About English Words

(history of how, when, and why hundreds of words have entered the English language)

Events which have led to English as we know it now

The words which our pre-historic and distant ancestors spoke are unknown to us, but certain basic ideas held root in forms that are alike, cognate, in the languages which arose in their later migrations to various areas of the world.

From Sanskrit bhratar, Old Slavic brata, to Irish brothair, the words for "brother", are too much alike to be unrelated.

In most of the family languages mer (which appears in English maritime and in the Irish name Murphy) remains; it meant not the ocean but an inland sea. Snow, bee the numerals two to ten; sen for "old"; newo, "new", eu (su), "good"; dys, "bad": these are some of the basic word roots that some members of the human race took along on their migrations in the distant past.

About 3000 B.C., our male ancestors led their women-folk on their great migrations in two directions

The migrations had one branch which moved southward into Persia and India; while the other moved west and northwest, but by two different routes.

One group traveled to the shorelines and the island-blessed waters of the Mediterranean ("Middle of the Earth") Sea, to Greece, Italy, France, and Spain; while the second group went by land into the heart of Europe, following the course of the streams into the inviting northern lands, or through the wooded valleys, with their many lakes, of Middle Europe.

The Romans in Britain

In 55 B.C., the Romans under Caesar sailed to Britain, from which the Romans had been getting slaves and tin.

Under Claudius in 43 A.D., they established some settlements, and remained for four hundred years; but they lingered rather as conquerors than as colonists, and when they departed they left little for today beyond some well-constructed roads, the remnants of walls, and the ruins of baths, as at Chester on the border of Wales.

The Romans also left a few names in the language. Latin colonia, "colony", survives in Lincoln. Latin vicus, "village", remains in Warwick and Greenwich (Latin v was pronounced like our w).

The Roman "camp", castra, was more widespread, and took different sounds in different parts of the country. It is still used in Lancaster, in Westchester, and in Worcester. The last of these, a Celtic place name plus the Roman "camp", with the added Saxon word for "county", shire, has come into our current vocabulary as the name of a sauce.

The Romans left the Britains to defend their empire

When the Romans withdrew from Britain, drawn home by domestic disaster in about 450 A.D., the Celts renewed their strife. The King of Kent, Wytgoern, invited the Saxons from the continent, to aid him in the battle against the Picts and Scots.

The Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Frisians eagerly responded; and by the sixth century they had imposed their rule and their language upon Britain.

The newcomers, who gave England its name, "Angleland", gave the language not only their vocabulary, but also its framework. Most of English prepositions, pronouns, and conjunctions are from the Low German which these people took to Britain.

Although in our current English dictionaries some three-fifths of the words are of Greek, Latin, and Romance origin, in our actual speech more than half the words in Modern English are from the Old English.

Some Saxon words were already, on the Continent, borrowed from Roman soldiers and traders: inch, mile, pound, street, wall, table, mule, chest, pillow, and wine; while the words love, come, live, eat, and speak come from native Saxon origins.

Additional influences on the English language

In the sixth century, a young priest, Gregory, was impressed by the spectacle of fair-haired and fair-skinned slaves in the Roman Forum

When told who the slaves were, he responded: "They are not Angles, but angels." In 597, now Pope Gregory, he sent forty missionaries to Britain, led by Augustine.

They found the Frankish Queen Bertha, wife of King Æthelbert of Kent, already Christian, and happy to welcome them. Within a century, England was a Christian land.

There was a temporary revival of the English culture in the late ninth century, under King Alfred. He encouraged translations, in which many of the foreign terms were Anglicized: exodus was rendered as outfaring, discipulus became learning-boy.

Alfred established the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was continued by others until 1154.

In 1016, the Danish King Knut (Cnut or Canute), came to power. He was a temperate monarch, who rebuked the folly of his over adulate (obsequious flatters) courtiers by demonstrating that the tide would not turn at this bidding.

In Knut's time, more Teutonic words were integrated into the English language.

After the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, William the Conqueror imposed Norman rule upon England

William was of Viking ancestry, but his fore fathers had spent 150 years in Normandy, and their language was Vulgar Latin, the speech of the Roman soldiers and traders, corrupted into Norman French.

William wiped out the Saxon nobility, supplanting them with his own followers, whose names are recorded in his census, the Domesday Book.

The ascendancy of the French-speaking Normans over the English-speaking Saxons thrust two languages into opposition in the land.

The servants, adjusting themselves as best they could, did not use many of the endings of the new Norman words; therefore, in the course of the next centuries, the fusing language lost many of its inflections (patterns of stress and intonation in a language).

For almost four hundred years, French was the language of the rulers, at the royal court; not until 1362 was English made the language of the law courts.

In church, and at Oxford University, one used either Latin or French. In these centuries, almost three-quarters of the Saxon words died; but enough remained to keep the basic form, the "feel" of the language, Saxon, while enriching it with the new host of Norman terms.

The many enforced mixtures, from Celtic times on, also made the language amenable to borrowing; while, the French, for example, even today resent the intrusion of foreign terms, and strive to keep their language "pure", free from "contamination" by what they scornfully call Franglais, English continuously welcomes new terms from other tongues, and even builds upon them.

As a result of such language borrowings, English has enriched itself with words from all around the world, more than any other tongue. It has the largest vocabulary of any other language and it is capable of an infinite variety of words.

While the Norman conquest was directly affecting English speech, events in other regions of the world were also influencing the language

In the same century of the "Norman Conquest", the Crusades started. Intended to free the Holy Land from the Arab infidels, the Crusades brought the European Christians into contact with the Arab Muslim world.

It was in that world, fortunately, that the treasures of pagan Europe, discarded when not destroyed by the early Christians, had been preserved.

The works of Aristotle, consisting of Greek scientific speculations and Greek medicine, were all reintroduced into Europe. With them came their vocabulary: zenith, astronomy, artery, vein, asthma, gout, demon, and goblin.

Alchemist and algebra show al, the Arab prefix for "the"; it occurs also in alcohol ("the kohl"), from Portuguese alcatraz, and from Arabic al qadus.

Of tremendous importance was the introduction of the Arabic numerals. Imagine (with out computers) the difficulty of multiplying, in Roman figures, XXXIV by XLVII.

Also, from the Arabs, came the even greater simplification provided by their cipher, zero (0), which radically altered methods of calculation, and made manifest the advantages of the decimal system.

In England, there were other influences which resulted in language modifications

In 1215, the barons extracted the Magna Carta from a reluctant King John at Runnymede, taking the first step from the divine right of kings toward democracy.

The Hundred Years' War, which troubled the years from 1337 to 1435, brought a resentment against the French people and their language, which helped to give the English language an ascendancy.

The East Midland dialect was becoming the dominant, standard English tongue. It was the speech of London, which, with a population of forty thousand, was the largest city in England.

In 1349, the Black Death wiped out one-third of the population in a few months. Economic conditions were oppressive, and in 1381, the Peasants' Revolt erupted against the imposition of heavy taxes.

When the recovery came, so did the rise of the middle class, the successful businessmen and traders, the skilled craftsmen in their powerful guilds; and also a measure of leisure.

In 1476, William Caxton established the first English printing press, at Wesminster; by 1500, some 25,000 books were printed.

By 1550, the Renaissance arrived in England, and the language acquired the forms, the variety, and the flexibility, of which we can take advantage today.

—Information for this page came from the following sources:
The Development of Modern English by Stuart Robertson and revised by Frederic G. Cassidy.
The Origins and Development of the English Language by Thomas Pyles.
A History of the English Language by Albert C. Baugh.
The Story of the English Language by Mario Pei.

You may go to the English History and Its Language Development for more details and illustrations about this topic.