English is, in my opinion, a great language. And understanding where it came from can be helpful. So enjoy this brief and simple history lesson. It’s not vital, so you can skip it. But you might find it useful (and even interesting).
How it all started
Many thousands of years ago, there were tribes of people in a large area east of Turkey. These tribes all spoke a very similar language.
These tribes moved to or invaded places to the east and to the west. To the east, they went into Persia (modern-day Iran) and India, and their language became the basis of the Iranian and Indian languages.
In the west, their language became the basis of almost all of the European languages we speak today. Because it went to Europe and as far east as India, this original language is called “Indo-European” (there’s a map at the end of this book if you’re curious to know more).
You can still see Indo-European in many basic words, such “mother, “father,” “brother.” These words are similar in all major European, Indian and Iranian languages because they share the same roots.
Pretty interesting, eh?
Now, we move up in time and come to English.
English is a German language
Many people don’t realize that English is actually related to German. It’s a Germanic language.
Two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered the island of Britain and took over. They prospered as Romans for about 400 years until the Roman Empire started collapsing.
The fall of the Roman Empire was not a pretty time. Soon, the people of Britain found themselves surrounded by a lot of Germans who had moved into the island (often peacefully, sometimes not so peacefully). These Germans came from northern Germany, and were mostly members of tribes, called the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.
Over time, these German tribes established seven kingdoms in the area known today as England, which is the southern part of the island of Britain (the northern part being Scotland, and the major western parts being Wales and Cornwall).
The language of the German tribes became Old English, and you wouldn’t understand it if it was heard today. It’s an old form of German.
Now, prior to invading England, these German tribes had picked up Latin words from Romans over hundreds of years of interaction with the Roman Empire. So it may surprise you to learn that many of the Latin words in English are not necessarily from when the Romans conquered England. They were often part of the German language of the tribes that came to England.
These seven German kingdoms lived relatively peacefully, until getting into all sorts of nasty fights with invading Vikings from Denmark, who conquered and started putting Danish words into our language; and then several hundred years later another unfortunate thing happened when a region of France invaded England.
So now the poor Englanders were ruled by French-speaking people, and French became the language of the upper classes in England.
Finally, England threw the bums out after all sorts of nasty conflicts, but now the language had words from French, Danish, and, because England was a Christian country, from the Latin used in church (called Ecclesiastical Latin, which means “church Latin”). And, because England was a trading nation, we continued to pick up words from other cultures, even Arabic (such as “orange” and “scarlet,” both of which come from Arabic).
Then things got even more interesting when England started conquering other countries and words were brought in from wherever the English happened to go.
So it’s a pretty rich language! Interestingly, there are many words in English that have almost the same meaning but have a different “feel,” depending on their source. Words from German feel more “earthy” and “real.” Words from Latin feel more sophisticated. For example, “go” is from German, while “depart” is from Latin. Both mean almost the same thing, but they feel different.
The grammar police
Now, about 400 years ago, the grammar police got involved. They wanted to make rules for this language because it was so non-standard. However, they did something that confused things quite a bit: Because they knew Latin (the language that all well-educated people knew), they put Latin rules of grammar into the language.
In Roman times, the common people spoke Vulgar Latin (vulgar here means “common,” not “nasty”) and the well-educated spoke Classical Latin.
Classical comes from a word meaning “the highest rank,” and Classical Latin was very complicated and definitely the “highest rank” of Latin. The belief at the time was that learning it taught rich young Roman boys how to think. It was really hard.
The normal people didn’t care, as they just went on their happy way and spoke Vulgar Latin. You could, however, immediately tell who was a member of the upper class when they spoke: their speech was a grammatically perfect form of Latin that was very different from Vulgar Latin.
Well, the grammar police forced rules from this complex Classical Latin into English. There is a major problem with this idea. Latin is Latin – a dead language. It’s not English, which is a constantly changing language with a different structure.
Forcing Latin rules into English has made grammar incredibly confusing. English is not Latin: it’s a mixed-up Germanic language – like a mutt dog – that has bits and pieces of many different cultures in it.
Why you still need to understand some grammar
English grammar may sometimes be silly and poorly understood by most. But at least having an understanding of the basics is important. Remember what I said earlier about playing a sport and breaking the rules: you will irritate others. Grammar establishes the basic rules of good speaking and writing, and just like anything with rules, you need to follow them.
However, hopefully I’ve made you feel a little better about having some difficulty with grammar. It’s really not your fault.