English Evolution Over The Last Millennium And Where It May Be Heading
by Alastair Kane
As the second most spoken language in the world behind Mandarin, the English language sits right at the top of the linguistic evolutionary tree. With ancient roots buried deep in Germanic foundations, the original seed has been drenched and diluted by historical influence and geographical consequence, so it's fascinating to trace how the seed of modern English sprouted, and where it's likely to branch to in the future.
A millennium is a substantial amount of time for any language to evolve in, and by the 11th Century, circa. 1000AD, English had already had a number of external influences; becoming a blended mongrel language with Anglo Saxon, Roman and Viking features, mixed with Celtic streaks.
Evolving from Old English, Middle English was spoken early in the last millennium. Examples of language written at the time, such as the works of Chaucer (mid to late 1300's) are instrumental in observing linguistic evolution over the last thousand years. In these works, often spellings will be unrecognisable, but once pronounced phonetically, are comprehensible to modern English speakers.
As Middle English evolved into Early Modern English, alterations in pronunciation occurred, now termed 'The Great English Vowel Shift'. Debatably sparked by country-wide migrations to the south, triggered by the Black Death in the 1300's, or attempts to adopt more 'British' pronunciation after frequent warring with Europe, the shift occurred between the 14th and 17th centuries, so is responsible for many of today's unusually voweled spellings. English spelling standardisation began in earnest in this period - between the 15th and 16th centuries. The language spoken after the shift is known as Modern English, and (though it is a latter evolution) is much the form spoken today.
Based in as predominantly Christian (in one form or another) a country as Great Britain, religion has been hugely influential to the English language over time. Bibles were once the only form of literature available to swathes of the British population, so once English versions began to circulate, literacy would have advanced; making the basic tools of written language widely available to individuals previously locked in a world of incomprehensible Latin.
Emigration and immigration too have played a major role in English's development, and historical events such as large scale migrations and colonisation (to America for example) have helped expand the language's global grasp and power. Arguably causing the most rapid growth, the determined advance of the British Empire (especially during the Victorian era) caused the English language (and other influences) to sweep the globe, expanding established trade route communications and cementing English as the widespread business language it is today.
Languages are integrally tied to the countries they're birthed from (consider the well cited theory that there are fifty Inuit words for snow!) but as the speakers of a language alter their geographical locations, the languages they speak will significantly change. English is a prime example of this rule, and from native Celtic influences (still alive today in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Cornish) to Latin or Scandinavian, settlers brought more than just genetic influences with them.
Wrapped in an intricate patchwork of linguistic history, geographical effects are found today in regional colloquialisms and dialects. Regarded globally, the impact is even clearer. Simply looking to other English speaking nations; America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, is enough to realise the rapidity at which language can evolve; these once-immigrant branches have exploded in population and altered quite differently, often in just a few hundred years as a result of their alternative geography to the British Isles.
From Shakespeare to Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, English writers have always been liberal in creating their own words and shaping language to suit their own imaginative needs. Though sometimes considered nonsense terms, if you're looking at the evolution of language, creativity is responsible for much of English's evolution - slang and contemporary colloquialisms are constantly changing the way we speak.
Today, with a world so interconnected and multicultural, any language is accessible at the touch of a button. It is this technology and diversity which is shaping the English language of the future - and in every form. When was the last time you physically put pen to paper and wrote? Aided by autocorrect, shortened by texting, and homogenised with American spelling, modern, everyday, informal English already acts quite differently to recent former versions.
Having evolved to the heights of linguistic dominance, as social and political spheres merge into one melting pot 'global community' it is likely that English will remain dominant, though will never remain a static creature. Changing as a result of technology and geography, spelling homogenisation to improve consistency may occur and judging from the past, multicultural influences are sure to have major impacts - perhaps English will blend with Mandarin to form one supreme global language? - we will only find out in another thousand years!
About the writer
Alastair is a freelance writer and has supplied this article on behalf of Communicaid which offers business language courses and other business communication skills training.