Origin & diffusion of English

By Parag Ranjan Dutta

If you speak proper English, you are regarded as a freak; why can’t the English learn to speak English,” asked Prof. Higgins in My Fair Lady (adopted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion) referring to Cockney Eliza Doolittle, who pronounced ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain’ as “The rine in Spain falls minely in the pline”.
There was an old saying that the sun never sets on the British Empire. How very true this is when we peep into Britain’s colonial past. English was diffused over a large canvas of the globe and which was adopted as the official language of those countries. English thus became the lingua franca, a language of international communication.
Lingua franca is a language adopted as a common or bridge language whose native languages are different. It is a common means of communication for different first language speakers and which literally means “Frankish language”.
Franks were Germanic people who were dominant in present day France, Belgium and western Germany. According to Britannica, language is a system of spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings as members of social groups and participating in its cultures, express themselves.
If we fly back into the past in a flying machine to what is known as England today, there will be some interesting revelations. During the time of Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, the inhabitants of Great Britain were known as Britons, derived from the old French ‘Bretun’ — a term used for the people and language of Brittany, a cultural region in north western France.
During the Roman occupation of Britain from 43-410 AD, the land was known as Roman Britain, and the term Britain was derived from Latin Britania, the area of the island of Great Britain ruled by the Roman Empire.
The rise of the Roman Empire has seen the spread of Latin language as far as Spain and England. It was not pure Latin though but a branch of the Indo-European language family, Romance, developed from Latin spoken in ancient Rome. Latin language not only influenced Romance languages as French, Spanish and Italian but also English spoken today — a number of common words in widely used in English, like alibi, bona fide, bonus, de facto, eg, ie, intro, multi, semi, status quo, impromptu, ad hoc.
Vikings from Scandinavia, also known as Norseman, conquered France then known as Gaul and settled in present day Normandy in north western France. Normans were the descendents of the Vikings. Normans came from Denmark. The land they occupied in northern France came to be known as Normandy after the ‘north man’. Normans discarded the Scandinavian language and started speaking French.
The Normans invaded England under the Duke of Normandy, William the Conquerer by an army of Normans, Flemish and French soldiers. English was much modified as a result of Norman invasion. French remained dominant language of England for about 150 years. As a result of Norman conquest, French was adopted by the families of aristocrats and the ruling elite class in England, though the mass spoke English.
French not only modified but enriched English to a great extent. Norman invasion displaced the English dialect with French.
English is a Germanic language which belongs to Indo-Germanic language family that originated around the Black Sea. The first speakers of English language were the wandering tribes who lived in mainland Europe. During the fifth century and at the end of the Roman rule Anglo Saxons, a group of various Germanic people crossed the North Sea from what is now Germany and Denmark invaded England, which many historians believe as the origin of England and English people. Prior to the invasion of England by the three wandering Germanic tribes, Angles, Jutes and Saxons the predominant occupant of England were the Celts who had arrived from mainland Europe and who spoke Celtic.
Celts were a group of tribes that originated in Central Europe sharing similar languages, traditions and cultural traits. Prior to the arrival of the Celts the languages spoken in England are still unknown. Of the three tribes Angles lived in present day Denmark, Jutes were from northern part of Denmark while the Saxons occupied north-western part of present day Germany.
The languages spoken by those tribes were similar to those tribes who lived in northern Europe. Of the three tribes Angles settled in Central, northern and eastern England and the related tribe the Saxons in the southern part of England. Of the three groups of Germanic language, West Germanic branch is of prime importance to English speakers. The languages spoken by the three tribes laid the foundation of Old English, which took words from Scandinavian and Latin.
Old English originated as a group of Anglo-Frisian dialects spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the middle ages. Frisian languages are related to a group of Germanic languages who live in the southern fringes of the North Sea, in the Netherlands and Germany. Hence along with German words, Dutch words also have entered English vocabulary.
The evolution of Old English to Middle English began with the Norman conquest by William the Conquerer, the Duke of Normandy and later by William I of England. Middle English was spoken until the last half of the 15th century. A number of Anglo-Norman words were borrowed and the period had seen the evolution the London dialect.
Of the various dialects used in Britain in those days, the London dialect became the standard language for speech and writing. This form became dominant because it was used by most residents of London and the university centres of Cambridge and Oxford. A classic example of London dialect can be found in Canterbury Tales, a masterpiece by Geoffrey Chaucer. Written mostly in verse between 1387 and1400 it is a story of the English pilgrims who travelled together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.
The prologue to Canterbury Tales starts with a description of the spring with typical spellings and funny words used in Middle English —
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote(its sweet showers)/That droghte(drought) of Marche hath perced to the roote,/And bathed every veyne in swich(such) licour,/Of which vertu engendred is the flour.
Except Mandarine Chinese there are an overwhelming number of English speakers all over the world. The diffusion of English throughout the world was possible through the establishment of colonies, the first being Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. It is the first language of more people than any other linguistic group. English is spoken by almost all residents of the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and a sizeable number of people in Canada.
Diffusion of Christianity from the Roman province of Palestine was facilitated by the Roman Empire and Christianity received a special patronage which spread throughout the world. Christian missionaries from Great Britain helped diffuse the spread of English. In most of the countries the choice was the legacy of the colonial era.

(The author is former head of the Department of Geography at
St Edmund’s College)

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