Where Did the English Language Come From?

Posted by admin on January 6th, 2011 at 04:45pm

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STEVE EMBER: This is Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we present the first of two programs about the history of the English Language.


STEVE EMBER: More people are trying to learn English than any other language in the world. English is the language of political negotiations and international business. It has become the international language of science and medicine. International treaties say passenger airplane pilots must speak English.

English is the major foreign language taught in most schools in South America and Europe. School children in the Philippines and Japan begin learning English at an early age. English is the official language of more than seventy-five countries including Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

In countries where many different languages are spoken, English is often used as an official language to help people communicate. India is good example. English is the common language in this country where at least twenty-four languages are spoken by more than one million people.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Where did the English language come from? Why has it become so popular? To answer these questions we must travel back in time about five thousand years to an area north of the Black Sea in southeastern Europe.

Experts say the people in that area spoke a language called Proto-Indo-European. That language is no longer spoken. Researchers do not really know what it sounded like.

Yet, Proto-Indo-European is believed to be the ancestor of most European languages. These include the languages that became ancient Greek, ancient German and the ancient Latin.

Latin disappeared as a spoken language. Yet it left behind three great languages that became modern Spanish, French and Italian. Ancient German became Dutch, Danish, German, Norwegian, Swedish and one of the languages that developed into English.

STEVE EMBER: The English language is a result of the invasions of the island of Britain over many hundreds of years. The invaders lived along the northern coast of Europe.

The first invasions were by a people called Angles about one thousand five hundred years ago. The Angles were a German tribe who crossed the English Channel. Later two more groups crossed to Britain. They were the Saxons and the Jutes.

These groups found a people called the Celts, who had lived in Britain for many thousands of years. The Celts and the invaders fought.

An Anglo-Saxon helmet

Getty Images

An Anglo-Saxon helmet

After a while, most of the Celts were killed, or made slaves. Some escaped to live in the area that became Wales. Through the years, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes mixed their different languages. The result is what is called Anglo-Saxon or Old English.

Old English is extremely difficult to understand. Only a few experts can read this earliest form of English.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Several written works have survived from the Old English period. Perhaps the most famous is called Beowulf. It is the oldest known English poem. Experts say it was written in Britain more than one thousand years ago. The name of the person who wrote it is not known.

Beowulf is the story of a great king who fought against monsters. He was a good king, well liked by his people. Listen as Warren Scheer reads the beginning of this ancient story in modern English.


So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,

a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

This terror of the hall-troops had come far.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on

as his powers waxed and his worth was proved,

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts

beyond the whale-road had to yield to him

and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

STEVE EMBER: The next great invasion of Britain came from the far north beginning about one thousand one hundred years ago. Fierce people called Vikings raided the coast areas of Britain. The Vikings came from Denmark, Norway and other northern countries. They were looking to capture trade goods and slaves and take away anything of value.

In some areas, the Vikings became so powerful they built temporary bases. These temporary bases sometimes became permanent. Later, many Vikings stayed in Britain.

Many English words used today come from these ancient Vikings. Words like “sky,” “leg,” “skull,” “egg,” “crawl,” “ lift” and “take” are from the old languages of the far northern countries.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The next invasion of Britain took place more than nine hundred years ago, in ten sixty-six. History experts call this invasion the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror led it.

The Normans were a French-speaking people from Normandy in the north of France. They became the new rulers of Britain. These new rulers spoke only French for several hundred years. It was the most important language in the world at that time. It was the language of educated people. But the common people of Britain still spoke Old English.

Old English took many words from the Norman French. Some of these include “damage,” “prison,” and “marriage.” Most English words that describe law and government come from Norman French. Words such as “jury,” “parliament,” and “justice.”

The French language used by the Norman rulers greatly changed the way English was spoken by eight hundred years ago.

English became what language experts call Middle English. As time passed, the ruling Normans no longer spoke true French. Their language had become a mix of French and Middle English.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Geoffrey Chaucer

STEVE EMBER: Middle English sounds like modern English. But it is very difficult to understand now. Many written works from this period have survived. Perhaps the most famous was written by Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet who lived in London and died there in fourteen hundred. Chaucer’s most famous work is “The Canterbury Tales,” written more than six hundred years ago.

“The Canterbury Tales” is a collection of poems about different people traveling to the town of Canterbury. Listen for a few moments as Warren Scheer reads the beginning of Chaucer’s famous “Canterbury Tales.”


Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heath…

Now listen as Mister Scheer reads the same sentences again, but this time in Modern English.


When April with his showers sweet with fruit

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower;

When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,

Quickened again, in every holt and heath,

The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun…

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: English language experts say Geoffrey Chaucer was the first important writer to use the English language. They also agree that Chaucer’s great Middle English poem gives us a clear picture of the people of his time.

STEVE EMBER: The prologue you just heard describes a group of religious travelers going to Canterbury. To entertain themselves, they agree to tell stories while they travel.

The Knight’s Tale is about two men who compete for the love of a beautiful woman. The Miller’s Tale is a funny story that tells about a young man who is in love with a married woman. The two play a mean trick on the woman’s old husband.

One of the most famous characters in the series of stories is the Wife of Bath. She is a strong, and opinionated woman who likes to talk about her many adventures in life and marriage.

Some of the people described in “The Canterbury Tales” are wise and brave; some are stupid and foolish. Some believe they are extremely important. Some are very nice, others are mean. But they all still seem real.

The history of the English language continues as Middle English becomes Modern English, which is spoken today. That will be our story next time.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: This program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week to hear the second part of the History of the English Language on the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS.

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  • 1. small star  |  January 6th, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    English has a long and complicated history .
    But English is an international language, especially in science and medicine!
    when traveling or work abroad,we must know English.
    It’s important to succeed!!
    English is really important! and we must learn well this language!

  • 2. nguynty  |  January 6th, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Thank a lot for this lesson. When I was at school I learned the history of English but it was not as clearly as this. There are more details in the lesson. I think that English learners should know the history of this popular language.

  • 3. dongquy.sshn  |  January 6th, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Understanding English more and more clearly, we can learn and use it better and better. With other languages is the same.
    It’s very important to learn English and if we want to good at English, we need a passion. The passion is greater, we can learn faster and use it more flexibly.
    So, this information is very useful. Thank you so much.

  • 4. life  |  January 7th, 2011 at 6:50 am

    the lesson is rather long, but the lesson’s music can make me relax and not boring

  • 5. ly  |  January 7th, 2011 at 7:21 am

    i can know a music in this passage?

  • 6. candlelight  |  January 7th, 2011 at 8:57 am

    oh,this lesson reallyrealy interesting.i ans understand futter about Modern English origin
    thanks a lot

  • 7. kedo  |  January 7th, 2011 at 9:14 am

    For me, the content of this lesson seems difficult to understand, though I know that is some old English words so I have to read again and again that still do not understand very much. Maybe should I read and listen to several times again.

  • 8. Anne  |  January 7th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I think it isn’t an interesting lesson. Somebody says the more clearly we know about the language which we are trying to learn the better we can learn it. But this lesson is so long and it has many old words which are difficult to understand and boring. I think although you know about English clearly, you still can’t learn it better if you don’t have a good method. So, if this is a lesson about the method of learning English, it’ll be better. Well, I hope in the next time, there will have a lesson like that.
    But thank nghetienganh.com. U’re so wonderful. Thank for u, my listening skill is better than it was before. Thaks so much.

  • 9. candlelight  |  January 7th, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    to understand while to listence i think offen we can not.but if add to translate hard words we will be able .this lesson helped us futher understands about Modern English origin that expand more knowledge of the common world language .thank for truth

  • 10. tramngoc  |  January 7th, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    oh.i have studied english for many years.now i just know history of english.it’s interesting.i find i love english more and i will try to study it better.thank you very much!

  • 11. tttt  |  January 7th, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Only after reading carefully (not dare say that listening carefully) to understand little and have to mark some paragraphs then combine them for monitoring of historic changes of developing process of English language, I imagine about an Area of legendary character Aivanho and Robin in the forests… I recognize why some words of French mixing with the English. Learning this lesson, I have to imagine the geographical area referred in there. The events and times, history and geographic, which makes the difficulty of items increasing, but interesting.
    Sure have to read it many times again…

  • 12. Thien  |  January 9th, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Thank about this lesson! I can know the history of English. I want to learn English more because it is very important nowadays.

  • 13. hoa  |  January 9th, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    wow, when i understood the history of english and the important role of english in life and business, i had a motivation of learning english more harder. I will try my best to learn english. FIGHTING!!!

  • 14. MISSNGAN  |  January 9th, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    now, i have to learn E o lot because i will join an interview next nearly time. it’s difficult to remember all word that i have ever met before, even thought, i met it many time. when i hear e listening lesson, some words i know but to understand fluently, really hard…

  • 15. cường  |  January 13th, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    the lesson is very long . After i it , I understanded a lot of anything to E history .thank y for nghetienganh.com

  • 16. pigcanfly  |  January 16th, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    i think it is the longest lesson still now include form and content. all languages must spend long stage.English is also same that. E is the third popular language in the world and the indigenous language of about 402 million people in 2002.more and more people learn to use English which is the most important language. still now, about 1billion people use English to communicate, especially to find good job.E is not only main language in North America, West Europe, Oceania but also over world in the future soon.
    with me, English is really difficult. to write a comment, i must spend a lots time.i often say “i don’t like English’” but i can’t deny that E is interesting and i don’t know i liked English whenever.may be from English songs, films, web…. or anything. English like beautiful girl, need much time to discover. English- latent beauty

  • 17. buloongdinhvit  |  January 18th, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    i known that English is the language mix of three language : french, German and Latin but in this article i don’t see “Latin” any where

  • 18. Nguyen Van Minh  |  February 5th, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Dear all members,
    The writer said that English and some European languages orginate from Proto -indo European Language. Due to invasions invaders brought English to many countries go with that time some invaders brought Friend to countries was using English. Over many years English changed much from very difficult to read became modern English a mix language and very common in the world to day.

  • 19. huong thi pham  |  April 13th, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Foreign language is the most favourite subjet. I learned French at the secondary school in six years. in 1993 ,I started to learn English, but not continuously. I was taught and guided whole-heartedly by a prisoner where I was working. Because of having good French background, I made much progress in my study. There are some words in English which are similar to French. I got the certificate C after an industrious studying process,nearly two years.Actually, I don’t still know where English language came from. Reading this writing, I understand many things of it, especially its taking form history. Presently, English is used spacious in the worlth, particularly in diplomacy. I love English so much. I enjoy learning it everyday.

  • 20. 701 -708  |  April 17th, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    look back old article i have a little bit motion always stand up me. i will forget english language if i am not continue to comment . i will try

  • 21. English James  |  December 16th, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Learning English is not difficult as long as you practice consistently.

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