The English language is one of the three most widely spoken languages in the world, along with Spanish and Chinese. But beyond the 360 million people who speak it as their mother tongue, another 500 million speak it as a second language; therefore, this is undoubtedly the most studied language around the planet. However, not all English speakers – native and foreign – know the origin, history and evolution of this language, which like all is in constant motion.
Where and how was the English language born?
The English language is a West Germanic (Old German) language whose genesis lies in the dialects brought by the Germanic invaders to Great Britain (previously Britannia) from territories of north-western Germany, southern Denmark, and the northern Netherlands between the 3rd and 7th centuries, a phenomenon that reflects the varied cultural origin of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England.
However, as with all the stories that marked the course of humanity, not everything was so simple in the development of this language. The original Old English was later influenced by two major invasion waves: the first was of speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic languages, who conquered and colonized parts of Britain. The second was from the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and developed the Anglo-Norman language. This latest occupation of the territory of present-day Great Britain brought with it more elaborate words from the Romance languages (derived from Latin), so that the Norman influence on the English language penetrated mainly through the courts and higher levels of government.
How did English evolve over time?
Broadly speaking, the evolution of the English language is divided into four distinct stages: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Modern English.
As we have seen, Old English -also known as Anglo-Saxon English- was a language of Germanic origin brought to former Britain (now Great Britain) by tribes from Germany who invaded the British Isles between the 3rd and 7th centuries.
Currently, the English language still retains some short words such as him / he, but there was still a long way to go before a more complex and widespread vocabulary was developed.
The second phase in the evolution of the language is called Middle English because the rules of Old English are profoundly changed by the wave of Viking invasions, the Norman conquest in the mid-11th century, and the arrival of Latin, the official language of the church.
It is at this stage that a greater influence of the Romance languages of continental Europe and a change in the sound of the language with respect to its initial Anglo-Saxon stage begins to be found in the documents of the time.
Early modern English began in the 15th century with a vowel evolution of the language known as the “Great Vowel Shift.” Thus, the English language was standardized from the London dialect and spread for two main reasons, both by government action and by the effects of the invention of the printing press and new communication technologies.
Around the time of the prestigious playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the language was already recognized as modern English. So much so, that in 1604 the clergyman Robert Cawdrey published the first dictionary in English called “Table Alphabeticall”.
In the following centuries, the English language continued to adopt foreign words, especially from Latin and Greek since the Renaissance (16th century).
The last stage -which continues to this day- has its beginning in the year 1755, when the writer Samuel Johnson published the first dictionary entitled “A Dictionary of the English Language”. The main difference between this phase and the previous one is in the richness of the vocabulary.
Late modern English incorporates new words closely related to two determining factors in world history: on the one hand, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and new technologies; on the other, the expansion of the British Empire, which by now reached a quarter of the world and caused the English language to adopt many words from different regions of the globe.