logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
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.


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 area), 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:

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), Hindi, Punjabi and many others, but we are concerned here with 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.


As you see, there are 5 main branches of PIE and English belongs to one of them, the West Germanic group which includes Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans as well as Frisian.  Some analyses will differ in minor respects, for example, separating Greek and Albanian or sub-dividing Slavic languages differently.
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 very similar structures and words in the languages.
However, 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.

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

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

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

In Modern English, by contrast, 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.

English is not fully analytic because it still retains some inflexions such as the third-person -s ending for present simple verbs (she smokes) and the plural -s as well as some changes in pronouns (I, me, my, mine, he, him, his etc.).  It is, however, compared to many languages 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.
For more, see the guide to types of languages.


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 in many ways similar to modern German with case endings, gender differences 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.  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


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 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 begins to be felt.  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


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).


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 ungradeable 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.
In addition, many writers in English (not least Shakespeare) have 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.
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 etc.
    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 into which English and its speakers have come into contact.
    From the Indian sub-continent: bungalow [from Gujarati], verandah [from Hindi], blighty [from Urdu] etc.
    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.


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
    and many more where the first word is English, the second from French and the third from Latin.
  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
    vs. look into
        call off
    vs. cancel
    and literally hundreds of others.
  3. A third issue is the sheer richness of the lexicon in English which often exhibits subtle but distinct differences in style between, e.g.,
    and people
    and swine
    and grow
    and thousands of other near or partial synonyms distinguished by style, register, connotation, dialect and collocational characteristics.
  4. A fourth 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.  See the guide to cognates and false friends on this site.
  5. 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 4. and 5., 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.

For a good deal more than you'll ever want to know, try the incomparable
Baugh, A.C and Cable, T, 2002, A History of the English Language, 5th Edition, London: Routledge