The origins of English


(PLEASE NOTE: The article completely misses information on question 4. "Sum up the changes in the grammar and vocabulary of Germanic before the invasion of Britain. Discuss and give examples of changes." and only partly covers question 6 "Sum up the Germanic migrations especially with regard to the Germanic conquest of Britain.")

The origins of language

  • emerged ca. 145,000 years ago [1]
  • capacity for language is uniquely human and given by the brain structure [1]
  • form and structure of the first language is unknown [1]
  • based on what we know about language change today, it is plausible that the multitude of contemporary languages have indeed developed from one origin [1]
  • based on what we know about language change today, it is plausible that the multitude of contemporary languages have indeed developed from one origin it is possible that the development of language was dictated by the modern human behaviour[2]

Changes in the pronunciation of Germanic before the invasion of Britain[1]

  • The First Germanic Sound Shift = subgroup of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European language adopted some changes in pronunciation
  • two parts - Grimm's Law and Verner's Law
  • Grimm's Law describes the shift in pronunciation of certain consonants
    • /b, d, g/ lost their voicing -> /p, t, k/
      • Latin - ad x English - at, Latin - jugum x English - yoke
    • /p, t, k/ changed into fricatives /f, θ, h/
      • Latin - piscus x English - fish, Latin - cordis x English - heart
    • however - /p, t, k/ after /s/ and before voiceless stops remained
      • Latin - stella x English - star; Latin - noctis x English - night
  • Verner's Law explains the effect of word stress on pronunciation
    • voiceless fricatives /f, s, θ, ʃ/ became voiced if the preceeding syllable was originally unstressed
    • Latin - pater x English - father - the stress was originally on the second syllable

The world of Germanic people[1]

  • warlike and trade orientated
    • during the Bronze age (La Tene culture[1]) stood in trade with the Greeks and also exercised an influence on the Germanic peoples to the north and east
    • During the Iron Age (second half of the first millennium BCE) major changes in trade and social organisation took place, and Roman invasion started on a course of expansion which would go well beyond its Italian basis
    • The Germanic peoples lived principally from animal husbandry, hunting and agriculture
    • Germanic-Roman contact has been often of a military nature, whether facing them as enemies or joining them as members of the Roman army[1]
    • Gold coins introduced in 125 BCE

The Influence of the Roman World and of Latin

  1. Raising expectations about lifestyles and new ways of organising society.
  2. Latin influence in the military area led to the adoption of the words such as camp, mile, street, road[1]
  3. The trade brought words like pound, wine[1]
  4. The Christianisation of Goths brought words like bishop, Saturday[1]

Germanic Migrations Why?

  1. Overpopulation
  2. Pressure from the outside inwards like Huns
  3. Looked for better pastures

A family model in the context of language change[1]

  • consists of a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestor, called the proto-language of that family[3]
  • reflects the tree model of language origination[3]
  • in the course of language change, ancient families of languages emerged and further diverged to make up the languages we can observe at present
  • proto-language (gained as a result of reconstruction) is labelled metaphorically as the mother of a language family (for English Proto-Germanic) and the sublanguages as its daughters/granddaughters (West Germanic --> Low German --> English)
  • plus, the Germanic language family itself belongs to a larger grouping known as the Indo-European language family
  • membership of languages in a language family is established by comparative linguistics
  • problem of this model: assumes only divergence and therefore doesn’t take into account borrowing and other processes by which languages grow more similar


  • the latest common ancestor of a language family
  • first language – usually hypothetical or reconstructed, and unattested – from which a number of attested, or documented, known languages are believed to have descended by evolution, or slow modification of the proto-language into languages that form a language family[4]
  • typically, the proto-language is not known directly; it is reconstructed by applying the comparative method to a group of languages featuring similar characteristics, trying to figure out what earlier shared forms the languages might have had[4]
    • e.g. French, Spanish and Italian are known as the Romance languages, all of them having descended from the earlier “parent“ language, Latin


  • linguistic evolution, as a result of which certain dialects of one language are isolated from the other dialects of this language and form independent languages[5]
  • in prehistoric times migrations of people often led to the loss of contact and to divergence
  • can be intentional (according to Howard Giles)[6]
    • refers to the instances in which individuals accentuate the speech and non-verbal differences between themselves and their interlocutors
    • reflects a desire to emphasize group distinctiveness in a positive manner

Language change[1]

Internal changes

  • phenomenon called “linguistic drift” – tendency of a language to change without any external forces[7]
  • no longer pronouncing /h/ in words previously beginning with the clusters /hl-/, /hn-/, /hr-/, and /hw-/ e.g. hring (ring), hw£t (what)
    • /h/ = strong aspiration and emphatic expression → loss in non-frenetic speech → the combination /hw-/ retained longest – in question words, which are often uttered individually and more emphatically (What! Why! When!)
  • increasing use of demonstratives before nouns
    • became normal and systematic, resulting in an article system
    • emphasizing (and specifying) the following noun
    • original deictic sense (the location of something in time and space) became less prominent and the sense of specification was generalized

External changes

  • when languages or cultures come into contact with one another and influence each other, often depends on prestige of communities and convenience of borrowings (for new concepts)
  • significant influence (may result in creolisation) or relatively superficial (words from one language find their way into another and are assimilated into it


  • language communities in which mutually unintelligible languages are spoken come into contact with each other → communication by learning the language of the other group → a great deal of lexical borrowing from the superordinate language takes place, but the borrowed vocabulary is used according to the grammar of their native language → pidginization = new language comes into existence which is no one’s native language
  • creolization – pidgin becomes a native language; when children are exposed to pidgin as their primary language

Typological change

  • fundamental change in language (word order, inflectional morphology, grammatical categories)
  • in English:
    • use of the definite article = typological difference from Slavic languages
    • word-order changed from variable to SVO, but other word-orders occurred as well: Adv-VSO, dependent clauses SOV
    • went from synthetic language with high degree of inflections (endings added to verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs) to analytical language with periphrastic structures
    • subject pronouns became mandatory
    • new noun and verb categories



  1. 1,00 1,01 1,02 1,03 1,04 1,05 1,06 1,07 1,08 1,09 1,10 1,11 1,12 GRAMLEY STEPHAN. The history of English: an introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, 414 p.
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