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The Origins of the English Language

Published: 07.09.2010, Updated: 03.03.2017
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The Origins of the English Language

English is a fairly young language - a newcomer - but it has developed into many variants. About 65 per cent of the words in English dictionaries are of Latin or Greek origin. Many of these words came into English in the 16th and 17th centuries, when written material became more widespread and more people learned to read. The words are usually connected to religion and academic life. In modern times, English has continued to create words based on Latin and Greek for new technical discoveries and inventions. Listen to Bill Bryson from 'Journeys in English' presenting old and new Englishes as well as Gaelic.

Varieties of English

Britain peoples circa 600. map.Britain peoples circa 600 English is a Germanic language which developed from Anglo-Saxon, but has been influenced by other languages for 1500 years. Old English, as it became, was introduced into England in the 5th century by invaders from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Before this time, the British spoke Celtic languages which are the origin of today's Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. There are only a few traces of Celtic in modern English, for example the names of some rivers such as Avon and Thames.

The Romans, who arrived in Britain in the first century AD, spoke Latin, and the Latin name for camp, castra, is found in places whose names end in -chester or -cester. When the Vikings invaded the British Isles in the 9th century they brought their language with them and contributed many words to Old English.

After the Norman Invasion in 1066, the language was influenced by French. The Normans from northern France defeated the English king, took over as the ruling class in England, and for 300 years French was their first language. Gradually, Old English and Norman French combined to give Middle English. Here is Bill Bryson on the the dramatic changes in the English vocabulary, once again from 'Journeys in English'.

English Changing 

English Adopting Words 


Tasks and Activities

  1. Sum up the changes in English vocabulary which are mentioned in the two Bill Bryson recordings.
  2. Put in correct order: The English Language - Statements 
  3. What is the origin? Word Origin   


Further Resources

Chapter 1 - Anglo-Saxon 

Chapter 2 - The Norman Conquest  

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