Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for language learners. Catch up on past installments here.
Hello, learners! For all of you learning a new language that isn't English, you sure do have a lot of questions about... well, English! Which, of course, I love. So in honor of Shakespeare's birthday on April 26, let's take this week to learn a little bit more about English's fascinating evolution!
The story of English involves conquests and defeats, bilingualism and language contact, and a language that hungrily incorporates new words from every community it touches.
It's almost never clear when a language "starts" or is "born," because people are always communicating – big language changes never happen from one day to the next! Instead, a new language is "born" more gradually, typically when some group's way of communicating grows more and more different from former group members. That might happen because the group moves and no longer has contact with their old neighbors, or because a new group of people comes into town with their own language, or because the group has a particular change in culture or experience that increases differences.
In the case of English, all of those things happened!
Where did English come from?
If you guessed that English came from England, you're right – sort of. And if you guessed that English did not come from England, you're also sort of right!
If we were to land in the southern part of what we now call England about 1,600 years ago, we'd be in a land of many small groups, kingdoms, and tribes and a complex linguistic landscape. There would be speakers of Celtic languages, like the one that eventually became Welsh and Roman soldiers speaking one or more dialects of Latin. (Not to mention many Celts would have been speaking Latin, too!)
So linguistically, there was a lot going on on that relatively small island!
Around the 5th century, several groups of people from northern Europe (modern-day Germany and Denmark especially) moved to the southern part of that island. They were called the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, and they were Germanic, so they were different culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically from the Celts and Romans already settled there. It's not entirely clear what the dynamic was between the newcomers and the other groups, but in the end English (the language of the Angles and the Saxons) became the predominant language of Engla lond (the land of the Angles). Today we call that language variety Old English.
But that's only the beginning. A few centuries later, they'd be joined by people of Scandinavian descent (Vikings!) speaking languages that originated in the places we now call Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
Isn't English a Romance language?
Some of that history may be surprising, given how much English has in common with other languages, like French. But English is not a Romance language like French; it's a Germanic language related to other Germanic languages from northern Europe including German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Gothic (which is no longer spoken). But English vocabulary does have a lot of overlap with Romance languages, especially French!
That's because English continued to evolve after it made the move to southern England, and perhaps the biggest factor was French. Well, not the French we think of today – a thousand years ago, Latin dialects in modern-day France were doing their own mixing with local Celtic, Germanic, and Scandinavian languages, and one of these dialects was Norman French, spoken just across the English Channel in Normandy.
The big change came in 1066: William the Conqueror (aka William of Normandy) and the Normans invaded England and set up shop as the new ruling class. Over centuries, English speakers adopted a lot of vocabulary from Norman French, including words associated with prestige, education, government, and fancy things like food and art -- and slipped them right into its Germanic grammar. Many of those French words and Germanic grammar rules have survived through the centuries!
If we look at the percent of English words that were borrowed from other languages, especially Latin and French, the number is enormous: as much as 80%. But that estimate is really deceptive because English has a huge number of words in dictionaries, but that doesn't truly represent the words people actually use every day; for example, dictionaries naturally include specialized scientific and technical vocabulary (most of which comes from Latin and Greek). Here are some other stats about English vocabulary:
- Of the 100 most common words in English, 96 come from Old English, and three more (they, them, their) are from Old Norse and were already in use in Old English. The other word in the top 100, the one that's neither Old English nor Old Norse? That's the word very, from Old French!
- Of the 100 words on the Swadesh list (a list of core vocabulary most resistant to language change), 88 come from Old English, with four others from Old Norse and the rest from Latin and French. These include some numbers, close family terms, articles and question words (like the and what), the main body parts and needs (like eat and drink), and some basic nature and animal vocabulary.
- Of the 100 most common nouns in English today, about half come from Old English. There are 44 right from Old English and another 4 from Old French, Old Norse, or Latin but that were in use during the Old English period. And I bet you already know where the rest come from: French and Latin.
What was Old English like?
Despite Old English being spoken more than a thousand years ago, we know tons about it because it's so well documented. You can easily find the epic poem Beowulf (alongside its Modern English translation 😅) in bookstores and online, not to mention Alfred, King of the West-Saxons, encouraged lots of writing of history and literature in the West-Saxon dialect of English. That dialect ended up becoming the Old English standard!
To a speaker of Modern English, Old English would look (and sound, and seem) like a totally different language. In order to understand it, you'd basically have to study it like you'd study any new language! And if you're an English speaker who's ever shaken your head about some frustrating feature in a European language you're studying, I have news for you: Old English probably had it, too. For example, have you ever wondered…
Wow, what is up with these grammatical genders? Old English had three grammatical gender categories.
Literally why are there so many verb conjugations?! Old English verbs changed a lot, depending on the subject and tense.
Do normal people actually remember all these noun endings?? What even is the "dative"? Old English nouns changed their endings for (at least) four different cases.
Old English had even more in common with other Germanic languages than Modern English does, in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and word order in sentences. Here are some linguistic features you'd find in Old English:
- Different letters: Old English had a lot of letter combinations and diacritics (short marks like accents) that we don't use today. It also had some actual letters that have fallen out of use, including two different letters for Modern English "th": one for the sound in think (þ, called the letter "thorn") and another for the sound in those (ð, today called "eth").
- Masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns: All nouns in Old English had a (mostly arbitrary!) grammatical gender. How arbitrary was grammatical gender in Old English? The word wīf, which meant "wife" or "woman," was neuter, and another word for "woman," wīfmann was masculine!
- Four noun cases: Old English nouns changed depending on their role in the sentence (is it a direct object? A subject? And so on.), and so each noun had different forms for nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative cases. And actually, there were different case endings for singular vs. plural nouns, and for the three different grammatical genders 🤯
- Formal and informal pronouns: In Old English, there were different ways to say "you," depending on whether you wanted to be formal or informal with the person: þu (pronounced "thoo," with the "th" sound like in think) was for informal situations, and ge (pronounced "yay") was formal. (Can you guess which one ended up falling out of use and which became formal and informal?)
What's the difference between Old English, Middle English, and Modern English?
Very roughly speaking (heh heh 😏), Old English is the version of Anglo-Saxon spoken from the 5th century to the 11th century, Middle English is the stage of the language from the 11th to 15th centuries, and Modern English technically has its beginning around then, even before Shakespeare was born! And actually, all languages go through phases and big changes in their linguistic evolution – we could also talk about Old French, Classical Arabic, Modern Vietnamese, etc.
"Old," "Middle," and "Modern" are distinctions linguists make today to help refer to general properties and influences at different time points, but we know that changes and new stages of a language don't happen overnight. Many of these changes were really gradual and took centuries to complete! We've seen a bit of the history and linguistic properties of Old English, and here's the story behind Middle and Modern English:
When: Roughly 11th century to 15th century. The traditional start of the Middle English period is the Norman Invasion of 1066.
What to look for: Loss of grammatical gender and most noun case endings – although the Germanic genitive case stuck around, so to say that something belonged to someone, you'd still add -es, like in a sowes erys (a sow's ears). Word order became less flexible. A lot of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary was replaced with words from Norman French and later stages of French words. The Great Vowel Shift began, and if you have never before thought of anything with "vowels" being "great," you are in for a treat: the pronunciation of Middle English vowels began shifting, with half of them acquiring an entirely new pronunciation within a couple of centuries. If you've ever cursed the inconsistency of English spelling and pronunciation, especially for vowels, you have cursed the Great Vowel Shift.
Major influences: French, French, and more French. Lots of Latin-origin vocabulary got to English through French during this stage, so you can find good Ol' English words (ghost, house, cow) alongside fancier French-origin words (spirit, domicile, beef). Sometimes English acquired French words twice, centuries apart or from different French dialects, leaving English with pairs of borrowed French words! For example, cattle comes from Norman French, and chattel from Central French centuries later.
Where to find it: Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (not to be confused with the very Modern English The Green Knight).
When: Roughly 15th century to today. Chaucer's death is a sort of an informal end to the Middle English stage and the start of Modern English – which means I'm writing the same basic kind of English that Shakespeare wrote four hundred years ago. Clearly there have still been lots of changes to English! But remember that language change is most often a gradual process.
What to look for: The continued evolution of that -es ending for the old Germanic genitive case to express possession, which exists today as the 's in the child's toy* and the team's win. Eventually more standardized spelling conventions in the last 200-ish years. Verb conjugations significantly reduced so that most verbs have just two present tense forms (talk, talks; see, sees) and one or two past tenses (talked; saw, seen). Many new English dialects take root around the world.
Major influences: Colonization, slavery, and globalization. As English colonizers spread and settled around the world, they brought English to all corners of the globe, often to the great destruction of the people, languages, and cultures already in those places. As the language of the ruling class and sometimes a lingua franca, English developed new varieties that incorporated words and grammar from the colonized communities (like Indian English), influenced other languages (English words are frequently adopted in languages as geographically distant as French and Thai), sparked new pidgins and creoles (like Jamaican Creole and Cameroonian Pidgin English), and became the go-to language in some multilingual situations (like in every hostel I've ever stayed in).
Where to find it: William Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, Billie Holiday's music (and Billie Eilish's, too!), Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, our Dear Duolingo column.
Englishes over time
It's not hard to see the differences in English when you look at written examples! Here is a sample of the different stages using a text that was translated and updated at each stage – the Christian Lord's Prayer.
|The Lord's Prayer||Did you notice?|
|Old English||Úre Fæder, þú þe eart on heofonum
sí þín nama gehálgod.
Tócume þín ríce.
|Written accents and two unfamiliar letters (þ and æ) are in use. "Ríce" (pronounced like "reech-ay"), for "kingdom," isn't so far from Germain Reich. If you know that ge- and tó are sort of prefixes, it's not too hard to see "hallowed" in gehálgod and "come" in tócume.|
|Middle English||Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name.
thi kyngdoom come to.
|It's starting to look more familiar! Spelling conventions have changed, and many prefixes and suffixes have been lost or reduced. Old English ríce by now replaced with another Old English word, kyngdoom.|
|(Early) Modern English||Our father which art in heauen,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdome come.
|Easily understood, even with some spelling oddities. The informal pronoun thy and the verb conjugation "art" had mostly fallen out of use in regular speech, but were still in use in some religious contexts.|
English, a language as diverse as its users
Like most languages, the story of English involves lots of change and adaptation, as the people who used English to communicate evolved culturally and politically – and conquered others who were forced to change linguistically as well. As a result, the English varieties that we use today reflect influences from around the world. So of course I choose to believe that the British band Modern English was talking about English's attitude toward linguistic borrowings when they wrote "I'll stop the world and melt with you."
To learn more about the inner workings of language and what that means for you as a learner, send your questions to email@example.com!