The joy of languages

Things you always wanted to know about the English language

There are lots of questions that people often ask about English. Like, “Where does English come from?”, “Why is English spelling so stupid?”, “What will English be like in the future?”, and “Why, phrasal verbs, why?!”. Now, phrasal verbs are a big topic for another day, but let’s take a little look at where English comes from, how it got its crazy spelling system, and where it might be going the future.


Where does English come from?

Around 5000 years ago, there was a group of people wandering Europe and Asia who all spoke one language, which linguists call Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short. As these people spread around settling different areas, their language slowly evolved into different dialects which eventually became languages such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Proto-Slavic, Proto-Germanic, and many others. Who would have thought that languages as different as English, Greek, Russian and Hindi all evolved from the same one language?!


Two thousand years ago, the people of Britain were Celtic tribes who spoke Celtic languages, another of PIE’s many descendants. Some of these languages, such as Welsh, are still spoken today.

Welsh: “Mae gen i ddant melys” = “I have a sweet tooth”

Around the year 450 AD, England was settled by three groups of Germanic-speaking peoples from modern Denmark, and Northern Germany: the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons. They brought their languages with them, and very soon their languages merged together to become Old English, or Ænglisc, named after the Angles. Although this was the beginning of the language that I am currently writing to you in, it was still very different then from what it is today.

Old English: “An geþēode nǣfre genōg is” = “One language is never enough”

In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy took the English throne when his rival, the English King Harold, died after being shot in the eye with an arrow at the Battle of Hastings. This meant that for the next few centuries, the English upper classes were French speakers, and during this time English took many words from Old French, or Old Norman to be precise. Because of this, many words for farm animals come from Old English, the language of the poor people working in the fields, but the names of the foods served up to the king and the nobles come from their language, Old French.


Why is English spelling so stupid?

Most of the languages of Europe have the vowels, A, E, I, O, and U, right? And they pronounce them just how they are written. When you see “A”, you say “aaah”, when you see “I”, you say “eeeee” etc. So why is it that, in English, when see “A”, we say “ey”, and when we see “I”, we say “ay”?!

Nobody really knows why, but between the years 1350 and 1700, most of the English vowels changed. Before the so-called Great Vowel Shift, “meet” and “meat” were both pronounced differently, but afterwards, they came to be pronounced the same.

The word “mate” changed from “maaht” to “meyt”. Just to name a few examples.

But that doesn’t explain why some words like “knife” and “night” have letters in them that aren’t pronounced at all. Well, this has a slightly simpler explanation. In most cases, these letters were pronounced at some point. So the word “knife” originally sounded like “k-neefe”.

And the word “night” originally sounded like “nee-kht” (the “gh” represented a throaty sound like the Spanish “J”).

People started to standardise the way that English was written around the same time that all of these sound changes were happening, and that is why lots of these old pronunciations have become fossilised in our spelling.

What will English be like in the future?

The spread of the English language across the globe has meant that it is now the most-studied language in the world, and only Mandarin Chinese has more speakers. Nowadays, people who speak English as a second language outnumber English native speakers two to one. Perhaps a surprise to some, the countries with the most English speakers, after the US, are India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Nigeria.

Each of these second language speakers often speak English mixing in some of their own vocabulary, grammar, and accent, which helps to make English possibly the most diverse language on the planet. The Internet and low cost of international travel in the 21st century is also doing its bit to bring these different flavours of English into contact with each other.

All of these things mean that the future of English will probably be determined by those people who learn it as a second language instead of those who speak it from birth.



8 responses to ‘Things you always wanted to know about the English language

  1. Great article!
    Fun fact: The word for “night” in Greek is pronounced the way Old English pronounced it, plus an -ah- sound at the end. It never occured to me that it came from Greek until I heard the Old English pronunciation!

    • Hi, Eftihia (και καλημέρα απ’ τη Θεσσαλονίκη)! Ναι, έχεις δίκιο – αλλά δεν είναι ότι η λέξη night έρχεται από τα ελληνικά, αλλά τα αρχαία ελληνικά και τα αγγλικά έχουν την ίδια ρίζα. Και οι δυο γλώσσες είναι ινδοευρωπαϊκες και προέρχονται από μια κοινή ‘πρωτογλώσσα’, την Πρωτο-ινδο-ευρωπαική. Υπάρχουν και πολλά άλλα παραδείγματα: νύχτα (gr) / night (en) / noche (sp) / notte (it); οχτώ (gr) / eight (en) / oche (sp) / otto (it)

  2. “Around the year 450 BC, England was settled by three groups of Germanic-speaking peoples from modern Denmark, and Northern Germany: the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons” … 450 AD 😉

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