Both native and second language learners of English often become frustrated with the language’s complicated grammar rules, easily confused words, and non-phonetic spellings. While familiarity with the evolution of the English language may not necessarily improve your writing, it will help to explain why learning English can be so challenging and reduce your anxiety about mistakes.
After experiencing numerous migrations from mainland Europe, what we now know as the as the British Isles were largely settled by the Celts. The Celts worked the land with simple tools and kept livestock in their small enclosed settlements. They spoke Celtic, a variation of the language that was spoken by the tribes of Gaul (France).
In 43 A.D., the Romans invaded the British Isles, bringing with them the Latin language. The Romans built numerous structures, including roads, aqueducts, and fortresses, some of which can still be seen today. Hadrian’s Wall, a massive dirt and stone fortification, ran across the main British Isle and marked the northern extent of Roman conquest. Scattered sections of Hadrian’s Wall, which roughly follows the border between modern day England and Scotland, are still intact and provide a major tourist attraction. Some English words of Latin origin, such as camp, inch, and wine, were adopted by the Gauls prior to their migration to the British Isles. Others, such as altar, cross, and priest, were the result of later Christian influence. Some Latin words, such as cactus, paralysis, and trivia were resurrected unchanged into the English language relatively recently, during the last five hundred years.
After the decline of Roman rule in 410, the British Isles were invaded by Germanic peoples; they brought with them Old English. Hence, the English language itself was imported to the British Isles. Old English was then influenced by Norse, the language of the Vikings, who attacked and ruled the British Isles from about 800 to 1000. The Vikings contributed even more words to the English language, including egg, knife, and skill. Thursday, the name of the fourth day of the week, is another English adoption and a tribute to the Norse god Thor.
The British Isles faced yet another linguistic invasion in 1066 when William of Normandy succeeded in gaining the English throne at the battle of Hastings. Normandy was a part of France, and William and his appointed nobility spoke Norman French. While the commoners continued to speak English, the ruling class spoke a Latinate language. This created a social stratification: what was a cow to the commoner, was beef the noble; what was a chicken to those living in a farmhouse, was poultry to those inhabiting a castle. These socio-economic differences are still seen in the English language today.
Even after the Normans left, English was a hodgepodge of different tongues that varied by locality. Celtic influences remained in the western parts of the British Isles, Norse influences in the north, and Norman and other Latinate influences in the south. Standardization of the English language, centered around the administratively-important London dialect, began with the introduction of the printing press in the 1500’s. England, however, relied upon individuals such as Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary of the English Language for rules of usage instead of creating a national language committee, as did France with the establishment of the French Academy. Today, the French still vigorously monitor changes in their language, while English remains open and adaptable.