Outside the Classroom:
Everything About English That You Didn’t Learn in Class
There are many myths about English that are thought to be true by both English language learners and native speakers. But not to worry! I am here to set the record straight with some fun facts about the history of the English language.
Is the English language Latin based?
It is a common and understandable mistake to think that English is a descendant of Latin and related to modern romance languages (Spanish, French, and a few others). We borrow many words from languages, and Latin was a very important language in the development of Western society.
However, English actually comes from… drum roll… German! In fact, the birth of English can be traced back to an invasion of Britain in 450 A.D. by several Germanic tribes. Since Britain is an island and travel was difficult at that time, these people’s Germanic languages merged over time to form something new: Old English.
But what about all the words that we borrowed from French, Spanish, Latin, etc? Well, looking at the history of Europe can explain much of this influence. Two significant examples are the rise of Christianity, which brought Latin with it, and then, a few hundred years later, the invasion and occupation of Britain by the French-speaking Normans, which left us with thousands of French words.
Our many loan words from Latin and its descendants is largely due to politics and history, but it is also a result of English simply having a tendency to borrow words from everyone. Howard Richler writes in his book A Bawdy Language that “[English] has accumulated its vocabulary largely because of its willingness to accept foreign words.” People often notice loan words in Latin, French or Spanish like thesaurus, deja-vu and piñata, perhaps because they are familiar with these cultures and languages. However, if you start to pay attention, you’ll find that English really just likes to share with everyone. From karaoke (Japanese), chutzpah (Yiddish), and zero (Arabic) to smorgasbord (Swedish), bungalow (Hindi), and tattoo (Polynesian), English showcases words from across the globe!
Also, being descended from a language is characterized by more than just shared vocabulary. For example, the features that are similar in English and Germanic languages also include grammatical rules, word order, and sound systems: the glue that holds the words together. Shared or similar vocabulary is easier to notice than other linguistic features, but shared vocabulary is not as important when determining relationships between languages. Words can be adopted and then dropped easily, but core grammar and pronunciation change far more slowly.
So, get curious and try to guess where your favourite word originated! Maybe it was picked up from French Normans, inherited from Germanic speakers, or borrowed from the other side of the world. To find out the word’s history, look it up in an etymological dictionary like www.etymonline.com. Leave me a comment if you find something surprising!
- A Bawdy Language: How a Second-Rate Language Slept Its Way to the Top by Howard Richler