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Concourse 2

The roots of English


Lots of people have made successful academic careers out of the study of the history of English.  This brief guide is not in that league.


Why is this important?

It isn't, of course, for day-to-day teaching but if you or your students are interested in the sources of the language you are teaching and they are learning, it is helpful to know where things come from.
It will also help to explain some of the less obvious areas of the structure and lexis of the language and may even help learners to notice affinities between their first language(s) and English.


The language family

English is an Indo-European language.  This family of languages probably originated in the area of Asia just to the north and west of the Caspian Sea, between it and the Black Sea (although this is a debatable issue), in what is now south Kazakhstan.  There are around 400 languages in the group, spoken in total by over 3 billion people.  The source of all these languages is known as Proto-Indo-European or PIE.
Here's the map of the presumed expansion of PIE from its homeland:

PIE expansion
Source: Wikipedia

Indo-European languages include many now spoken in the south and east of that area, which include Farsi, Sanskrit (now extinct but influential), Hindi, Punjabi and many others, but we are concerned here with the development of English so we'll focus on the western groups of languages.
Here's the family tree, much simplified and with fewer examples of the languages than you will find in more academic texts.  Extinct languages are not included here.


We are talking here about very ancient relationships and languages grow, evolve and change.  The origins of PIE are obscure but linguistic and genetic studies are beginning to converge on a date around 6000 years BCE (Before Common Era).  A lot can happen in 8000 years.

As you see, there are 5 main branches of western PIE and English belongs to one of them, the West Germanic group which includes Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans as well as Frisian (its closest relative).

Some analyses will differ in minor respects, for example, separating Greek and Albanian or sub-dividing Slavic languages differently as well as including Modern German as a West Germanic language, descending from the now extinct Old High German.  By that analysis, English and the other West Germanic languages descend from Low German.  Frisian itself, a language spoken today by around 500,000 people, has two branches: West Frisian, spoken in The Netherlands and East Frisian, spoken in parts of Germany and Denmark.  Old Frisian and Old English were so closely related that their speakers were almost certainly mutually comprehensible.  That is no longer the case for the modern forms of these languages.  None of this detail matters for what follows.
Another, more complex and inclusive, diagram is in the guide to types of languages, linked below in the list of related guides.

English grammar, syntax and the lexicon bear witness to its close affinity with other Germanic languages as can easily be seen from the very large numbers of closely similar structures and words in the languages.


Early English roots

The country that is now England was the northernmost province of the Roman Empire until around 410 CE (Common Era).  Shortly afterwards, migrations from the continent, not always peacefully intended or received, began:

(from whose name the word for the language is derived) from Central Denmark who settled in Northern and Eastern England
from Northern Germany who settled in Southern England
from Northern Denmark who settled in South-East England

These migrants brought with them a set of closely related and highly inflected languages which formed the basis of Old English.  The first writing in a language identifiable as English dates from the seventh century.

By the ninth century, if not before, the original Britons, a Celtic-speaking people had been pushed northwards and westwards and confined to what is now Scotland, Wales and the island of Ireland.

The languages spoken at that time, under the umbrella term of English were related but not always mutually comprehensible.  Northumbrian (spoken in the North West of England and southern Scotland and related to the language spoken in East Anglia), Mercian (widely spoken from the Welsh border eastwards to the western fringe of East Anglia), West Saxon (the language of Wessex in the South and South West of England) and Kentish (spoken in the South East of England) are all distinguishable.
It is only by the tenth century with the writings of a scholar-priest, Ælfric, that an identifiable early standard English emerges.  Even so, the majority of people travelled little and continued to speak local dialects of English.

big cat

The really big change in English

The history of English, conventionally divided into three periods (Old, Middle and Early Modern), is one of the gradual loss of inflexion, gender and case and a slow transition to an uninflected and simplified structure.
In other words, the language has moved from being synthetic (i.e., having lots of endings and other affixes to signal case, number, person, gender and so on like Modern German, Russian, Greek, French and Italian) to being analytic (i.e., having few such characteristics and preferring one morpheme to represent one idea).  Here is an example to make things clear(er):

In Modern German, the past form of go has the root ging (from the infinitive gehen).  The way to say you went is du gingst.  The -st ending on the verb shows:

  1. It is singular
  2. It is familiar rather than polite
  3. It is in the second person

The -st ending on a verb form will be familiar to anyone who has read the King James Bible or Shakespeare's plays because both use the ending to denote the second person singular familiar form of the verb.  Thou hast, of course read Shakespeare, hast thou not?

Similar things to German happen in other synthetic languages, like this, e.g., for the past tense:

English Greek Croatian Czech Welsh Icelandic German Old English
I went πήγε [peeghe] otišao je šel aeth hann fór ich ginge ic gewát
you went πηγες [peeges] što je otišao jste šel aethoch þú fórst du gingst þu gewite
they went πήγαν [peeghan] otišli su šli aethant þeir fóru sie gingen hīe gewiton

In Modern English, by contrast to the other six language examples and Old English, the past form of go is went and it is unchanged for all numbers and persons: I went, you went, she went, he went, it went, we went, they went.  Here, the only change signalled by the form of the verb is tense.  Modern English is at the analytic end of the spectrum, therefore, but many other Indo-European languages along with Old English are clearly at the synthetic end.
(If you are wondering why the past tense of go is so irregular, the answer is that the present form of the verb is derived from the Old English gan (which shares the root of the German gehen, the Dutch gaan, the Swedish and so on).
The past tense comes to us by a different root and is derived from the Old English verb wend (as in wend one's way).  The past of wend was went and that became the standard past-tense form of go with a new weak, or regular, past tense for wend of wended.)

Modern English is not fully analytic because it still retains some inflexions such as the third-person -s ending for present-simple verb forms (she smokes) and the plural -s as well as some changes in pronouns (I, me, my, mine, he, him, his etc.).  It is, however, much more analytic than most other Indo-European languages.
Some languages, such as Mandarin, are even more analytic and usually referred to as isolating languages.

Similar considerations apply to determiners, nouns and adjectives because in Old English there were a number of endings on articles, nouns and their associated adjectives to signal number and case (often object or subject case but there are other possibilities).
In Old English, for example, the mistress of a household was expressed as hlǣfdīġe but if the word is used as the object of the verb rather than the subject, it changes its ending to hlǣfdīġan to reflect the changed grammatical status.  Like Modern German, Old English had four cases for nouns: nominative (the subject), accusative (the object), genitive (the possessive) and dative (denoting movement to and from, usually).

In the end, what this change from an inflected to a more or less analytic language has done is to fix the word order in English as Subject–Verb–Object without which, we cannot understand the difference between:
    The dog chased the cat
    The cat chased the dog
The difference would have been clear to an Old English speaker, whatever the ordering of the words, because in the first case, the word for dog would have been docga and in the second case (as the object) it would have been docgan.

For more, see the guide to types of languages, linked below in the list of related guides.


Old English

Old English can be dated to around the 5th to the 11th centuries and is almost impossible to understand for modern English speakers without a good deal of study.  It was a synthetic, highly inflected language (or, as we saw above, a collection of related languages) in many ways similar to Modern German with case endings, complex verb declensions, gender differences, article changes and so on.  The great adventure story of Beowulf (picture) was written in Old English sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries.
The language was written in both runes and the Latin alphabet but some of the letters were different.  In particular, Old English used two characters we don’t have: thorn (Þ, þ) and eth (ð, Ð) which are now rendered th.  A vowel, æ, known as ash, also existed (pronounced approximately as the 'a' in apple).  The upper-case version is Æ.  The Latin alphabet mostly replaced the uses of runic script after the conversion to Christianity starting around the end of the sixth century.
Other letters, such as 'j' are later, Middle English, introductions from French.
The pronunciation of Old English is, of course, somewhat speculative but it was certainly very different from what we hear today.
Here's an example of the written form, taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history probably compiled in the reign of Alfred the Great (b. 849, d. 899, reigned 871-899).

Original text Translation
Anno 449. Her Martianus and Valentinus onfengon rice, and ricsodon seofon winter. And on hiera dagum Hengest and Horsa, fram Wyrtgeorne gelaþode, Bretta cyninge, gesohton Bretene on þæm stede þe is genemned Ypwines-fleot, ærest Brettum to fultume, ac hie eft on hie fuhton. Anno 449. In this year Martianus and Valentinus succeeded to kingship, and ruled seven years. And in their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of Britons, came to Britain at the place which is called Ebbsfleet, first as a help to Britons, but they afterwards fought against them.
Source: http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/stella/readings/OE/anglo_chron.htm


Scandinavian influences

The Anglo-Saxons did not have it all their own way, of course.  From the end of the eighth century and continuing for 200 years, raiders, then settlers from Scandinavia occupied virtually the whole of the east and north of England with the Saxon kingdoms confined to the south and west.  Northumberland in the north, which stretched into what is today Scotland, remained English.
The area under Norse control, known as The Danelaw comprised virtually the whole of England from the Scottish border to London to the east of a line drawn diagonally from Liverpool to London.
Very roughly the picture looked like this with the blue areas to the west and north remaining Celtic speaking:
Norse languages, too, influenced the development of English within and beyond the confines of The Danelaw with hundreds of common words dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries being introduced into English.  They include, for example, anger, bend, cake, dirt, egg, fog, glove, haggle, ill, knife, loft, mistake, outlaw, plough, raft, skill, Thursday, ugly and window.
It is also the case that the same peoples and their languages influenced Norman French (of which more later).

Place names derived from Norse languages are common in the north of England where names ending in -by, -thorpe and -thwaite occur very regularly.

It has also been suggested that the fact that English evolved from a heavily inflected synthetic language to a much more analytical one is attributable, in part at least, to the influence of Old Norse.  In particular, apart from the kinds of borrowing listed above, structural words, such as pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and modal auxiliary verbs show a good deal of Scandinavian influence.  This has led some to assert that the structure of Old English became simplified because of the need to find a language mutually comprehensible to both the English and the Norse invaders, later settlers and traders.  On the other hand, because both Old Norse and Old English shared a common Germanic ancestry, many of these structural words were already very similar, often identical.
Additionally, and slightly more persuasively, Old Norse and Old English shared many items in their lexicons which differed only in the complex inflexions found in Old English.  The pressure within The Danelaw, at least, to simplify for the sake of easy communication must have been quite strong.


The Conquest

A date every British school child is familiar with (if they are familiar with any at all) is 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest of England.
Unusually for that period of history, the Battle of Hastings was decisive: the English King Harold was killed and the Saxon aristocracy almost wiped out.
What followed was 300 years in which no ruler of England spoke English as a first language (or at all).  Although the Norman conquerors never represented more than around 3% of the population, they spoke French and that language, along with Latin, became the language of administration, religion, the court and the land-holding classes.  It was the language of power.  Naturally enough, anybody with ambitions to rise in the social hierarchy also needed to master French and so began a slow trickle-down of French into the native aristocracy.  Many of these people, the civil servants of the day, were bilingual in English and French.
Especially in areas (i.e., registers) in which the aristocracy were mostly concerned, French was hugely influential in terms of the vocabulary of English.  Predominately, the words introduced from French (around 10,000 of them) occur in the following areas (although almost no area was untouched):

In many cases, the original English words were also retained so, although we now commonly use the French-derived word archer, the English bowman is still extant.  By the same token, the names for the animals, which the peasantry raised, were retained and so we have the distinction in English between, for example, beef (the French word) and cow (the English word for the animal from which it comes).
For the majority of the population, who continued to speak English, exchanging an English lord for a French one probably had little impact.

Not all the language was affected and the great mass of the population continued to speak English so the essentials of the language remained unchanged or evolved very slowly.  Words for kinship terms (father, mother, son, daughter etc.), agricultural items (land, barn, field, hay etc.), numerals and so on are still recognisably Anglo-Saxon in origin and most have cognate words in other Germanic languages which are instantly recognisable.  Basic verb forms and very common nouns, too, remained virtually unaffected.  For example:

English German Dutch Swedish Icelandic Old English
land Land land landa land land
mother Mutter moeder mor móðir modor
five fünf vij fem fimm fif
milk Milch melk mjölk mjólk meolc
have haben hebben ha hafa habban
see sehen zien se sjá seon

However, although Norman French was hugely influential in terms of enriching the lexicon of English, the grammar and structure of the language was almost wholly unaffected.  What happened was that the basic structure of Old English was retained with a very large leavening of Norman French terms.  The technical term to describe this blending of languages is macaronic.

Later, long after the conquest, new influences from French, this time the French spoken in the Paris area rather than Normandy, begin to appear, especially during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.


Middle English

Middle English describes the language spoken from the 11th to the end of the 15th centuries.  It is at this time that the language, or, rather, languages, began to take on some of the characteristics of Modern English with the loss of cases, inflexions and genders.  It is also the time when the influence of Norman French is strikingly clear.  This is the language of Chaucer (picture).  Here are two examples with a translation:

Original text Translation
From Epitaph of John the smyth, died 1371
yis graue lẏs John ye smẏth god yif his soule hewn grit under this grave lies John the smith, God give his soul heavenly peace
From Mankind, a medieval play written around 1470
MERCY. The very fownder and begynner of owr fyrst creacyon
Amonge ws synfull wrechys he oweth to be magnyfyde,
þat for owr dysobedyenc he hade non indygnacyon
To sende hys own son to be torn and crucyfyede.
Owr obsequyouse seruyce to hym xulde be aplyede,
Where he was lorde of all ...
The founder and beginner of our first creation among us sinful wretches he deserves to be magnified that for our disobedience he had no indignation to send his own son to be torn and crucified.  Our obsequious service should to him be applied, where he was lord of all ...

For more, with a translation of examples from Chaucer (1343-1400) go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Chaucer

old english map

It is still true at this time that there was no standard English language.  Chaucer, for example, spoke a dialect common in the central East Midlands.
That dialect, because it encompassed Oxford, Cambridge and London and was also centred in the rich farmlands of the east of England and East Anglia with its thriving sheep and wool industries, was the most powerful and prestigious at the time.

The map on the left shows the rough borders but there were not, at this time any sharp divisions between one form of English and another so the borders you see here are simply indicative.

Even today, these areas of England exhibit differences of accent and dialect that are immediately noticeable and identifiable to most people who live in Britain.

As we saw above, Modern English inflects for tense (regularly with a -d or -ed suffix and shows the third person singular in the present (only) with -s or -es.
Although the language was beginning to lose some of the synthetic elements of earlier forms, it is still the case that verb endings varied to show number more clearly than they do in Modern English.  So, for example, the plural form of the verb make was maken and the singular form of the verb do, now does, was doth.  Nouns, however, had almost completely lost the endings for case that Old English inherited from the Anglo-Saxon languages.

It should also be remembered that this period was one of very limited literacy; most of what was written at the time was intended to be read aloud to those who could not read.  Latin was still the language in which laws and charters were written but they were often translated to be read aloud to those whom they would most closely concern.

An important event which occurred during this period, in 1476, was the introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton who opened his first workshop in Westminster.  Others followed and it is from this period that we can trace the slow and patchy evolution of a standardised English spelling (and many of its notorious irregularities).


Early Modern English

Early Modern English is the language of Shakespeare and covers the period from the late 15th to the end of the 17th centuries.  It was during this period that many of the modern uses of modal verbs and such constructions as the passive became fixed.  It was also during this time that the language became greatly simplified and the distinctions between plural and singular pronouns (thou vs. you) began to be lost (although that distinction is maintained to this day in some dialects).
During this period, too, the first version of what has come to be called the King James Version of the bible was completed (in 1611).  Here is a comparison of the same texts from the bible in its new translation (completed in 2014) and one of Shakespeare's original texts with a Modern English translation:

King James Bible Modern English Bible
From John, Chapter 10, Verse 10
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. The thief does not come, except to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
Shakespeare's original text A Modern English translation
From Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  The days creep slowly along until the end of time.  And every day that’s already happened has taken fools that much closer to their deaths.  Out, out, brief candle.  Life is nothing more than an illusion.  It’s like a poor actor who struts and worries for his hour on the stage and then is never heard from again.  Life is a story told by an idiot, full of noise and emotional disturbance but devoid of meaning.

You can probably see why many people profoundly dislike the modern versions.

In addition, many writers in English (not least Shakespeare) deliberately introduced foreign words because they felt the need or in an effort to appear erudite and learned.  Some have stuck but many have not.
This phenomenon is closely associated with the Renaissance period in Europe during which science, commerce and the arts expanded dramatically.  Estimates of the number of new words entering English during the Renaissance vary but a figure of at least 10,000 new words is generally agreed with some claiming three times as many.  Shakespeare and his contemporaries were daring and innovative in this regard, introducing words such as agile, allurement, antipathy, catastrophe, critical, demonstrate, dire, discountenance, emphasis, emulate, expostulation, extract, hereditary, horrid, impertinent, meditate, modest and thousands more.
Many of the words introduced from Latin had very short life spans in English and vanished almost as soon as they appeared.  Examples of words which have disappeared include deblaterate (babble), latrate (bark), devulgate (set forth), adminiculation (aid) and consumulate (bury).

Grammar, too changed quite dramatically during the transition from Early Modern to Modern English.  Some examples here are enough:

Old English inflexions for case had already been lost by this period but inflexion for number is another matter.  During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there is a slow transition from Old English plural forms, often involving changes to central vowels or the addition of the -en suffix to the noun, in favour of the now almost ubiquitous -s or -es endings.  There are still some surviving examples as in, e.g., mice, feet, brethren, children, oxen and so on but we have now lost plurals such as eyen (eyes) and shooen (shoes) which were both used by Shakespeare and other writers.
This period sees the regularisation of the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives so we no longer use, for example, the most unkindest, valiantest and so on and now reserve the periphrastic forms for longer adjectives and the inflexions for shorter ones.
The period sees the demise of the distinction in Old English between ye and thou (the former plural, the latter singular) and also the introduction and persistence of the pronoun you for all forms of address, losing the distinction still apparent in many European languages between a polite and familiar form (du vs. Sie, tu vs. vous etc.).
This period also sees the formulation of the gender neutral its possessive determiner whereas previous usage reserved he and she for nouns as in, for example, the sun starts to spread his warmth or the moon shines her beams.  The use of it's instead of its, now considered a mark of illiteracy, was common until the beginning of the nineteenth century, incidentally.
Before this period and during it, the use of the operator do to form simple-tense questions was rare so we have a slow change from forms such as Take you the time? to the more modern Do you take the time?  Similarly, the previous use of the negative as in, e.g., I know not changed to the modern use of I don't know.  The older forms persist in Modern English with modal and other auxiliary verbs.
The third-person singular ending in Modern English is -s or -es but this form was only common in northern English dialects with the more familiar -eth ending being dominant in the south.  Within the transition from Early Modern to Modern English the -s endings came to predominate.  Shakespeare, writing in the middle of this period, used both endings interchangeably.
Old English distinguished, as does Modern German, between strong and weak verbs and the irregular verbs on classroom charts list the surviving older forms.  During this period, however, many verbs which were strong became weakened so the past tense of help changed from holp to what we now consider the regular form helped, for example.  The reverse is also the case with some verbs using weak forms during this period of transition (blowed, growed, shined etc.) interchangeably with the strong forms (blew, grew, shone etc.) on which modern usage eventually settled.
A fourth notable change is the introduction of the modern progressive forms of verbs.  Before this period, the simple form was frequently used for ongoing or progressive actions and events so, in Shakespeare one finds What do you read rather than What are you reading.  By the end of this period the progressive forms were well established including the use of progressive non-finite participles in, e.g., having done the work, he left.
The use of prepositions changed quite dramatically during this period with, for example, wonder of changing to wonder at, done of you changing to done by you and provided of changing to provided with.  There are hundreds of other examples and many older uses such as bored of survive in dialect or casual speech.


The dawn of Modern English

From the 18th century onwards, the language becomes recognisably modern and it was during this period that the first attempts at standardisation were made with a good deal of argument about what should be 'correct' and what should be considered 'wrong'.  Baugh and Cable (2002:241) describe the attempts to codify the language as the desire:

(1) to reduce the language to rule and set up a standard of correct usage; (2) to refine it—that is, to remove supposed defects and introduce certain improvements; and (3) to fix it permanently in the desired form.

Although earnest efforts to establish a kind of Academy to regulate and define the uses of English failed (albeit narrowly) many self-styled authorities arose to condemn, for example, the use of had rather (seen as a corruption of would rather).  Other forms which became fixed at this time are (op cit.: 263):

  1. the preference for different from (rather than different than or to)
  2. the proscription of *between you and I
  3. the differentiation of between and among
  4. the use of the comparative rather than the superlative where only two things are involved (the larger, not largest, of two)
  5. the feeling that ungradable adjectives such as perfect, chief, round, should not be compared (more perfect, etc.)
  6. the proscription of the use of you was as a singular (although Webster approved it) and the adoption of were as the only correct form
  7. that the case of the pronoun after than is determined by the construction supplied or understood (he is older than she; he likes you better than me)
  8. the condemnation of the double negative

There were also those who asserted that any attempt to set down hard rules for English use was doomed to failure.  Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) noted (op cit.: 267):

In modern and living languages, it is absurd to pretend to set up the compositions of any person or persons whatsoever as the standard of writing, or their conversation as the invariable rule of speaking.  With respect to custom, laws, and every thing that is changeable, the body of a people, who, in this respect, cannot but be free, will certainly assert their liberty, in making what innovations they judge to be expedient and useful.  The general prevailing custom, whatever it happen to be, can be the only standard for the time that it prevails.

However, it is certainly true that the rules above and many more persist to this day and are reasserted in grammars and handbooks of use (and written into computer grammar-checking programs).  That they are simply the reflection of the views of a few influential people and not based on what people actually said and wrote is often not mentioned.



Throughout its history, even from the earliest times of Old English, the language has been subject to influences from, especially, Latin (through the influence of Christianity and the role of Latin as the scientific, diplomatic and religious lingua franca), Norman French (through the imposition of a French-speaking aristocracy after the conquest in 1066), Greek (through the influence of science and religion) and much later other languages indigenous to the British colonies.  At various times in history, other languages contributed, notably Dutch for maritime matters, German for military ones and Italian for musical terms.

The outcome is a language essentially Germanic in structure but with a huge range of lexical influences.  Roughly, the picture is:


If you are wondering about the 10% derived from 'other' sources:

Nearly half
are taken from proper names (technically called eponyms).
  • Trade names such as hoover, escalator, aspirin, lanolin, heroin, sellotape
  • People's names such as the verbs lynch and boycott and the nouns cardigan, quisling, wellington and biro
  • Places such as jodhpurs, bedlam, bourbon, marathon and paisley
The rest
consist of loan words from a variety of languages with which English and its speakers have come into contact.
  • From the Indian sub-continent such as: bungalow [from Gujarati], veranda [from Hindi], blighty [from Urdu] and many more
  • From North American languages: moccasin and tomahawk [both from Powhatan] etc.
  • From Australian languages: kangaroo [from Guugu Yimidhirr], boomerang [from an extinct language of New South Wales]
  • From the erstwhile colonies of other European powers, often via Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch: chocolate [from Nahuatl (Aztecan)], banana [from a West African language], chimpanzee [from a Bantu language of Angola], gingham [from Malay], boondocks and yo-yo [both from Indonesian] etc.
  • From other languages in certain areas of academia, especially the humanities, or imported along with cultural phenomena or by immigrant communities (Jewish, South Asian, Chinese and Caribbean in particular):
        angst, blitz, delicatessen, kindergarten, waltz, rucksack
        glitch, chutzpah, kosher
        intelligentsia, mammoth, glasnost
        coup d'état, chalet, ballet, rendezvous
        latte, espresso, paparazzi
        robot, howitzer, pistol, dollar
        siesta, guerrilla, macho
        karaoke, tsunami, origami
        gung ho, chow, ketchup, tycoon, typhoon
    (Chinese languages)
        buffalo, flamingo
        apartheid, boss, buoy (Dutch or Afrikaans)
    This could be a very long list indeed and, in the way of things, many erstwhile loan words such as boss, ketchup, glitch, dollar and so on are no longer recognised as such.  Spelling, too, is often Anglicised, even when the word is taken from a language with a similar alphabet and pronunciation often conforms to English rules rather than those of the original language.
    (For more, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_English_words_by_country_or_language_of_origin)

Summary of developments

Here is a summary timeline with some major events and publications.  The determining dates between the forms of English are approximate and authorities differ.



Some consequences

  1. One interesting outcome of the influences of other languages is the existence in English, almost uniquely, of three-level synonym structures.  So we have, for example
        rise – mount – ascend
        ask – question – interrogate
        goodness – virtue – probity
        fire – flame – conflagration
        fetch – retrieve – recover
    and many more where the first word is English, the second from French and the third from Latin.
    These are not exact synonyms because they differ in style, in nuance and, sometimes, in their associated grammar (fetch and retrieve are, for example always transitive but recover can be intransitive or transitive).
  2. Another outcome is the distinction between multi-word verbs and their Latin or French equivalents in English so we get, for example
        put off
    vs. postpone
        look into
    vs. investigate
        call off
    vs. cancel
    and literally hundreds of others.
    Again, these are not perfect synonyms because the associated grammar and style is variable.
  3. A third issue is the sheer richness of the lexicon in English which often exhibits subtle but distinct differences between, e.g.,
    (Old English folc) and people (Old French peupel)
    (origin obscure) and swine (Old English swin)
    (Old English growan) and expand (Old French espandre)
    (Old English freodom) and liberty (Old French liberte)
    and thousands of other near or partial synonyms distinguished by style, register, connotation, dialect and collocational characteristics.
    A subset of these near synonyms is exemplified by verbs which exist in intransitive and transitive pairs such as:
        rise (from Old English) vs. raise (from Old Norse)
        lie vs. lay (both from Old English)
        sit vs. seat (the latter verb appears much later but both are derived from Old English)
  4. Two related phenomena are homonymy (the fact that some words look and sound the same but are not related in sense or origin) and polysemy (words which are used in distinct but related senses and are related in origin).
    Homonymy occurs frequently when two words which now look the same are derived from different sources.
    For example, left (the opposite of right) derives from the Old English lyft which meant weak (as in the weaker hand) but the past tense of leave, left, derives from the Old English verb læfan which originally meant allow to remain and only assumed its sense of depart in the thirteenth century.  The words look the same but are unconnected in derivation and meaning.
    Polysemous words are related but, over time, some of their senses have diverged.  For example, as we have seen leave to mean depart and leave to mean allow to remain are both used as in:
        She left without paying
        I left the book on the table
    The first use is intransitive only and the second always transitive.
    The word set is notorious in having a large range of meanings:
        I set a test
        The glue set
        I set the alarm clock
        She set the dog on him
        They set the vase on the mantelpiece

    In fact, all these uses of the verb set are derivable from the Old English settan (a transitive verb meaning to put in some place or fix).  The fact that some of the meanings have diverged to the point at which there is little obvious connection inclines some to classify the uses as examples of homonymy rather than polysemy.  Opinions vary.
  5. A fifth outcome is that learners from certain language backgrounds will be able to access and retain some areas of the English lexicon better than others.  Those from Italic language backgrounds will be able to understand and recall words derived from Latin and French and those from Germanic language backgrounds will find the same with the approximately a quarter of the words derived from Anglo-Saxon.
    Some of the older connections may not at first seem obvious.  For example, the Modern German verb reisen (travel) shares a root with the English word rise and originally meant to get up to start a journey.  Words also change their meanings in other subtler ways.  For example, the English word stove originally meant a warm room for relaxing in and that sense is retained in other Germanic languages (with spelling variations) but only reduced its sense to mean a heating or cooking device in the mid-seventeenth century in English.
    By the same token, some words derived from Latin, Norman or later French have had time to vary their meanings or to acquire new ones which did not occur in the original.  So, for example, the Modern English realise and the Modern French réaliser both clearly derive from the same source but the sense of gain a sudden understanding in, for example:
        I slowly realised the truth
    which the English verb carries is absent in French.  French uses prendre conscience to express this meaning, not the verb réaliser.
    In French the verb only shares the English sense of make real as in, for example:
        They realised their dream
    The meanings are connected because the verb originally was used in the sense of make real in the mind in the mid-eighteenth century in English and only slowly changed its sense to gain an understanding.
    The existence of so-called false friends between English and other European languages can usually be explained by these gradual shifts in meaning over the years since the words entered the language.
    The longer the separation, the more the meaning is likely to have diverged so, for example, words from Greek may appear related (and they often are) to Modern English words but the senses have diverged until they seem no longer connected in meaning.  For example, the Greek word for civil (in the sense of to do with citizens) is πολιτικός (poleetikos) which is the source of the English political (to do with government).
    See the guide to cognates and false friends on this site, linked below in the list of related guides.
  6. Finally, learners from Germanic language backgrounds will find many of the grammatical and structural phenomena in English relatively easy to understand and form because parallel structures exist in their languages.

Issues 5. and 6., above, will only, of course, apply to learners whose languages are western Indo-European.  Others will have no such easy access to the grammar or the lexicon of Modern English.  There are obvious consequences arising from that, too.

Related guides
types of languages for a general guide to how languages may be classified and described
polysemy and homonymy for more on these related phenomena
synonymy for more on the nature of synonyms and their uses in the classroom
cognates and false friends for a guide to the differences

For a good deal more than you'll ever want to know, try the incomparable
Baugh, AC and Cable, T, 2002, A History of the English Language, 5th Edition, London: Routledge
Elmes, S, 1999, The Routes of English, London: British Broadcasting Corporation