influences, usually called Anglo-Norman or Norman French, which was quite different from the standard French of Paris of the period, which is known as Francien. The differences between these dialects became even more marked after the Norman invasion of Britain, particularly after King John and England lost the French part of Normandy to the King of France in 1204 and England became even more isolated from continental Europe.

Early Modern English

In the 14th-15th century, English became the language of power and influence. It got a further boost through the development of English literature and English culture, spearheaded by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s influence on the development of the English language and its unique and rich culture is hard to grasp; the man is said to have invented at least 1,700 words, including “alligator”, “puppy dog”, and “fashionable”, in addition to penning classics like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet!

Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation  started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British had contact with many peoples from around the world. This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

Late-Modern English

The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of the British Empire during the 18th, 19th and early 20th-century saw the expansion of the English language. The advances and discoveries in science and technology during the Industrial Revolution saw a need for new words, phrases, and concepts to describe these ideas and inventions. Due to the nature of these works, scientists and scholars created words using Greek and Latin roots e.g. bacteria, histology, nuclear, biology. You may be shocked to read that these words were created but one can learn a multitude of new facts through English language courses as you are doing now. Colonialism brought with it a double-edged sword. It can be said that the nations under the British Empire’s rule saw the introduction of the English language as a way for them to learn, engage, and hopefully, benefit from “overseas” influence. While scientific and technological discoveries were some of the benefits that could be shared, colonial Britain saw this as a way to not only teach their language but impart their culture and traditions upon societies they deemed as backward, especially those in Africa and Asia.

The idea may have backfired as the English language walked away with a large number of foreign words that have now become part and parcel of the English language e.g. shampoo, candy, cot and many others originated in India.

Global English

English has now inarguably achieved global status. Whenever we turn on the news to find out what’s happening in East Asia, or the Balkans, or Africa, or South America, or practically anywhere, local people are being interviewed and telling us about it in English. To illustrate the point when Pope John Paul II arrived in the Middle East recently to retrace Christ’s footsteps and addressed Christians, Muslims and Jews, the pontiff spoke not Latin, not Arabic, not Italian, not Hebrew, not his native Polish. He spoke in English.

Indeed, if one looks at some of the facts about the amazing reach of  the English language many would be surprised. English is used in over 90 countries as an official or semi-official language. English is the working language of the Asian trade group ASEAN. It is the de facto working language of 98 percent of international research physicists and research chemists. It is the official language of the European Central Bank, even though the bank is in Frankfurt and neither Britain nor any other predominantly English-speaking country is a member of the European Monetary Union. It is the language in which Indian parents and black parents in South Africa overwhelmingly wish their children to be educated. It is believed that over one billion people worldwide are currently learning English.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the spread of English around the world has been the extent to which Europeans are adopting it as their internal lingua franca. English is spreading from northern Europe to the south and is now firmly entrenched as a second language in countries such as Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark. Although not an official language in any of these countries if one visits any of them it would seem that almost everyone there can communicate with ease in English. Indeed, if one switches on a television in Holland one would find as many channels in English (albeit subtitled), as there are in Dutch.

As part of the European Year of Languages,  a special survey of European attitudes towards and their use of languages has just published. The report confirms that at the beginning of 2001 English is the most widely known foreign or second language, with 43% of Europeans claiming they speak it in addition to their mother tongue. Sweden now heads the league table of English speakers, with over 89% of the population saying they can speak the language well or very well. However, in contrast, only 36% of Spanish and Portuguese nationals speak English.  What’s more, English is the language rated as most useful to know, with over 77% of Europeans who do not speak English as their first language, rating it as useful. French rated 38%, German 23% and Spanish 6%.

English has without a doubt become the global language.

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