The Making of English

Is there evidence of how and where the languages of Europe began?

There is no conclusive understanding of where, and how, language as an identifiable form of communication began. This is not surprising, bearing in mind that language is transient, carried either by oral or scribed units of meaning with minimal evidence of the latter and none of the former.  Research into its history is based on tracing observable connections from the earliest scribed fragments available, with evidence suggesting that language in Europe probably began in the ‘Steppe cultures’, now Moldovan and Ukrainian, to the north of the Black Sea.

This early scribed form is thought to have radiated into today’s continents of Europe and Asia and is referred to as the ‘Proto Indo European’ or ‘Indo European’ language family.  From this migration beginning around 5000 BCE and probably travelling along important trade routes, the parent language began to split into several main groups.

These were to develop into the main Indian, Iranian, and European languages recognised today, the great grandchildren, some many times removed, of the Indo-European language that migrated across land and sea thousands of years ago.

The English Language –
its place in the world

For reasons as divided as the ‘otherness’ of colonialism and the ‘togetherness’ of international communication, the English language ranks highest, at 15%, among the most spoken languages globally, closely followed by Mandarin Chinese, and then Hindi, Spanish, and French. However, the view is very different from the perspective of native speakers: Mandarin Chinese, followed by Spanish, then English, Hindi, and Bengali.

‘English’ is not even an accurate descriptor of the language, and even less so for the people who could be considered ‘first-language speakers’, who inhabit the British Isles/Britain/United Kingdom. Yes, all three are used to indicate the group of islands North-West of Continental Europe. To the justified fury of people living in Wales, their country is not ‘part of England’, but rather England is one of four nations, not a synonym for Britain. Secondly, English is not the only ‘first language’ of indigenous peoples of the UK, with Welsh and Scottish Gaelic recognised by statute; Irish and Ulster Scots (Northern Ireland), Scots and Scottish Gaelic (Scotland), Cornish (Cornwall), and Welsh (Wales) are also established as minority languages.

The English Language –
what is it and how did it get to Britain?

Despite having so many recognisably French origin words English, is a ‘Germanic’ rather than a ‘Romance’ language although breaking down its history reveals very many influences over centuries.

Time-frame (approx.)Languages introducedInfluences
from 600 BCECeltic split from Indo-European language familytrade across Europe
55/54 to 410Latin (official), administration, commerce, education; Latin found in east and central BritainRoman invasion and settlement
450 to 1150Anglo-Saxon, aka ‘Old English’, an Anglo-Frisian split from Germanic group, in east and westward; influence of Germanic language of Jute in Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Isle of WightAngle, Saxon, and Jute invasion and settlement
C8th – C11thNorse-Gael developed (?) into Irish, Scottish, Manx GaelicNorse invasions
1066  Norman French (at court), and Old English written and spoken in most of present-day England. Celtic dominant to west (Brythonic in Cornwall & Wales), and north (Goidelic in Scotland & Ireland)Norman invasion and settlement; descendants of indigenous Britons migrated west and north
1100 to 1500Middle English – Norman used for creative arts and literature as well as officially for law, religion, politics, education
1500 to 1700Early Modern English – English gained acceptance as a language of authority and importance; addition of Latin and Greek to describe new knowledge, e.g., in scienceprinting; translation of classical literature; exploration
1700 – presentModern English – addition of vocabulary from the rich languages of India, North Africa, the Americas, the Far East, as well as new inventions in language to match the breakthroughs in technology and engineeringtravel; trade; discovery; innovation

Having researched the development of English from various sources, most readily available online, the differences in information, including on maps, is surprising. I have tried to maintain a centre path by including only such detail that is evidenced from a variety of published material.

My thought at this point is ‘Why is there any debate about whether English is more German than French?’ and ‘How can the ‘experts’ decide that English uses more French/Latin words based on numbers of words in the lexicon?’

Firstly, both the Germanic and the Romance languages split directly from the Indo-European family. If there is the evidence that both sprang from the same ‘parent’, there must be strong similarities between the two that could also be found in English. Secondly, it is the body of common usage words reflecting life’s basic concerns that are most relevant to determining a language’s origins. This is the vocabulary of family, shelter, landscape, livelihood.

mother, father, brother, daughtermutter, vater, bruder, tochtermere, pere, frere, fille
house, bed, fire, carthaus, bett, feuer, wagenmaison, lit, feu, chariot
hill, water, land, woodhugel, wasser, land, waldcolline, l’eau, terre, bois
sheep, cow, horse, houndschaf, kuh, pferd, hundmouton, vache, cheval, chien

Comparing the German and French with the sixteen basic English words there are more clear similarities between the English and German. Of the others, ‘wagen’ relates to the English wagon rather than cart, while of the French vocabulary ‘feu’ is closer to the German ‘feuer’ than either is to the English fire.

My original interest in the languages of Britain began years ago when I first noticed the similarities between Welsh (Cymraeg) and Cornish (Kernow). I did some preliminary research at the time, then filed it away until a few days ago when I was inspired to find out more. Why? A terrific post on the Romans in Britain on Dr B’s new site ‘All States of Being’ ( ) prompted a comment from one of his readers about the provenance of English. This is the result. And I still want to complete my piece on the Celtic languages. But that’s for another day.

Main References

OpenLearn, (The Open University free learning): ‘From old English to modern English’ by Marisa Lohr
The Archaeology of English, Martyn Wakelin
Encyclopaedia Britannica entries on Middle- and Early Modern- English
Google Translate
Wikipedia entries on early invasions and the development of language