The English Language
As the Roman economy collapsed, in the 5th century, the Anglo-Saxons began to settle Britain. Thus, displacing the natives. They brought with them words that we still have evidence of to this very day. For instance, there is an ankle-bone from a roe-deer, dating to that period, with six runic letters carved on it (RAIHAN). It translates to mean “from a roe”, so the image below is what the oldest written English actually looked like. Obviously only two of those original letters are recognizable, namely “R” and “H”.
The Old English term for “roe” was “raha”, or just “ra” in some instances. This gave rise to place-names and even surnames, such as Roeburn. The very words England and English (Ænglaland and Ænglisc) were specifically named after the Angles. The language that they brought with them quickly developed from a set of North Sea Germanic Ingvaeonic dialects which were originally spoken along the coasts of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland, and southern Sweden. After the 6th century, German words starting with “p” systematically shifted to a “pf” sound while their Old English counterparts kept the “p” unchanged. In another split, words that have a “sk” sound in Swedish developed a “sh” sound in English. Of course, there are still some English words with “sk,” like “skull,” but they’re direct borrowings from Old Norse that came after the “sk” to “sh” shift. Regardless, by the 7th century, the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons had become the dominant language in the British Isles.
English has evolved through countless generations of speakers, undergoing major changes over time, from Chaucer to Twain and beyond. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it:
“The English language is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven.”
Going all the way back, the first manuscript records of Old English date to the beginning of the 8th century. In line with this, although English shares many similar words with Latin-derived Romance languages, like French and Spanish, most of those words were not originally part of it. They started coming into Old English with the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century. Around that time, someone among them even wrote the classic Old English epic poem, Beowulf. When the French-speaking Normans conquered England and became its ruling class, they brought their speech with them, adding a massive amount of French and Latin vocabulary to the English language previously spoken there. Viking invaders also added borrowings from Old Norse into the mix. Some of English’s more distant relatives include Hindi, Persian, and the Celtic languages it displaced in what is now Britain. Old English began to be replaced by Middle English in the middle of the 12th century. Then, in the late 14th century, English finally replaced French as the language of the law, which was written and spoken in Parliament from that moment on. In the end, Modern English words finally emerged in the early 16th century.
By the end of the 16th century, Shakespeare was in his prime, and there were as many as seven million people speaking English. In the wake of this, in the 17th century, English spread from Europe to North America, then in the 18th century, English arrived in Australia, and so on and so forth. Still, despite any variations among local accents or regional dialects, the language has been used in numerous different countries across the globe, by people all around the world. To understand how it all works, consider the word “language” and where that specific term came from and why. The word is Middle English, by way of the Old French word “langage”, which is based on the Latin word “lingua” meaning “tongue”. Thus, one’s “mother tongue” is their native language. For instance, the English language is now the common tongue in America. The thing is that new words come and go all the time. Many archaic words like bodgery, taffeta, fopdoodle, dinkum, brock, and mipela have been replaced by contemporary words like LOL, nigga, app, muggle, tweet, and chillax. On top of that, word meanings change a lot. Consider the word silly, which at different times has meant “happy”, “pious”, “innocent”, “pitiable”, “feeble”, then “feeble-minded”, and now “foolish”. Along with this, semantic narrowing gives rise to more and more words over time. For instance, apples used to just mean “fruit” in general, but now it only means one kind of fruit in particular. Therefore, oranges, bananas, and everything else had to be named something different. Extrapolate this out and there are now hundreds of thousands of English words currently in use. In fact, my mother tongue has more words than any other language in the world. The problem is that most of my fellow Americans only have vocabularies of about ten to twenty thousand words, being restricted to certain social circles, like literary or colloquial, etc…
Here’s a look at some of the various English words and their definitions as they came into use.
(8th century): “and”
used to connect words of the same part of speech, clauses, or sentences, that are to be taken jointly.
(9th century): “street”
a public road in a city or town, typically with houses and buildings on one or both sides.
(10th century): “what”
asking for information specifying something.
(11th century): “arse” → “ass”
a person’s buttocks or anus.
(12th century): “swain”
a young lover or suitor.
(13th century): “skirt”
a woman’s outer garment fastened around the waist and hanging down around the legs.
(14th century): “money”
a current medium of exchange in the form of coins and banknotes; coins and banknotes collectively.
(15th century): “gaggle”
a flock of geese or a noisy group of people.
(16th century): “debt”
something, typically money, that is owed or due.
(17th century): “gazette”
a journal or newspaper.
(18th century): “ain’t”
am not; are not; is not.
(19th century): “dude”
(20th century): “doublespeak”
deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language.
(21st century): “unfriend”
remove someone from a list of contacts on a social networking website.
In the 21st century, out of the world’s 7.5 billion inhabitants, 1.5 billion speak English. That’s 20% of the Earth’s population. However, most of those aren’t native English speakers. At present, less than 0.5 billion people speak English as their mother tongue. Still, English has become a hub language which is presently spoken in more than one hundred different countries. To date, as of the time of this writing, 55 out of 195 sovereign countries have adopted English as their official language. Plus, many of the former territories of the British Empire still speak English. The language is quite pervasive, to say the least. As such, English is currently the cornerstone of global commerce. It is also the predominant language of the Internet. So, if there is ever going to be a universal language then English will surely be it. Modern English definitely seems to be the New International Language. So, although there will surely be amazing translation technology in the future, people won’t ever really need to use it because everyone will know how to speak English. Of course, the language itself will also change during this time, creating a range of regional dialects and altering the tenses of words. For instance, as a general rule, English regularizes verbs at a rate that is inversely proportional to the square root of their usage frequency. In other words, if a word is used a hundred times less often, then it will become a regular verb ten times as fast. So, that means in the future, “smite” will inevitably leave behind “smote” to become “smited”.
The important thing to understand is that languages never stop evolving. I can only imagine what American vernacular, let alone slang, will be like in the decades to come. There will undoubtedly be multiple inter-languages spoken by people in the near future, which merely center around English. The grammar and vocabulary of one language can easily intermingle with that of another. This is already evident among those who use English as a second language, across the globe. Here in America, there is a growing amount of Spanglish, which is a mixture of Spanish and English. Similarly, in Singapore, people speak a hybrid known as Singlish. Colloquial Singaporean English clearly illustrates how pervasive the New International Language really is. Mark my words, in the 22nd century there will be about 10 billion people that can speak English, which will inevitably be the lingua franca of the far-flung future. It’s inevitable that absolutely everyone will eventually use the Metric system to measure, Arabic numbers to count, the Gregorian calendar to determine the date, and of course, the English language to speak and write. There will come a time that everyone in the world will only know Mandarin, Spanish, and/or English, but in the end, everyone will only speak the latter. The question is, what will the globally standardized Post-Modern English of the distant world of tomorrow sound like?