English is the most widely spoken of the Western
Germanic languages, both in number of native speakers and in geographical
distribution. It is the official language of Great Britain and the native
language of most of the British (although Welsh is still spoken in Wales, and Scottish Gaelic in parts of
Scotland). Together with Irish Gaelic (which is only spoken in some of the
westernmost regions of Ireland) it is also an official language in the
Republic of Ireland. Outside the British Isles English is the official
language in two other European regions, namely Gibraltar (although most
inhabitants have Spanish has their native language)
and Malta (where the inhabitans speak Maltese among themselves).
As a result of the rise of the British Empire the English language spread to
many other countries and it is now the dominant language of the USA,
Australia, New Zealand, and of Canada (where it is co-official with French).
English is also the official language (or widely used as a lingua franca) in
many other former British territories, such as India, Singapore, Hong Kong,
Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Zambia. After the demise of the
British Empire English remained an important world language due to the
rise of the USA as a new world power.
Old English, the ancestor of Modern English originated from the dialects that
were spoken by the Germanic tribes from northwest Germany and Jutland that
invaded Britain in the 5th century. The name English evolved from the
name of one of these tribes, the Angles whose homeland was the angular
(hence their name) coastal region of what is now the German state of
Schleswig-Holstein. Another of these tribes were the Saxons (after which
Saxony in Germany was named) and Anglo-Saxons is the common name used
for the Germanic tribes who conquered England. Eventually English replaced the
Celtic languages that were dominant in Britain before these invasions, and
they only survided in the most isolated areas.
Old English was actually a very different language from Modern English; it
differs much more from its modern descendant than for instance Ancient Greek
differs from modern Greek. Nevertheless, much of the basic vocabulary of Old
English is more or less recognizable for modern speakers of the language. Here
are a few examples of Old English words that are similar to their modern
counterparts (although sometimes their meanings have changed):
|Old English||Modern English|
|deor||deer (orig. wild beast)|
|cniht||knight (orig. youth)|
It is important to realize that the spelling of Old English differs
considerably from the spelling of Modern English. For instance, in
cyning the letter c is pronounced as k, the combination
sc in scort (also spelled sceort) is pronounced as
sh, and the y sounds like the u in French or the ü
in German (a vowel not found in Modern English). Furthermore the examples
above show that Old English uses the letters æ and þ
that are not used in Modern English anymore. Together with a third letter
(ð) they later disappeared from the English orthography. The
letters þ (called thorn) and ð (called eth
) were borrowed from the Germanic runic script to
represent the two consonants that are spelled th in Modern English.
With regard to the runic script it should be noted that it co-existed with the
Latin alphabet in England for many centuries after the Anglo-Saxons adopted
the Christian religion. Only after England was conquered by the Normans, who
brought the French language to this country, did the runes finally give way
to Latin letters.
In later centuries the English vocabulary has become vastly different from the
vocabularies of other Germanic languages, which is due to the massive
borrowing of words from non Germanic sources (mainly Norman French) and
changes in the sounds as a result of isolation from the continental Germanic
languages. Nevertheless, there are still many similarities in basic vocabulary
as shown in the next table, which compares some English words with their
cognates in Dutch, Frisian,
German (Western Germanic) and in Danish and Icelandic
As mentioned before, Celtic languages were spoken in England before the coming
of the Anglo-Saxons, but there are but few Celtic loanwords in English. Most
of the early borrowings are toponyms, like the name of the river Avon
(meaning simply river, cf. Welsh afon and Gaelic
abhainn). Celtic words in English that are not toponyms are usually words
borrowed in later centuries. Examples of these are cromlech from Welsh
and whiskey from Scottish Gaelic (uisge beatha = "water of
When the Anglo-Saxons came to England they already used some words of
Latin origin which the Germanic tribes had borrowed from the Romans, like
cealc (chalk, from Latin calx, meaning lime) and
win (wine, from Latin vinum), and after they became
Christians their language got a few more foreign words from Latin and/or
Greek, like apostol (apostle, Lat. apostolus, Gr.
apostolos) and munuc (monk, Lat. monachus, Gr.
monachos). But usually when the Anglo-Saxons needed a word for
something that was new to them, they created a new word rather than borrow a
foreign word for it. Examples of these words are tungolcræft
(lit. "star-craft") for astronomy, and rimcræft (lit.
"number-craft") for arithmetic.
In the late 8th century a series of new Germanic invasions of Britain started,
this time from Scandinavia. The pirate raids of the vikings were eventually
followed by a full-scale invasion which resulted in the permanent occupation
by the Danes of a part of England (the so-called Danelaw in the
northeast). The Danelaw was reconquered by the English in the early 10th
century, but the Danes renewed their raids and in 1016 Cnut, king of Denmark
and Norway, became the ruler of England as well.
As a result of all this the language of the Scandinavian invaders (Old Norse)
has influenced Old English, and many common English words are of Scandinavian
origin. Examples of these are window (cf. Icelandic vindauga,
lit. "wind-eye") and sister (cf. Icelandic systir. Apparently
the Scandinavian word replaced, or at least influenced, the related Old
The differences between Old English and Old Norse were not so great as those
between Modern English and for instance Modern Danish, and many words were
quite alike. In some cases the English and Scandinavian forms of which is
etymological the same word, are both still present in Modern English, but used
with slightly different meanings. An examples of such a pair is shirt
and skirt. English words that begin with sk (which corresponds
to English sh) are almost always of Scandinavian origin. Another such
word is sky which originally meant cloud and existed in Old
English as sceo. The English form sceo has disappeared and the
Scandinavian sky has acquired the meaning of Old English heofon,
which in turn was narrowed in meaning. Nowadays the modern form heaven
is mainly used in a metaphysical sense.
Old English is a typical inflectional language which in this respect can be
compared to present-day Icelandic (the most conservative of the Germanic
languages). The endings of Old English nouns and adjectives depend upon the
function of those words in the sentence. The following table shows of the
words nama (name), eare (ear) and tunge the various
forms in every combination of number (singular or plural) and case
(nominative, genitive, accusative and dative case).
Note that as in Modern German, nouns in Old English can be either
masculine, neuter or feminine. Nama is masculine, eare neuter
and tunge feminine. If a word denotes a living being the
gender will often be the same as the sex of this being, but this is not always
the case. For instance widuwe (widow) is feminine, but wif
(woman or wife) is neuter and wifmann (woman) is masculine!
All three words in the table belong to the so-called weak declension
class. There are two more types of declensions, both considerably more
difficult than the weak declension (to which belong only a few words that are
declined slightly differently from the rest).
In Modern English only a few remnants of declension have remained. To the
English word horse can be attached the ending -s to make the
plural form horses, and by attaching -'s we can make the
genitive form horse's (which is pronounced exactly the same as
horses, so strictly speaking Modern English regular nouns have only two
forms: the root itself and the root plus -s). Another leftover from the
Old English declensional system are the personal pronouns, which usually have
two forms (the only exception being you and it). In the
nominative case the forms I, he, she, we, they are used, but in the
oblique case (into which the old accusative and dative case have merged) the
forms me, him, her, us, them are used instead. So, it is still possible
to change the word order of the sentence "I hit him" into "Him I
hit" without changing the meaning of the sentence. However if we would
change the sentence "The dog saw the cat" into "The cat saw the
dog" any reader or listener would be inclined to interpret the second
version quite differently (unless the context and a strong stress on the word
cat would suggest otherwise). The reason is for this is that in Modern
English the subject almost always comes before the object, so normally we
would assume that the cat (object) was seen by the dog (subject).
In Old English however it would be possible to put the object before the
subject without changing the meaning of the sentence, because the case endings
would still unambiguously mark the subject and object. As said earlier, only
relics of this system exist in Modern English, which largely depends on a
more or less fixed word order and the use of prepositions (e.g. the palace
of the king rather than the king's palace) as alternatives for the
old case system.
Like Old English nouns, Old English verbs have many more forms than in verbs
in Modern English. Suffice it to say that the conjugation of verbs in Old
English is even more complicated than the declension of nouns. To illustrate
this the following table shows the various forms of the verb lufian
| ||to lufienne|
After comparing Old English with Modern English, which has to do with
love, loves, loved, loving and the rarely used
"biblical" forms lovest, loveth and lovedst, saying that
that the number of possible verb forms in English has been reduced would be
an understatement. Since English is nowadays an important world language it
is fortunate for non-native speakers (like myself) that they only need to
learn 3 different endings for the regular verbs!
It is generally assumed that the contact between Old English and Old Norse
contributed to the disappearance of much of the English inflectional system.
The theory amounts to this: Both Old English and Old Norse had an elaborate
system of inflections. Also Old English and Old Norse were fairly closely
related, so to a certain extent the English and the Scandinavians could
communicate with each other, each party using its own language. Old English
and Old Norse inflections and the ways they were used were in some cases
similar and in other cases different, so it is safe to assume that confusion
arose and that endings were mixed up or even neglected, making it more
difficult to indicate the grammatical functions of the words by way of
inflection. This confusion possibly let to the rise of other ways to indicate
those functions, like a fixed word order and the addition of new auxiliary
verbs to the language.
In the 11th century England was invaded again, this time by the Normans. The
Normans were descendents from Scandinavians (Norman = "North-man") who had
settled in the part of France that is now known as Normandy. Although
their ancestors of course spoke Norse, they had already adopted the language
and culture of their new homeland at that time. So, the Normans spoke French
and their language would become the language of the ruling class in England
for several centuries.
It will be obvious that this French from 11th century Normandy differed from
French as it is spoken today. Some borrowings from Old French that still exist
in English are not used in Modern French anymore, such as mortgage
(Modern French hypothèque), and many others have changed more
drastically in French than in English. An example is for instance the Old
French warderobe which became wardrobe in Modern English but
garderobe in Modern French.
After the conquest of England French became the language of the aristocracy
and the higher clergy while the common people continued to speak Anglo-Saxon.
But naturally Anglo-Saxon became heavily influenced by French in the centuries
after the invasion; many thousands of French words were borrowed, and English
lost even more of its inflectional character.
Eventually the aristocracy became completely anglicized and English emerged
again as the language of all the inhabitans of England. But although Modern
English is basically still a Germanic language the French influence (and to a
lesser extent the Scandinavian influence) has caused it to have a vocabulary
that differs in many respects from that of its continental relatives. And due
to the insular position many Germanic words in English have become pronounced
very differently from their cognates in the other Western Germanic.
A rather unfortunate heritage of the Norman invasion is the chaotic spelling
of Modern English, which is partly due to the fact that is actually a mixture
of two very different systems, Anglo-Saxon and French. And in some cases
scholars made the situation even worse by introducing spellings like
island with an s that has never been pronounced (this word
originates from Old English iegland and not from Old French
isle, which indeed lost its s and became île in
Modern French). Another example is the word whore to which the learned
men added a w, although this word (originally Scandinavian) has always
started with an h in pronunciation (cf. Icelandic hóra
and Dutch hoer).
Yet the English spelling does have this one advantage that for instance the
word national is easily recognized as a deriviation of nation,
even though the first vowel in national is pronounced differently from
the one in nation. This would be less obvious in a spelling that better
reflects the pronunciation (e.g. national and naytion).