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The History Of English Language Vocabulary English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1991 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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English is one of the most important languages of the world. Today it is being spoken almost in every part of the world. It is the native language of America, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. Currently, nearly two billion people around the world understand it. It is the official language of some countries like Pakistan, India, China and Singapore. It is the language of commerce, trade, internet, diplomacy and science. It is also the language of United Nations and many other organizations. Now is has become a connecting language worldwide. In this paper I will discuss the history of English vocabulary. In the study of English vocabulary, it is essential to know about the history of English. In this paper we will look at the foremost past events that have formed the English language. This paper will pay special consideration to the development of the native Germanic vocabulary, and also to the factors that introduced a large number of foreign words into English, mainly from Latin, Greek, and French.

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I choose this topic because we use English in every walk of life. It has cosmopolitan vocabulary and many languages of the world have barrowed words from English, like in Urdu table, pen, glass, car, ambulance, TV, radio etc. English has barrowed many words from other languages like Latin, French and German which I will discuss in this paper. It is considered as universal language. Most of the universities worldwide include English as one of their major subject and it is used as a medium of instruction in colleges and schools. It holds a key place in the culture, political and economic affairs in countries all over the world. So it is important to know about the history, development and the origin of English language particularly its vocabulary.

History of English vocabulary is multipart and complex. English belongs to Indo-European group of languages. ( Barbara A.Fennell. year of publishing). It can be divided into four periods: Old English, Middle English, Early-Modern English, and Late Modern English.

Old English (500 – 1100AD)

In the fifth century, the three West Germanic tribes Anglo, Saxon and Jutes from Jutland and southern Denmark invaded and occupied the eastern part of the British island. These tribes spoke a Germanic Language, which is near to modern Frisian. Anglo, Saxon and Jutes introduced four major dialects, e.g. Northumbrian in the north of England, Merican in the Midland, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the Southeast. They occupied the greatest part of the country and brought Germanic civilization, often called Anglo Saxon that emerged in Britain. These tribes gave England its name, language and culture. Before these tribes occupation, the Celts were the real inhabitants of Britain. After the occupation Celts were pushed out of England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwell, and Ireland. “At the time of King Alfred, only the land south and west remained in Anglo Saxon hands. The Danish invasion and subsequent settlement had a considerable influence on English language, and many words were borrowed into English, especially into the dialects of the north.” (Knowles 1997) Alfred the Great encouraged English literacy all over his territory.

During the sixth century, St. Augustine the head of Roman missionaries brought Christianity to these Germanic tribes specially the Saxon. The English language adopted numerous words from Latin, the representative language of the church. Latin provided religious vocabulary e.g. abbot, alter, disciple, hymn, nun, mass, pope and priest. Latin also provided a significant number of what are now everyday words e.g. candle, cap, school and spend.

During ninth and tenth centuries and into eleventh, Norwegian and Danish Vikings made an important impact on English language. Many North Germanic words entered into English during that period. Large number of Norse invaders settled in northern and eastern part of Britain in the middle of ninth century. Many words beginning with SC and sk were entered into English at that time from Scandinavian languages, e.g. score, scorch, skill, skin, skirt, sky. This formed an interesting combination, because Old English was very alike to this close Germanic. For example,

Old English Norse loan

shrub scrub

lend loan

rear raise

shirt skirt

craft skill

Old English adopted several hundreds Norse words, among them till, flat, they, skin, egg, birth, bull, gap, quest, leg, egg, sister, skin both, some, their, them, they, are, call, die, drown, get, give, lift, raise, take, etc.

The North Germanic speech had a significant influence on English which added basic words like “that”, “they” and “them”. (Bragg 2003)

The words that represent Modern English do not come from Old English root but about one sixth of known Old English words have descendants existing today. Most commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Like water, strong, the, of, a, he and no. Some other basic words that are uses in modern English are derived from Old English (Bragg 2003). One of the significant works in Old English is the epic poem Beowulf, which is one of the best examples of Old English literature (McCrum, 1986). The Old English period ended with the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Middle English (1100-1500)

William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy conquered England in 1066. After the conquest, the Norman kings and the aristocratic class spoke a dialect of Old French as Anglo-Norman. At that time common people spoke English language. This class distinction can be seen still in Modern English words like, beef and cow, pork and pig.

The upper class generally ate beef and pork and used these words while the common people, who tended the cattle and hogs, retained the Germanic and ate cow and pig.

The Norman Conquest can be seen as yet another Germanic assault. But there was a difference this time. The Normans had prior been given the control of a huge part of land along the northern coast of France. Now they were the French subject and they adopted French culture and French language. The language they spoke at that time was not Germanic, but French. This was a Norman dialect of French which was the language of upper class and English language lost its importance. English was only used by the peasants and people of the working class. This resulted in an enormous borrowing of French words into English vocabulary. During this period, English barrowed many words from Old French. This conquest has influence on Church, government and military. Crystal (1988:174) gives the following list of barrowed word of French;

Government: liberty, majesty, minister, peasant, parliament, prince, realm, sir, tax, tyrant, trial, government, crown, country, baron, duke, court

Religion: virgin, trinity, solemn, miracle, immortality, sermon, salvation, saint, abbey, baptism, pity, prayer, religion, mercy, confess, charity, cathedral

Military: ambush, captain, defend, guard, retreat, spy, soldier, navy, battle, army, moat, arms, enemy, peace.

There are some general words too that are; wait, joy, music, romance, city, easy, emerald, diamond, feast, robe, gown, savory, sugar, age, paper, foreign, hour, people, real, reason, river, special, use.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1387-1400) a great English poet is regarded as the pioneer of Middle English. He wrote The Canterbury Tales first writing in English language and gave a birth to English literature. He is considered as the fore father of English literature. Before Chaucer the Latin and the French were the languages of literature. He broke this ice and wrote his first book in English which is regarded as the greatest and most renowned work in Middle English. He took words from French like, chivalrye (chivalry),honour, courteisye. He used mostly English words some are difficult to pronounce and different from Modern English like, tyme(time), bigan (began), fredom (freedom), trouthe (truth) ,loved, knight, worthy, man etc.

The Middle English period came to an end around 1500 with the rise of Modern English.

Early-Modern English (1500-1800)

This is considered to be most important period in the history of English language because of the Renaissance, the revival and rebirth of knowledge. During this period many scholars translated literature from Latin and Greek into English. Many words from Latin and Greek entered into English division from Old English to Modern English as books become more widespread and literacy increased. Among the borrowed words from Latin were exterior, appendix, contradict, exterminate, temperature. Greek also provided catastrophe, anonymous, lexicon, skeleton and so on. Publishing books became noticeable occupation and books written English were more popular than books in Latin. The printing press also gave a standard and an identity to English language. The written and spoke language of London began to spread to the entire country, and with the influence of printing press, London English began to flourish. London English was widely accepted in written and spoken. Due to this English spelling and grammar were fixed and first dictionary of English was published in 1604 (Bryson 1990).

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In fifth century, the Great Vowel Shift a series of change in sounds also changed English to the great extent. These changes in vowels of English still characterize many languages today. Due to this linguistic change, most long and short vowel sounds were lost. The Great Vowel Shift was impulsive and most changes occurred within a century. This shift is still in process and vowel sounds are shortening. This shift occurred due to excessive Romance loanwords so that English vowels started to sound more like French loanwords (Bragg 2003).

The vocabulary which William Shakespeare used at that time set trends in Early Modern English. Firstly, the lexicon expands distinctly, introducing many new words which are quite common, even very significant today e.g. agile, critical, demonstrate, emphasis, horrid, impertinency, modest, prodigious, accommodation, apostrophe, assassination, dexterously, frugal, misanthrope, obscene, pendant, premeditated, reliance, vast. (Fennel B.A.2001)

Late-Modern English (1800-Present)

The pronunciation, grammar, and spelling of Late-Modern English are essentially the same as Early-Modern English, but Late-Modern English has significantly more words due to several factors. First, discoveries during the scientific and industrial revolutions created a need for a new vocabulary. Scholars drew on Latin and Greek words to create new words such as “oxygen,” “nuclear,” and “protein.” Scientific and technological discoveries are still ongoing and neologisms continue to this day, especially in the field of electronics and computers. Just as the printing press revolutionized both spoken and written English, the new language of technology and the Internet places English in a transition period between Modern and Postmodern.

Second, the English language has always been a colonizing force. During the medieval and early modern periods, the influence of English quickly spread throughout Britain, and from the beginning of the seventeenth century on, English began to spread throughout the world. Britain’s maritime empire and military influence on language (especially after

Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth’s surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries


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