Origins, History & Evolution Of The English Language

English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and is therefore related to most other languages spoken from Iceland to India. The parent language, called Proto-Indo-European, was spoken around 3,000 BCE by nomads believed to have roamed the southeast European plains. Germanic, one of the language groups descended from this ancestral speech, is usually divided into three regional groups: East (the extinct languages Burgundian, Gothic and Vandal), North (Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish), and West (Dutch, English, Flemish, Frisian and German). Though closely related to English, German remains far more conservative than English in its retention of a fairly elaborate system of inflections. Frisian, spoken by the inhabitants of the Dutch province of Friesland and the islands off the west coast of Schleswig, is the language most closely related to Modern English. Icelandic, little-changed over the last thousand years, is the living language most closely resembling Old English in its grammatical structure.

English originated from Anglo-Frisian (Germanic) dialects brought to the island of Britain around 450-650 AD by Anglo-Saxon migrants from what is now northwest Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands. The Anglo-Saxons settled in the British Isles from around 450 AD and eventually dominated southern Britain. Their language, Old English, originated as a group of Anglo-Frisian dialects which were spoken, at least by the settlers, in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages, displacing the Celtic (and, possibly, British Latin) languages that had been dominant. Old English reflected the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established in different parts of Britain. The Late West Saxon dialect eventually came to dominate. A subsequent influence on the shaping of Old English came from the North Germanic languages spoken by the Scandinavian Vikings who conquered and colonized parts of Britain from approximately 700-900 AD; these influences led to the borrowing of many words and simplification of grammar. The pre-Viking dialects had a greater influence on Middle English.

After the 1066 Norman conquest originating from what is now France, Old English was replaced, for a time, by Anglo-Norman as the language of the upper classes. This is regarded as the end of the Old English or Anglo-Saxon era, as during this period the English language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman to the point of developing into a new phase known now as Middle English. The victorious Normans spoke Old Norman, a language which in Britain developed into Anglo-Norman. Many Norman and French words entered the local language in this period, especially in vocabularies related to the church, the court system and the government. The Normans were descendants of Vikings who had invaded France, and therefore Norman French was influenced by Old Norse, with many Norse words in English arriving via French. Middle English was spoken into the late 15th century. Many of the conventions of Middle English that were established during the Middle English period are largely still in use today. Later changes in pronunciation, however, combined with the adoption of various foreign spellings, mean that the spelling of modern English words appears highly irregular.

Early Modern English (the language used by Shakespeare) is dated from around 1500. It incorporated many Renaissance-era loans from Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as borrowings from other European languages, including French, German and Dutch. Significant pronunciation changes in this period included the ongoing Great Vowel Shift, which affected the qualities of most long vowels. Modern English proper, similar in most respects to that spoken today, was in place by 1700.

The English language as we know it today was exported to other parts of the world through British colonization, and is now the dominant language of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various island nations in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and is widely spoken in India, parts of Africa, and elsewhere (it is an official language of India, the Philippines, Singapore, and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa).

Partially due to the influence of the United States and the globalization of its commerce and technology, English took on the status of a global lingua franca in the second half of the 20th century, and it is now estimated that billions of people use English.

This is especially true in Europe, where English has largely taken over the former roles of French and (much earlier) Latin as a common language used to conduct business and diplomacy, share scientific and technological information, and otherwise communicate across linguistic, cultural and national boundaries. The efforts of English-speaking Christian missionaries has resulted in English becoming a second language for many other groups.

Global variation among different English dialects and accents remains significant today.



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