The mysteries of the English language

Today, I’m happy to host Vyas Muralidharan, who I met through WordPress’s Blogging 201 challenge back in April.  A member of the Literature Blogging Buddy Circle and the Writer’s Guild: By LBSquared, he sent me a post on the history of English that I found quite intriguing.  I hope you’ll enjoy it!

I’m not going to bother introducing myself.  I live where there are mountains, I like to write, and you should go visit my site.  Now, to the topic at hand: English, the dialect of the Anglo people, and what some Republicans call the most American language.  (Actually, that would probably be Inuktitut, but whatever.)

The history of this great language begins at the fall of the Roman Empire (or at least, the end of the Roman presence in Britannia), when they left behind all their roads, but not much of their Latin language.  In 450 AD, the Germanic tribes of Angles and the Saxons (who became Anglo-Saxons) arrived in Britannia.  Anglo-Saxons spoke what we know as Old English.

Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic language from the Indo-European family, meaning it can trace its roots back to Sanskrit and Greek.  When the Romans left, they didn’t leave much of their language.  Old English to the rescue!  It had words that we still use today.   But don’t let that fool you.  The common people of today wouldn’t be able to decipher the language.  This is what Old English looked like:


And no, I don’t know what that says.  So don’t ask me.

(Kay here – I know what it says!  Thanks to the translation skills of my lovely friend Tara, I can confidently say that the image above shows the first few stanzas of the epic poem, Beowulf.  Behold, the translation: 

So. The Spear-Danes in days done by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those prince’s heroic campaigns. 

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coats
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him 10
And begin to pay tribute. [That was one good king.–not in this pic but kind of the end of the stanza.]

And here’s another awesome tidbit she shared with me about the word hwæt, but since I’m too tired to paraphrase, I’ve just cut and pasted it here: “I do want to say that while he [Seamus Heaney] translated the first word (“hwæt”– rhymes with “cat”) as “so,” there are about eight million translations of it. It’s totally the best word in OE. It can mean “listen up!” or “yo!” or “hark!” or “Lo!” or “what!” and so on. Excellent for beginning a tale.” 

Fascinating, is it not?)

Anyway, the days of our week, or at least four of them, were named after the Anglo-Saxon gods (who, by the way, shared the same gods with the next group of invaders).  You know, Thors-Day, Fria-Day, Odin’sday (Wodens-Day), etc.  But Latin soon found its way back to the island through Christianity, giving us words like “pope” and “clergy” and “bishop.”

When the Vikings invaded, we got all the death- and destruction-related words.  While they killed the men and stripped the women of their virginity, the Vikings also gave us some 2,000 words, such as “die.”

Of course, English wouldn’t be English if it wasn’t for the French.  In 1066, William the Conqueror, well, conquered England, and Norman French became the official language of England.  That’s where we got  “sovereign,” “parliament,” and words of the court: “judge,” “jury,” “justice,” and “evidence.”

French and Norman are Romance languages, languages that see their roots in Latin, which English does not.  Because of William, many Romance words (no, not that kind of romance) found their way into our language.  “Beef” and “pork” were fancy French words used in the higher social classes, but their living counterparts, “cow” and “pig,” kept their English names due to the fact farmers were lower class and spoke English.  We absorbed about 10,000 words from the Normans, such as “table,” “clock,” “music,” “fruit,” etc.  And then, the 116 Year War  (known by many as the Hundred Years’ War) happened.  French was no longer used as the main language, and English became the official language of power.

Now presenting the Bard himself, William Shakespeare!  He invented about 2,000 words and phrases, including “puke,” “dead as a doornail,” “eyeball,” “puppy dog,” and “dauntless” (Veronica Roth if you’re reading this, go visit Shakespeare’s grave).  More importantly, Shakespeare transformed English from the language of a supposedly barbaric people into a language of culture and art, showing the world its limitless expression.

I’d also like to think that this is due to the fact most of English is borrowed from other languages.  For instance, has anyone tried to learn German?  So many of the words are incredibly similar: “Wasser,” “water,” “Buch,” “book,” “Brot,” “bread”…and the grammatical structure is more or less the same, but the award for most similar language probably goes to Dutch language.

But moving on.  The King James Bible!  So, this English Bible was a translation from Greek and Hebrew, and a mighty good one at that, giving us many anecdotal phrases: “going the extra mile,” “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing,” and other phrases that have become ingrained into our culture.  Amen.

English soon became a very important science language – many Latin words were quickly translated into English so people could understand and spread knowledge faster and easier.  Pretty sure the creation of the words for the sex organs made sex ed. a lot easier to understand.  Of course, now, people like to just shout those words out hoping for a laugh, so maybe it wasn’t the best idea.

As English became more widely spoken, England decided that it was time the world had its beautiful language in exchange for wealth, land, natural resources, your eternal pledge to England, and your soul.  Through these excursions to other lands, English picked up a few more words: from the Caribbean, we got “barbecue,” “canoe,” and “cannibal.”  I like eating humans!

Wait, what?  Moving on.

Anyway, from the African Languages, we got the word that was sure to give AMC a head start on working on their latest TV show (“zombie,” for those not afflicted with an overwhelming desire to consume The Walking Dead the way a walker consumes brains); in India, we picked up “yoga;” and from Australia, we acquired the beloved word “boomerang,” which is just so much fun to say.

And now…the English that everyone has been waiting for…


Americans adopted a lot of words from the natives to describe the new animals and creatures they encountered, as well as most of their land.  As America became the Golden Land of Opportunity, immigrants brought in their own words – the Dutch with “cookies,” Germans with “pretzels,” and the Italians with “pasta,” “ravioli,” “linguine,” and “mafia.”

Oh, and Team Rocket.  Because…you know, Giovanni is an Italian name, and he leads Team Rocket from Pokemon…never mind.  Actually, Team Rocket is Kanto’s mafia.  Huh.

Americans spread their language of finance across the world – the concept of the economy was created in the 1930s during the Roosevelt administration.  While the term had been created in 1520, back then you wouldn’t go around asking, “What’s the state of the economy?” Or at least, not in the context we use it today.

As English grows, we find ourselves abbreviating everything, and that has become ingrained into the language itself. The word “app” short for application, was declared word of the year a few years back.  And how many times do you find yourself seeing…or typing “LOL?”

English has stolen from 350 languages, and in retrospect, it has little to do with England anymore.  There are so many combinations of languages – Spanglish, Tanglish, Chinglish, the list goes on – but the language can still find its roots.  And that’s the beauty of English: it’s adopted so much, yet you can see the history ingrained into the language’s very soul.

(c) 2014.  All rights reserved.


30 thoughts on “The mysteries of the English language

  1. Sophie E Tallis says:

    Great post! There are a few omissions though, quite a few English (Old English) words originated from the native British (Celtic) tribes and the Jutes too. So a lot of the rudiments were there before the Germanic Saxons came over. I have a lot of Celtic blood in me, Cornish and Welsh and just love researching the derivation of words and languages. Isn’t it all so interesting? Thanks for posting this sweetie! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kay Kauffman says:

      Actually, an original draft of this post mentioned the Jutes. And I love the whole research process, too – I love learning about languages, from how to speak them to the history of individual words. What can I say – I read the dictionary for fun, and love every minute! 😀


      • Sophie E Tallis says:

        Lol, I know what you mean about reading the dictionary. I love it too!!!! Lol, learning about languages though is so much fun. I’d love to learn ancient Briton/Celtic, some people in Cornwall can still speak it!!! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kay Kauffman says:

          learning about languages though is so much fun
          This is the absolute truth! Wouldn’t it be great to learn all the languages of the world? I had an ambition to do that once upon a time, and if I had the chance, I’d still sign up for such a wonderful opportunity. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

      • Sophie E Tallis says:

        Definitely. It’s strange though, I never understood why it wasn’t just called American, instead of American English? Lol, you guys don’t need a stuffy old English bit stuck onto your language, you have your own wonderful dialect! 😀 xx


          • Kay Kauffman says:

            I took four years of Spanish in high school and a semester of French in college. Languages always came easily to me, so it’s a shame (in my opinion) that I haven’t learned more or had cause to use what little I did learn.


          • Kay Kauffman says:

            I started studying French on my own my senior year of high school, and it was easy enough (except trying to figure out the pronunciation on my own was a challenge). After four years of Spanish, I think I had an easier time of it than if I’d just started off with French because so many of the words are similar or the same. I studied a little bit of German and Japanese on my own, too, but I didn’t get very far with either of them.


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