Language change articles: English as a lingua franca

All spoken languages change over time. If you consider the English language, for example, you can trace its changes from its beginning as a West Germanic language that has Indo-European roots. As a language it is akin to German, Dutch. Flemish and Frisian. The language began in England but slowly spread around the globe. Now it is spoken in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, Ireland, and in the Caribbean and Pacific regions. It is an official language on the Indian subcontinent, in South Africa and other African countries. Now it is a lingua franca, spoken as a second, third or fourth language by many all around the world. Of course, French and German are also widely spoken, but there is no doubt that English is the most dominant language, even though it has rivals.

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If you have read some language change articles, you may already be aware that modern English is nothing like the language spoken in the mid-5th to 7th centuries AD, when it was first introduced to Britain by the invaders from northern Europe (mainly from the area which is now Germany, although some of these non-native tribes hailed from what is now Denmark. They imported their languages to Britain’s shores and these had a profound influence on English. Their Germanic language usurped the Celtic languages that had previously been spoken in Britain. The warlike Saxons settled in parts of the British Isles, as did the Angles. Thus, Britons eventually became known as Anglo-Saxons.

ld English, the language spoken between AD 500 to 1100, the dates are approximate, is very difficult for modern English speakers to comprehend. Perhaps the most famous text written in Old English is the epic poem, Beowulf. This was probably written between AD 700 and AD 750. It is necessary to read it in modern English, as Old English is virtually incomprehensible to modern-day English readers. You can probably find this text in a large library, so you can investigate it for yourself.

If you are interested in language change articles, do check out Beowulf and any other Old English literary texts that you can find. As with modern English, Old English changed over time. Anglo-Saxon literary texts really began to appear in the late 7th century, after the advent of Christianity. Prior to this a runic alphabet was used.

During this time a number of loan words were borrowed from other languages. These were mainly words used by

  • the Danes,
  • the Celts,
  • the Romans, and
  • the Greeks.

Here are some words that were borrowed between 600 and 1100 AD: -

  • circul from Latin, meaning 'circle'
  • cometa also from Latin, meaning 'comet' from the Greek cometa
  • martir, from the Latin meaning 'martyr'
  • brocc from the Celtic, meaning 'badger' Interestingly we still give the proper noun Brock to a badger in children’s books.
  • cumb meaning 'combe, or valley’. In Welsh this is written as cwm even today.

The Middle English period

By the time of the Middle English period, 1100 to 1500, many words from Scandinavian languages had infiltrated English. They may well have appeared earlier in the time of the Danelaw, (from the 9th to the 10th centuries). The Danelaw was a region in Britain which was dominated by the Danes rather than the Anglo-Saxons.

Here are some words borrowed from Scandinavia during the 9th and 10th centuries.

  • anger
  • cake
  • clumsy
  • egg
  • give
  • hit
  • law
  • root
  • ugly
  • wing

The Renaissance and language change

The period from 1500 to 1650 saw Latin and Greek loan words adopted into the English language. Naturally, this is hardly surprising as there was a renewed interest in these classical languages.

Borrowed words from Latin include: -

  • agile, from the Latin agilis, meaning nimble or agile.
  • anatomy from both Late Greek and Latin anatomia, meaning, originally dissection or cutting up.
  • capsule from the Latin, capsula meaning a small chest or box.
  • dexterity from the Latin, dexteritatem meaning skilfulness, or readiness. (Dexter, of course, means right hand.)
  • fictitious from the Mediaeval Latin meaning false or fictitious. This is a misspelling of ficticius (Latin).

Some words borrowed from Greek: -

  • anonymous from the Greek anonymos meaning with no name.
  • comedy from the Greek komoidia which means an amusing sight or spectacle.
  • ecstasy, from the Greek, ekstasis meaning entrancement or astonishment. If you think of the modern meaning of the word, you can readily understand how language its words change over time.
  • history is also a Greek word, historia, meaning learning, or understanding, after conducting enquiries. (It has nothing whatsoever to do with the possessive pronoun ‘his’, so suggesting that ‘herstory’ should be used instead of ‘history’ is ridiculous and only mooted by people who have scant knowledge of etymology.)
  • tragedy is from the Greek word tragodia, which means a dramatic poem written in formal language. Such poems have unhappy endings.

Modern English from 1650 to the present

English has changed dramatically over the years. More foreign words were borrowed in the years following 1650. These were not from Classical languages, but from ‘modern’ ones.

From French the English borrowed the words and phrases, chic, champagne, chaise longue, nom de plume, and savoir faire.

From Spanish, the English language borrowed the words, armada, alpaca, cannibal, desperado and enchilada.

From Italian borrowed words include broccoli, casino, gondola, pizza, and umbrella.

There are some rather interesting words that have been borrowed from Dutch and Flemish, too. For example: - reef, stripe, landscape, booze (alcohol), and cranberry.

Certainly the English have borrowed German words such as noodle, poodle, pumpernickel, sauerkraut, and schnitzel. In the 20th century English borrowed still more words from German, including blitzkrieg, hamburger, kindergarten, Oktoberfest and wunderkind.

In the 20th century the English language adopted Yiddish words such as bagel, lox, pastrami, schlepp and schmuck.

From Arabic there are the words Bedouin, giraffe, mosque, sirocco, and sultan, to give a few examples.

Other borrowed words from different parts of the world include pyjamas and bungalow (from Hindi), chess and checkmate from Farsi, karma and swastika from Sanskrit, curry, mango and teak from Dravidian, and from Japanese, geisha, samurai and tsunami.

English is an eclectic language and has taken loan words from former British colonies as well as from most other parts of the world.

The more people that speak the English language, the greater the variations in it. For example, just in the UK there are people for whom English is a second language, the Welsh in north Wales, for example. Families who came from the Indian subcontinent often speak their native languages at home and even today, some women from these families don’t speak English for one reason or another.

In the north of England, there are several dialects and people from southern England have some difficulty in understanding what is said to them. Dialect words creep into the language and these can be indecipherable to people who don’t speak the local dialect.

For example, can you guess what ‘geezer’ means? Here’s a clue, it has nothing to do with a geyser, or hot spring that shoots water into the air. In actual fact it means a man. The word ‘Lingo’ has been used for a long time, and most people understand that it means ‘language’.

However, new words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) every year. On the list compiled in January 2018 are corpse flower’ which is a huge flower that rarely flowers, but which has the stench of corpses or rotting flesh. Another recent addition to the OED is sunomono, the Japanese word for cucumber salad.

It can be difficult for English as a second language speakers to get to grips with English as it is really spoken, if they have only been used to listening to recordings designed for them. If you are thinking of visiting the UK, try to watch British TV programmes to acquaint yourself with English as is actually spoken.

If you think you can now write an article about language change, that’s excellent. If you are not so confident, contact us and we can help by writing the article for you. Contact us now to find out more about our writing services and fees.

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