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A short history of the English language

Ever wondered how English – with 1.5 billion speakers in all corners of the world and approximately 750,000 words – came to be the wonderfully expressive and multifaceted language it is today?

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.

The Anglo-Saxon connection

The origins of the English language lie – surprise, surprise – in today’s England and the arrival of Anglo-Saxon tribes from Central Europe to the British Isles in 400 AD. 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”.

Run from the Viking with a knife!

With the Viking invasions (Vikings were a tribe of Nordic people that ransacked their way through Northern and Northwestern Europe 1,000-1,200 years ago), Old English got mixed up with Old Norse, the language of the Viking tribes. Old Norse ended up giving English more than 2,000 new words, including “give” and “take”, “egg”, “knife”, “husband”, “run” and “viking”.

Bring on the French

Although English was spoken widely on the British Isles by 1,000 AD, the Norman invasion established French as the language of royals and of power. Old English was left to the peasants, and despite its less glamorous status, it continued to develop and grow by adopting a whole host of Latin and French words in 1,000-1,400 AD, including everyday words such as “beer”,”city”, “fruit” and “people”, as well as half of the months of the year. By adopting and adapting French words, the English language also became more sophisticated through the inclusion of concepts and words like “liberty” and “justice”.

The alligator ate my puppy dog, Mr Shakespeare

In the 14th-15th century, following the Hundred Years War with France that ended French rule of the British Isles, English became the language of power and influence once again. It got a further boost through the development of English literature and English culture, spearheaded by William Shakespeare, perhaps the most celebrated poet/playwright of all time. 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 – yes, INVENTED – at least 1,700 words, including “alligator”, “puppy dog”, and “fashionable”, in addition to penning classics like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet!

The science of new words

If Shakespeare established English as a culturally significant, rich language, the rapidly developing world of science started changing the English language in the 17th-18th centuries, necessitating the invention of new words, including “gravity”, “acid” and “electricity”. And as the English-speaking world was at the center of a lot of scientific progress, scientific advances went hand-in-hand with the evolution of the language.

English goes global

But it wasn’t until Britain became the colonial master of the (known) universe – or Planet Earth anyway – that the spread of English really picked up pace. By the early 20th century Britain had established imperial control over more than a quarter of the world – from Asia to Africa – and more than 400 million (newly) British subjects. In addition to spreading the English language far and wide, this resulted in the development of dozens of local versions and dialects of English and brought with it – yes, you guessed it – more new words! The word “barbeque”, for example, was picked up from the Caribbean while “zombie” was adopted from Africa.

A dictionary to the rescue

The rapid spread of the language resulted in a problem: how do you make sure that the language remains intelligible across borders? The language bible known as the Oxford English Dictionary, first published in 1884, standardized spelling and ensured that English speakers all over the world could understand each other (or at least try to). Currently at 20 volumes (that’s more than 21,000 pages of dictionary definitions!), each new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary takes decades to compile, although new words are added to the online version several times a year.

OMG, food baby and other 21st century gems

And on that note: the most amazing thing about English is that it’s STILL evolving. From the development of local dialects and slang in countries as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, and in cities as different as New York, Oxford and Singapore, to the incorporation of tech vocabulary into everyday English (we’re looking at you, 2013 Word of the Year, “selfie”!), English is in a constant state of flux.

Vocabulary alone is increasing at a pace of approximately 1,000 new and approved words per year; and these are just the words that are considered important enough to get added to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Our favorites from a recent vocab update? “OMG”, short for “Oh my god!”, “food baby” meaning the swollen belly you have after eating too much, and “phablet”, a funny word used to describe that massive phone/tablet thing you’re probably reading this article on.

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