Ever Wondered Why The English Language Has Words From So Many Languages?

When James Nicoll said,

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse *****. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

It hurt, but God helped us, he wasn’t wrong. If you know even a tiny bit of Etymology, you’ll understand how many English words have roots based in other languages. But why, exactly, does English have elements from so many languages? 

Colonialism, yes, but not what you’re thinking. Long before half the world was a British colony, Britain was colonised, too.

Today, we’re here to talk about the history of English language in a totally non-boring, super-fun way! By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll know the exact evolution of English and why it’s eclectic. Ready?

The Angles Saxons and Jutes

history of English language
Wikimedia Commons / mbartelsm

The natives of Britain, in the 5th Century AD, spoke a Celtic language that does not resemble our English at all. When three Germanic tribes: Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Britain, these natives were pushed far away into what is now Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The Angles spoke a language called Englisc, and the other two tribes spoke similar languages. Now, this does not mean our English comes directly from Englisc, what we now call ‘Old English’. A look at OE texts like Beowulf will leave us confused, because even though our language hails from Old English, it looks nothing like it! Even then, about half the English words we speak now are said to have Old English roots!

The Norse of the Vikings

history of English language

The Vikings were very similar to what they’re portrayed as in TV shows and weird gory movies. This tribe kept invading Britain again AND again, leading to many Norse words(because the Vikings spoke Norse language) being mixed up with English. And many of these words were associated with gory things, like hunting, killing and dying! Knife, egg, run, etc, all come from Norse.

The Norman Conquest

history of English language
Wikimedia Commons / Tschubby

Kings and their invasions, huh? In around 1100 AD, a King named William, of Normandy, France, invaded England and conquered it. Because French was spoken by the emperor and his nobility, it now became the language of the royalty and nobility. The lower classes still spoke English, but with many added French words. This combination language was used hy the great poet Chaucer in his poems. A look at some of his lines will not leave us as bewildered as Beowulf did, because this French × English × Norse combo is closer to the English we now speak. For this reason, it is called ‘Middle English’!

The Clergy And Their Latin

history of English language
Wikimedia Commons / Diego Delso

Latin was the language of the Church. Do not wonder why all exorcism spells and voo-doo things are in Latin; it was the only language that was considered sophisticated enough for these tasks. While the invasions were going on, England was rapidly getting christianized. French was the language of the nobility and the rich, Latin of the clergy and English left to peasants. Some of the very common words with Latin origin we use today are altar, wine, female, virago, urban, rural, native, and many more!

Meanwhile, the Greek

history of English language

Oedipus Rex and the Oresteian Trilogy and innumerable ‘classic’ Greek plays were widely loved, and in some cases, reproduced in Britain. We wonder why, but they didn’t  

A classic knowledge of literature was deemed gentlemanly during those times, so it was obvious that English started catching some Greek words, too. Terms related to health, anatomy and medicine in general also caught words jumping into English. A majority of our medical terms have Greek origins, which is not as surprising now, right?

The Hundred Years War

history of English language
Wikimedia Commons / 17177

No kidding there! During the 14th and 15th centuries, a war took place, and it lasted for over a hundred years! This intergenerational war was called the Hundred Years War, and ended French rule in Britain. What then, was the point of learning French? Yes, none. 

Kings and queens stopped getting French classes for their kids, and English started being spoken much more. Given the fact that it had many French words, like ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’, it sounded sophisticated enough to be spoken by the royalty.

And finally, the Shakespeare story

Ever Wondered Why The English Language Has Words From So Many Languages? - history of English language

Now that English was almost a fully formed language, all it needed was a Shakespeare to make it rock solid. Shakespeare introduced around 1700 words into the English language(!!!!!!!), many of them with roots from Latin, Greek and French, and the others literally made out of dust. Yes, like aba aha or gaga gaga, Shakespeare made up words that were not supposed to make any sense, but now do! Some of the most famous Shakespeare-invented words include suspicious, aerial, accomodation, gloomy, hurry, bump, auspicious, and many more! 

English still had a long way to go. The spellings of words weren’t official yet, grammar kept changing and new words were made up, but that’s a story for another day. For now, we’re done with today’s history lesson!

If you liked reading this, you’re sure to love: 5 Made Up Languages You Can Really Learn!

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