Chapter One: The Origins and Spread of English

Original English was a Germanic language closely related to Friese. The Germanic group of languages came into being as a result of trade between speakers of the expanding Indo-European languages and the native peoples of the Baltic. Slightly more than 2,000 years ago Germanic-speaking tribes began to expand from their homeland, moving southwards towards the Rhine. As a result, the Celtic speech of these areas was replaced by Germanic dialects. Germanic was already a mixed language containing elements which were not Indo-European.

By the 4th Century, the Roman Army in the West was largely recruited from these German tribes, so Britain was full of various German soldiers: Bavarians, Allemanns, Franks, Swabians, Frisians, and, most commonly, Saxons. As these soldiers were pensioned off they settled down in Roman colonies, and married local British women. Lowland Britain was, therefore, trilingual, with a Latin-speaking administration, a Germanic-speaking army, and a Brittonic-speaking populace.

After the withdrawal of the Roman administration in the 5th Century, Britain was left with a considerable population which was Celtic in race but Germanic in language. Brittonic-speaking Picts from what is now called Scotland were starting to raid south along the east coast and Goidelic-speaking Scots from Ireland (Scotia) were invading and occupying Argyll and also Dyfed, Gwynedd and Cornwall.

It was not long before an even wilder tribe was settling uninvited along the north-east coast. These were the Angles ("Engle" in Old English) from the area of Schleswig near Flensburg still known as Angeln. Whether or not the Angles dominated a larger area than the nominally Saxon bands which had established sovereignty further south, their dialect "englisc" ([sc] = /sh/ in O.E.) which was closely related to the Germanic lingua franca of the old Roman army of occupation, became the name of the popular language which was emerging from the coalescence of all these influences. The Angles also gave their name to the country which came to be identified with this common tongue.

By the Middle Ages, English had displaced Brittonic from most of England - apart from Yorkshire (Elmet), Hereford and Shropshire, the Chilterns, Kent, Gloucestershire, Dorset and Somerset, Lancashire and Cumberland. Pockets of Brittonic speech persisted here for shorter or longer periods, while English incorporated Scandinavian dialects, and a large amount of Norman and Central French from 1066 A.D. onwards.

As a result of these influences English emerged in the 12th Century as a new hybrid language bridging northern and southern Europe. Later, neologists referring directly back to Latin further modified English, so that it has ended up closer to Italian than to French. Moreover, English might now be better identified as a Romance rather than as a Germanic language, although the adjective precedes the noun - as in four out of the world's five leading languages: Chinese (Putonghua), Hindi, English and Russian. The exception is Spanish - which is a Romance language.

Meanwhile Ireland had been annexed by Henry II - since when Irish idioms have played a part in shaping the increasingly heterogenous English language. Brittonic continued to be spoken for a long time in Cumbria, and until the 18th Century in Cornwall, but was long ago replaced by Irish in Pictland (most of modern Scotland) and the Isle of Man.

By reason of long association, the senior or intrinsic tongue intimately linked with Great Britain might be said to be Brittonic rather than English. The descendant of this original language of the Britons (including the "English") is, of course, still found in Wales - with a Gaulish-influenced variant in Brittany. The remarkable endurance of these two Brittonic-derived tongues can largely be ascribed to the diverse and mainly alien origins of both English and French which, although formed within the British Isles and France, have never really been national tongues, in the sense of being identified with the whole or a part of a country, or with any single country.

Thus English and French have both been, to some extent, international languages from the start: a role which they have continued to perform in different areas, though English has obviously replaced French as the leading world language. As English has spread throughout the world it has drawn in elements from numerous languages, including Latin, Greek, Hindi, Malay, the Amerindian tongues, Maori, Chinese, Zulu etc.. The map of "World English" embraces varieties in Africa, North America, the Caribbean, Australasia, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Polynesia and Melanesia.

Most estimates put the number of idiomatic English-speakers, mostly from mother-tongue countries, at around 370 million. Second or auxiliary language speakers, i.e. those for whom English is not the primary language or mother-tongue, may be divided between fluent speakers, reckoned at about 100 million, and less than fluent speakers - but with some knowledge of the language - who are counted between 300 and 700 million, depending upon where the line is drawn between what is "English" and what is not. Another commonly quoted statistic is that a quarter of the world's population (of around 6 billion) speaks some English. It is also reported that about 80% of the world's electronically-stored verbal information is in English. Such estimates are necessarily rough and somewhat speculative, but they indicate the approximate size of the numbers involved.

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