English Language: History, Definition, and Examples

How It's Evolved Over Centuries—And Still Changes Today

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The term English is derived from Anglisc, the speech of the Angles—one of the three Germanic tribes that invaded England during the fifth century. The English language is the primary language of several countries (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and many of its former colonies, and the United States) and a second language in a number of multilingual countries (including India, Singapore, and the Philippines).

It's an official language in several African countries as well (such as Liberia, Nigeria, and South Africa) but is spoken worldwide in 101. It's learned around the world by children in school as a foreign language and often becomes a common denominator between people of different nationalities when they meet while traveling, doing business, or in other contexts.

According to Christine Kenneally in her book "The First Word," "Today there are about 6,000 languages in the world, and half of the world's population speaks only 10 of them. English is the single most dominant of these 10. British colonialism initiated the spread of English across the globe; it has been spoken nearly everywhere and has become even more prevalent since World War II, with the global reach of American power." Let's not forget the global reach of American pop culture through music, movies, advertising, and TV shows.

Spoken Worldwide

About 20 percent of the world's population speaks English as a first or secondary language, about 1.5 billion people. If you include people who use it, that brings the estimate up to about a third of the world, or more than 2 billion of the world's 7.6 billion people (2017). Only about 360 million people speak it as their first language, though.

"There are now estimated to be 1.5 billion English speakers globally: 375 million who speak English as their first language, 375 million as a second language and 750 million who speak English as a foreign language," noted Tony Reilly in "English Changes Lives," in Britain's The Sunday Times. He continued,

"The elites of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon have dumped French in favour of English. India has reversed its former campaign against the language of its colonial rulers, and millions of Indian parents are now enrolling their children in English-language schools—in recognition of the importance of English for social mobility. Since 2005, India has had the world’s largest English-speaking population, with far many more people using the language than before independence. Rwanda, in a move dictated as much by regional economics as post-genocide politics, has decreed a wholesale switch to English as its medium of instruction. And China is about to launch a colossal programme to tackle one of the few remaining obstacles to its breakneck economic expansion: a paucity of English-speakers.

"English has official or special status in at least 75 countries with a combined population of two billion people. It is estimated that one out of four people worldwide speak English with some degree of competence."

When English Was First Spoken

English derived from a Proto-Indo-European language spoken by nomads wandering Europe about 5,000 years ago. German also came from this language. English is conventionally divided into three major historical periods: Old EnglishMiddle English, and Modern English. Old English was brought to the British Isles by Germanic peoples: the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles, starting in 449. With the establishment of centers of learning in Winchester, histories being written, and the translation of important Latin texts into West Saxon's dialect in 800s, the dialect spoken there became the official "Old English." Adopted words came from Scandinavian languages.

Evolution of the English Language

In the Norman conquest in 1066, the Norman French dialect (which was French with a Germanic influence) arrived in Britain.

The center of learning gradually moved from Winchester to London, so Old English no longer dominated. Norman French, spoken by the aristocracy, and Old English, spoken by the common people, intermingled over time to become Middle English. By the 1200s, about 10,000 French words had been incorporated into English. Some words served as replacements for the English words, and others coexisted with slightly changed meanings. Spellings changed as people with the Norman French background wrote down the English words as they sounded. Other changes include the loss of gender for nouns, some word forms (called inflections), the silent "e," and the coalescing of a more constrained word order. Chaucer wrote in Middle English in the late 1300s. Latin (church, courts), French, and English were widely used in Britain at the time, though English still had many regional dialects that caused some confusion.

Structural and grammatical changes happened as well. Charles Barber points out in "The English Language: A Historical Introduction":

"One of the major syntactic changes in the English language since Anglo-Saxon times has been the disappearance of the S[ubject]-O[bject]-V[erb] and V[erb]-S[ubject]-O[bject] types of word-order, and the establishment of the S[ubject]-V[erb]-O[bject] type as normal. The S-O-V type disappeared in the early Middle Ages, and the V-S-O type was rare after the middle of the seventeenth century. V-S word-order does indeed still exist in English as a less common variant, as in 'Down the road came a whole crowd of children,' but the full V-S-O type hardly occurs today." 

Usage of Modern English

Many scholars consider the early Modern English period to have begun about 1500. During the Renaissance, English incorporated many words from Latin via French, from classical Latin (not just church Latin), and Greek. The King James Bible (1611) and works of William Shakespeare are considered in Modern English.

A major evolution in the language, ending the "early" subportion of the Modern English period, was when the pronunciation of long vowels changed. It's called the Great Vowel Shift and is considered to have happened from the 1400s through the 1750s or so. For example, a Middle English long high vowel such as e eventually changed to a Modern English long i, and a Middle English long oo evolved into a Modern English ou sound. Long mid- and low vowels changed as well, such as a long a evolving to a Modern English long e and an ah sound changing to the long a sound.

So to clarify, the term "Modern" English refers more to the relative stasis of its pronunciation, grammar, and spelling than it has anything to do with current vocabulary or slang, which is always changing.

Today's English

English is ever adopting new words from other languages (350 languages, according to David Crystal in "English as a Global Language"). About three-quarters of its words come from Greek and Latin, but, as Ammon Shea points out in "Bad English: A  History of Linguistic Aggravation," "it is certainly not a Romance language, it is a Germanic one. Evidence of this may be found in the fact that it is quite easy to create a sentence without words of Latin origin, but pretty much impossible to make one that has no words from Old English."

With so many sources behind its evolution, English is malleable, with words also being invented regularly as well. Robert Burchfield, in "The English Language" calls the language "a fleet of juggernaut trucks that goes on regardless. No form of linguistic engineering and no amount of linguistic legislation will prevent the myriads of change that lie ahead."

Additions to the Dictionary

After a certain amount of usage, dictionary editors decide whether a new word has enough staying power to add it to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster notes that its editors spend an hour or two daily reading a cross-section of material looking for new words, new meanings to old words, new forms, new spellings, and the like. The words are logged into a database with their context for documentation and further analysis. Before being added to the dictionary a new word or change to an existing word must have a considerable amount of use over time in a variety of types of publications and/or media (widespread use, not just in jargon). The Oxford English Dictionary has a similar process for its 250 lexicographers and editors who are continually researching and updating language information. 

Varieties of English

Just as the United States has regional dialects and there are differences in pronunciation and words in British and American English, the language has local varieties around the world: African American Vernacular English, AmericanBritish, Canadian, Caribbean, Chicano, Chinese, Euro-English, Hinglish, Indian, Irish, Nigerian, Nonstandard English, PakistaniScottish, Singapore, South AfricanStandard American, Standard British, Standard English,  and Zimbabwean.

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Nordquist, Richard. "English Language: History, Definition, and Examples." ThoughtCo, May. 20, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-english-language-1690652. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, May 20). English Language: History, Definition, and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-english-language-1690652 Nordquist, Richard. "English Language: History, Definition, and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-english-language-1690652 (accessed May 24, 2018).