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Learn English with Berlitz

The spectacular advance of English across the face of the globe is a phenomenon without parallel in the history of mankind. At international conferences and economic summits, at business meetings and academic symposiums, over the airwaves and electronic networks, between airline pilots and traffic controllers, and between captains of ships at sea, English is overwhelmingly the medium of communication. It is the official language of dozens of countries in which only a small percentage of the population actually speaks it. It is the working language of a number of international organizations (the European Free Trade Association, for one) whose membership does not include a single English-speaking nation. In many countries a knowledge of English is helpful – and in some cases essential – for obtaining a certain job or pursuing a certain career. No one can even guess the number of people in the world who are currently studying English as a second language. But a “snowball effect” is clearly taking place; the more people there are in the world who already speak English, the more the rest of the world will want to, and is striving to, learn it and join the club.

English is the first language of most of the people in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and dozens of smaller countries and dependent states throughout the world. In the Western Hemisphere these include Bermuda and the Bahamas in the Atlantic Ocean, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St. Kitts, Nevis, Barbuda, Antigua, Montserrat, St. Vincent, Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, Belize in Central America, and Guyana and the Falkland Islands in South America. It is the official language, or at least one of the official languages, of about 15 countries in Africa, and of most of the countless islands that dot the Pacific Ocean. In India it has the title of “associate official language” and is generally used in conversation between people from different parts of the country. In dozens of other countries throughout the world it is the unofficial second language. All told, English is the mother tongue of about 375 million people – far less than Chinese, to be sure, and about the same as Hindi and Spanish. But the number of people who speak English with at least some degree of proficiency is probably twice as large and, unlike the others, it extends in large numbers to every corner of the globe.

In tracing the historical development of the English language, it is customary to divide it into three periods: Old English, which dates from earliest times to 1150; Middle English, 1150–1500; and Modern English, 1500 to the present. The history of the language may be said to have begun with the arrival in Britain of three Germanic tribes about the middle of the 5th century. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes crossed the North Sea from what is present-day Denmark and the coast of northwest Germany. The inhabitants of Britain prior to this invasion spoke a Celtic language which seems to have quickly given way to the new Germanic tongue. The Jutes, who came from Jutland, settled in Kent, the Isle of Wight, and along part of the Hampshire coast. The Saxons, who came from Holstein, settled in the rest of England south of the Thames. The Angles, who came from Schleswig, settled in the area extending northward from the Thames as far as Scotland, and it is from them that the word “English” evolved. They came from the “angle” or corner of land in present-day Schleswig-Holstein. In Old English their name was Engle and their language known as englisc.

In the next several centuries four distinct dialects of English emerged. The Humber River divided the northern kingdom of Northumbria, where Northumbrian was spoken, from the kingdom of Mercia, in central England, where Mercian was spoken. South of the Thames the West Saxon dialect developed in the kingdom of Wessex, while Kentish was spoken in Kent. In the 7th and 8th centuries Northumbria enjoyed political and cultural ascendancy in England, but in the 9th century both Northumbria and Mercia were devastated by the invasions of the Vikings. Only Wessex preserved its independence and by the 10th century the West Saxon dialect came to be the official language of the country. Since most surviving Old English works are those written in West Saxon, our knowledge of Old English is derived mainly from this dialect.

The Germanic peoples in early times used a form of writing known as runes. Its letters were made up mainly of straight lines, so as to be suitable for inscriptions carved on wood or stone. With the arrival of Christian missionaries from Ireland and Rome, however, the runes gradually gave way to the Roman alphabet. One runic letter was retained: the þ(called thorn), which represented the th sound (e.g., wiþ – with). A new letter, ð (eth), also represented th (bæð – bath), while the æ represented the a sound of the word“hat” (bæc – back). The sound of sh was represented by sc (sceap – sheep), and the sound of k was spelled c (cynn – kin). The letters j, q, and v were not used, and f served for both f and v.

The Old English vocabulary consisted of a sprinkling of Latin and Scandinavian (Old Norse) words over an Anglo-Saxon base. Latin words included street, kitchen, kettle, cup, cheese, wine, and, after the adoption of Christianity, angel, bishop, abbot, martyr, and candle. The Vikings brought many Old Norse words (sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window, husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die), as well as the personal pronouns they, their, and them. Celtic has left its mark mostly in place names (Devon, Dover, Kent, Carlisle), and in the names of most English rivers (Thames, Avon, Trent, Severn).

Many Old English words and their Old Norse counterparts competed vigorously with each other for supremacy in the language. Sometimes the Old Norse word won out, sometimes the English; in some cases both words remained in use. For “window” the Norse vindauga (“wind-eye”) won out over English eagthyrl (“eye-hole”), but the English nosthyrl (“nose-hole”) became the modern “nostril.” Norse anger now takes precedence over
English wrath, while English no and from enjoy supremacy over Norse nay and fro. But standing side by side in modern English are Norse raise and English rear, Norse ill and English sick, as well as other such pairs as bask/bathe, skill/craft, skin/hide, and dike/ditch. As can be seen, the sk sound was most typically Old Norse, and often competed with the English sh in the same word. Thus in modern English we have such doublets as skirt/shirt, scatter/shatter, and skip/shift, which began to diverge in meaning only with the passage of centuries.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought the French language to England. For about two centuries after the conquest French was the language of the English nobility. Its impact upon English was tremendous. Thousands of new words were introduced into the language, touching upon the fields of government, religion, law, food, art, literature, medicine, and many others. As with the case of Old Norse, the infusion of French words produced numerous synonyms (English shut, French close; English answer, French reply; English smell, French odor; English yearly, French annual ), as well as many other pairs of words offering subtle distinctions of meaning (ask/demand, room/chamber, wish/desire, might/power). It is interesting to note that, while the names of meat-producing animals such as ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, and deer are English, the words for the meats derived from them (beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, venison) are all French. And to the already existing synonyms, English wrath and Old Norse anger, the French added a third word: ire.

But, despite the great flood of words into English from Latin, Old Norse, French, and later other languages, the heart of the language remained the Old English of Anglo-Saxon times. While fewer than 5,000 Old English words remain unchanged and in common use today, these constitute the basic building blocks of our language. They include the everyday household words, most parts of the body, as well as the numerous pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs that hold the language together. It was this basic stock, onto which was grafted a wealth of contributions from numerous other sources, that in the end produced what many today believe to be the richest of the world’s languages.

In the 14th century English finally came into its own in England. Between 1350 and 1380 it became the medium of instruction in the schools and the language of the courts of law. King Henry IV, who ascended the throne in 1399, was the first English king since the Norman Conquest whose mother tongue was English. By the close of the 14th century, the dialect of London had emerged as the literary standard and Geoffrey Chaucer had written his immortal Canterbury Tales.

All great languages have humble beginnings. In the case of English it was the arrival in Britain of a small Germanic tribe from an “angle” of land on the Continent.

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