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The development of English

English is spoken by over a billion people around the world: in other words, by more than a quarter of the world’s population. It is spoken as a mother tongue in the UK, in former colonies such as Australia and New Zealand, and of course, by the vast majority of the North American population. It is a second or official language in most of the former Empire, for example, Ghana and Singapore, and of course, it is studied as a foreign language all over the world, but particularly in Europe now. This has made it a truly international language: it is the language of shipping and aviation, of science and technology, and of commerce. But how did the language spoken by the population of a small island in the Northern Hemisphere reach such widespread use? Let’s start from the beginning.

English has not always been the language of the British Isles: until the fifth century AD the British Isles were populated by a race called the Celts, whose language lives on in Celtic languages such as Gaelic and Welsh, the former being spoken in Scotland and the latter in Wales. In 449 AD the British Isles were invaded by warlike Germanic tribes from the coast of what is now north Germany and Denmark. One of these tribes – the Angles – gave their name to the language that was to become English. During the next 150 years these warriors drove the Celts to the western and northern extremities of the islands and settled in the area now known as England. For nearly three hundred years their language spread and became the vernacular.

Between 750 and 1050 AD the Vikings, from present-day Norway, colonized the north of England; while it is difficult to evaluate the effort of Norse on Old English because of the similarity of the languages, certain traces remain, such as place names ending in –wick, and words starting with sk-, such as sky. The Norman invasion of 1066 changed the course of the English language by bringing to England both Norman French and Latin, thus dividing the country linguistically between the educated classes with French or Latin at their disposal and the common people with only English. As a result of this linguistic mix, English has become a language with a huge vocabulary full of nuances, often with three or four ways of expressing the same idea, as in rise/mount/ascend or time/age/epoch.


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