Language focus | 10.07.2009

History of English Part One: Proto English

Languages are constantly evolving and it can be difficult to define when a language actually began. Many people consider that English started to take shape when several Germanic tribes, including the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes started trading with the Roman Empire. Over a period of centuries, these tribes adopted words from Latin, including several that are still in use in English today, such as ‘camp’, ‘cook’, ‘fork’ and even ‘pillow’. In addition to this, they started using other non-Latin words that the Romans themselves had adopted, like ‘butter’ and ‘wine’.

Legend has it that around 449AD, the then king of the indigenous Celtic language-speaking Britons, Vortigern, invited some of the Angles to help him fight the Picts, who inhabited much of what is now Scotland. It was thought that the Angles were given land in south-east England in return, where they were joined by Saxons and Jutes. However, this version of events is no longer widely accepted – not least because the Anglo-Saxon language has many features of the Frisian languages which originated in northern Germany and around Denmark. It is thought that these tribes in fact had a greater influence. 

Whatever drew these Germanic tribes to Britain, it was certainly the case that many of them settled there and that they had a great influence on the language that eventually evolved into modern English.

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