English—the first global ‘lingua franca’, the most widely spoken language and the third largest native language after Mandarin and Spanish—surprisingly has neither a script to call its own nor the purity boasted of by other languages such as French and Malayalam. In order to understand the origin of this language, we need to turn back a few pages of our history books and revisit the past.
We travel back to 55 and 54 BC, Rome. A young man with the name Julius Caesar set sail for the unknown territories up north and discovered vast stretches of land which he referred to as ‘Albion’ (from the Latin word ‘Albus’ meaning white) owing to the white cliffs of Dover visible from the sea. The then inhabitants of this foreign land—the Celts, led by the lady warrior Boudica—offered resistance to his attacks by pushing boulders down the cliffs and destroying the huge Roman ships in the process. Caesar retreated to his country but came back the next summer with repaired ships. A man who learned from his mistakes, he entered Albion through a river estuary and this time he obliterated his enemies. This was the beginning of Roman Britain.
Skipping a few pages of history, we stop at 450 AD- the decline of the Roman Empire. This was the period which saw the movement of tribes across Britain and Europe. The Anglo Saxons, a tribe native to the region covering Germany and Denmark, shifted their base to Britain. The Franks, another Germanic tribe moved to Gaul and overthrew the Romans. The native Celts were pushed to the west (a region that speaks Welsh to this date). Around 600 AD, this region was dominated by the Anglo Saxons and called ‘Englaland’ or land of the Angles. This was when the evolution of the English language started—from its roots in Anglo Saxon (also known as Old English). Even today, Anglo Saxon and English share common words.
Moving ahead to 1066 AD, a Frank king by the name William the Conqueror, also known as William the Bastard, led a military invasion on Englaland. His ancestors hailed from Normandy and he spoke Norman as a result of which the administration of the new government was handled in Norman (modern French). The mixing of Anglo Saxon and Norman gave rise to what we know as ‘Middle English,’ a period which saw the rise of authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer.
The 1400s gave rise to early modern English which was a period of the Great Vowel Shift. It was further transformed by the spread of standardized London-based dialect. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published—the Table Alphabeticall. With the spread of the British Empire, the English language spread all across the globe and was influenced by the local languages and dialects of the British colonies. Overtime, it picked up words from other languages and became what it is today—a mode of communication for majority of the world.
For a language which borrows its script from the Romans—the same as Latin—it has made tremendous progress through the centuries. A ‘mongrel tongue’ lacking purity and heavy with pollution, it is indeed a funny language where there is a mismatch between the way a word is written and the way it is spoken. Despite having its constraints, it has done well for itself by adapting with changing times and molding itself according to the needs of the people.