Best of English series 1: The Origins of the English Language

Best of English series 1: The Origins of the English Language

It is believed that new English words are added to the English lexicon every two hours and about 4,000 new words try to make it to the dictionary every year.

The etymology of English words and their development as a language has an interesting history. Through invasions and crossing of boundaries, the English language has taken up new words and expressions and has evolved and changed on its journey across the globe.

English language can be traced back to the invasion of Britain during the 5th AD by the Angles, Saxons and the Jutes.  The Angles came from Englaland and their language was called Englisc from which the words English and England were derived. Their language became known as old English and was predominantly spoken in this small European settlement. Old English bequeathed English language with words like  “be”, “strong” and “water”.

About 1,000-1,200 years ago came the Vikings invasion of Northern and North-Western Europe bringing with them the Old Norse language which inadvertently mixed with Old English gifting English language with about 2,000 new words including “give” and “take”, “egg”, “knife”, “husband”, “run” and “Viking”. Also came the Norman invasion which established French as the language of royalty and the bourgeois leaving old English as the language of the commoners which continued to grow and in time acquired some Latin and French words despite its declined status. Words such as “beer”, ”city”, “fruit” and “people”, as well as the names of half of the months of the year were infused into the English language from French and Latin. The English language also became more sophisticated with the inclusion of concepts and words like “liberty” and “justice”.

In the 14th and 15th century, following the war which ended French rule over England, English became the language of power and influence again and was made more popular through the development of English Literature spearheaded by William Shakespeare. The poet and playwright extraordinaire is said to have invented 1,700 new words contributing to the expansion of the English language. In time and with the formalization of learning, many new words and phrases entered the language and as printing was invented and more people learned to read, there came a standardization to English, spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. Also in 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

Late modern English spanning the period of 1800 till date brought with it many more words. Two primary factors responsible for this include; the Industrial Revolution and technology which created a need for new words and also the English-speaking world that had become the centre of a lot of scientific advancement which went hand-in-hand with the evolution of the language. Again, in 1600 came the English colonization of North America resulting in the birth of American English. Some scholars however posit that some expressions referred to as Americanisms are original British expressions which were preserved in the colonies and lost to the language for a time. Examples of these include “trash” for rubbish,  loan as a verb instead of lend and “fall” for autumn, another example is “frame-up” which was re-imported into Britain through Hollywood gangster movies. The English colonization of North America also brought an influx of Spanish words into the English Lexicon.

The beauty of the English language is seen through its ability to inculcate words from other languages and expand her lexicon thereby creating a myriad of expressions for communication. The English dictionary is increasing at a pace of 1000 approved words a year with a large percentage of the new words being portmanteau words meaning two words with discrete meanings coming together to form a new word. Words like cineplex is formed from cinema and complex, while staycation is formed from stay and vacation.

As we therefore appreciate the depth of intrigue and cultural infusions that make up the English language, it is pertinent that we speak and write the language with the flawlessness it demands and it is this vision that Best of English brings forth. The Best of English is a platform aimed at educating and upskilling students, corporate individuals and entrepreneurs on improving their academic, intellectual knowledge of the English language. It also aims at enhancing communication skills using the English language. To know more, please visit (about us page).

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