Anglo-Saxon: what are the origins of the english language?

lingua anglosassone

Anglo-Saxon: what are the origins of the english language?

Today we will delve into the depths of linguistic history to discover the fascinating origins of the Anglo-Saxon language, now known as English.

In today’s era of globalisation, English has firmly established itself as the lingua franca of the modern world, playing a fundamental role, especially in the workplace and in business. But what do we really know about its roots? Understanding the origins of English not only helps us appreciate its richness and diversity but also enhances our mastery of the language itself.

In this article we will explore the cultural and linguistic influences which shaped Anglo-Saxon Old English and contributed to forging the Modern English that we know today. We will trace the evolution of this extraordinary language from its Germanic roots to the impact of Celtic, Roman and Norman.

Let’s get started!

The origin of Anglo-Saxon: Ancient Germanic roots

In order to understand the origins of English and the Anglo-Saxon language, we must first examine the Germanic languages, which played a significant role in the evolution of English.

Germanic languages are a branch of the broader Indo-European language family originating in northern Europe which include German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and of course, ancient Anglo-Saxon. Germanic tribes migrated across Europe bringing with them their customs and languages and deeply influencing local cultures.

Among the Germanic tribes that left an indelible mark on the future of English, the Anglo-Saxons stand out. Originally from present-day regions of Germany and Denmark, the Anglo-Saxons migrated towards the British Isles between the 5th and 6th centuries AD. They brought with them a variety of Germanic dialects which fused over time to create the ancient Anglo-Saxon language. These dialects spoken mainly by the Angle, Saxon and Frisian tribes, spread through different regions of England and laid the linguistic foundations for subsequent evolution.

The Saxon tribes, originally from present-day regions of Germany and the Netherlands, settled in the southeast of England. The Jutes, who came from today’s Schleswig-Holstein region in Germany, settled in the central areas of England while the Frisians occupied the coastal regions. These tribes brought their own linguistic heritage and influenced the Anglo-Saxon dialect spoken in the regions where they settled.

The influence of the Anglo-Saxon tribes, their dialects and settlements in the British Isles are crucial to understanding the origins of the Anglo-Saxon language and consequently, Modern English. The impact of these ancient Germanic roots is still evident in the grammar, vocabulary and phonetics of contemporary English.

Celtic and Roman Influences

The linguistic influences of the Celts and the Romans also played a significant role in the formation of Old English. Before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the British Isles were inhabited by Celtic populations, whose languages and cultures had ancient roots. When the Romans invaded England in 43AD, Latin took over to become the area’s official language and heavily influenced the linguistic fabric of the region.

Despite the predominance of Anglo-Saxon, there are still examples of Celtic words and concepts in the English language today. Many British geographical names such as the rivers Avon and Thames, have Celtic roots. Additionally, words like ‘broth’, ‘bog’ and ‘iron’ are of Celtic origin and have found a place in Modern English vocabulary. These linguistic influences remind us of the deep historical and cultural roots which permeate the English language.

The Roman influence also had a significant impact on the creation of the English language. During nearly 400 years of Roman rule, Latin became the official language of England and integrated with the Celtic languages which were already present in the region. Even after the Roman withdrawal in the 5th century, traces of Latin remained, especially in medical, legal and religious vocabulary. Words like ‘doctor’, ‘exit’ and ‘altar’ have Latin origins and have become an integral part of modern-day English.

The Normans and Middle English

One of the most pivotal events in English history was the Norman invasion of 1066. This event completely reshaped Anglo-Saxon society and set the course for the future of the British Isles. The Normans introduced a new king, court, political structure, culture and of course, language.

Norman French became the language of the court, administration and culture. The lower classes (most of the population) continued to speak English – which the Normans viewed as a low-class, vulgar tongue. An example of this linguistic distinction is seen in Modern English with ‘beef’ and ‘cow’.

‘Cow’ (Old English ‘cu’) was used by the servants, while ‘beef’ (Old French ‘buef’) was used when the food reached the master’s table. Latin was used by the church and in official records. Having three languages in use at the same time is defined as triglossia in language terms.

After this period of triglossia, the languages started to merge, and the vocabulary became a mixture of the existing Germanic Old English and the new Norman French influence. This shift and resulting language is what we now refer to as Middle English.

Although Middle English was eventually replaced by Modern English, there are still examples of Norman French-influenced words and concepts present in modern-day Britain. One of the most significant examples is the UK Royal coat of arms which still features the mottos of both the British Monarch and the Order of the Garter in French (‘Dieu et mon droit’ – God and my right) and (‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ – Shamed be he who thinks evil of it).

Origins of English: The Renaissance 

The Renaissance period spanning the 15th and 16th centuries, was characterised by a rediscovery of ancient Latin classics. Works by Roman writers like Cicero, Virgil and Horace had an enormous influence on thought, literature and language. Renaissance scholars, captivated by the style and richness of classical Latin, began to introduce a wide range of Latin vocabulary and concepts into the English language.

During this historical period, Latin became a language of prestige and found extensive use in academic, legal and scientific fields. As a result, many Latin terms were adopted and incorporated into English. Words such as ‘alibi’, ‘agenda’, ‘corpus’, ‘status’ and ‘versus’ are just a few examples of Latin terms that have become part of the English language thanks to the influence of the Renaissance.

The impact of Latin during the Renaissance is particularly evident in English medical and scientific vocabulary. Many medical, anatomical and scientific terms directly derive from Latin. For example, ‘coronary’, ‘pulmonary’ and ‘biology’ are just a few examples of terms which reflect the influence of Latin in the sciences. The adoption of Latin terminology contributed to standardising and clarifying communication in the medical and scientific fields.

The influence of the Renaissance and the adoption of new vocabulary and concepts from Latin enriched the English language, expanding its expressive possibilities and consolidating its status as a language of culture and knowledge. This phase of linguistic evolution played a key role in the formation of modern-day English and its ongoing development as a global language.

Where does Modern English come from? Standardisation of English

So, how did this complex history come together to create the widespread language we know today? As is commonly known, the invention of the printing press revolutionised the spread of the written word and played a crucial role in the standardisation of Modern English. The ability to produce books and publications more efficiently and accessibly, allowed for a greater dissemination of the written language. This contributed to the creation of a common base of vocabulary and grammar which unified spoken English in different regions of the British Isles.

During the Elizabethan era, the work of famous authors like William Shakespeare had a significant impact on the standardisation of English. Shakespeare’s theatrical works, written at a time when English was still evolving, helped stabilise and consolidate many linguistic features. The use of new words, the creation of idioms and precision in the choice of words made Shakespeare’s works a reference point for standard English.

Over the centuries, the efforts of grammarians, lexicographers and scholars has contributed to the development of a standard grammar system and the creation of a common vocabulary for Modern English. Titles such as Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” and Robert Lowth’s “Grammar” have provided guidelines for the correct usage of the language and have contributed to its standardisation. This process established the solid base necessary for English to become the influential language of international communication it is today.

What are your thoughts? Did you know the history of the origins of the English language? 

If you would like to delve deeper into subjects of culture, grammar and language learning in general, don’t hesitate to contact me! I will be more than happy to share my knowledge with anyone who shares my passion for the English language.