English Evolution

English is different to all other languages because it is a very complex hybrid, hence so many people find it difficult or stupid.

It is basically a Germanic tongue – something like 40% of the dictionary and 60% of what we speak is this simple building block language. Then the Vikings arrived or invaded, depending on whose history you  read, so two similar languages co-existed, which seems ot be when the tricky grammar was eroded as in any hybrid language.

The Saxons had no letter ‘k’ so they wore shirts whereas the Vikings wore skirts. But there was more. The Saxons were Christians, so what was up above them was heofan, or heaven, ie where the Christian god – or rather, God – lived, whereas to the Vikings, this was the sky. We still have this distinction, so many words are not duplications, they have different origins, and often retain these ghosts in their meanings.

Then the Normans brought sophistication to the language, just as the French have continued to do. The Saxon words that survived are mostly those of the farmer: erd = earth, kuh = cow, wasser = water. and they left us the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The Normans were the wealthy, the rulers, so they left words of interiors, of law, of food, so kuh became boef, or beef.  They gave us castles, barbicans,  the law, and of course the Domesday Book, a fascinating snapshot of the country at the time, but in reality a gigantic census for taxation purposes.

Christianity had brought Latin to these lands, and later Greek brought ideas of philosophy and science. Sailors brought back tales of the sea, of adventure, of foreign lands. India gave us bungalows, shampoo and pyjamas. Czechs gave us robots, which in South Africa are traffic lights. The language has continued to make space for these new ideas, these new visions of otherness.

This is a gross oversimplification but hopefully gives an idea of why what you are reading is so complicated. English is not a single language. It is now a world language. It is the language of time, of international travel, of the media,  of Shakespeare and Jane Austin, and best of all, pop music.

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4 thoughts on “English Evolution

  1. LOL – I’m not so sure about pop music!

    It took learning other languages and a college class on the history of the English language for me to appreciate it for the amazing conglomeration it is. (Personally, I love the sound of Middle English, or at least the snipit I had to memorize for class. It had such a lovely flow…)

    I don’t envy the poor people who learn English as a second language, though. Too many exceptions to the rules!

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    • We had a discussion in a hostel one night abut how English is taught – natives do it via literature, others have to do it via grammar etc, it’s like we’re speaking a totally different language, and makes native speakers very bad teachers without special training. There is a lot of resistance to it and resentment of its dominance, especially from the Latin world. But it is not owned by the English. It just came from this little island. It is an incredible beast and we should all learn to use it well. And maybe to love it, at least a little.

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  2. It is interesting, I remember visiting Germany from Italy and while watching the evening’s newscast thinking, wow, I understand a lot more of this than the Italian newscast (weirdly formal and circuitous) even though I speak much more Italian than I do German (basically none). I always understood England’s influence in America, but the German influence (aesthetically, linguistically) is perhaps as strong.
    English is a tough language to teach. I always tell my kids- well 85% of it makes sense, don’t let the 15% get you down!

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    • It’s hard to get it completely right, but English is so full of other languages there will always be some words that people already get. I was fascinated by how many words I knew when I did some beginners latin. It helps you feel at east a bit at ease in a foreign tongue. And eople are so forgiving if you make the effort. REal problem Spanish people have with shit and sheets etc. very embarassing.

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