This and That Thursday: Where Did English Come From, Anyway?

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The history of English can be divided into three periods: Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English and Modern English. While the language’s evolution was gradual, events in the area of Britain throughout its history caused major changes at three points: around 700 A.D., 1100 A.D. and 1500 A.D.

A group of West Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – arrived in Britain as invaders between 500 and 700 A.D. The Celts who lived in Britain at that time were pushed north and west into what is now Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Germanic peoples spoke what became Old English, which lasted until 1066 when William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England.

After the Norman conquest, Old English evolved into Middle English with the influences of French (and Latin, by way of French) brought by the Normans. For a while there was a class division, with the lower classes speaking English and the ruling and business classes speaking French. Middle English was spoken for around 400 years, from 1100-1500.

Early Modern English is what was spoken during Shakespeare’s time and is dated from around 1500. Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) began. Every English vowel underwent changes in how it was normally pronounced.

From the 16th century onward, the British had more and more contact with the outside world. Along with the Renaissance period, this contact meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that more words were written down. Books became cheaper, so more people learned how to read. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard.

Late Modern English, what we speak today, is really only different from Early Modern English in terms of vocabulary. We have a much larger vocabulary now than we did 500 years ago. This is due in large part to the industrial revolution, when new words were invented to name objects, processes and more that just didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.

American English, incidentally, is much closer to Early Modern English than modern British English. In many ways, the language was “frozen” when it was brought to the new world. A lot of words that are now considered “Americanisms” are actually left over from 17th century English, and while they were dropped by the British, we hung onto them. For example, “trash” is now referred to as “rubbish” by the British, “fall” as “autumn,” and “loan” as “lend.”

Mostly because of the United States’ global influence, English has become sort of the “lingua franca” of the modern age. It is the most-spoken language in the world, and in 3rd place (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish) for native speakers.

Further reading: English Club; Merriam-Webster; The Way We Think About Grammar is Broken

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases, Part 3 – Other Languages

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Read part 1 on Latin phrases here, and part 2 on French phrases here.

Why do most Americans only speak English? I think it’s because we don’t need to learn any other languages. English is the only language most of us will ever use to get through our day-to-day lives.

I know some Spanish and some Latin (a dead language, but hey! It counts), but I’m nowhere near fluent in either – though I’d like to be. I’ve just never had to use a language other than English to get by, so I’ve never been really forced to learn one. I think most Americans are similar. We studied a language in school, maybe even spent a month or two in a foreign country, but in the end never really “mastered” any other language.

Anyway, here are some non-English words and phrases English speakers use a lot. You might have heard some before, but it’s important to know what they really mean before you use them in anything you write – it’s easy to interpret words or phrases based on context, and forget that we don’t know their actual definition.

As always, please comment if you want to add any foreign words or phrases that I may have missed!

Hasta la vista: Spanish – usually used in place of “see you later,” but literally closer to “until the next time.”

Mano a mano: Spanish – directly or face-to-face, usually used in reference to a confrontation or conflict.

Prima donna: Italian – literally “first lady.” 1. a distinguished female operatic singer; a leading female operatic star; a diva 2. a person that’s considered vain, temperamental and/or conceited.

Alpha and Omega: Greek – “first and last” or “beginning and end.”

Hoi polloi: Greek – the common people; the masses.

Mazel Tov: Yiddish – Literally “good luck” – used to congratulate someone rather than to wish them a good outcome that hasn’t yet happened. Consider it more of a declaration that good luck has already fallen on someone and you’re congratulating them for it.

Nota bene: Italian – literally “note well.” Usually used in text, telling the reader to carefully observe what comes next.

Que sera, sera: Italian – this phrase became popular when Doris Day sang the song of the same name for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Literally, it means “what will be will be.” It translates similarly in multiple languages so the exact origin is unknown, but it’s been around for a while: I found an excerpt on the phrase from the World Heritage Encyclopedia, via, which says it may have originated in either Italy, Spain or France in the 15th or 16th century.

Schadenfreude: German – comes from schaden (harm) + freude (joy). Pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.

Verboten: German – forbidden, as by law; prohibited.

Zeitgeist: German – comes from zeit (spirit) + geist (time). The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of time.

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases, Part 2 – French

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, Tower, Landmark, Europe
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Also read last week’s post on Latin phrases.

For some reason, English speakers love French. Perhaps it’s simply because it is a pretty language. I think we have co-opted French phrases for a variety of reasons, though. French culture has been exported throughout Europe and even America over the centuries, in the forms of opera, ballet, music, wine, and more. Many of the phrases in the list below were popularized among English speakers this way.

Avant-garde – cutting edge; new; experimental; innovative. Usually refers to something in the arts (for example, “Shakespeare’s play Othello was avant-garde for its time”)

Bon voyage:  “have a pleasant trip” – an expression of goodwill at the start of a trip or new venture

Carte blanche: “blank paper” – unrestricted power to act at one’s own discretion; complete freedom

Cause célèbre: “famous case” – any incident that attracts great public attention

C’est la vie:  “that’s life” – such is life

Déjà vu:  “already seen” – the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time

Du jour: “of the day” – prepared on the particular day; of the kind being served today (a restaurant’s “soup du jour”); 2. fashionable; current

Enfant terrible:  “terrible child” – usually refers to a famous or successful person who likes to shock people; a person whose unconventional behavior embarrasses others

Esprit de corps – a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group; team spirit

Faux pas:  “false step” – a slip or blunder in etiquette, manners, or conduct; an embarrassing social blunder or indiscretion

Femme fatale:  “fatal woman” – an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into difficult or dangerous situations; a siren

Haute couture: “high dressmaking” – high fashion; clothing created by high fashion designers

Je ne sais quoi: “I know not what” – an indescribable or inexpressible thing

Joie de vivre: “joy of life” – a keen enjoyment of living; exuberance; lightheartedness

Menage-a-trois: “household of three” – a love triangle

Nom de plume: pen name; pseudonym

Piece de resistance: “means of resistance” – usually in reference to creative work or food – the most important or remarkable feature (for example, “the piece de resistance of the show was the artist’s 20 foot tall sculpture of a fire hydrant”)

RSVP: stands for “Respondez s’il vous plait”, meaning “please answer” – a reply to an invitation

Savoir faire: ability to say and do the right thing at the right time; tact; poise; sophistication