Historia del inglés
En el artículo de hoy nos trasladaremos unos cuantos siglos en el tiempo para aprender un poco sobre la historia del idioma inglés, haciendo un repaso por sus lejanos orígenes y las influencias que ha recibido a lo largo de su existencia. Acompáñanos a descubrir la historia del inglés.
History of the English Language
One of the most impressive qualities of the English language is its willingness and capacity to incorporate words and phrases from other languages. This is a fitting and commendable attribute given the language’s current, exalted status as the world’s most popularly-spoken tongue. English was originally spoken only by disparate tribes on a small, rain-soaked island in Western Europe, yet it has become a cultural, pan-global juggernaut; as likely to be heard in bars in Mumbai as cafés in Paris, from the cricket pitches of Melbourne to the rodeo ranches of California.
Foreign words and phrases are today still enriching and refreshing the language. They are imported from geographically far-flung and culturally-diverse countries as testament to the language’s flexibility and potential for growth. English is truly one of the great success stories of modern times. But where did it come from?
Strange though it may seem, English has not always been the official language of England. When the Romans invaded Britain in 55BC they imported Latin; this would be used as the language of instruction in schools until 1348, when English usurped the usurper’s tongue. England did not have a monarch whose native tongue was English until 1399, when King Henry IV inherited the throne.
Up to this point, various linguistic influences had competed with and existed alongside one another, engendering a gallimaufry of dialects which often rendered communication between countrymen from different parts of the land very difficult, if not impossible. Even French had a stronger hold on the country before English finally prevailed.
However let’s go back to the earliest days of civilisation on the islands. The first people to settle were the Celts; their language and culture reigned unchallenged until the Roman invasion, which occurred around 43AD (though Julius Caesar had made earlier attempts to quell the natives’ resistance). Even then, the Celts and Romans somehow managed to co-exist relatively peacefully on the islands for the next four centuries.
All this was to change when around 1500 years ago – for reasons unknown – foreign tribes began to arrive from the continent, from northern and western Germany and parts of Holland. These were the tribes known as the Angles, the Saxons, the Frisians and the Jutes. (In fact England takes its name from the Angles, i.e. ‘Angleland’ – England.)
It is believed that the Romans withdrew completely from the British islands in 436AD. However, neither the Romans nor the Celts left a substantial linguistic legacy. Although many British place names have Romanic origins (for example , the vocabulary they bequeathed is surprisingly limited.
There were to be two more invasions of the British Isles: firstly, by the Vikings in the late eighth and mid-ninth centuries. Eventually, after waging battles that lasted for years, a treaty was signed between the English and the Vikings which granted power to the Danes (Vikings) in the north and the English in the south. This divide – a line called the Danelaw, which effectively cut the country in half – would have a massive influence on regional pronunciation and lexis. The magpie tendencies of the English language may have germinated around this time, as English began to absorb Scandinavian vocabulary and aspects of its grammar. The pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ hailed from Scandinavia.
The second invasion occurred in 1066, with the Norman conquest. The Normans came from Normandy, a region in northern France, and so French started to be spoken amongst the aristocracy, with English being the language of the peasants.
However, as this new Anglo-French changed dramatically during its time on its new island home, a chasm developed between this hybrid and the dialect of Paris, which was known as Central French. As the author Bill Bryson observes in his book ‘Mother Tongue’, “the harsh, clacking, guttural Anglo-French had become a source of amusement to the people of Paris”, a situation which ironically contributed to the downfall of French in England.
Tired of being mocked for their inferior French dialect, the Norman aristocrats conversely began to take greater pride in their English instead. French had had its day in England, although many French words are still used in English today: particularly vocabulary related to government and jurisprudence, such as ‘justice’, ‘jury’, ‘felony’, damage’, ‘prison’, amongst others.
Even the original Anglo-Saxon influence has been diluted due to the Scandinavian and Norman invasions. Bryson states that a paltry one per cent of the Oxford English Dictionary is comprised of Anglo-Saxon words. However, “those surviving words are the most fundamental words in English: man, wife, child, brother, sister, drink, sleep, eat… and so on” (Bryson, ‘Mother Tongue’, p50).
Now we know something about the origins of English. But which family of languages does English belong to? Given its diverse background, how can we state, with certainty, where English should be placed?
In 1583, an English Jesuit missionary called Thomas Stephens was attempting to spread his religion in the Indian region of Goa. For some reason, he decided to study the intricacies and nuances of Sanskrit, a language native to the region.
As his studies progressed, he noticed striking similarities between Sanskrit and other languages such as Latin and Greek. This led to the creation of a family of interconnected languages – the Indo-European family. The Western Germanic tongues which appear in this family tree (or phylum) include English, Yiddish and Afrikaans – three languages you would not expect to appear together in the same family.
All this goes to show that languages are subject to a variety of influences over their lifespans, are constantly evolving and can frequently cite unlikely sources of provenance. English is no exception.