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29 October 2014
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English today
The birth of English
The spread of English

The birth of English

The English language which gradually replaced Celtic in England and south eastern Scotland from the 5th century onwards is most closely related historically to three other modern languages: German, Dutch and Frisian. These languages are "related" because they are descended from a common parent language called West Germanic. West Germanic was spoken in what is now the Netherlands, northern Germany and southern Denmark about 2,000 years ago.

If we were to ask when English first came into being as a language, what we would really be asking, then, would be: when did it start breaking away from the other West Germanic languages, and especially from Frisian, which is its closest relative. Frisian is still spoken today in Friesland, the northern part of the Netherlands. It was long recognised as being a language rather similar to English, and East Anglian fisherman had a rhyme which went:

Bread, butter and green cheese
Is good English and good Friese.

The Frisians, too, still have a version of the same rhyme:

Bûter, brea en griene tsiis
Is goed Ingelsk en goed Fries.

So English first came into existence when it began to separate from the other West Germanic dialects and acquire its own identity. And this happened when speakers of West Germanic, who had originally crossed the North Sea from mainland Europe as raiders and mercenaries during the Roman occupation, first started to overwinter, and then settle permanently, in Britain. These people were members of the tribal groupings of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians who came mainly from coastal districts just across the North Sea from Britain.

The form of the English language that was spoken in England and southeastern Scotland from the time of the arrival of the West Germanic peoples until about 1100 is called Anglo-Saxon or, more correctly, Old English.

English was later rather heavily influenced by Old Norse, between the 9th and 11th centuries, as a result of the Viking invasions. And the arrival of the French-speaking Normans in 1066 also had an enormous effect on the language.

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