Modern Language: ENGLISH

Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > English

At the beginning of the 21st Century, English is recognised as having become the world's first truly global language. Spoken as a mother tongue by at least 350 million people (Dalby, 2004: p166), it is also the second language of more than a billion others. No language in history has been more widely spread, and it continues to grow.

English belongs to the western branch of the Germanic family, though centuries of Danish and (more prominently) French influence has meant that it now looks very different from its closest linguistic brother, Frisian. It first grew from the various West Germanic dialects spoken by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who settled in Britain from around the fourth century onwards. Subjugation by the French-speaking Normans following 1066 radically altered the shape of Old English; the term 'Middle English' is used to describe the period from around the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries in which the language metamorphosed into early Modern English. Shortly after the printing press was introduced in London in 1476, the standard began to emerge.

As England grew politically into a world power, so did the language itself. Its magpie tendency to borrow words from all over the world is now countered by the incessant adoption of English terminologies and vocabulary, particularly in media-hungry countries. This has resulted in various hybrid forms of local languages, such as Deutschlish and Spanglish (McArthur, 2003: p141, p201). The growth of Franglais has prompted the French to impose restrictions on the number of English words their language can adopt.

The varieties of English itself are, given its global status, numerous, though two stand out as yielding the most influence: British and American. Their differences are largely in terms of spelling and pronunciation - lexical variance is much smaller than you might imagine. Though many like the idea of 'two nations divided by common language', the truth is that their mutual intelligibilty, thanks largely to the power of global mass-communication, appears to be assured. It is far more likely that new 'English families' will emerge from the Englishes of Africa and Southern Asia; as India rises politically and economically, so will its form of English.

examples of modern english:

That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my enduring death!

Early Modern English: 'Richard II', by William Shakespeare (c.1590s)

Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.
Modern English: 'Pride and Prejudice', by Jane Austen (c.1813)

Moon, stars and streetlamps burst back into life. A warm breeze swept the alleyway. Trees rustled in neighbouring gardens and the mundane rumble of cars in Magnolia Crescent filled the air again. Harry stood quite still, all his senses vibrating, taking in the abrupt return to normality.
Modern English: 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix', by J.K. Rowling (2003)

a short english bibliography:

  • Tom McArthur, Oxford Guide to World English (Oxford: 2003)
  • Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language (Routledge, London: 2002)
  • David Crystal, The English Language, 2nd ed. (Penguin, London: 2002)
  • David Crystal, English as a Global Language, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: 2003)
  • David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: 2004)
  • Ishtla Singh, The History of English (Hodder, London: 2005)
  • Dennis Freeborn, From Old English to Standard English (Macmillan, London: 1998)
  • Barbara Strang, A History of English (Methuen, London: 1970)
  • Gerry Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language (Arnold, London: 1997)
  • Robert Burchfield, Unlocking the English Language (Faber & Faber, London: 1989)
  • The Cambridge History of the English Language (Cambridge: 1992-2001)
  • Kate Burridge, Blooming English (Cambridge: 2004)

english language links


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