How Did the English Language Come to Be?

by Lexa Pennington /
Lexa Pennington's picture
Jun 13, 2014 / 0 comments

English is truly a lingua franca, or global language. It is spoken in countries throughout the world and studied by millions of students every day. However, English, evolutionarily speaking, is a relatively new language. To understand where English comes from, let’s journey back to the beginning of language itself.


The origins of language


The Origins of Language


Although humans and chimpanzees diverged as species about 6 million years ago, humans didn’t develop vocal tracts capable of producing modern speech sounds until about 100,000 years ago. Between then and 50,000 years ago, humans began to produce art and cultural artifacts. During that 50,000-year interval, linguists speculate that both the human brain and human language made a series of evolutionary leaps forward:

•    Naming objects in the environment. Early language began as the ability to name objects using sounds. Apes utilize about a dozen or so calls to communicate with each other, but they don’t have a wide vocabulary or the ability to memorize millions of words.

•    Digitizing vowels and consonants. At some point, instead of communicating using unstructured call sounds, hominids began to digitize words using vowels and consonants to enlarge their vocabularies. These changes, linguists hypothesize, would have required not only changes to human vocal tracts but also to the way brains process auditory signals.

•    Proto-language. When proto-languages developed, individual words were grouped to convey messages or meaning. Similar proto-language abilities are seen in young children or in adults learning new languages, such as in a TESOL program.

•    Structured language. Adding more sophisticated linguistic structures like plurals, clauses and tenses solidify structured language. Again, many people who become certified to teach English overseas start with simple proto-language skills and then teach students to add richer structures.


Indo-European Language


Indo-European languages

According to evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel of the University of Reading, many language families, including European languages, can be traced back to a common root in southern Europe. This language root, which is about 15,000 years old, birthed seven distinct language families:

1.    European languages. People often think of Latin as ancient, but it’s really only 2,000 to 4,000 years old. English and its European companions originated from a much older root.

2.    Altaic. Altaic languages include Mongolian, Turkish, and Uzbek tongues.

3.    Chukchi-Kamchatkan. This language family is spoken in northeastern Siberia.

4.    Dravidian. Southern India is the home of the Dravidian language family.

5.    Inuit-Yupik. This language family is spoken in the Arctic regions.

6.    Kartvelian. Kartvelian is the precursor to modern-day Georgian language.

7.    Uralic. Finnish and Hungarian came from this language family.


When this common language root existed, Europe was just emerging from the last Ice Age. When the ice retreated and hunter-gatherers dispersed to the corners of the world, their common root language evolved into new forms.


Kneeling Barbarian, Farnese collection

Germanic Tribes

Germanic invaders started to populate the English coastline during the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.; few writings of their languages exist, but historians have discovered Anglo-Saxon writings from the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries. In the ninth century, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, called the language “English.” A few Celtic loan words were adopted, but Celtic had limited influence on English.

In the mid-ninth century, the Vikings invaded England from Scandinavia. Both Norse languages and English had a common Germanic root, and Old English borrowed multiple Norse words. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, Old English gave way to Middle English, which was unique for its ability to incorporate foreign words without creating additional English equivalents. During this period, many people were trilingual, combining English-speaking with Latin and French.


Modern English

During the late medieval period and into the early modern periods, regional dialects of Middle English gave way to a standard London version of English. Printing technology contributed to the spread of London English, and Middle English dialects came to be stigmatized as languages for the lower class. As the British Empire expanded all over the world, English continued its tradition of adopting words from other countries, mostly from other imperial and trading countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. English took its place as a global language, and it is now spoken in most countries. Different variations, like American English, U.K. English, and Australian English, have continued English’s evolutionary journey to this day.




“Kneeling Barbarian” statue image by Marie-Lan Nguyen from Wikimedia Commons.