English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Old Saxon language brought to Britain by Germanic settlers from various parts of northwest Germany. The original Old English language was subsequently influenced by two successive waves of invasion. The first was by speakers of languages in the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic family, who colonised parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries. The second wave was of the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke a variety of French. These two invasions caused English to become „creolised“ to some degree (though it was never a full creole in the linguistic sense of the word); creolisation arises from the cohabitation of speakers of different languages, who develop a hybrid tongue for basic communication. Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Friesian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance branch of European languages; this new layer entered English through use in the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a „borrowing“ language of considerable suppleness and huge vocabulary.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern, King of the British Isles, invited the „Angle kin“ (Angles led by Hengest and Horsa) to help him against the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast. Further aid was sought, and in response „came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum“ (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes). The Chronicle talks of a subsequent influx of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. Modern scholarship considers most of this story to be legendary and politically motivated.
These Germanic invaders dominated the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants, whose languages survived largely in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. The dialects spoken by the invaders formed what would be called Old English, which resembled some coastal dialects in what are now the Netherlands and northwest Germany. Later, it was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Norse, spoken by the Vikings who settled mainly in the north-east (see Jorvik). The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distant, including the prefixes, suffixes and inflections of many of their words. The Germanic language of these Old English inhabitants of Britain would be partly creolised by the contact with Norse invaders. This resulted in a stripping away of much of the grammar of Old English, including gender and case, with the notable exception of the pronouns; thus, the language became simpler and plainer. The most famous work from the Old English period is the epic poem „Beowulf“, by an unknown poet.
For the 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and the high nobility spoke only a variety of French. A large number of Norman words were assimilated into Old English, with some words doubling for Old English words (for instance, ox/beef, sheep/mutton). The Norman influence reinforced the continual evolution of the language over the following centuries, resulting in what is now referred to as Middle English. Among the changes was a broadening in the use of a unique aspect of English grammar, the „continuous“ tenses, with the suffix „-ing“. During the 15th century, the Great Vowel Shift, the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration, and the standardising effect of printing transformed Middle English. Modern English can be traced back to around the time of William Shakespeare. The most well known work from the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Classification and related languages
The English language belongs to the western subbranch of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest living relative of English is Scots (Lallans), a West Germanic language spoken mostly in Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland. Like English, Scots is a direct descendant of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon.
After Scots, the next closest relative is Frisian—spoken in the Netherlands and Germany. Other less closely related living languages include Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Plattdüütsch and the Scandinavian languages. Many French words are also intelligible to an English speaker (pronunciations are not always identical, of course), because English absorbed a tremendous amount of vocabulary from French, via the Norman language after the Norman conquest and directly from French in further centuries; as a result, a substantial share of English vocabulary is quite close to the French, with some minor spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings, etc.), as well as occasional differences in meaning.
Distribution of native English speakers by region (1997)
English is the second or third most widely spoken language in the world today; a total of 600–700 million people use English regularly. About 377 million people use English as their mother tongue, and an equal number of people use it as their second or foreign language. It is used widely in either the public
or private sphere in more than 100 countries all over the world. In addition, the language has occupied a primary place in international academic and business communities. The current status of the English language compares with that of Latin in the past.
English is the primary language in Antigua and Barbuda, Australia (Australian English), the Bahamas, Barbados (Caribbean English), Bermuda, Belize, Canada (Canadian English), the Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guernsey, Guyana, Ireland (Irish English), Isle of Man, Jamaica (Jamaican English), Jersey, Montserrat, New Zealand (New Zealand English), Saint Helena, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the United Kingdom (various forms of British English), the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the United States.
English is also an important minority language of South Africa (South African English), and in several other former colonies and current dependent territories of the United Kingdom and the United States, for example Guam and Mauritius.
In Hong Kong, English is an official language and is widely used in business activities. It is taught from kindergarten, and is the medium of instruction for a few primary schools, many secondary schools and all universities. Substantial numbers of students acquire native-speaker level. It is so widely used and spoken that it is inadequate to say it is merely a second or foreign language, though there are still many people in Hong Kong with poor or no command of English.
The majority of English native speakers (67 to 70 per cent) live in the United States. Although the U.S. federal government has no official languages, it has been given official status by 27 of the 50 state governments, most of which have declared English their sole official language. Hawaii, Louisiana, and New Mexico have also designated Hawaiian, French, and Spanish, respectively, as official languages in conjunction with English.
In many other countries where English is not a major first language, it is an official language; these countries include Cameroon, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Ghana, Gambia, India, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
English is the most widely learned and used foreign language in the world, and as such, many linguists believe it is no longer the exclusive cultural emblem of „native English speakers“, but rather a language that is absorbing aspects of cultures worldwide as it grows in use. Others believe that there are limits to how far English can go in suiting everyone for communication purposes. It is the language most often studied as a foreign language in Europe (32.6 per cent), followed by French, German, and Spanish. It is also the most studied in Japan, South Korea and in the Republic of China (Taiwan), where it is compulsory for most high school students. See English as an additional language.
Because English is so widely spoken, it has been referred to as a „global language“. While English is not the official language in many countries, it is the language most often taught as a second language around the world. It is also, by international treaty, the official language for aircraft/airport communication. Its widespread acceptance as a first or second language is the main indication of its global status.
There are numerous arguments for and against English as a global language. On one hand, having a global language aids in communication and in pooling information (for example, in the scientific community). On the other hand, it excludes those who, for one reason or another, are not fluent. It can also marginalize populations whose first language is not the global language, and lead to a cultural hegemony of the populations speaking the global language as a first language. Most of these arguments hold for any candidate for a global language, though the last two counter-arguments do not hold for languages not belonging to any ethnic group (like Esperanto).
A secondary concern with respect to the spread of global languages (English, Spanish, etc.) is the resulting disappearance of minority languages, often along with the cultures and religions that are primarily transmitted in those languages. English has been implicated in a number of historical and ongoing so-called „language deaths“ and „linguicides“ around the world, many of which have also led to the loss of cultural heritage. In the Americas, Native American nations have been most strongly affected by this phenomenon.