English Language Guide (1): History, Usage & Difficulty of English
Tuesday, 10th July 2007
From the birth of English to its worldwide dominance today
English is a West Germanic language related to Frisian, Dutch and German, although it appears quite different to these languages due to its large vocabulary from French, Latin, Greek and Old Norse, as well as many other languages, and its relatively simple grammar. Some 350 million people speak English as their native language, and another billion or so speak it as a second or foreign language. There are English speakers on every continent, especially in the UK and Ireland, North America, India, Oceania and West Africa.
English developed from the Germanic languages brought to Britain by the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes, who started to settle there in around 449 AD after raiding for several centuries. Over a period of several centuries the invaders rested control of most of what is now England from the native Britons, and their languages largely replaced the native Celtic ones, except in Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and Scotland. Very few words from the Celtic languages made it into English.
From 787 AD the Vikings from Denmark and Norway began raiding Britain and eventually took over much of the north and east of the country, as well as parts of Scotland. They contributed many words to English, including awkward, skirt, sky, skin, egg, window and knife, as well place names and personal names.
The Norman invasion of 1066 brought a huge influx of French words to English. The main literary languages for a couple of centuries after this were French and Latin, while English remained the spoken language of ordinary people. By 1425 English was again used as a written language, though it had undergone many changes since it lost its dominant position – most of the inflectional endings of Old English had disappeared and their role had been taken over by word order.
The arrival of printing in Britain in the late 15th century helped to standardise the spelling and punctuation of the language, which had been largely a matter of personal choice up till then. Some of the spellings chosen represent pronunciations which have since changed, and this is one reason why modern English spelling is quite irregular.
Since the 16th century, when 5-7 million spoke English, the language has spread all over the world and is now spoken by more people than any other language. It was first taken to North America in 1584. Later it spread to Australia, New Zealand, Africa and India. Although there is one standard for written English, with minor differences between British and American spelling, there is a huge variety of spoken dialects of English, some of which are so different that they could be considered separate languages.
Apart from the irregular spelling, other challenges that face students of English include the numerous tenses and irregular verbs and plurals, the prepositions with multiple meanings and uses, the huge vocabulary, the numerous dialects and accents.