Today, English is one of the world’s most important languages, if we take into account the number of people who speak it and its importance with regard to culture, the economy, military power and political influence. However, the beginnings of the English language were much humbler.
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What Type of Language is English?
From a historical point of view English is an Indo-European Language. What is Indo-European? This is the name we give to a language that is thought to have originated near the Caucuses Mountains around 4000 BC. Languages as diverse as Iranian, Sanskrit, Greek, Roman, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, German, Norwegian, and English all come from Indo-European.
The Indo-European Tree
We can think metaphorically of Indo-European as a tree with several branches. The main ones are Indic, Iranian, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, Hellenic, Italic, and Germanic. The Germanic branch, which English belongs to, is made up of Northern Germanic, which includes Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, etc. and Western Germanic: English, Dutch, Frisian. Gothic, which pertains to Eastern Germanic, no longer exists. So, from the point of view of ancestry, English is a West Germanic Indo-European Language.
French, Latin and Scandinavian Influence
Although nowadays English can still be classed as a Germanic language, much of the vocabulary from this branch of Indo-European has been lost. Fuster-Márquez and Pennock-Speck (2008) looked at the make-up of English vocabulary contained in the conversational section of the British National Corpus (a database consisting of ten million words in English). They found that the most commonly used words in conversation are indeed Germanic but that French, Latin and Scandinavian words also play an important part in ordinary conversation.
Types of Languages
From a typological1 viewpoint, the morphology of English is generally considered to be a highly analytic language of the isolating type although it also has synthetic features.
An isolating language is one in which lexical and grammatical meanings are expressed through independent units. Chinese and Vietnamese are examples of this kind of language. To express grammatical meaning they depend on word order and independent grammatical units. There are no grammatical word endings.
On the other hand, an inflectional language like Latin is one in which lexical meaning is found in the root and grammatical meanings in word endings. For example, in the sentence Romani ite domum2 (Romans go home) we have the lexical root Roman plus the vocative3 plural ending –i.
Old English - Word Order Not Important
Old English was typologically very similar to Latin. In the following sentence: The wild wolf meets the old king - Se wilda wulf meteð Þone ealdan cyning we know that wolf is the subject because it is preceded by the nominative4 form of the definite article se and because of the -a ending of wild. We also know that cyning is the object because it is preceded by Þone and because of the accusative5 ending of eald – an. Word order is not that important. So Þone ealdan cyning meteð se wilda wulf still means The wild wolf meets the old king. If the king were the subject and the wolf the object, it would be like this: Se ealda cyning meteð Þone wildan wulf. Old English is similar to modern German from a typological point of view. This resemblance is not surprising as English and German are sister languages but the English that is spoken today has lost most of its inflectional endings while German and other Germanic languages have not.
Nowadays Word Order Matters
Nowadays English could be described as an isolating language with very scant inflectional features. There are examples in which each lexical word is a root: The dog can see the cat. We know that dog is the subject carrying out the action because of its position before the verb. In the same way, we know that cat is the object. If we change the word order, as in The cat can see the dog, the cat becomes the subject and dog the object. So we can see that English today is very different from Old English from a typological point of view.
In other examples, however, we can see examples in which there are inflectional endings: The cat hates the dog contains an inflectional ending; the –s at the end of hate, to indicate the third person singular. In the cat hated the dog the inflectional ending is denoted by –d.
There are some kinds of English, such as Jamaican Patois/Patwa, which have characteristics that are typical of pure isolating languages according to Bailey (1966/2009). She says (1966/2009: 6) that Creole words are invariable and grammatical relations are signalled by particles. For example, Jamaican has the personal pronouns: mi (I), yu (you), im (he), ar (she), wi (we), unu (you plural) and dem (they). To form the possessive, the particle fi is used before the personal pronoun: fi mi = my/mine; fi we = our/ours. With regard to nouns, in certain types of Creoles count nouns (dog(s), girl(s), etc.) are invariable. The plural is formed by the particle dem. So we have bway = boy and bwai dem = boys.
English Moving Towards Simplicity
English started as a heavily inflected language but has lost many of its endings whereas its sister languages –German, Danish, Norwegian, etc. have retained them to a greater extent. The loss of inflections in English has been a slow process and may continue in the future. Standard English may end up being even less inflected like Jamaican Patwa or certain kinds of African American varieties of English.
(If you need to check the meaning of the grammar terms, you can search for information at English Glossary of Grammar Terms.)
Fuster, Márquez, Miguel and Barry Pennock-Speck (2008) “The spoken core of British English: A diachronic analysis based on the BNC.” Miscelanea. A Journal of English and American Studies, 37: 53-74.
- The term typological refers to how lexical and grammatical meanings are expressed.
- From the Film The Life of Brian.
- The vocative case is used when we address someone.
- The nominative form is used when a noun is the subject of the verb.
- The accusative form is used when a noun is the direct object of the verb.