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History of the English Language


English is a Germanic language of the Indo-European language family. Indo-European languages are spoken throughout most of Europe, other regions that have been settled by Europeans, and in many areas of Southwest Asia. Indo-European languages make up the linguistic family that has the broadest geographic distribution.

All Indo-European languages descend from a single unrecorded language. The latter is believed to have been used thousands of years ago by a relatively small number of cattle-raising primitive nomads in the regions of the steppes north of the Black Sea. It is believed that this Proto-Indo-European language evolved into a number of dialects around 3000 B.C. as the nomads began to migrate from east-central Europe. As time passed, these dialects became separate languages. Scholars group these languages into eastern or western branches. The eastern branches are Anatolian and Indo-Iranian. The former includes Hittite. The latter includes Sanskrit, Avestan, Hindi and Persian). The four main western branches of Indo-European are:

  • Greek; both ancient and modern, and dialects.
  • Italic, including Latin and the Romance languages. The latter include French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Catalan, and Romansh.
  • Germanic, consisting of Afrikaans, Dutch, English, Flemish, Frisian, German, Gothic, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, and local dialects.
  • Celtic, including Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton.

The roots of the English language lie in the migration of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons during the fifth and sixth centuries to what is now called Great Britain. They came from northern Germany, Holland, and Denmark. The establishment of separate kingdoms corresponds approximately to the growth of the Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish - the Old English dialects. Northumbrian was the culturally superior language until this mantle passed during the ninth century to Wessex, the West Saxon kingdom.

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the four Old English dialects were permitted to develop independently. No longer was the West Saxon language superior. Instead, the center of culture began to shift to London. During this Middle English period, the Mercian language split into East and West Midland and the Northumbrian language broke into Scottish and Northern.

The Norman Conquest also brought about spelling changes and the Carolingian script, which was being used on the Continent. Following the Conquest, many words were borrowed from northwestern France. Later, as English exerted control over southwestern France during the reign of Henry II, that region made contributions to the English language. With the French conquest of Normandy in 1204, the influence of the northern dialects on English was lessened. .

Scholars generally consider the beginning of the fifteenth century to be when the transition to Modern English began. Three important factors contributed to this. They were the emergence of London English, the invention of printing, and the dissemination of learning.

One effect of the Renaissance was the emergence of many scholars in England, who had a knowledge of foreign languages. This led to the adoption of many foreign words, particularly from Greek and Latin.

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there were several attempts to found an academy that would standardize the English language. However, these attempts failed. Nevertheless, several works on grammar were published during the eighteenth century, which helped to bring greater uniformity to the English language. Fixed spellings were adopted during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although some changes have been incorporated subsequently. During more recent times, there have been several attempts to reform English language spelling.

As a colonial power, England carried its language throughout the world to North America, Africa, India, Australia, and Southeast Asia. English became entrenched as the primary language in the British Isles, North America, and Australia, and as a second language in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia.

At present, English is the most commonly spoken second language in the world. It is the language that is most widely studied in areas where it is not native. English is the chief foreign language taught in Latin America and European schools. It is the official language of business of the European Community. In China, children begin to study English in the sixth grade, and only slightly later in Japan. English is an official language of India. It appears on highway signs in Israel and China. Overall, English is second only to Chinese in the numbers of persons who speak it.

In addition, English is used widely in international trade, scientific research, and international scholarship. A majority of scientific and technical journals, and newspapers, are published in English. Similarly, English accounts for a majority of the world's mail and radio broadcasts. As young English speakers have known for decades, it is possible to travel around the world today without using another language.

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