English: Whose language is it, anyway?

As a traveler, I am quite lucky to have been born into an English-speaking country. Though Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, English is still the global lingua franca.

According to some lazy googling, “It is estimated that there are 300 million native speakers and 300 million who use English as a second language and a further 100 million use it as a foreign language. It is the language of science, aviation, computing, diplomacy, and tourism. It is listed as the official or co-official language of over 45 countries….”

But it takes many different forms; American English, British English, Irish English, Kiwi English, Ozzy English, South African English (who are technically ESL’ers, but they learn English so early it doesn’t matter.) That speaks nothing of internal differences within those categories (there are 4 nations and probably hundreds of dialects in the United Kingdom alone). This adds a lot of richness and variety to the language, but also leads to a lot of disagreements between English speakers from different countries.

Before I go any further, I’d like to specify that I’m not sticking up for one side being “more correct.” Languages evolve, and even though I try to use correct spelling and grammar, I do realize that the rules are fairly arbitrarily derived. I don’t care if the back of a car is “boot” or a “trunk,” but it does bother me when those from the United Kingdom claim to have invented the language.

The English didn’t “invent” English. It didn’t spring, fully fledged into existence just in time for Marlow or Shakespeare to wax poetical.
English is of course a Germanic language. “English” the language and “England” the country take their names from the Angles, a tribe of Germanics that along with the Jutes, Saxons, Frisians, etc invaded. Over the centuries, English changed significantly as Normans brought Norse/French and the Danes/Norse added many Scandinavian influences (their languages an additional offshoot of German).

The influences of the Normans and Norse are demonstrated by the large amount of synonyms found in the English language.

Norse/ English
anger / wrath
nay / no
fro / from
raise / rear
ill / sick
skill / craft
skin / hide
dike / ditch

French/ English
close / shut
reply / answer
odour / smell
annual / yearly
demand / ask
chamber / room

That’s of course a very small sample. There are loads of sources on this, of course, but Bill Bryson has a great layman’s account called The Mother Tongue. Another place to look is this site, which has a great collection of related works.

And of course English wasn’t standardized until the 18th century or so. Old and Middle English were evolutionary steps on the way to modern English, but not the same language that is spoken today. I’m no religious man, but a look at the tenth century Bible illustrates this point:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum si þin nama gehalgod tobecume þin rice gewurþe þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum

(Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen.)

It may be apocryphal but I’ve repeatedly heard that the closest to Shakespearian English is found in Rhode Island. Indeed, some expressions thought to be American were original British expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost for a time in Britain (for example trash for rubbish, loan as a verb instead of lend, and fall for autumn.) In other words, it’s not as simple as the premise that those in England speak correct English and the rest of world has bastardized it.

As a Germanic language, England isn’t even where English originated. Therefore, if someone claims their English is more correct because they are from “where it was invented,” you should ask if they are from the region of Germany known as Angeln, from which the original Angles came. Angeln lies in Schleswig-Holstein on the eastern side of the Jutland peninsula near the cities of Flensburg and Schleswig. Yes, Flensburgers and Schleswigs can play the English origination card, for what it’s worth, but the rest of us are out of luck.

People from the UK really mean that they were born in a country settled by Germans, conquered by Danes,further conquered by Normans, linguistically enhanced by the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and a far-flung Empire. As an American, I’m from a former colony of that island; I’m definitely not saying that Americans (or Ozzies, or Kiwis, or whoever) are right, but coming from England doesn’t mean that your English is automatically correct or proper by any means.

As I said above; the rules of language ultimately are arbitrary and destined to change. Anyone (from what I’ve seen, it’s usually Americans or English) arguing that their English is correct for whatever reason is probably wrong.

11 responses to “English: Whose language is it, anyway?

  1. o_0 Dude you forgot Irish English! 😛

    • I’m pretty sure just saying potato over and over again doesn’t constitute a language.
      Just kidding…you’re right. I’ll update my post right now.

  2. Great post. Don’t forget Latin. I seem to recall reading that a lot of our highly formal rules in English grammar are taken from Latin grammar.

    • I actually didn’t know that. I know we borrowed and created a bunch of Greek and Latin words, but I thought our rules were largely Germanic. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. I’m not 100% positive on it, but I think weird rules like “never split an infinitive” are derived from Latin, since it is literally impossible to split an infinitive in Latin. You can thank early scholars for that, since they were trained in Latin and maybe Greek.

    • “Never split an infinitive” has never been an actual rule in the English language, though – the people who espouse that “rule” are mistaken.

      Actual English grammatical rules are almost entirely Germanic (exceptions include, for instance, the very small number of borrowed phrases that follow their own internal structure, like “attorney general”).

  4. Pingback: Word Warriors! | Lexifab!

  5. I don’t think it’s fair to argue that English originated in Germany. That would imply that the language we speak today is in some sense the same as the language spoken sixteen centuries ago in Angeln. The first language to actually be called “English” came into being when the Germanic tribes that you mentioned mingled, which did occur in the British Isles. Furthermore, the first instance of the English language that would be mutually intelligible with the English that we speak today clearly occurred in England, and probably happened around five or six hundred years ago.

    The British certainly did invent English. It’s just that their patent on it has expired. The Chinese invented noodles but you don’t see anyone telling the Italians that they’re not doing pasta correctly. And don’t even get me started on who invented the Volkswagon.

    • Hi Neal,
      Thanks for commenting with such a cogent argument. I think there is something to what you have said. But I don’t think you can argue that a language only begins to exist when it is “mutually intelligible” with modern speakers.

      Sanskrit isn’t readable by those who know Hindi. Ancient Greek is a whole ‘nother language compared to modern Greek. And even though there are 60 million Italians, Latin is a dead language. Just because modern English has evolved from it’s Germanic tribe past doesn’t mean that they’re not connected.

      Furthermore, you certainly can’t say that the British invented English. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Great Britain as we understand it today existed. As you say, English that modern speakers might understand has been spoken for far longer than that. You can’t even say that the English did, seeing as how from the time of James the VI & I in the 16th century, the Scots were an integral part of the English court.

      I would like to know what’s up with Volkswagons, though.

  6. “But I don’t think you can argue that a language only begins to exist when it is “mutually intelligible” with modern speakers.”

    Well, you have to have some way of distinguishing when two languages are the same and when they are different. Otherwise you would have to say that English and Russian and Sanskrit and German and Latin and Spanish are all the same language because they are all the same language as their ancestor languages and each one of them can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European. At some point, Latin stopped being PIE and started being Latin, and at some point, some local variants of Latin stopped being Latin and started being French or Spanish or Italian.

    Now, obviously there’s no single event that marks the transition from one language into another – it’s a long, slow process – but one of the ways that we distinguish one language from the next is mutual intelligibility. Spanish and French both evolved from the same source, but we call them by different names because at some point people who spoke one stopped being able to understand people who spoke the other.

    Language change is also far from arbitrary with regards to location. You get regional dialects due to geographical features like cities, mountains, or coastlines. In a very real sense, the place where a language evolved is much, much more important than the place where the parent language originated. English is unique precisely because it evolved on the British Isles, and what defines English it the mixing of various Germanic languages with French and Latin and Gaelic that happened on Great Britain and not on Continental Europe because of geopolitical factors unique to the British Isles.

    (Also, Great Britain is an island. It’s existed for thousands and thousands of years. The United Kingdom is the political entity that started in the 18th Century, although it’s often called “Great Britain” in the same way that the United States of America is often called “America,” much to the annoyance of Canadians, who also happen to live on the land mass known as America.)

    Anyway, there’s no disputing that the language that people speak today and refer to as English was first spoken on the island of Great Britain by the people who inhabited that island at the time, whether you call them “British” or “English and Scottish” or whatever.

    And the Volkswagon was commissioned by Adolf Hitler as part of the National Socialist agenda of providing affordable and reliable automobiles to every German citizen (well, the ones who were allowed to live, anyway). There are some people who refuse to even ride in a VW as a result.

  7. The United Kingdom was created almost a century after Great Britain. GB as a political entity began in 1707 and only after that could you speak of “British history.” Almost a hundred years later, Ireland was added and the United Kingdom was created. They’re not synonymous even today. Great Britain is England, Wales, and Scotland, while the United Kingdom is England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

    (Canadians and Mexicans live on the continent of North America. But they have terms for their nationalities already. What do you suggest we call people from the US? United Statesers? Yank or Yankee for us has a regional connotation—like calling everyone from England a Scouser or a Geordie.)

    Anyway, this is all tangential. I think you did a good job illustrating the difficulties in this discussion. Languages change and there aren’t clear points where they shift. Like you said, it’s a long, slow process. The fact that the British Isles (and America, Oz, NZ, etc) speak a Germanic language, and not a Romantic or Celtic seems to me quite important. The facts that a thousand-and-a-half years have passed, that several subsequent languages have melded into it, doesn’t change its nature.

    “English is unique precisely because it evolved on the British Isles, and what defines English it the mixing of various Germanic languages with French and Latin and Gaelic that happened on Great Britain and not on Continental Europe because of geopolitical factors unique to the British Isles.”
    I entirely agree with this sentiment. I just don’t think it makes the point that you want it to.

    “Anyway, there’s no disputing that the language that people speak today and refer to as English was first spoken on the island of Great Britain by the people who inhabited that island at the time, whether you call them ‘British’ or ‘English and Scottish’ or whatever.”

    I think that anytime you use terms like “no disputing” you are probably on shaky ground. Considering how long ago this happened, how few historical sources we have, and the gradual and undocumentable nature of language change, I don’t think you can make claims that assertive. You’d have to pinpoint when English (in the modern sense) was first spoken and who spoke it (probably the lower classes, who didn’t leave any written sources). More importantly, I don’t think any of that matters. English was introduced to the British Isles by German tribes. The fact that we are having the conversation long enough after that for the language to have repeatedly changed doesn’t change its origination.

    I did not know that about the Volkswagon. Seems a bit silly, but I suppose we all have our arbitrary lines in the sand.

    Thanks for the good conversation.

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