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T he En glish
o f t he lan gu a ge
Where does English come from?!3 How much did the Romans change English? !3 Why are there so many Latin words in English?!4 What about the Norman invasion?!4 How many French words have entered English?!5 How did French inﬂuence English pronunciation?!6 What about Greek?!6 Whatʼs the difference between Old and Middle English?!7 How does a word get into the OED?!8
Where does English come from? English is essentially a Germanic language. Its grammar around 30% of its lexicon (vocabulary) are Anglo-Saxon in origin. These words tend to be the most commonly used – over 70% according to most estimates. The top ten most commonly used verbs, for example, are all survivors from old English. What makes the English language unusual is its large number of ‘loanwords’ from other languages –particularly Latin, Greek and French. Loanwords are an important feature of English. They do not, however, affect the structure of the language. An English speaker may use the word ‘ballet’ but he will not say ‘dancer of ballet’ as you would in French. A few imported terms retain their original syntax. The United Nations has a secretary general while the chief officer of the English legal system is the attorney general . But these are rare exceptions. How much did the Romans change English? Very little. Perhaps surprisingly the Roman occupation of Britain did not have a major impact on the development of the English
language. Only place names like London, Bath & Chester indicate the official language of the occupiers. Why are there so many Latin words in English? It was with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 6th and 7th centuries that significant numbers of Latin words began entering the lexicon. Latin was the lingua franca or common language of the Christian world. The mass or religious service and all the main texts were conducted in Latin. Ordinary church-goers did not have direct access to the Latin bible but key words like disciple became familiar. Other religious words like abbot, altar, apostle & candle gradually came into common use. What about the Norman invasion? The invasion of the Norman French in 1066 greatly increased the number of ‘foreign’ words in common use. The Normans introduced a legal system with its own vocabulary: words like jury and verdict. In a sense this was a further expansion of the influence of Latin, as what became know as anglo - Norman had Latin
roots. Sometimes the new anglo-norman words existed alongside existing anglo-saxon ones: beef and cow for example. One very important development was that most anglo saxon words lost their social status. The original language became grammatically simpler and merged into what became known as Middle English.? Though the Norman dialect declined, French remained the language of court and learning: we still use terms like chargé d'affaires, for example. French words became associated with learning and culture. This is still the case today, though excessive use of gallic terms is often seen as snobbish and elitist. Hence the joke; Pretentious? Moi? And Bart Simpson was playing on this widespread prejudice in the English speaking world when he described the French as ‘cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys’. How many French words have entered English? The Normans introduced around 10,000 words. Of these around 7,000 have survived into modern English. More than 33% of all English words come directly or indirectly from French. English speakers who have never studied French already know at least 10,000 French words.
See 1,700 words that are identical in the French & English here.
How did French influence English pronunciation? The introduction of French subtly modified pronunciation in English. One example is the diphthong (long ‘o’ sound) in words like ‘boy’. Another is ‘th’ sound in thin/shin. When it comes to French words these generally approximate to the original: ‘ballet’, for example, has a silent ‘t’ rather than a sounded one as in Spanish. Some of the more common nouns have been completely anglicised - the hard ‘s’ in Paris being an obvious example. As with many other aspects of the language, custom and practice has taken precedence over formal rules. What about Greek? The frequency of Greek terms in English can again be traced back to the importance of Latin. Medieval scholars learned Greek vocabulary by studying Latin texts. Words with a Greek origin are particularly common in medicine, science and education. Words with a - phy or –gy suffix typically have Greek roots: geography, demography and etymology, for example
About 5% of commonly English words have a direct Greek origin but around 25% come via Latin.
What’s the difference between Old and Middle English? Old English see image right was used up until the Norman invasion in 1066. It looks looks and sounds very different to modern English. Here is an example from the most famous Old English poem Beowulf: Oft Scyld Scefing \\ sceaþena þreatum" (l. 4). Middle English developed in the three centuries after the French invasion. It is much closer to the modern form of the language, as these lines from Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales demonstrate: To telle yow al the condicioun, Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, And whiche they weren, and of what degree, And eek in what array that they were inne,! Only the word eek (also) is unfamiliar to a reader of modern English. Who decides ‘official’ new words in English? Nobody decides because technically there are no ‘official’ words. There is no academy of English as there is with French,
Spanish and other European languages. Modern English has evolved from centuries of common use rather than a formal set of rules. The nearest English has to an academy is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In the word game Scrabble, for example, you can only use words from a dictionary. How does a word get into the OED? A team at the OED is always looking for new words. When a word appears repeatedly in a variety of publications they consider it for inclusion. Every year new words enter the Oxford English Dictionary. The ‘how-much-is-it-used?’ criteria leads to surprising inclusions. The word rightish, for example, is a slang term with an imprecise meaning, but it was included in the OED June 2010.
© 2010 Kieran McGovern
Comprehension exercises, audio, quizzes, crosswords, a glossary & other learning activities here:
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