The History of the English Language

Origin of English words shown proportionally.

Settlers from present-day Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands conquered the area today known as England in the 5th and 6th centuries, and went on to settle down here. Through the natural effect of the interaction and exchanges that then took place, over time, the various Germanic languages that the arriving settlers spoke morphed into one language. This language, which may have sounded like some strange form of old German or old Danish, laid the foundation for today’s English.

Scandinavian Vikings, also speaking Germanic languages, arrived in the British Isles around the 9th and 10th centuries. Coming to plunder and trade, and eventually to settle, they too would impact the language today known as English. The Vikings’ interactions with the local population, involving anything from hostile fighting to friendly commerce, led to Scandinavian words like die, give and take entering into the local vernacular, logically reflecting the Norsemen’s areas of influence.

French

From a solid Germanic base, English began to add French words to its vocabulary starting in 1066. This was because the French-speaking William the Conqueror took control of England that year and appointed French-speaking people to the country’s highest administrative positions. The ruling elite in England, then being of the same Francophone tradition for several hundred years, made sure that the French linguistic influence grew strong, with the French-speaking decision makers in politics and the court system introducing words like parliament, sovereign, evidence and justice.

Latin

The French contributions to English, including the aforementioned evidence and justice, were not the only historically important Latin-rooted additions to the English language. Latin itself, to bring up the last of the three major building blocks of English, was also a great source of vocabulary. The reason for this was that throughout Europe, including in England, until about the 1700s, the preferred language of the learned and the clergy was Latin. Therefore, English words related to religion, art and science often have Latin origin.

Short and long words

Lastly, to make a relevant lexical comparison of Germanic-, French- and Latin-rooted English words, modern English words that are short and used in everyday conversation tend to be of Germanic origin. If words, instead, are long or less frequently used, the origin tends to be French or Latin. The sentence “They found old books.” for example, only contains Germanic-rooted words, and with three French- and Latin-rooted synonyms in the same sentence we get “They discovered ancient literature.”