Languages are built through change. Living languages are constantly growing and renewing every moving part, from words to grammatical structures. This means that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t freeze a language in time without killing it. In fact, the only unchanging languages are dead ones, like Ancient Greek or Latin.
But how do languages change? Well, there are many forces that influence the evolution of languages through time. First, migrations and movements of people help spread new words and concepts into a language. Modern American English wouldn’t be the same without the words it directly inherited from French, German, and Native American influences.
Also, every new generation brings new words, or new uses for old words. This adds up to local variations and different ‘versions’ of English. Even within the same communities, there are variations that correlate with each speaker’s age, gender, or personal background.
How we got from Anglo-Saxon to Modern English
English is a language that was forged by the many conquests and occupations of Britain. It represents the fusion of many ancient languages that mixed together through centuries of coexistence. Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English, was born from the influences of three Germanic tribes called the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons.
Unsurprisingly, Old English sounds very similar to modern German. But Old English still had to undergo a lot of changes before becoming something more recognizable to modern English speakers. Invaders from Normandy (what today is France) transformed the tongue further into what is called Middle English, sort of a halfway stop in the history of our language.
But the real breaking point came in the Middle Ages, with the spread of Christianity in the islands, heavily pushed by the Roman Catholic Church, whose language happened to be Latin. Although Latin was not officially spoken by any country at that point in time, it was still used as a sort of lingua franca within the Church and between educated people.
This influence helped incorporate thousands of new words into common English, and changed it into something much more akin to our modern language. Also, the invention of the printing press made it possible to raise literacy levels among the population and spread the English language.
Of course, the final steps in the evolution of our tongue are much more familiar. The British colonies in America developed their own words, meanings, and ideas - eventually becoming also politically independent. Native American words were a powerful influence that is still obvious in the names of rivers, mountains, and cities.
The many British colonies around the world were also a source of peculiar words, idioms and ideas that traveled across the world aboard merchant and military ships. From ‘ketchup’ to ‘avatar’, there is a great deal of language that we borrowed from overseas.
Is modern English going to stay the same?
If you have been paying attention, you probably already know the answer: no. English will keep changing and evolving as long as there are people to speak it. And this isn’t a bad thing! If English didn’t change we wouldn’t have words for the thousands of technological innovations that have appeared since its beginnings.
English changes because we need it to change, to adapt to modern contexts and to our modern way of life. But in our lives, we aren’t likely to notice any groundbreaking changes. Maybe the advent of texting brought some transformation to written English, and a ton of acronyms and abbreviations that seemingly appeared out of the blue.
And not only words and grammar change, but the sounds of a language can also change a great deal over time too! For example, around 500 years ago, English underwent major changes in the way its vowels are pronounced. This shift formed the sounds we associate today with our language, and we probably would barely be able to understand our ancestors before that particular point in time.
If you enjoyed our brief dive into the complex history of the English language, stay around! We will keep uploading interesting language facts and more content about the origin of many funny and strange words from all over the world.