Source of the English Language:  An Introduction


            In writing the articles in this section I am, of course, generally addressing native English-speakers who are seeking to learn a foreign tongue.  To more efficiently master a foreign language, in turn, it is essential that you better comprehend the one you use every day.  In its unusual history, lexicon, and grammar, English may in some respects appear to be sui generic, but in fact English has close familial relationships with both the Germanic and Romance language families, which you can put to substantial practical advantage.  Moreover, even in the case of substantially different tongues—like Asian languages or Slavic tongues—you can improve your grasp by better understanding the logic, construction, and history of English.

            The indispensable detail that you must know about English, at the outset, is that it is practically a language put together by a committee.  Not that it was planned that way, but history being what it is…  As I’ll explain throughout my articles on practical linguistics, English along with two other modern languages—Farsi Persian and Japanese—represents the native tongue of powerful latter-day nation-states, but one which sprang up in a region that, historically, was peripheral to the cultural centers in its continent.  That is to say, for most of its history—until about the 18th century—England and its cultural vector, the English language, were net importers of the European “high culture” that sprang up in the Mediterranean region with classical Greek and Roman civilization, and diffused northward, residing (in the eyes of most Europeans) chiefly in the purported refinement of France.  From the days of chivalry in the Middle Ages to the avant garde esprit of Parisian art, philosophy, and cuisine in the 19th century, French culture was regarded as the epicenter of Western Civilization and the French tongue was the second language of choice, with its vocabulary and subtle bon mots integrating their way into other idioms   Thus not only English but all other Germanic languages outside of Icelandic—Dutch, modern German, Swedish, Danish, and others—have drawn heavily from the cultural and linguistic wellspring of medieval, Renaissance, and modern France.  This common heritage is immensely useful for anyone learning another European tongue (or even many outside of Europe; a respectable fraction of modern Farsi Persian, for example, is of French derivation). 

            In the case of English, of course, there is the unique contribution of “1066 and all that.”  William the Conqueror of Normandy, a duke from Northern France who became England’s most formative ruler, probably did not intend to leave such an imprint on the Anglo-Saxon peasant tongue, but the governmental, administrative, and ecclesiastical system which he established greatly imbued English with the Romance dialect of his fellow Normans.  For this reason, English absorbed French and Greco-Latin-based vocabulary to an extent unparalleled by the other Germanic tongues, and its pronunciation and odd orthography (the infamous bane of many a Spelling Bee aspirant) also bear the marks of the Norman period.  The Normans themselves ruled for only one generation before being displaced by the Angevins (from Anjou, France), who were themselves severed from their French domains when King Philip Augustus of France finally conquered Normandy and Anjou in the early 1200s.  Yet England remained a cultural protégé of France for centuries thereafter, with the result being a sustained influx of French vocabulary with a (predominantly) Latin derivation.  As a consequence, English in its written form—as applied to official, legal, and technical documents— evinces the demonstrable peculiarity of appearing as much like a Romance language than a Germanic one. 

            In spite of this, and as I emphasize repeatedly throughout my pages here:  English is a Germanic language at its core.  You will never fully understand the language, or use its nature to grasp a foreign tongue, unless you thoroughly recognize and appreciate this fact.  In the spoken idiom used at a street corner or bus stop, in popular songs and children’s nursery rhymes, in the basic language that you first learn as a child—English, like its cousins, is unmistakably German in its nature.  In their spoken forms, English, Dutch, German (i.e., “High German,” the official language of modern Germany), and the Scandinavian tongues all employ a heavily Germanic common vocabulary, similar basic grammar, and analogous syntactical patterns associated with the Germanic family.  Except for Icelandic, as noted above, all Germanic tongues have been “Latinized” to a substantial degree, and German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian will all make heavy use of Latin-based vocabulary in formal documents (if not quite to the same extent as English).  Yet in their oral, everyday versions, all employ a heavy preponderance of a wordstock derived from a common German ancestor spoken in the forests of northern Europe coincident with the Roman Empire, with a sprinkling of Latin thrown in for good measure. 

            In addition to its predominant Germanic and Latinate sources, English has imbibed helpings of vocabulary from other sources (both European and otherwise), though contrary to what is often assumed, it is not unique in this regard.  A sort of “international vocabulary” has arisen in which words like “yogurt,” “coffee,” “sofa,” “tea,” “salad,” “hotel,” and “lemon” (many of them foodstuffs and many, for whatever reason, of Arabic or Persian derivation) are commonly present.  Clothing like pajamas and jeans as well as terms that designate shared concepts in commerce or international relations tend to be imported, mostly from originally Greek and Latin sources, and used throughout many of the world’s languages.  (When composed in a European language, scientific and medical documents tend to be scribed in a sort of “common Greco-Latin” that is shared, with slight variations in vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation, across Western tongues.)  In the essays in this section, I detail the various source streams forming the language we recognize as English, focusing initially on the dominant contributor—Anglo-Saxon, the direct ancestor of modern English and the source of its core vocabulary.  Other Germanic sources are detailed—including a surprisingly large and significant cohort of German vocabulary that streamed in with Norman French.  Then the Latin-based contributions to English are explored, as well as those from Arabic (a major language of learning during the Middle Ages) and other tongues in more recent centuries.  Above all, I’ve designed these sections to be of value to you in piecing together the bases of your own native tongue, as a springboard toward mastering others.


n      Wes Ulm


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