A short history of the English language
22 APRIL, 2016 HISTORY JAMES BURT
“What’s the difference between ‘pants’ and ‘trousers’? Why do people use ‘I look forward to seeing you…’ when my teacher says infinitives are always ‘to + [base form verb]’only? As well, why is my teacher always saying ‘gonna’, ‘hafta’, and ‘yo-yo-yo’ are not good to put on my assignments?”
These are all valid questions that English language students ask, and these issues make learning English more difficult for them. English is one of the hardest languages to learn, no matter what your educational background is.
Part of understanding the language means understanding where it comes from. Knowing the history of the language can help students to grasp its mechanics, why native English speakers speak the way they do, and how students can adapt to its complexities while appreciating it as a whole.
Here are some key points on the history of English:
It’s a Mixture of Other Languages
English originated from a combination of languages. England was part of the Roman Empire until the fifth century, when the Angles and Saxons from Northern Germany invaded. After that, the Danes also invaded England in the eight century, and the Normans from Northern France invaded again by the eleventh century. All of these invaders brought their languages with them, which mixed with the native languages and Latin.
‘It All Starts With Speech…’
Detective writer Raymond Chandler noted that all language began with speech. This is true, and also the reason why English practitioners and, subsequently, students have struggled to master putting it into writing.
People speak, write, and read differently at different times, so it’s hard to define. If you read the earliest English poem, Beowulf, words like ‘breath’ and ‘quell’ are short and strong, reflecting the strength of how people spoke then. Breaking down dialects can help students understand the differences from one English-speaking area to another.
England versus the United States
The great playwright and philosopher GB Shaw put it best: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” When the United States became an independent republic, the new nation deliberately reformed English into a language that was uniquely American and easier for them.
That’s why you see differences of spelling - e.g. ‘colour’ in the UK and ‘color’ in the US - and the use of new vocabulary. For example, people in the US say ‘French fries’, whereas people in the UK say ‘chips’.
Putting it All Together
Simple past, past perfect, future perfect, future perfect continuous—English grammar is hard to categorise, let alone remember. Over time, many people have tried to put guides together to help people understand and apply grammar.
In the 1500s, Printer William Bullokar created his pamphlet The Amendment of Orthographie for English Speech. In the 21st century, many students and professionals refer to style guides like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, The Guardian Style Guide, or The MLA Handbook for specific writing and grammar rules in their field.
It’s in Constant Evolution
Technology, new international influences, and developing regional dialects have a major effect on English. Twenty-five years ago, words like ‘Wifi’ didn’t exist—today they are in the dictionary. When students today say ‘sick’ as slang, it’s a positive compliment rather than a negative feeling.
Languages are never static: they are changing all the time. Understanding this helps remind students to always be learning.
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