The English Language
Many different languages have influenced modern English, due to overseas trade and a number of invasions in the British Isles prior to and including the Norman invasion of 1066. The Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons were Germanic tribes who settled in Britain alongside Celtic language speakers and laid the basis for the Anglo-Saxon language. However, the great majority of English speakers would struggle to understand Anglo-Saxon today.
There are also innumerable words we use in the English language which have arrived via a different language. Unlike nations such as France, for example, which does not encourage the borrowing of Anglicisms, (even though this certainly happens and will no doubt continue to do so) the English language seems to have happily stolen or accomodated any word or grammar pattern that took its fancy at the time.
The Roman conquest of Britain meant that Latin was now fair game for absortion into the English language. Whilst the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon poulation at large still retained their native languages, little by little words used in Roman administration worked their way into our language and some are still used today.
A few examples : agenda, etcetera, interim, item, memorandum, P.S.,(postscript) a.m. p.m., (ante and post meridian)and the symbol &.
In the 1600’s, there was a tendency to reflect the Latin origin of words by introducing silent letters to the common spelling – for instance, anchor, debt, doubt, island, scissors, receipt. Students of the English language take note! (more about silent letters here if you are interested):
Silent letters in English
Danish and other Scandinavian languages
Norsemen and Vikings raided England several times during the early Middle Ages. In 866 they captured the city of York and during this period various areas in the the east and the north capitulated to Viking rule. Danelaw overrode Anglo-Saxon administration in these areas and a language now known as Anglo-Norse began to be spoken. Modern English inherited a lot of vocabulary from the Vikings, not only words of war such as ransack, slaughter, berserk, but also a great deal of everyday vocabulary, such as bag, ball, call, cake, crawl, egg, get, give, happy, husband, kid, lad, leg, loan, take, seem, skill, ugly, want, weak ….
Apart from vocabulary, the Vikings also influenced English grammar. The way we construct sentences grammatically in modern English is much more similar to Scandinavian languages than old English. Some experts say that English has more in common with Swedish, Danish and Norwegian than German, even though we have long considered English to have Germanic roots.
The Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Jutes and Saxons invaded British shores around the 5th century and their dialects forged the Anglo-Saxon language. But German has also left us left us with these lovely words in modern English : delicatessen, hamster, iceberg, lager, poodle, rucksack and spiel. And let’s not forget hamburger.
Here’s a tiny selection of words we have inherited from French : café, paté, cliché, fiancé(e), bouquet, ballet, brusque, chef, garage, gourmet, souvenir, vintage… there are many, many more. Interestingly, words borrowed from French pre- 17th century have modified pronunciation. Ch- words such as chimney and change begin with a harder -tch sound. But later borrowings conserve the same ch-sound as in French…champagne and chivalrous, for example.
Numerous words which came specifically from the Normans – justice, jury, felon, traitor, damage, sovereign, parliament, government give us an insight of William the Conqueror’s iron fist and the stringent Norman administration of England.
Here are ten random examples, in no particular order.
Chocolate – Originally xocolatl, this word was translated from Spanish via Nahuatl, the language spoken in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. A welcome addition for most people, I would say.
Sofa – from Turkish via Arabic. The Arabic word suffah signified bench.
Glitch – although the jury is still out on this one, some experts believe that this word comes from the Yiddish word glitsh , a slippery place.
Yacht – derived from the Dutch word jacht, which originally signified a hunting ship.
Shampoo – originates from Hindi and Urdu. The word cā̃po means to massage, precisely what we do with shampoo in our hair.
Ketchup – from the Hokkien Chinese word kê-tsiap, a word for a sauce made from fermented fish. Hmm, not what we bargain for with today’s ketchup.
-ology – Anything ending in -ology comes from Greek, where -ology means the branch of study. Physiology, physcology, biology, pharmacology, zoology…. the list goes on.
Sabbatical – from the Hebrew word shabbat , meaning day of rest.
Robot – the word robot as we know it, to describe a humanoid machine, was first used in 1920 in a Czech play called R.U.R ((Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek.
Vendetta – concluding the list is vendetta , the Italian word for revenge.
The second image in this blog jokingly depicts the English language as some type of criminal, stealing words from here and there. I prefer to think of the English language as a welcoming home for any words which care to stick around. These not-so-foreign words should be received with joy for enchriching our language.
This is a very brief summary of words we use in English with their roots in foreign languages. You probably know others and can easily find hundreds more. If you know any more, feel free to write them in the comments below.
Happy word searching!
2 replies on ““English” words”
Absolutely fascinating as always! I had no idea that we inherited so many words from the Vikings. To me it is a really positive thing that English has absorbed lots of words from other languages as that makes us seem outward-looking and interested in other cultures and societies. If we tried to police our language really rigorously and never allowed foreign words to find their way in it would make us seem very unfriendly and unwelcoming and people wouldn’t want to associate with us. I hope that the fact that we have always embraced foreign words and expressions means that people from other countries think of us as kind and welcoming and feel that they will always have a home here if they want to come and live with us.
Thanks for your comment Charlotte. English vocabulary is so rich as we have the influence of numerous languages from diverse areas who invaded Britain in the past. We probably weren’t too welcoming at the time to be honest ! But I definitely echo your sentiment about embracing people, cultures and words from other countries.
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