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.”
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.