The English Language: History and Etymology



Old English – First three lines of the epic Beowulf (composed in the early eighth century) 1. in the “Insular Hand”, the handwriting of the time, which had been adopted from the Irish, 2. the transcription into the Latin alphabet and the translation into modern English (read line by line).


Each of us uses, hears, and reads words every day. And beneath the manifold meanings a word can have in its current usage, lies its even richer history which can span millennia and continents. The study of words, their origins and their development is called etymology – a branch of linguistics. The purpose of this article is to give a brief overview of the development and etymology of the English language, then to provide some examples of words and their history, and finally to convince you that etymology can be practical in everyday life.

English is a particularly gratifying object of etymological study, as it combines the influences of several language families. Old English (449-1100) was imported to the British Isles by the Germanic Angle, Saxon and Jute tribes of the northern European mainland. Their own language had evolved in the Indo-European language family, a prehistoric tongue which was the source of most other European and many south-Asian languages. In due course, the languages on the British Isles incurred influences of  , Latin through the spread of Christianity and the alignment with the Roman Catholic Church, and Scandinavian through repeated invasions by the Vikings.





Old English (late West Saxon dialect) – Opening verses of Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible, as translated by Ælfric, the greatest prose writer of the Old English period.



The transition to the Middle English period (1100-1500) was marked by an important shift in grammar compared to Old English. Its starting point can be seen at the year 1066, when the Norman army invaded and conquered England. The Normans came from Normandy in northern France and were descendants of the Vikings who had settled that area some generations earlier;  y the time of the conquest they had become culturally Frankish. They replaced the native English nobility and thus Norman French became the language of   government. Latin remained the language of the clergy and English the language spoken by the majority of the population – Britain effectively became trilingual. With time, English regained in importance, as ties with France loosened (e.g. by the loss of the Normandy territory, the Hundred Year’s War between England and France). The power of the English-speaking common people increased, partly due to the Black Death killing around 1/3 of England’s population; English language poetry (e.g. by Chaucer) became popular and the Bible was translated into English. By the end of the 14th century public documents were written in English and kings made their declarations in English. By that time, Middle English had changed considerably compared to Old English: Latin and Scandinavian had introduced new words into the word-stock, and Old French – the largest influence by far – besides adding words to the vocabulary, also influenced the grammar.



Late Middle English – Opening verses of Genesis, in the translation to English by John Wycliffe in the 1380s


In the period of Early Modern English (1500-1800), British influence vastly expanded across the world, laying the foundations for English as a world language. This was also not only the time of Shakespeare, but also one of transformation for the language. While the transition from Old to Middle English occurred in terms of grammar, the shift of Middle to Early Modern English (1500-1800) was driven by a notable pronunciation change and an expansion of the word-stock.

In part, new words were acquired from foreign languages: the Renaissance period led to an influx of Latin and Ancient Greek vocabulary, French remained a strong influence, and Portuguese and Spanish gained in importance due to their role in the colonial conquests in Latin America. Britain itself expanded its influence during that time, founding colonies in America, Asia and Australia, and through this  not only goods but also words.



Early Modern English – Opening verses of Genesis from the
King James Bible published in 1611.


Furthermore, starting in the 15th century, the English language underwent its most important shift in pronunciation, termed the Great Vowel Shift: the phonetics of all of the Middle English long vowels changed as described in the picture below -and that of many other vowels and consonants as well. For example the a in name used to be pronounced as in spa, or the double e of feet was pronounced as the vowel in made. The reasons for this shift are essentially unknown. Spelling, however, was not adjusted to reflect the new pronunciation, as the archaic medieval ways of spelling were preferred; this is one of the reasons why spellings do not correspond to pronunciation. Another one is that, at the time,   men studying etymology were fond of introducing -sometimes erroneously- new spellings of words based on their etymological roots. This explains the gap between the writing and the pronunciation of words such as debt or doubt. Those words come from Old French and were spelled det and dout in Middle English, in line with its pronunciation. Today’s b was inserted to reflect the Latin origin debere (to owe, to have to) and dubitare (to doubt). Similar examples are indict, victual, receipt, all pronounced differently than suggested by their spelling.



Early Modern English: The Great Vowel Shift


Today, in the period of Late Modern English (1800-present), English is a world language; the total number of speakers may be two billion -although of varying competence . Algeo (2009) differentiates three circles of English speakers: “an inner circle of native speakers in countries where English is the primary language, an outer circle of second-language speakers in countries where English has wide use alongside native official languages, and an expanding circle of foreign-language speakers in countries where English has no official standing but is used for ever-increasing special purposes.

To illustrate the concept of etymology, let me present an example. One rather far-fetched etymology is that of the word muscle: it derives from the Latin word for muscle musculus, which is literally the diminutive of mus, for mouse. Apparently the shape and the movement of muscles, in particular the biceps, invoked the image of mice. This image of muscles as little moving animals underneath the skin seems to have been widespread: in Greek mys is also both mouse and muscle, in Arabic adalah is for muscle and adal for field mouse, and the Middle English lacerte meant both muscle and lizard.

How can such knowledge be not only entertaining but also useful? Since we are studying in Toulouse, I want to finish by focusing on the links between English and French, and give you some tricks I accumulated over the years to figure out the meaning of unknown French words. They do not always work perfectly or at all, but are awesome when they do.

English started off as the language of a few Germanic tribes who had settled a small island off the coast of Europe. Over its history it evolved and by some coincidences became a world language with many millions of speakers – in this process collecting and incorporating words and grammar from French, Latin, Scandinavian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and many other languages around the world. These influences are still visible today – and knowing how languages are interrelated can help us use our knowledge about one language to decipher another.

By Julia  Baarck


For those who would like to learn more about languages and etymology, I warmly recommend the “Johnson” column in The Economist, and further the book “The origins and development of the English language” (base for the history part of this text).

Further references

Algeo, John. “The origins and development of the English language.” (2009).

Crystal, David. “Two thousand million?.” English today 24.1 (2008): 3-6 , retrieved at


Merriam Webster Dictionary.

The Economist. Johnson Column.

English after Brexit

As the reality of Brexit approaches at a fast pace (at least, it seemed so by the time this article was written), the European Union faces many troubling issues to be solved. One of the less known – and arguably less important as well – is of linguistic nature: The EU´s most commonly used language will lose almost all of its native speakers. English will then be spoken as a first language only by most of the country´s 4.5 million Irishmen and around half a million Maltese. That is roughly one percent of the entire EU population.

With the EU having a colourful history of bitter disputes over its use of languages, this is a fact looking for trouble. Within days of the Brexit vote, politicians from continental Europe proposed to knock English out from the list of official languages. Theresa May, the current British Prime Minister even had to dismiss reports claiming that Brexit negotiations would be held entirely in French. Nonetheless, are these suggestions realistic motions or mere cravings for long lost power?

Today the European Union has 24 official languages, which can be used in parliament and for official correspondence. Three of them, English, French, and German, are used for work at the commission. In its day-to-day reality, however, they are not equal. German is barely spoken whereas English dominates being used in most meetings and for most reports.

That has not always been the case. Before the entrance of the UK to the European Economic Community, the EU´s predecessor, in 1973, only French and German had been the club´s official languages. Nonetheless, becoming an official language did not help much to stop the domination of French. Only in the 1990s, English started to become important with the admission of the Scandinavian countries. They have always been much closer culturally and linguistically to Great Britain than France, and therefore have a greater inclination to discuss in the corresponding language. The eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 and 2007, as well as the growing global dominance of English, finally put it in the place it holds today in the union.

Is the exit of the UK likely to change this? Among the EU´s citizens, English is much more commonly used than the other contenders are. According to Eurobarometer, 51% of EU-citizens were able to converse in English in 2012. French, although frequently used by bureaucrats and diplomats, was spoken by only 26% of the EU total population, even below German’s 32%.

Anyway, the future seems to belong to English. Two thirds of EU-citizens deem English to be a useful language compared to only one sixth who hold this belief for German or French. Additionally, over 80% of primary school children are taught English whereas other languages are usually brought in much later, if at all. Part of the rise of English can be explained by the relatively few grammatical hurdles learners face in early stages. Setting up simple conversations is easier than in most other `natural` languages with plenty of conjugations and declinations. The more difficult parts come up only later, for example, the often seemingly arbitrary pronunciation. Nevertheless, if someone has already made it to that point she is unlikely to give up.

This, of course, does not have to imply that the Union’s parliament and administration follow these trends, especially because the Union has, from time to time, struggled to be seen as down-to-earth and close to its citizens. Still, the power balance in the EU has shifted in the last 30 years. The traditional Franco-German alliance has lost its clout due to the massive enlargement of the EU and the internal rifts. For example, during the Euro crisis when France `led` the southern alliance of Mediterranean countries, pushing for more spending and a devaluation of the Euro. On the opposite side, Germany represented the northern countries advocating for austerity measures.  It is unlikely that other countries just let these two have their cake and eat it. Ireland and Malta want to protect ´their´ English and other large countries could seize the opportunity to advertise their national languages as well.

In fact, even within Germany and France, not everyone promotes their own language with absolute vigour. Although a supporter of the French language, Emmanuel Macron likes to spice it up with English terms such as `bottom-up`. Among the first ones to refute suggestions of using less English was the German commissioner Günther Oettinger. Ironically, when he was initially sent to Europe in 2010, his poor command of English was largely ridiculed by the German media.

Furthermore, the biggest advantage of English is not even internal but external. It is the language of a globalised world. It is the mostly spoken language worldwide, over half of all websites on the internet are in English, all aviation communication is conducted in English and all major economics journals are published in English. Even here at TSE most courses are taught in English. Considering this power, it is doubtful whether the EU can afford to rely on a rather inward looking language like German when the rest of the world uses one global language.

Finally, the loss of most of its native speakers does not have to be a bad thing for the significance of the English language in the EU. Instead, it could benefit from posing as a `neutral` language. If an Austrian and a Latvian speak German, the former is more likely to feel comfortable while doing so. If they instead speak English, no one can build on a natural advantage.

It could pose as a modern-day Esperanto. This language was designed in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century to promote understanding between different groups of the population by using a neutral language. It borrows from Romanic, Germanic, as well as Slavic languages, and uses straightforward declinations and conjugations without many irregularities. Estimates of speakers range from half a million to two millions. It is tough business to create a new language from scratch and compete against existing and deep-rooted contenders, so these figures should not necessarily be seen as failure.

Why did Esperanto never really take off? Like many international projects, it flourished before the first-world war and had a revival in the interwar period. Many 20th century regimes, however, did not like its cosmopolite sprit and therefore tried to suppress it. After the wars, it lacked the political and intellectual support required to reach the critical mass a language demands. Later, with the rise of global English, the need for an artificial international language has strongly deteriorated. At the beginning of the 21st century, Europe seems close to reach the goal of having a neutral language for international communication set by the Esperanto´s creator L.L. Zamenhof. Only that it is not Esperanto but English.

Being a neutral language also offers other opportunities. No longer under the watchful eyes of British language puritans, English could flourish and create its own style: Euro-English. Whereas a cynic might decry the downfall of culture and civilisation, one could also embrace these new developments. In reality, the first steps towards this new language have already been made. The term `handy`, for example, is recognised by eurocrats more often as the slightly bizarre German word for `mobile phone` rather than the original English meaning of `easy to use`.

Overall, we do not have to worry about the position of the English language in the EU after Brexit. It is likely to dominate further even though it might develop its own distinct style, as it is no longer being under the protection of the United Kingdom.

by Robert Lindner