Origins of the English Language

Cheddar Man & His Descendant, Adrian Targett

     No one knows the language that the first people who walked across the land bridge from France to England more than 800,000 years ago spoke.  The language of Cheddar Man who died in Cheddar Gorge in Sussex England about 9,000 years ago or the residents of Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old community on the island of Orkney, is also unknown.  The theory is that all of the European languages-Germanic, Italic, Celtic and Hellenic- are descended from a branch of the ancient “IndoEuropean” language which was spoken about 6,000 years ago. 

Skara Brae

     The first identifiable language spoken in Britain was Celtic around 1000 bc.  The Celts brought their language, weapons technology, and pottery to Britain.  Over the years, the Celtic language evolved into two distinct branches.  Goedelic Celtic included Manx, Irish Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic.  Brythonic Celtic included Cornish, Breton, and Welsh.

Celtic Warriors

In 49 bc, the Roman general Julius Caesar, invaded southern Britain.  The Celtic tribes either surrendered to or were defeated by the Roman legions.  The Romans brought with them their culture and technology—and their language—which influenced the English people for the next four centuries. 

Anglo-Saxon Helmet

     The Romans and Celts brought in Germanic mercenaries to fight the tribes of Scotland who constantly invaded southern Britain. In the 5th century AD the mercenaries—Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and Danes—liked what they saw so they stayed, forced the Celts to flee to the west and north, and settled their families in the choicest areas.  They also brought their Germanic language which became the primary influence on the English language.

King William & His Brothers

In 1066 AD the Norman French invaded England.  While the Normans continued to speak French for more than a century, the French language was not spoken by the populace.  The French language did make numerous contributions to the English language some of which we’ll see later.  Over the centuries the English language evolved into several forms of Modern English—American, Canadian, British, Australian, Indian, Irish, and Scottish.

Tomorrow:  Using Prefixes to Maximize Your Vocabulary    Rita Bay

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