The English language is incredibly diverse, and incredibly expressive— it seems like it has a word for almost anything. It’s also quite complicated! If you’ve ever wondered about why the English language looks the way it does, the answer starts in the British Isles— a place with a complex history of invasion and colonization, combined with a willingness to accept words from other languages. This incredible history makes for a cool and diverse language, but also explains the confusing spellings and pronunciation we deal with here in the 21st century.
English has over 170,000 words, most of which were borrowed from other languages over various times in history. In addition, English has more phonemes (or, units of sound) than a lot of other languages— 44 in fact. Of those 44, 20 of them are vowel phonemes. The trouble begins when you realize that you have to make those 20 vowel sounds with only five letters: A, E, I, O, and U. (Luckily, Y occasionally steps in to help out, like in the word rhythm.) This is a big reason why business English learners have such a hard time when it comes to pronouncing and spelling English words.
A good example of this confusion can be found in the simple sound /f/, which can be heard in the word “fish.” Usually, the letter “f” is the letter we all associate with this sound. Unfortunately, English isn’t that simple. The “gh” in tough also makes the /f/ sound, as does the “ph” in pharmacy.
Why does this happen? The answer is simple— English is a tangled web of influences made up of words from lots of other languages— many of them dead— and often, those words keep the spellings, pronunciations, and grammar rules from their original languages. Retracing this linguistic history is a journey that will span 1,500 years and take us to five continents— and you won’t even have to book a plane ticket!
The English language as we know it started its life as Old English, which is was a language that was spoken by Germanic (or, Anglo-Saxon) tribes that settled in what is now the United Kingdom around the year 400 AD. The largest of the Germanic tribes that arrived in the British Isles are the people who gave “England” its name. They were called the Angles, and the place they settled became known as Angles Land— which naturally became “England” over time.
Just so you can get an idea of how much English has changed in the last 1,000 years, take a look at this excerpt from Beowulf, which is the oldest surviving literary work written in English:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
If you couldn’t make out a single word of that, you’re in good company. No native English speaker can either, unless they’re a linguistics professor!
Old English began to evolve into Middle English (the language of Shakespeare) when the Normans conquered England in 1066. However, Old English left some words behind that we still use today. In fact, you don’t even have to leave your kitchen to find them— butter, pepper, spoon, and fork are all remnants of Old English!
Did you happen to notice the weird “ð” letter in that 1,000 year-old sample from Beowulf? That letter is called “thorn,” and serves as proof that Old Norse and Old English were close linguistic buddies. Old Norse was the language of the Vikings, whose invasion and 300 year occupation of the British Isles put a firm stamp on the development of the English language.
For this reason, Old Norse continues to provide Modern English with a lot of common words, including:
- Berserk (meaning “out of control with anger or excitement; wild or frenzied”)
- Thursday (literally, “Thor’s Day”)
Oh, and that weird letter “thorn?” Although that letter has disappeared from most of the languages it once appeared in, it still survives as the 30th letter in the modern Icelandic alphabet!
Earlier, I mentioned that Old English was a Germanic language. This must mean that English has a close relation with modern German, right? The answer is a resounding yes! Around 1,500 years ago, the Germanic language family began to split off into what we now know as English, German, Swedish, Dutch, and many others.
It’s almost impossible to make a sentence without using a word of Germanic origin— just take a look at this list of super common verbs, all of which have Germanic roots and cognates in modern German:
- To ask
- To dream
- To drink
- To eat
- To go
- To have
- To say
- To see
- To speak
…and many, many more.
One last thing— if you hate irregular verbs, be sure to thank Germanic and its child Old English. The weird conjugation of words like to break is a linguistic artifact of Germanic influence on the English language.
The Ancient Greeks were a highly influential culture, and their influence can be found in English too. Academia, science, and medicine are filled with words that derive from Greek. However, English words that derive from Greek can be challenging to pronounce due to their unusual spellings.
For example, we have Greek to thank for those confusing times when “ph” makes an /f/ sound, like in:
- Epitaph (which refers to “a phrase written in memory of a person who has died.”)
- Philosophy (which is a combination of two Greek words that mean “the love of wisdom.”)
- Phobia (which refers to “fear”)
- Photograph (which is a combination of two Greek words that mean “drawing with light”)
Greek also gave us other important words, like:
- Democracy (which is a combination of the Greek words demos and kratos, which means “rule by the people”)
- Dinosaur (which is a combination of the Greek words deinos and savra, meaning “terrible lizard”)
- Europe (which means “broad eye” and refers to a mythological Greek princess with big, pretty eyes)
- Psychology (which is a combination of two Greek words that mean “the study of the mind”)
- Trauma (which literally means “wound”)
Aside from the Greeks, the Romans were one of the cultures that most influenced Europe, and therefore, the development of the English language. English isn’t alone in this, either— the influence of Latin is the reason why many Portuguese and Spanish words have very similar counterparts (or, cognates) in English. Just look at these examples from Portuguese next to their English cognates. They’re virtually identical!
- Abdómen and abdomen (from the Latin word abdomen)
- Abundante and abundant (from the Latin word abundantem)
- Emergência and emergency (from the Latin verb emergo, meaning “to emerge or arise.” The English verb to emerge comes from the same root)
- Imagine and imagine (from the Latin word imaginari)
- Recente and recent (from the Latin word recentem)
- Sucesso and success (from the Latin word successus)
I could go on, but I doubt you’ll have time to read them all— almost 30% of the words in the English language come from Latin.
“The rich entrepreneur and his fiancé walked into the restaurant, and a tall brunette wearing a black uniform led them to their chairs. After looking at their menus, they ordered soup, salad, and champagne— and all of it was magnificent!”
As you can see from the bold words above, there are a LOT of French words in English— 7,000 to be exact. Remember when I mentioned the Normans, the group that conquered England in 1066? Their language was a Romance language known as Norman French, and over the course of the next 300 years, the influence of their language became impossible to ignore.
The result? Some of our most common words have French cognates, including:
- Elite (élite in French)
- Energy (énergie in French)
- Insult (insulte in French)
- Reservoir (pronounced identically in French, meaning “a place where water is collected”)
- Ridicule (pronounced almost identically in French)
…not to mention words like cliché, déjà vu, and fiancé, which even managed to bring their accent marks along with them!
Oh, and that weird “gh” cluster that makes an /f/ sound? That spelling is a direct result of the Norman conquest and their Francophone scribes trying to make sense of Anglo-Saxon pronunciation. Merci, French!
Despite the fact that England and Japan didn’t establish relations until 1613, a number of Japanese words have found their way into the English language. Everyone’s heard of anime, manga, origami, and sushi, but there are a lot more English words of Japanese origin, including:
- Emoji (which is a combination of the Ancient Japanese word ye which meant “drawing” and the modern Japanese word moji which means “letter or character”)
- Futon (meaning “a type of low wooden sofa that can be unfolded for use as a bed”)
- Ramen (referring to an incredibly popular type of noodle)
- Tsunami (meaning “a long high sea wave caused by an earthquake”)
- Tycoon (meaning “a wealthy, powerful person in business or industry”)
Interestingly, a few English words have found their way into Japanese too— like suupaa, which means “supermarket,” and depaato, which means “department store.” This isn’t surprising, as Japanese is a historically prolific borrower of foreign words, just like English is!
Bantu Languages, Including Kikongo, Swahili, and Temne
Bantu is a central and southern African language family made up of over 400 languages spoken in several African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Gabon, and Sierra Leone. When African slaves reached the shores of North America, they brought several Bantu words with them— like cola, gumbo, jumbo, mambo, and tilapia. These words soon found their way into the English language. However, the most famous English word of African origin is probably the word zombie, which comes from the Kikongo word for “fetish” — an object with supernatural powers.
(There are more influences, of course. For one, pajamas comes from a combination of two Persian words meaning “leg clothing.” But we have to stop this linguistic adventure somewhere.)
The Germanic tribes that gave birth to English would probably be shocked by the worldwide success and popularity of the complicated, confusing, and incredibly fascinating language they helped create. Nowadays, it’s never been more important to study English— after all, it’s the international language for business. After doing all this research, I think that maybe English is the world’s language because the English language draws so much from the world’s cultures. In any case, if you want to improve your conversational English or business English, you know who to call— Verbalize Now!