The English Language: A Study in Diversity and Evolution

Let’s take a look at the history of the English language; it’s evolution, and it’s diversity.

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Language is a constantly evolving and growing machine, especially English. Statistica states English is the most widely used language of native and non-native speakers at 1.5 billion people worldwide. Mandarin comes in at a close second with 1.1 billion. With such numbers and a vastly diverse range of cultures that speak English, it’s no wonder it’s the most diverse in terms of linguistics.

English is an old language that has evolved several times over the last 1600 years. Let’s take a look at its history and the importance of understanding that your version of English is the same as another’s, though they might sound different. 

History of the English Language 

Olde English

Before we can get into today’s English, we must first understand where it originated to see how it has flourished over the centuries. English began with the invasion of Briton in the 5th Century CE by the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Old English thrived and evolved between 450-1100 CE. While this would be difficult to decipher by today’s version, many of our words have roots steeped in Old English. The Exeter Book Riddles and Beowulf are texts you might recognize or have read in translation from this period.


Middle English

In 1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded England, bringing French into the country. Middle English was created and continued until about 1500 CE. This language shift, however, created a divide among the upper and lower classes as only the top echelons utilized the Anglo-French language fusion. Infamous Middle English texts include Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.


Modern English

While still distinctly different than contemporary English, for the most part, we can read and follow along with Modern English (1500-1800). The “Great Vowel Shift” occurred in the 1500s due to the great exploration that Britain partook in during this time. The greater number of countries and people the English made contact with, the more the language evolved, shortening vowel sounds. Most importantly, the printing press was invented, and English spelling became standardized. Before that, the individual monks and “printers” who hand-wrote proofs spelled however they chose to. Prolific writers of Modern English include Shakespeare and John Milton.


Late Modern English

From the 19th Century to the present, Late Modern English has changed distinctly in the vastness of available words—this can be credited to the Industrial Revolution and Technological Evolution that has continuously progressed since—and the usability of the language around the world. Because the British Empire expanded so far over a few centuries, they integrated words and phrases from their territories and colonies into English, further evolving how it was used. The Brontë Sisters, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison are just a few of the great authors of this era. 


Diversity and Lingistics

English is used in nearly every country. It is the official language of 59 countries and 27 non-sovereign entities. Does that mean that the English we use in the United States is the same as that in India or Pakistan? No. Why would it be when even the English we use in the US varies depending on your geographical area? A simple test would be to ask a group of people in a tourist town what they call a syrupy carbonated beverage. You’re bound to get soda, pop, and coke as the answer. 

More than just a change in wordage, how about dialect? I think this is the most sticky and controversial issue with those who deem themselves the “grammar police.” Language is, first and foremost, an oral tool of communication. While there are rules to written English, oral dialects of English are distinguished based on culture, location, and history. Location determines the accent of the native speaker, which can add or remove consonant and vowel sounds, not to mention the words used to define objects and ideas. Culture plays a part in the distinct changes a word undergoes when spoken. Thinking someone is of lower intellect due to their pronunciation of the word “axe” instead of “ask” underscored the limited knowledge of linguistic cultural history. 

In a phrase: don’t be a jerk. If you’re speaking to someone who sounds different, appreciate their version, as I’m sure they’re not judging you for yours.

English is Ever Expanding 

Words and phrases are constantly being updated in official dictionaries. Not only are they getting new entries, but also updated definitions. I mean, the term “elbow” was invented by Shakespeare, and he loved the prefix “un-” so much he gave new meaning to over 300 words. In our rapidly evolving technological world, new terms are being added yearly. 

Slang has always been around, not just something the 20th century coined and kept up with generationally. In the 1800s, the phrase for something terrific or impressive was “some pumpkins.” The last four generations used the terms: “far out,” then “rad,” which changed to “da bomb,” and is now the Gen Z version, “hits different.” 


So What’s It All Mean

I think it’s safe to say that English will not be a dead language for quite some time. I’m not arrogant enough to say it never will be, I’m sure speakers of Latin never thought it would die out, either. Given the language users’ penchant for creating and recreating English words and phrases,  and integrating other languages, I believe we’ll have another shift in the centuries to come. Most importantly, understand that English is an umbrella with many versions. Embrace them and leave the “grammar policing” to the textbook editors.

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