The mixing began
When Julius Caesar, later to be the Roman Emperor, invaded Britain between 54 BC and 5 BC, the Celtic tribes lived in the British Isles. Four Celtic languages still survive as Gaelic in various forms in Scotland and in Ireland, Welsh in Wales, and Manx spoken in the Isle of Man, as well as Breton in France. Many English place names are Gaelic in origin.
The Romans brought Latin to Britain, while it was part of the Roman Empire for over 400 years. But Early English (Anglo-Saxon) did not develop primarily from Latin. So it is different from French, Spanish and Italian, which did evolve directly from Latin. Early English was the language of tribes who invaded from the east, from what is now Germany. They spoke different dialects of a Germanic language, from which modern German developed. This explains why German and English are often similar, as many of our words developed from the same original language.
In 878 AD, the Vikings invaded Britain from Scandinavia, bringing with them the Norse language, though this was similar to the old English or Anglo-Saxon language already used. Many simple English words like 'stool' are Norse in origin.
The dramatic arrival of the Norman army from France, led by King William the Conqueror in 1066, and the defeat of the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, brought very big changes to English life. The Normans brought with them the Old French language, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business class.
No more invasions
By about 1200, the Kingdoms of England and France had ceased to be one unit. The use of Old English came back, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English, the language of the poet Chaucer (about 1340-1400). He has been called the greatest English poet before Shakespeare. It is difficult for modern English speakers to read and understand his writings well.
Can you understand these lines:
"Whan that Aprille with his shoures swote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote …"
In modern English this would read:
"When April with his sweet showers has struck
to the roots the dryness of March …"
or in other words: "when the April showers of rain have gone right down to the roots of plants which have been dried up during March!"
This Middle English was spoken very differently in different parts of the country, and of course travel was limited in those days to those who had wealth or travelled as a job.
But another big revolution was coming – the printing press. Just as radio, television, video, and computers, have changed communication in our time, so did printing after about 1500 AD. Now there was a common language in print, as well as access to the old languages of Latin and Greek, which continued to be used for religious ceremonies or legal documents.
Now came the 'Renaissance' in Europe - a time of great advance of learning and culture. By this time, English was not very different from the English used today. And the most famous person to write in English in this period was William Shakespeare (1564-1616). His insight into human nature, and his gift for using words, make him possibly the most famous playwright of all time! Having in his hands such a new rich language must have helped him too.
Shakespeare gave the English language many phrases and sayings, which English speakers still use every day. Often, they do not realise these words came from Shakespeare's plays or poems! Do you know some of these:
'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet' (Romeo & Juliet)
"If music be the food of love, play on and give me excess." (Twelfth Night)
"Of one who loved not wisely but too well." (Othello)
"All our yesterdays." or "Out, out, brief candle." (Macbeth)
"To be, or not to be, that is the question." (Hamlet)
For a website covering all the writings of Shakespeare, plus other resources about him, visit The Complete Works of Shakespeare
The best seller of all time
At almost the same time as Shakespeare, came the printing of a particular book which has had an even greater effect on society and culture - the 'Authorised' or 'King James' translation of The Bible in 1611. For almost the first time, anyone who could read had access to the Bible in their own language, and in words which were easily understood.
The beauty of the language in this translation has never been equalled. Though today, because language has changed, it is difficult in places to understand, even for native English speakers, many people still use it. And, like Shakespeare, many phrases and quotations from it have become part of the English language. People often use them without knowing they come from the Bible.
Some examples of well-known quotes:
'turn the other cheek' (Matthew 5:39)
'go the second mile' (Matthew 5:41)
'Straight and narrow' (Matthew 7:14)
'Job's comforter' (Job 16:2)
'Don't cast your pearls before swine' (Matthew 7:6)
'the love of money is the root of all evil' (1 Timothy 6:10)
Since the time of Shakespeare, English has continued to change. Settlers from England moved across the world - to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, India, Asia and Africa. In each place, the language changed and developed, and absorbed words from other local languages there. For example, 'kangaroo' and 'boomerang' are native Australian Aboriginal words, 'juggernaut', 'bungalow' and 'turban' came from India.
With the increase in communication, travel, radio and television, all these different types of English have mixed. So in Britain now, because of American and Australian TV programming, we use many parts of Australian and American English. And words from many other languages - French, German, Spanish, Arabic, even Nepali - have been borrowed. So English continues to change and develop, with hundreds of new words arriving every year. For better or worse, it has truly become the world's international language.
It has become the language of science, air traffic control, the world of computers, and most of the Internet. And in many countries, where there are other competing languages and people groups, English has been chosen as a common second language. This has happened in Nigeria and Ghana.
This may not seem fair to other important and valuable languages which are also international! For example, those of us who know and love France, realise that the French regret the way their language may not be so much of an international language as it used to be. And it is sad that English people are often lazy, and don't bother to learn other languages!
So, for many jobs and situations, English has become an essential gateway. If you are learning it - best wishes and we hope you enjoy it!
Other links you might like to look at:
International Student page
Problems of life Everyone has problems, we offer the answer to them
A News story you did not hear
Thought for the day:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)