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Episode
134

A Short History of The English Language

Feb 19, 2021
How Stuff Works
-
20
minutes
History of language
English speaking
Life in the UK
Great Britain
Romans

From a small, wet island, English has come to be the world's dominant language.

How did this actually happen, where does English actually come from, and how has the language changed over the years?

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about where the English language comes from.

[00:00:29] Now, you might think the answer is obvious, England, but it is a lot more complicated–and indeed more interesting–than that.

[00:00:39] English is a strange mix of different languages, and for the past almost two millennia it has been in a constant state of change, taking words and influences from all sorts of other languages to create the strange language that I am speaking today.

[00:00:57] It goes without saying that this is a subject that is super interesting to me, with my linguist’s hat on, and should also be a fun one for you, as an English learner. 

[00:01:09] So I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:01:11] Before we get right into that though, I first want to want to thank my father, who is an English teacher, and was a huge help in writing this episode. So, thanks dad.

[00:01:23] And my second administrative point is to remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:40] For those of you who aren’t yet members of Leonardo English, I’d definitely recommend checking out our membership. It gives you access to all of the bonus episodes, so I think that’s almost 50 hours in total, plus our live sessions, learning materials, and more.

[00:01:57] So if that's of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:06] OK then, English.

[00:02:09] You’ve no doubt heard all sorts of statistics about how many people speak English. 

[00:02:15] If you Google it, you’ll find the Internet telling you that something like 1.3 billion people speak English. 

[00:02:23] Then digging down deeper, you’ll find that, of those, around 360 million people are native speakers of English, that they were brought up speaking English.

[00:02:36] And as I imagine we both know, English is the most commonly studied second language in the world, with a supposed 1.5 billion people learning it. 

[00:02:48] Now, the definition of ‘learning’ here is quite loose, and not all of these 1.5 billion people are diligent students like you are, but the point is that there can be little doubt that English has come to be the world’s dominant language by a significant margin

[00:03:08] For all of the newspaper headlines about how Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic might be the languages of the future, none of these languages have anywhere near the global attractiveness of English.

[00:03:23] English has come to be the world’s lingua franca. Jobs, universities, life has all started to require English in a way that it didn’t even 20 years ago.

[00:03:36] But of course you know this, because you are listening to a podcast in English.

[00:03:41] What is a lot more interesting than me spouting off statistics about how important English has become is to actually learn about the history of the language, and to ask ourselves how it developed over the years, and how it reached this position of global dominance.

[00:04:00] So, let’s do that.

[00:04:02] One of the main reasons why English has become such a dominant language is its adaptability, and its ability to constantly absorb words from other languages.

[00:04:15] You see, despite what your English teacher might have told you, English is a language that is completely unconcerned with purity

[00:04:25] It has developed over the years precisely because of its ability to become less and less pure, because of its ability to breed with other languages and grow stronger and stronger.

[00:04:38] There are two analogies that I think are useful here, when thinking about English.

[00:04:45] The first is of a mongrel, which is what you get when two dogs of different breeds have a puppy. It’s impure, in the sense that it will be a mix of the two, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

[00:05:02] English is in many respects, a mongrel language.

[00:05:07] And our second analogy is of a big pot, a big saucepan, that you use to cook soup in.

[00:05:15] If you are cooking a soup, you might start with a base of something, but you keep the pot cooking over time, and add more and more ingredients. 

[00:05:26] The flavour develops, and as you add more and more ingredients, perhaps even exotic ingredients like spices, the soup develops a more and more unique flavour. 

[00:05:39] This is perhaps the best way to think about English, as a soup that has been cooking for almost two millennia, where the cook is happy to add almost any ingredient he is presented with, and the result is this complicated but rich language soup.

[00:05:58] So, keeping with our soup analogy, the base for English comes from three tribes - the Saxons, the Jutes, and the Angles. These tribes originally weren’t British, or at least they didn’t come from Britain - they came from continental Europe, the areas around modern day Denmark and northern Germany.

[00:06:24] It’s the last of these three tribes, the Angles, who gave English its name, and the base of our English soup comes from the language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons, Anglo-Saxon. 

[00:06:38] You might have heard this referred to as Old English.

[00:06:43] These tribes came to Britain after the Romans left in the middle of the fifth century, and the language they spoke is the base for English.

[00:06:54] Now, if you or I heard someone speaking Anglo-Saxon now, would we understand them?

[00:07:02] Probably not.

[00:07:03] The vast majority of Anglo-Saxon words have died out, they have disappeared from modern day English, but the words that have survived are words that you certainly will know.

[00:07:17] Love, big, green, ship, kind, wife, these are all examples of words that come from Anglo-Saxon.

[00:07:27] As a general rule, and of course there are thousands of exceptions to this, English words that come from Anglo-Saxon are usually short, without many syllables

[00:07:39] Indeed, words with Anglo-Saxon origins are some of the most common words in the English language, accounting for around 70% of the English that you will hear in normal, day-to-day speech.

[00:07:54] That’s not to say someone who only spoke Anglo-Saxon could listen to this podcast and understand 70% of what I was saying - these words have been adapted since then, but they have roots in Anglo-Saxon.

[00:08:08] And a tip for you is to use short, Anglo-Saxon words whenever you can.

[00:08:16] I can’t take any credit for this tip, it actually comes from Winston Churchill, probably the most famous orator in the English language.

[00:08:26] He famously said that “Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.” 

[00:08:34] So, when in doubt, use short words. 

[00:08:38] I know this might sound uncomfortable for native speakers of certain languages, where using longer, more complicated vocabulary is considered better, but in English it isn’t. 

[00:08:52] So, we have our base for English soup, but what next? We’ve only got to the 5th century AD, and the soup has only started bubbling.

[00:09:03] The next big event in the English language was the invasion by the Vikings, in the 8th Century AD. For those of you that want to learn more about that, Episode 96 is the one for you.

[00:09:17] Anyway, the Vikings came mainly from modern day Scandinavia, and settled in the north and middle of England. 

[00:09:26] Aside from terrorising the local population, they left a linguistic mark on the English language, and words such as husband, sky, and skull come from the Norse languages spoken by the Vikings. 

[00:09:41] Fast forward around 300 years and we have the next big addition to our English soup, and that was the invasion by the Norman French, by William The Conqueror in 1066. 

[00:09:55] Now, these Normans were, technically, Vikings themselves, they had settled in Northern France about 200 years earlier, but they spoke Norman French, a language similar to the French that is spoken in France today.

[00:10:12] As is often the case with invaders, they didn’t make much attempt to speak the local language, which was at that time a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Norse–we can't really call it English yet–and instead Norman French was the language of courts, and the language of administration.

[00:10:32] And it continued like this for several hundred years. 

[00:10:36] In fact, it wasn’t until the year 1415, after the English victory over the French at Agincourt, that English started to become the official language, and indeed the letter sent back to England telling the news of the unexpected victory was one of the first official ones to be written in English.

[00:10:59] But, the switch wasn’t immediate, and Norman French left a large impact on the local language. 

[00:11:07] This is especially the case for words that describe law and government - the laws and administration were all in Norman French, and thus even when the language switched to English, Norman French words remained.

[00:11:25] So, if you think of words like justice, which is ‘justice’ in French, traitor, which is ‘traitre’ in French, sovereign, which is ‘souverain’ in French, and parliament, ‘parliament’ in French. 

[00:11:40] French also brought new, interesting, inventions to English, such as different words for animals and their meat.

[00:11:50] To give you an example, you have a cow when it’s alive, or beef when it’s on a plate. Sheep when it’s in a field, and mutton when it’s on a plate. And a pig becomes pork when you eat it.

[00:12:05] These are all French borrowings, they are words from French, before this English didn’t have these extra words to describe the different states of an animal.

[00:12:17] And words taken from the French tended to be considered more fancy, more important.

[00:12:25] So the Anglo-Saxon ‘cook’ has an alternative of ‘chef’, which sounds a lot more fancy.

[00:12:33] And, like with cook and chef, in many cases, English doesn’t replace the previous words with the French ones - the French ones just take on a slightly different, often superior, meaning.

[00:12:49] This is one of the reasons why English is so rich in synonyms, why there are so many different ways of saying the same thing.

[00:12:59] To give you another example of this, let’s take a look at different ways that you can say ‘smell’.

[00:13:07] You can say stink, pong, whiff, perfume, fragrance, scent, essence, bouquet and aroma.

[00:13:16] Now, the first three on that list, stink, pong, whiff, all now have slightly negative connotations, you might walk into a rubbish dump and say ‘it stinks’. These three all come from Anglo-Saxon.

[00:13:31] The remaining ones come from French, and all have positive connotations, when you think of fragrance, perfume, or a bouquet, this is more likely to be associated with the smell of flowers or something nicer than a rotting fish.

[00:13:50] And it’s through French’s origins as a Romance language that most of our Latin words are added to English. 

[00:13:59] One question you might have is, well, if the Romans conquered Britain, why isn’t English more similar to Latin? The Romans did leave some linguistic influences on English, but most Latin words were actually added to English well after the Romans had departed.

[00:14:18] Latin was the language of the church, and thus a lot of the English words that come from Latin are religious - candle, pope, school, and so on. 

[00:14:33] But although many words in English do have Latin roots, these are mostly words that have come from the French, which is of course a Latin-based language.

[00:14:45] And then it comes to words that are invented by innovative Brits themselves - English isn’t only a language of thieves, we also create a lot of our own words.

[00:14:56] The most famous of these creators of words is, of course, William Shakespeare.

[00:15:02] Shakespeare is thought to have invented about 1,700 words, many of which are in common use today, from bedroom to kissing, critic to eyeball, Shakespeare is without a doubt the most prolific individual contributor to the English language. 

[00:15:22] So, when people say that English is the language of Shakespeare, it really is.

[00:15:28] And as the British started to venture further afield, to colonise large parts of the world, they brought language back to Britain. 

[00:15:37] Words like pyjama and chutney come from India, safari from the Arabic, and ketchup from Hokkien, a language spoken in modern day south-east China.

[00:15:50] Now, borrowing words from other languages isn’t unique to English, almost every language does it, but it’s the extent to which English takes words from other languages and makes them an important part of English that separates English from most other languages, and adds to its richness.

[00:16:10] You might be surprised that we’ve got so far in the history of the English language without mentioning the place with the most native English speakers in the world, the United States of America. 

[00:16:22] The centre of the English language now isn’t the small island where it first developed, but the world’s most powerful country, across the Atlantic Ocean. 

[00:16:32] And although we can spend hours talking about the linguistic reasons that English has been such a successful language, the main reason is that it’s the most commonly spoken language in the US. 

[00:16:46] Note, I didn't say the official language because it’s not actually the official language, you might find that surprising. The US doesn’t have an official language, although English is of course the most common language, and de facto national language.

[00:17:02] And now, there are 55 countries that have English as an official language, from the United Kingdom to Malta, Pakistan to the Philippines, and in each of these countries there’s a slightly different English spoken. 

[00:17:15] I’m not just talking about accents, but different words, expressions, ways of saying things. Yes, we might all be able to understand each other, and we are all technically speaking the same language, but the beauty of English is its adaptability, its willingness to change, to absorb new words as time goes on.

[00:17:39] The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the bible of the English language, publishes a list of new words every year, and every year when this list comes out there are letters in to newspapers lamenting the decline of the language, saying how we need to preserve this beautiful language and that it is ridiculous that we accept any new word just because it has become mildly popular.

[00:18:07] But, I would argue that one of the main reasons that English has become so popular, and gone from a language spoken by a few thousand people on a small, wet island in Northern Europe through to the world’s de facto second language is precisely because of its willingness to adapt, to evolve in order to survive.

[00:18:30] So, to return to our original analogy of the soup, we now have this huge pot, or perhaps a series of different large pots cooking away in different countries all over the world. 

[00:18:42] And the beautiful thing is that we are all cooks, or should I say chefs, and that almost every ingredient we add makes the soup richer, more delicious, and able to be enjoyed by even more people from all over the world.

[00:19:00] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The History of The English Language.

[00:19:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:11] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:14] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:24] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:19:42] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:47] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a memberUpgrade to Learner membership
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about where the English language comes from.

[00:00:29] Now, you might think the answer is obvious, England, but it is a lot more complicated–and indeed more interesting–than that.

[00:00:39] English is a strange mix of different languages, and for the past almost two millennia it has been in a constant state of change, taking words and influences from all sorts of other languages to create the strange language that I am speaking today.

[00:00:57] It goes without saying that this is a subject that is super interesting to me, with my linguist’s hat on, and should also be a fun one for you, as an English learner. 

[00:01:09] So I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:01:11] Before we get right into that though, I first want to want to thank my father, who is an English teacher, and was a huge help in writing this episode. So, thanks dad.

[00:01:23] And my second administrative point is to remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:40] For those of you who aren’t yet members of Leonardo English, I’d definitely recommend checking out our membership. It gives you access to all of the bonus episodes, so I think that’s almost 50 hours in total, plus our live sessions, learning materials, and more.

[00:01:57] So if that's of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:06] OK then, English.

[00:02:09] You’ve no doubt heard all sorts of statistics about how many people speak English. 

[00:02:15] If you Google it, you’ll find the Internet telling you that something like 1.3 billion people speak English. 

[00:02:23] Then digging down deeper, you’ll find that, of those, around 360 million people are native speakers of English, that they were brought up speaking English.

[00:02:36] And as I imagine we both know, English is the most commonly studied second language in the world, with a supposed 1.5 billion people learning it. 

[00:02:48] Now, the definition of ‘learning’ here is quite loose, and not all of these 1.5 billion people are diligent students like you are, but the point is that there can be little doubt that English has come to be the world’s dominant language by a significant margin

[00:03:08] For all of the newspaper headlines about how Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic might be the languages of the future, none of these languages have anywhere near the global attractiveness of English.

[00:03:23] English has come to be the world’s lingua franca. Jobs, universities, life has all started to require English in a way that it didn’t even 20 years ago.

[00:03:36] But of course you know this, because you are listening to a podcast in English.

[00:03:41] What is a lot more interesting than me spouting off statistics about how important English has become is to actually learn about the history of the language, and to ask ourselves how it developed over the years, and how it reached this position of global dominance.

[00:04:00] So, let’s do that.

[00:04:02] One of the main reasons why English has become such a dominant language is its adaptability, and its ability to constantly absorb words from other languages.

[00:04:15] You see, despite what your English teacher might have told you, English is a language that is completely unconcerned with purity

[00:04:25] It has developed over the years precisely because of its ability to become less and less pure, because of its ability to breed with other languages and grow stronger and stronger.

[00:04:38] There are two analogies that I think are useful here, when thinking about English.

[00:04:45] The first is of a mongrel, which is what you get when two dogs of different breeds have a puppy. It’s impure, in the sense that it will be a mix of the two, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

[00:05:02] English is in many respects, a mongrel language.

[00:05:07] And our second analogy is of a big pot, a big saucepan, that you use to cook soup in.

[00:05:15] If you are cooking a soup, you might start with a base of something, but you keep the pot cooking over time, and add more and more ingredients. 

[00:05:26] The flavour develops, and as you add more and more ingredients, perhaps even exotic ingredients like spices, the soup develops a more and more unique flavour. 

[00:05:39] This is perhaps the best way to think about English, as a soup that has been cooking for almost two millennia, where the cook is happy to add almost any ingredient he is presented with, and the result is this complicated but rich language soup.

[00:05:58] So, keeping with our soup analogy, the base for English comes from three tribes - the Saxons, the Jutes, and the Angles. These tribes originally weren’t British, or at least they didn’t come from Britain - they came from continental Europe, the areas around modern day Denmark and northern Germany.

[00:06:24] It’s the last of these three tribes, the Angles, who gave English its name, and the base of our English soup comes from the language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons, Anglo-Saxon. 

[00:06:38] You might have heard this referred to as Old English.

[00:06:43] These tribes came to Britain after the Romans left in the middle of the fifth century, and the language they spoke is the base for English.

[00:06:54] Now, if you or I heard someone speaking Anglo-Saxon now, would we understand them?

[00:07:02] Probably not.

[00:07:03] The vast majority of Anglo-Saxon words have died out, they have disappeared from modern day English, but the words that have survived are words that you certainly will know.

[00:07:17] Love, big, green, ship, kind, wife, these are all examples of words that come from Anglo-Saxon.

[00:07:27] As a general rule, and of course there are thousands of exceptions to this, English words that come from Anglo-Saxon are usually short, without many syllables

[00:07:39] Indeed, words with Anglo-Saxon origins are some of the most common words in the English language, accounting for around 70% of the English that you will hear in normal, day-to-day speech.

[00:07:54] That’s not to say someone who only spoke Anglo-Saxon could listen to this podcast and understand 70% of what I was saying - these words have been adapted since then, but they have roots in Anglo-Saxon.

[00:08:08] And a tip for you is to use short, Anglo-Saxon words whenever you can.

[00:08:16] I can’t take any credit for this tip, it actually comes from Winston Churchill, probably the most famous orator in the English language.

[00:08:26] He famously said that “Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.” 

[00:08:34] So, when in doubt, use short words. 

[00:08:38] I know this might sound uncomfortable for native speakers of certain languages, where using longer, more complicated vocabulary is considered better, but in English it isn’t. 

[00:08:52] So, we have our base for English soup, but what next? We’ve only got to the 5th century AD, and the soup has only started bubbling.

[00:09:03] The next big event in the English language was the invasion by the Vikings, in the 8th Century AD. For those of you that want to learn more about that, Episode 96 is the one for you.

[00:09:17] Anyway, the Vikings came mainly from modern day Scandinavia, and settled in the north and middle of England. 

[00:09:26] Aside from terrorising the local population, they left a linguistic mark on the English language, and words such as husband, sky, and skull come from the Norse languages spoken by the Vikings. 

[00:09:41] Fast forward around 300 years and we have the next big addition to our English soup, and that was the invasion by the Norman French, by William The Conqueror in 1066. 

[00:09:55] Now, these Normans were, technically, Vikings themselves, they had settled in Northern France about 200 years earlier, but they spoke Norman French, a language similar to the French that is spoken in France today.

[00:10:12] As is often the case with invaders, they didn’t make much attempt to speak the local language, which was at that time a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Norse–we can't really call it English yet–and instead Norman French was the language of courts, and the language of administration.

[00:10:32] And it continued like this for several hundred years. 

[00:10:36] In fact, it wasn’t until the year 1415, after the English victory over the French at Agincourt, that English started to become the official language, and indeed the letter sent back to England telling the news of the unexpected victory was one of the first official ones to be written in English.

[00:10:59] But, the switch wasn’t immediate, and Norman French left a large impact on the local language. 

[00:11:07] This is especially the case for words that describe law and government - the laws and administration were all in Norman French, and thus even when the language switched to English, Norman French words remained.

[00:11:25] So, if you think of words like justice, which is ‘justice’ in French, traitor, which is ‘traitre’ in French, sovereign, which is ‘souverain’ in French, and parliament, ‘parliament’ in French. 

[00:11:40] French also brought new, interesting, inventions to English, such as different words for animals and their meat.

[00:11:50] To give you an example, you have a cow when it’s alive, or beef when it’s on a plate. Sheep when it’s in a field, and mutton when it’s on a plate. And a pig becomes pork when you eat it.

[00:12:05] These are all French borrowings, they are words from French, before this English didn’t have these extra words to describe the different states of an animal.

[00:12:17] And words taken from the French tended to be considered more fancy, more important.

[00:12:25] So the Anglo-Saxon ‘cook’ has an alternative of ‘chef’, which sounds a lot more fancy.

[00:12:33] And, like with cook and chef, in many cases, English doesn’t replace the previous words with the French ones - the French ones just take on a slightly different, often superior, meaning.

[00:12:49] This is one of the reasons why English is so rich in synonyms, why there are so many different ways of saying the same thing.

[00:12:59] To give you another example of this, let’s take a look at different ways that you can say ‘smell’.

[00:13:07] You can say stink, pong, whiff, perfume, fragrance, scent, essence, bouquet and aroma.

[00:13:16] Now, the first three on that list, stink, pong, whiff, all now have slightly negative connotations, you might walk into a rubbish dump and say ‘it stinks’. These three all come from Anglo-Saxon.

[00:13:31] The remaining ones come from French, and all have positive connotations, when you think of fragrance, perfume, or a bouquet, this is more likely to be associated with the smell of flowers or something nicer than a rotting fish.

[00:13:50] And it’s through French’s origins as a Romance language that most of our Latin words are added to English. 

[00:13:59] One question you might have is, well, if the Romans conquered Britain, why isn’t English more similar to Latin? The Romans did leave some linguistic influences on English, but most Latin words were actually added to English well after the Romans had departed.

[00:14:18] Latin was the language of the church, and thus a lot of the English words that come from Latin are religious - candle, pope, school, and so on. 

[00:14:33] But although many words in English do have Latin roots, these are mostly words that have come from the French, which is of course a Latin-based language.

[00:14:45] And then it comes to words that are invented by innovative Brits themselves - English isn’t only a language of thieves, we also create a lot of our own words.

[00:14:56] The most famous of these creators of words is, of course, William Shakespeare.

[00:15:02] Shakespeare is thought to have invented about 1,700 words, many of which are in common use today, from bedroom to kissing, critic to eyeball, Shakespeare is without a doubt the most prolific individual contributor to the English language. 

[00:15:22] So, when people say that English is the language of Shakespeare, it really is.

[00:15:28] And as the British started to venture further afield, to colonise large parts of the world, they brought language back to Britain. 

[00:15:37] Words like pyjama and chutney come from India, safari from the Arabic, and ketchup from Hokkien, a language spoken in modern day south-east China.

[00:15:50] Now, borrowing words from other languages isn’t unique to English, almost every language does it, but it’s the extent to which English takes words from other languages and makes them an important part of English that separates English from most other languages, and adds to its richness.

[00:16:10] You might be surprised that we’ve got so far in the history of the English language without mentioning the place with the most native English speakers in the world, the United States of America. 

[00:16:22] The centre of the English language now isn’t the small island where it first developed, but the world’s most powerful country, across the Atlantic Ocean. 

[00:16:32] And although we can spend hours talking about the linguistic reasons that English has been such a successful language, the main reason is that it’s the most commonly spoken language in the US. 

[00:16:46] Note, I didn't say the official language because it’s not actually the official language, you might find that surprising. The US doesn’t have an official language, although English is of course the most common language, and de facto national language.

[00:17:02] And now, there are 55 countries that have English as an official language, from the United Kingdom to Malta, Pakistan to the Philippines, and in each of these countries there’s a slightly different English spoken. 

[00:17:15] I’m not just talking about accents, but different words, expressions, ways of saying things. Yes, we might all be able to understand each other, and we are all technically speaking the same language, but the beauty of English is its adaptability, its willingness to change, to absorb new words as time goes on.

[00:17:39] The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the bible of the English language, publishes a list of new words every year, and every year when this list comes out there are letters in to newspapers lamenting the decline of the language, saying how we need to preserve this beautiful language and that it is ridiculous that we accept any new word just because it has become mildly popular.

[00:18:07] But, I would argue that one of the main reasons that English has become so popular, and gone from a language spoken by a few thousand people on a small, wet island in Northern Europe through to the world’s de facto second language is precisely because of its willingness to adapt, to evolve in order to survive.

[00:18:30] So, to return to our original analogy of the soup, we now have this huge pot, or perhaps a series of different large pots cooking away in different countries all over the world. 

[00:18:42] And the beautiful thing is that we are all cooks, or should I say chefs, and that almost every ingredient we add makes the soup richer, more delicious, and able to be enjoyed by even more people from all over the world.

[00:19:00] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The History of The English Language.

[00:19:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:11] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:14] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:24] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:19:42] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:47] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about where the English language comes from.

[00:00:29] Now, you might think the answer is obvious, England, but it is a lot more complicated–and indeed more interesting–than that.

[00:00:39] English is a strange mix of different languages, and for the past almost two millennia it has been in a constant state of change, taking words and influences from all sorts of other languages to create the strange language that I am speaking today.

[00:00:57] It goes without saying that this is a subject that is super interesting to me, with my linguist’s hat on, and should also be a fun one for you, as an English learner. 

[00:01:09] So I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:01:11] Before we get right into that though, I first want to want to thank my father, who is an English teacher, and was a huge help in writing this episode. So, thanks dad.

[00:01:23] And my second administrative point is to remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:40] For those of you who aren’t yet members of Leonardo English, I’d definitely recommend checking out our membership. It gives you access to all of the bonus episodes, so I think that’s almost 50 hours in total, plus our live sessions, learning materials, and more.

[00:01:57] So if that's of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:06] OK then, English.

[00:02:09] You’ve no doubt heard all sorts of statistics about how many people speak English. 

[00:02:15] If you Google it, you’ll find the Internet telling you that something like 1.3 billion people speak English. 

[00:02:23] Then digging down deeper, you’ll find that, of those, around 360 million people are native speakers of English, that they were brought up speaking English.

[00:02:36] And as I imagine we both know, English is the most commonly studied second language in the world, with a supposed 1.5 billion people learning it. 

[00:02:48] Now, the definition of ‘learning’ here is quite loose, and not all of these 1.5 billion people are diligent students like you are, but the point is that there can be little doubt that English has come to be the world’s dominant language by a significant margin

[00:03:08] For all of the newspaper headlines about how Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic might be the languages of the future, none of these languages have anywhere near the global attractiveness of English.

[00:03:23] English has come to be the world’s lingua franca. Jobs, universities, life has all started to require English in a way that it didn’t even 20 years ago.

[00:03:36] But of course you know this, because you are listening to a podcast in English.

[00:03:41] What is a lot more interesting than me spouting off statistics about how important English has become is to actually learn about the history of the language, and to ask ourselves how it developed over the years, and how it reached this position of global dominance.

[00:04:00] So, let’s do that.

[00:04:02] One of the main reasons why English has become such a dominant language is its adaptability, and its ability to constantly absorb words from other languages.

[00:04:15] You see, despite what your English teacher might have told you, English is a language that is completely unconcerned with purity

[00:04:25] It has developed over the years precisely because of its ability to become less and less pure, because of its ability to breed with other languages and grow stronger and stronger.

[00:04:38] There are two analogies that I think are useful here, when thinking about English.

[00:04:45] The first is of a mongrel, which is what you get when two dogs of different breeds have a puppy. It’s impure, in the sense that it will be a mix of the two, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

[00:05:02] English is in many respects, a mongrel language.

[00:05:07] And our second analogy is of a big pot, a big saucepan, that you use to cook soup in.

[00:05:15] If you are cooking a soup, you might start with a base of something, but you keep the pot cooking over time, and add more and more ingredients. 

[00:05:26] The flavour develops, and as you add more and more ingredients, perhaps even exotic ingredients like spices, the soup develops a more and more unique flavour. 

[00:05:39] This is perhaps the best way to think about English, as a soup that has been cooking for almost two millennia, where the cook is happy to add almost any ingredient he is presented with, and the result is this complicated but rich language soup.

[00:05:58] So, keeping with our soup analogy, the base for English comes from three tribes - the Saxons, the Jutes, and the Angles. These tribes originally weren’t British, or at least they didn’t come from Britain - they came from continental Europe, the areas around modern day Denmark and northern Germany.

[00:06:24] It’s the last of these three tribes, the Angles, who gave English its name, and the base of our English soup comes from the language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons, Anglo-Saxon. 

[00:06:38] You might have heard this referred to as Old English.

[00:06:43] These tribes came to Britain after the Romans left in the middle of the fifth century, and the language they spoke is the base for English.

[00:06:54] Now, if you or I heard someone speaking Anglo-Saxon now, would we understand them?

[00:07:02] Probably not.

[00:07:03] The vast majority of Anglo-Saxon words have died out, they have disappeared from modern day English, but the words that have survived are words that you certainly will know.

[00:07:17] Love, big, green, ship, kind, wife, these are all examples of words that come from Anglo-Saxon.

[00:07:27] As a general rule, and of course there are thousands of exceptions to this, English words that come from Anglo-Saxon are usually short, without many syllables

[00:07:39] Indeed, words with Anglo-Saxon origins are some of the most common words in the English language, accounting for around 70% of the English that you will hear in normal, day-to-day speech.

[00:07:54] That’s not to say someone who only spoke Anglo-Saxon could listen to this podcast and understand 70% of what I was saying - these words have been adapted since then, but they have roots in Anglo-Saxon.

[00:08:08] And a tip for you is to use short, Anglo-Saxon words whenever you can.

[00:08:16] I can’t take any credit for this tip, it actually comes from Winston Churchill, probably the most famous orator in the English language.

[00:08:26] He famously said that “Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.” 

[00:08:34] So, when in doubt, use short words. 

[00:08:38] I know this might sound uncomfortable for native speakers of certain languages, where using longer, more complicated vocabulary is considered better, but in English it isn’t. 

[00:08:52] So, we have our base for English soup, but what next? We’ve only got to the 5th century AD, and the soup has only started bubbling.

[00:09:03] The next big event in the English language was the invasion by the Vikings, in the 8th Century AD. For those of you that want to learn more about that, Episode 96 is the one for you.

[00:09:17] Anyway, the Vikings came mainly from modern day Scandinavia, and settled in the north and middle of England. 

[00:09:26] Aside from terrorising the local population, they left a linguistic mark on the English language, and words such as husband, sky, and skull come from the Norse languages spoken by the Vikings. 

[00:09:41] Fast forward around 300 years and we have the next big addition to our English soup, and that was the invasion by the Norman French, by William The Conqueror in 1066. 

[00:09:55] Now, these Normans were, technically, Vikings themselves, they had settled in Northern France about 200 years earlier, but they spoke Norman French, a language similar to the French that is spoken in France today.

[00:10:12] As is often the case with invaders, they didn’t make much attempt to speak the local language, which was at that time a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Norse–we can't really call it English yet–and instead Norman French was the language of courts, and the language of administration.

[00:10:32] And it continued like this for several hundred years. 

[00:10:36] In fact, it wasn’t until the year 1415, after the English victory over the French at Agincourt, that English started to become the official language, and indeed the letter sent back to England telling the news of the unexpected victory was one of the first official ones to be written in English.

[00:10:59] But, the switch wasn’t immediate, and Norman French left a large impact on the local language. 

[00:11:07] This is especially the case for words that describe law and government - the laws and administration were all in Norman French, and thus even when the language switched to English, Norman French words remained.

[00:11:25] So, if you think of words like justice, which is ‘justice’ in French, traitor, which is ‘traitre’ in French, sovereign, which is ‘souverain’ in French, and parliament, ‘parliament’ in French. 

[00:11:40] French also brought new, interesting, inventions to English, such as different words for animals and their meat.

[00:11:50] To give you an example, you have a cow when it’s alive, or beef when it’s on a plate. Sheep when it’s in a field, and mutton when it’s on a plate. And a pig becomes pork when you eat it.

[00:12:05] These are all French borrowings, they are words from French, before this English didn’t have these extra words to describe the different states of an animal.

[00:12:17] And words taken from the French tended to be considered more fancy, more important.

[00:12:25] So the Anglo-Saxon ‘cook’ has an alternative of ‘chef’, which sounds a lot more fancy.

[00:12:33] And, like with cook and chef, in many cases, English doesn’t replace the previous words with the French ones - the French ones just take on a slightly different, often superior, meaning.

[00:12:49] This is one of the reasons why English is so rich in synonyms, why there are so many different ways of saying the same thing.

[00:12:59] To give you another example of this, let’s take a look at different ways that you can say ‘smell’.

[00:13:07] You can say stink, pong, whiff, perfume, fragrance, scent, essence, bouquet and aroma.

[00:13:16] Now, the first three on that list, stink, pong, whiff, all now have slightly negative connotations, you might walk into a rubbish dump and say ‘it stinks’. These three all come from Anglo-Saxon.

[00:13:31] The remaining ones come from French, and all have positive connotations, when you think of fragrance, perfume, or a bouquet, this is more likely to be associated with the smell of flowers or something nicer than a rotting fish.

[00:13:50] And it’s through French’s origins as a Romance language that most of our Latin words are added to English. 

[00:13:59] One question you might have is, well, if the Romans conquered Britain, why isn’t English more similar to Latin? The Romans did leave some linguistic influences on English, but most Latin words were actually added to English well after the Romans had departed.

[00:14:18] Latin was the language of the church, and thus a lot of the English words that come from Latin are religious - candle, pope, school, and so on. 

[00:14:33] But although many words in English do have Latin roots, these are mostly words that have come from the French, which is of course a Latin-based language.

[00:14:45] And then it comes to words that are invented by innovative Brits themselves - English isn’t only a language of thieves, we also create a lot of our own words.

[00:14:56] The most famous of these creators of words is, of course, William Shakespeare.

[00:15:02] Shakespeare is thought to have invented about 1,700 words, many of which are in common use today, from bedroom to kissing, critic to eyeball, Shakespeare is without a doubt the most prolific individual contributor to the English language. 

[00:15:22] So, when people say that English is the language of Shakespeare, it really is.

[00:15:28] And as the British started to venture further afield, to colonise large parts of the world, they brought language back to Britain. 

[00:15:37] Words like pyjama and chutney come from India, safari from the Arabic, and ketchup from Hokkien, a language spoken in modern day south-east China.

[00:15:50] Now, borrowing words from other languages isn’t unique to English, almost every language does it, but it’s the extent to which English takes words from other languages and makes them an important part of English that separates English from most other languages, and adds to its richness.

[00:16:10] You might be surprised that we’ve got so far in the history of the English language without mentioning the place with the most native English speakers in the world, the United States of America. 

[00:16:22] The centre of the English language now isn’t the small island where it first developed, but the world’s most powerful country, across the Atlantic Ocean. 

[00:16:32] And although we can spend hours talking about the linguistic reasons that English has been such a successful language, the main reason is that it’s the most commonly spoken language in the US. 

[00:16:46] Note, I didn't say the official language because it’s not actually the official language, you might find that surprising. The US doesn’t have an official language, although English is of course the most common language, and de facto national language.

[00:17:02] And now, there are 55 countries that have English as an official language, from the United Kingdom to Malta, Pakistan to the Philippines, and in each of these countries there’s a slightly different English spoken. 

[00:17:15] I’m not just talking about accents, but different words, expressions, ways of saying things. Yes, we might all be able to understand each other, and we are all technically speaking the same language, but the beauty of English is its adaptability, its willingness to change, to absorb new words as time goes on.

[00:17:39] The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the bible of the English language, publishes a list of new words every year, and every year when this list comes out there are letters in to newspapers lamenting the decline of the language, saying how we need to preserve this beautiful language and that it is ridiculous that we accept any new word just because it has become mildly popular.

[00:18:07] But, I would argue that one of the main reasons that English has become so popular, and gone from a language spoken by a few thousand people on a small, wet island in Northern Europe through to the world’s de facto second language is precisely because of its willingness to adapt, to evolve in order to survive.

[00:18:30] So, to return to our original analogy of the soup, we now have this huge pot, or perhaps a series of different large pots cooking away in different countries all over the world. 

[00:18:42] And the beautiful thing is that we are all cooks, or should I say chefs, and that almost every ingredient we add makes the soup richer, more delicious, and able to be enjoyed by even more people from all over the world.

[00:19:00] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The History of The English Language.

[00:19:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:11] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:14] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:24] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:19:42] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:47] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]