The story of English began in the British Isles, which were inhabited by the Celtic peoples, whose language was Gaelic. Their island was rich in arable land and natural mineral resources, so as a result they found themselves the target of frequent invasions. 55 B.C. saw the Celts get invaded by the Romans under Gaius Julius Caesar, and as a result, a few Roman words entered into their language.
When the Roman invaders finally left in 410 A.D., the Celts were immediately besieged by an exodus of Germanic peoples, who had begun moving westward into the British Isles and north to Scandinavia. These tribes included the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, and Frisians, whose arrival prompted many Celts to flee even further westward into the area dubbed the “Celtic fringe”. While the Angles, native to the German state now known as Schleswig-Holstein, were the most obscure of all these tribes, the word “English” is derived from “Anglish”, which in turn comes from the Angles.
In 597 A.D., St. Augustine transformed the language and its influence when he converted King Ethelbert of Kent to Christianity. This resulted in the spread of literacy and foreign ideas in English society, along with the introduction of several Latin words, phrases, and concepts into the language, as well as some Hebrew and Greek. 750 A.D. saw a new series of invasions, this time by the Vikings, whose advances were eventually halted in 878 with the creation of the Danelaw. This line divided England between the Danes in the north and the English in the south, an arrangement which led to the peaceful co-habitation of the two groups for several generations. Their harmony was greatly assisted by the fact that their lanagues were very similar to one another, since they had both descended from the influx of Germanic tribes in 410 A.D.
There were some differences, though, and after many generations the two languages amalgamated as a matter of convenience. Evidence of this Scandinavian influence on English can be seen in pronouns such as “them” and “they”, which are of Scandinavian origin.
The next invasion came in 1066 by the Normans, who were of Scandinavian lineage, but spoke a rural dialect of French. These Normans constitued the upper-class minority of English society, and their language became the working language of English institutions, such as the government, and the legal system. Over 10 000 English words were absorbed from the Normans, mostly government words like “parliament” or “bureaucracy”, as well as words for items favoured by the wealthy, including foods such as “mutton” or “bacon”. Although French enjoyed the advantage of being the language of the privileged class, this was precisely why the language failed to gain a strong following in England: English was already well-established among the far greater number of people. In addition, the Normans themselves catalysed their adoption of English by intermarrying almost immediately upon their arrival. Eventually, the Normans grew tired of being mocked by Parisians for their rural—and thus inferior—dialect of French, and assimilated themselves into English culture. By this time, only around 4 500 original Anglo-Saxon words remained in the language, but these were very important and common words, like “he”, “love”, and “or”.
Throughout the course of these invasions, the language had been transformed from an obscure Germanic dialect, enriched by Latin, Danish, and French, into a language which very closely resembles the English spoken throughout the world today. As a result of its mixed heritage, English is one of the richest languages in use today: the English language contains over 300,000 words, while its German predecessor has only 185,000 words, and French has less than 100,000—including franglais slang such as “le tank top”.
When English first arrived in the British Isles via the immigration of a number of obscure Germanic tribes, its chances of becoming a world language were a million to one. English is the primary language of futuristic endeavours such as the technology sector, and it is spoken by hundreds of millions of people as a second language. English has transformed the world, yet it has also been transformed by the world, as demonstrated by the evolution of a Germanic dialect to Old and then Middle English, which spread through the world as a result of a favourable social climate to become the world’s foremost language and the lexicon for the future.