The English We Speak

by Emma Cresswell

A few years back I remember seeing a quote online about how English likes to take other languages down alleys and steal their vocabulary.  I’ve always remembered it and it still makes me chuckle.  The actual quote has been attributed to James Nicoll[i], and tongue in cheek though it may be it’s not an inaccurate view of the English language.  Two thousand words will do little to dent the vast and colourful history of the English language but what it will do is help us look at some aspects and how they can be of use to our learners.

Is it really that important?

Maybe not, maybe it’s only the history buffs or the language geeks who are still reading, but bear with me.  How many of your students talk to you about a /t∫ærəktə/ in a book and then look at you blankly when you correct them before asking you why the “ch” is not pronounced /t∫/? We can shrug our shoulders and make some sarcastic remark about English being a strange and mystical language, or how English pronunciation is a mystery to us all… or we could say that it’s because of the origin of the word character.  I’m sure that even the most petulant of teenagers would prefer the latter answer.  Which is useful as it’s the truth as well.  Character comes from the Greek χαρακτήρ (kharakter).  The Greek letter χ (chi/kai) is pronounced /k/.  If we compare this to the word charity which shares the first four letters with character we find ourselves looking at a word which entered the English language through the French charité which itself evolved from the Latin word cāritāt.  The soft French pronunciation of “ch” /∫/ then evolved into the English /t∫/. This is just one example.  There are countless others.

A potted history of the English language

The English we speak today originates from the West-Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of what is now England.   The Anglo-Saxons were by no means the first settlers in the British Isles but they have had the biggest linguistic impact, the word English can even be traced back to the Angles.  Modern English has very few loan words from the Britonic languages and Celtic dialects spoken by the tribes living in the British Isles from before the Roman times up until the Anglo Saxon invasions.  One reason for this that has been put forward is that there was little interaction between the Anglo Saxons and the Celts as they were more intent on fighting and killing each other.  Where we can see the Celtic influence is in place names, with words such as Avon, Thames and Wight.[ii]

The language that evolved among the Anglo Saxons is now referred to as Old English. A fusion of dialects and languages such as Northumbrian, Kentish, West Saxon and Mercian which dates back to the 5th century, its roots can be traced even further back to the dialects spoken by West Germanic tribes such as the Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Frisians and Franks.  By 600 AD half of England was under Anglo Saxon rule and it has been estimated that 30-40% of the words we use today can trace their roots back to Old English.  Modern English pronunciation and word order also owes a lot to Old English.[iii]

The subsequent centuries bore witness to a series of invasions, both territorial and linguistic as the Vikings and then the Normans crossed the seas.  Of the two, the Norman Conquest proved to have the biggest impact, bringing with it the Langue d’Oïl or Norman French, the impact of which is still highly visible in the English we speak today.

The Viking invasions resulted in a split country, with the North being ruled by the Danes and speaking Old Norse.  Old Norse brought words such as freckle and leg, but perhaps the biggest impact it had on the English language was the introduction of pronouns.

The Normans, despite coming from what is now France, can also trace their line back to the Norse Men.  However, the language they brought with them had evolved beyond recognition from the Old Norse spoken at the time in the north of England.  They also brought with them Roman Catholic clergy who spoke Latin, which was the de facto language of the church.  This resulted in a period of trilingualism which is still evident in Modern English:

Regal (Latin)

Royal (French)

Kingly (Old English)

This period of trilingualism couldn’t last forever and the day-to-day need to communicate brought forth a common language: English, albeit with a very large number of French words.  The nobility and aristocracy who had until then spoken Anglo Norman began to speak more in English, using French words to express ideas and concepts that they didn’t know in English.  This practice was emulated by the lower classes and enriched the English language to such an extent that there still exist countless pairs of words that reflect either an Old English or Anglo Norman heritage.  Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to food and animals. Have you ever wondered why pigs roll in mud on the farm yet it’s pork that we eat for dinner?  One theory put forward by Harley is that the French word was used by the people who got to eat it (the nobility and aristocracy) whereas the Old English word was used by the people who had to raise the animal (the peasants and lower classes).[iv]

Old English Anglo-Norman
Pig Pork
Cow Beef
Chicken Poultry

The Norman influence can also be seen in the language of government, giving us words such as court, judge, jury, appeal and parliament. It has been estimated that between the years 1200 and 1450 ten thousand French words entered the English language, of which 75% are still in use.[v]

An interesting concept put forward by Potter looks at the connotations and associations of English and French expressions: “English and French expressions [in English] may have similar denotations but slightly different connotations and associations. Generally the English words are stronger, more physical, and more human. We feel more at ease after getting a hearty welcome than after being granted a cordial reception. Compare freedom with liberty, friendship with amity, kingship with royalty, holiness with sanctity, happiness with felicity, depth with profundity, and love with charity.”[vi] Kate Gardoqui explores this in more detail in her video on TedEd by asking you to visualise a hearty welcome before getting you to visualise a cordial reception.[vii] Activities such as this not only help to raise our students’ awareness of the depth of English vocabulary but also to become more aware of register and connotation.

This period also resulted in some spelling changes which we still use today:

French Influenced Custom Modern day spelling example Common Old-English spelling
Qu- spelling for /kw/ Queen Cwen
C spelling for /s/ Mice Mys
O spelling for /ʌ/ Wonder Wundor
Ou spelling for /u:/ Wound (injury) Wund
H spelling for no sound Honest No Old-English spelling

These types of spelling changes coupled with what is now referred to as the Great English Vowel Shift, which took place between 1350 and 1700, resulted in the English we speak today where the phonology bears very little relation to the orthography.  In fact a lot of the spelling we still use today reflects the early pronunciation of Middle or even Old English. [viii]

With Middle English more or less established, influences on the English language came less from invasions and more from exploration, both theoretical and geographical.  Modern English Renaissance brought with it a renewal of interest in both Roman and Classical Greek cultures.  Scholars and scientists were producing reams of documents and publishing them through use of the newly created printing press.  However, English was deemed too rude or inadequate to be used to document these events, so Latin was used.  If a scholar needed a word that didn’t exist in Latin it would be invented using Latin roots.  This resulted in the creation of words such as relinquish, intimate, asterisk and disaster. It also produced numerous words which didn’t prove popular enough to stand the test of time such as splendidious, fatiguate, and magnificate. Whilst scientists were looking back to the Greek and Roman Classics for linguistic inspiration, writers and poets were looking much closer to home for inspiration.  The likes of Spenser and Shakespeare sought inspiration in people such as Chaucer and from Old English dialects in general to find words to express their ideas. [ix]

As England and later Britain grew and expanded, new trade routes, colonisation and subsequent immigration brought countless new words into the English language.  Early trading with other sea-faring nations introduced numerous loan-words into the English language.  Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch all contributed words to the English language in this period.  Later, as trade gave way to colonisation English absorbed even more words.  The early Pilgrims took words from the indigenous American population such as raccoon and squash. At the same time lots of place names in the USA still reflect the native languages: Mississippi, Ohio, Massachusetts (to name just a few) in the same way that English place names still reflect the original Celtic dialects.  From the Caribbean to India via the Pacific and the African continent, English acquired words such as bungalow, canoe, barbecue and zombie.[x]Words which are still commonly used today.

It’s tempting to end there, with the English language enriched beyond measure by words from all around the world.  However, no history of the English language, no matter how potted, could be complete without a look at the language that we currently speak.  But what language is that: Singlish? Jamaican Patois? US English? Australian English? Geordie? Scouse?  The list could go on.  And why not mention how English is evolving as a second or foreign language? Or discuss the impact that the Internet has had on English?

No matter how you answered those questions, there is no doubt that the English language has and always will evolve.  Whether it is still taking other languages down alleys to relieve them of their vocabulary as opposed to sitting next to them in an exam and erroneously copying what it thinks it can see is a matter of opinion.  What is important is how this affects our learners and how we can make the English language more accessible to them.  Studies have shown than it can take native English children longer to learn how to read English than is the case for other nationalities and languages.[xi] So what does this mean for our learners?

We have seen that the way a word is spelt and/or where a word comes from can affect both its pronunciation and usage.  Surely by sharing this knowledge with our learners is to enrich their learning experience?  Looking at a word’s origin is not an uncommon activity in a textbook (New English File Upper Intermediate springs to mind) but it is usually as a lead in to something else.   It wouldn’t take much adaptation on the teacher’s part to briefly look at the type of words being used and how they affect the register of a text or when and how they entered English.  In a mono-lingual class you could look at the loan words from their culture that English uses and what impact they have had on the English language.  The options are endless.  And we haven’t even begun to look at pronunciation!

Author’s Bio: Having spent nearly six years in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where amongst other things she completed her DELTA and became a connoisseur of the local brunch scene, Emma decided that she needed a new challenge. Sticking to Spanish speaking countries, she moved to IH Santander in January 2014 to become the DoS. As well as reacquainting herself with the nuances of the local language, Emma is fast familiarising herself with the local culinary scene and the numerous pincho restaurants to be found in her new home. Emma’s interest in etymology stems from a throwaway comment made by an old French teacher. Since then she has been squirreling away interesting facts toentertain (bore!) people with when out on a pincho crawl.

Etymology – Further Reading:

Word Sense:

Online Etymology Dictionary:

Fun with Words:

Take Our Word:

Word Origins:



[ii] English Words: A linguistic intoduction, H. Harley (Blackwell, 2006) p251


[iv] Ibid .257-8

[v] Harley, p256

[vi] Our Language, Simeon Potter (Penguin, 1950/1966) p37-8



[ix] Harley, p261