English isn’t from England

(what is the original language of the British isles?)

No-one is really sure what the original language of the British Islands was, nor what it might have sounded like. Before recorded history begins however we knew there were people and rituals and therefore language as is by ruins like Stonehenge and Newgrange.

Around 1 000BC though Celts began arriving in Britain from mainland Europe. Their language was adopted by those already living there and are what we know of as the first recoded languages in Britain. Common Britonic or Brythonic was spoken throughout Britain by the time the Romans arrived in 55BC. In Scotland to the north, Pictish was spoken, but soon died out after the arrival of the Romans.

By the 6th century AD, Britonic had split into Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton. Latin also had a large influence on these languages, especially in areas dealing with religion and Christianity. Despite the Roman occupation and what followed next, Britonic survived into the Middle Ages in Scotland and Cumbria and Cornish survived until the 19th century in the south

None of these bear any resemblance to the English that is now spoken around the world. This began to develop much later. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the British islands were subject to a series of invasions and raids and from around 450CE Germanic tribes and their language began displacing the Celts. The largest group of tribes to arrive were the Jutes, Angles and Saxons who spoke a form of the West Germanic tongue known as Anglo Frisian. It was these languages that evolved slowly to become Old English.

Still later, the Vikings began to pillage Scotland, Ireland and Northern England. They spoke a northern Germanic language. The Scottish islands were so over-run by the Vikings that their language was replaced by this Viking tongue, known as Norn. As borders blurred and people moved, Norn and Old English interacted and cross pollinated a lot until eventually Norn became extinct and was assimilated into English and Scots after the 15th century.

But the story of how English came about is still not over. The British islands were invaded and conquered again, this time by the Normans, who came across the channel from what is now France. Norman was a Latin based language heavily influenced by French dialects like Picardy. As the centre of politics in France moved to Paris, French become the language of royalty and nobility in Britain. The fingerprints of French are all over English as is evidenced by the elaborate forms of polite and Formal English and the ability to say nothing at all while speaking many, many words.

Due to this latest invasion, the Old English Germanic root of English and the Norman/French root began to combine to form what we now know as modern English. It is this complicated story which is to blame for many of English’s weird spellings, pronunciations, contradictions and exceptions. It is the result of nearly 2 000 years of evolution under pressure from significant other languages.

Wirtschaftssprachen Language Learning Tip:

Next time you’re struggling with something you are trying to learn in English, remember this story. Sometimes trying to contain all the rules in your head as a logical whole is just not possible because it is isn’t really logical. Try and remember that English evolved from many languages and retains some hints of those languages up until today. The rules are not out to get you, they are trying to knit together many different strands of language.

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© Wirtschaftssprachen Deutschland OHG

By: David Chislett
Trainer Business English
www.wirtschaftssprachen-duesseldorf.de