LIL: Untangling the Roots of the English Language

Languages are sort of like plants. They grow and change over time, and can branch out. Sometimes one limb will die while another thrives. Some languages have easily identifiable roots – at least to a point. We know the Romance languages all sprang from Latin, diversifying and changing based on what other languages and cultures they touched. Spanish, for instance, picked up some Arabic along the way. But then again, where did Latin come from?

The past of English is quite convoluted indeed, changing and growing with every invasion made against or by speakers of the language.

English kicked off in the 5th and 6th centuries when Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain and ran over most of the Celtic languages spoken there, though words like “basket, brave, galore, lawn,” and “whiskey” survived. A lot of our most common and basic words come from the Anglo-Saxons, including “house, work, he, for, and, new,” and “make.” English shared a lot of Germanic aspects in this time period, and would continue to look like German for a while.

Our next language-building invasion came from the Vikings, who very fittingly added words like “ransack, berserk, skull, knife,” and “dirt” (along with many less war-oriented words, like “want, bag, plow, cake,” and “choose.” At least we got cake!)

The French came next, giving us many of the Latin-based words that make learning Romance languages a tad easier. “Justification, attention, audible, soup, faux,” and “bouquet” all look familiar in both languages.

Mix the results of all these invasions together and you get Middle English, the language of “The Canterbury Tales.” It’s still sort of German-looking, but a bit more recognizable as English.

Language tree created by Minna Sundberg in her comic “Stand Still, Stay Silent”

English got a second injection of Latin influence when the Roman Catholic Church began spreading and using Latin as a lingua franca.

Everything changed again when the pilgrims landed in the “New World,” and English started picking up words from the places that it’s speakers invaded, rather than the other way around. We learned “hickory, squash, toboggan,” and “bayou” from various Native American tribes. “Banana, jumbo, marimba,” and “yummy” came from Africa. We imported “ginger, guru, cash” and “bangle” from British colonies in India.

It’s no wonder that English features such a huge vocabulary with so many synonyms. You could say you are happy, but you could also say you are cheerful, overjoyed, merry, thrilled, upbeat, joyous, glad, elated, jubilant, ecstatic, chipper, or gleeful.

Languages are always changing! It’s nothing to be afraid of, even if you hate the idea of “photobomb” joining the dictionary right next to words that have been with us since the 5th century.

Still curious? Check out Voice of America’s article on the history of English, or these lists of English words of Viking, French, and Native Americans origins.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and check back with us next week for our another issue of Links Interpreters Love!

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