Where Did the English Language Come From?: An Animated Introduction

If you’ve ever delib­er­ate­ly stud­ied the Eng­lish lan­guage — or, even worse, taught it — you know that bot­tom­less aggra­va­tion awaits any­one fool­ish enough to try to explain its “rules.” What makes Eng­lish so appar­ent­ly strange and dif­fer­ent from oth­er lan­guages, and how could such a lan­guage go on to get so much trac­tion all over the world? Whether you speak Eng­lish native­ly (and thus haven’t had much occa­sion to give the mat­ter thought) or learned it as a sec­ond lan­guage, the five-minute TED-Ed les­son above, writ­ten by Yale lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor Claire Bow­ern and ani­mat­ed by Patrick Smith, will give you a sol­id start on under­stand­ing the answer to those ques­tions and oth­ers.

“When we talk about ‘Eng­lish,’ we often think of it as a sin­gle lan­guage,” says the lesson’s nar­ra­tor, “but what do the dialects spo­ken in dozens of coun­tries around the world have in com­mon with each oth­er, or with the writ­ings of Chaucer? And how are any of them relat­ed to the strange words in Beowulf?”

The answer involves Eng­lish’s dis­tinc­tive evo­lu­tion­ary path through gen­er­a­tions and gen­er­a­tions of speak­ers, expand­ing and chang­ing all the while. Along the way, it’s picked up words from Latin-derived Romance lan­guages like French and Span­ish, a process that began with the Nor­man inva­sion of Eng­land in 1066. So also emerged Old Eng­lish, a mem­ber of — you guessed it — the Ger­man­ic lan­guage fam­i­ly, one brought to the British isles in the fifth and sixth cen­turies. Then, of course, you’ve got the Viking invaders bring­ing in their Old Norse from the eighth to the eleventh cen­turies.

Eng­lish thus came to its char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly rich (and often con­fus­ing) mix­ture of words drawn from all over the place quite some time ago, leav­ing mod­ern lin­guists to per­form the qua­si-archae­o­log­i­cal task of trac­ing each word back to its ori­gins through its sound and usage. Go far enough and you get to the tongues we call “Pro­to-Ger­man­ic,” spo­ken cir­ca 500 BC, and “Pro­to-Indo-Euro­pean,” which had its hey­day six mil­len­nia ago in mod­ern-day Ukraine and Rus­sia. Eng­lish now often gets labeled, right­ly or wrong­ly, a “glob­al lan­guage,” but a look into its com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry — and thus the his­to­ry of all Euro­pean lan­guages — reveals some­thing more impres­sive: “Near­ly three bil­lion peo­ple around the world, many of whom can­not under­stand each oth­er, are nev­er­the­less speak­ing the same words, shaped by 6,000 years of his­to­ry.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Eng­lish Lessons

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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