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The English Language: Some Basic Facts

INTERMEDIATE Vydáno dne 04.12.2005

How old is the English language? Where did it come from? Has it changed at all over the centuries?

Basic Information

English belongs to the family of Indo-European languages, specifically Germanic languages (together with for example German, Swedish etc.) The beginnings date back to the 5th century, when tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Britain and started to settle there. Before the Anglo-Saxons, Britain was occupied by other tribes, e.g. The Beaker People, the Celts and the Romans. These nations, however, did not influence today´s English very much. The language of the Celts left only a few words, such as Thomas, Thames etc. With latin of the Romans it was another matter. There are many words from latin in English today, but they came into English later.

The first English, called Old English, was the language of the Anglo-Saxons, who spoke a kind of Germanic language. It was in its nature a synthetic language (see synthetic and analytic languages). It changed little for a few hundred years. The only considerable influence was the Scandinavian language of the Vikings who raided Britain from the 8th to the 11th century. Their language, however, was also one of Germanic origin.

The great change occured at the end of 11th century. In 1066, the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded Britain and defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold in the Battle of Hastings. They spoke French and together with the language, they brought their culture, political system etc. with them and introduced them in Britain. Thus a germanic and an italic language mixed and formed so called Middle English. For a today´s reader, it is much more understandable than Old English. English slowly dropped its inflection and was becoming more an analytic language.

At the end of 15th century, Rennaissance found its way to Britain as well as the bookprint. This brought many new changes into the culture and the language. Books were much more accessible to common people. English also borrowed (see Borrowing and Lending) many words from other languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. From this century we speak of so called Modern English, although it was still a lot different from the English that is used today.


Languages that have influenced English:

5% Greek

7,5% Latin

40%  Anglo-Saxon

15%  Norse

30% French

2,5% other languages


How many words are there in English today?

            The Oxford English dictionary has about 300,000 entries, not including scientific and technical words. This makes English a language with the largest vocabulary. An educated English speaker, however, only uses about 30,000 words.

Synthetic and Analytic languages

There are two kinds of languages: synthetic and analytic ones. Synthetic languages, such as Czech or German, use a lot of inflection (many different forms of one word in different situations: e.g. in Czech the noun PES has these forms psa, psovi, pse, psem, whereas English only has DOG. Similarly, the Czech verm JÍT also has forms like jdu, jdeš, jde, jdeme, jdete, jdou, jdi etc., whereas English only has GO or GOES.) In synthetic languages, word order is not very important, since the different forms of words carry the meaning. For example in Czech you can have these two different sentences with basically the same word order but different meaning:

Pes      honí     kočku.

Psa      honí    kočka.

The different forms ensure that we know who is chasing who. English, however, needs to distinguish the meaning with word order:

            A dog is chasing a cat.

            A cat is chasing a dog.

English is an analytic language. There is only very little inflection and word order is very important for understanding the meaning.

            All languages, however, tend to move slowly from synthetic, to analytic. English started as a synthetic language with a lot of inflection. Slowly, it dropped the inflection and started using word order as a means of distinguishing the meaning. The Czech language is still in the beginning of this process with its seven cases and many different verb forms. Spanish is now somewhere in between, having different verb forms but the same noun forms, and English has gone far from the synthetic into the analytic.


Borrowing and lending

            These are two common linguistic processes. Borrowing is a process in which one language "borrows" words from other languages. The reason can be the fact that there isn´t a word for the particular thing in the language. For example the word pizza (which comes from Italian) did not exist in English, because the English did not eat pizzas before. With the coming of the food, they had to accept the word, too. In some cases, a new word from another language replaced or supplemented an already existing word. For example the English word teach was supplemented by the word instruct. Each word is used in a different situation and context today.

            Lending is a similar process, in which one language "lends" words to other languages. It is a reverse borrowing process. In this way, English has lent the word "hamburger" to many languages.

            In some cases, there is a pair of words in two languages that look the same and one would think that it is the result of borrowing and lending. However, there may be a great difference in meaning of these words. These pairs of words are called "false friends". An example of false friends are for example actual in English and aktuální in Czech, both words having a different meaning, or list in English and list in Czech, or become in English and bekommen in German.

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