English is a rather young language actually. English as we understand it is no older than five or six centuries.Rachael wrote:English is a very old language, existing at least for 3 half millenia, though it's certainly not the oldest European language by far.
Basically, if you read the King James' Bible (1611) or Shakespeare (1616), you should understand most of it. Though speaking of Shakespeare, you might wonder from time to time "why does he think these words rhyme?" (they rhymed when he wrote them; they no longer rhyme anymore). If you go back in time a bit further and read Chaucer (1400), it's still understandable with some effort, but that's already very archaic. I'm gonna quote it for illustration, the start of the prologue of the Canterbury Tales, considered to be the very first known work of literature in early modern English:
(Sometimes Chaucer is considered to be writing in Middle English, rather than Early Modern.)Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury
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 heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open yë
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
But what was there before? What was not-modern English? It was pretty much a completely different language. For illustration, here's the beginning of the most well known piece of Old English literature, Beowulf (ca. 1000):
Alright. As much as you can understand Chaucer (the archaic spelling isn't that much worse than what you can see on the Internet sometimes); understanding Beowulf is a whole other kettle of fish. It doesn't just use weird words; it also use weird letters that have entirely disappeared from our modern alphabets (except in Icelandic).Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!
ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme (blæd wide sprang),
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
So what happened to change the language so much? Well first there was a big cultural influence from the vikings. In the transition from Old English to Middle English, several changes in syntactic constructions happened in imitation of old Danish. (It's no coincidence that said Beowulf, by the way, is a story of Danish vikings having Danish adventures in Danish lands.) And then you had the Norman conquest (1066) which resulted in another set of changes in grammar and, especially, vocabulary, this time coming from Old French (more precisely the Old Norman dialect of Old French). It's important to note that the hybrid language took time to appear because it was segregated by class: the rulers spoke Old Norman, the subjects spoke their various dialects of Old English, and that continued for a while. Eventually Early Modern English emerged, through a process similar to creole languages.
And then you also had other processes in addition to these infusion of foreign languages, such as changes in pronunciation and notably something called the Great Vowel Shift (but there were also lesser vowel shifts, and also consonant shifts).
Anyway I think it's hard to claim that English as we can roughly understand it nowadays has existed for longer than six or seven centuries. The grammar, the syntax, the sounds used to speak, and the vocabulary have all drastically changed through influence from other languages.
Nah. Take a word like "knight", it's definitely Germanic (compare to German "Knecht") not a loan from French ("chevalier") and it has a 50% silent letter ratio. That's because English stopped pronouncing the initial g and k sounds when in front of n, and the initial p, g, and k sounds when in front of s or z (including for an initial letter x, since that letter is pronounced "ks" or "gz"). French doesn't do that. If you want to talk about a gnome psychologist who plays the xylophone, you'll have to make an extra effort on pronouncing those initial sounds in French.Rachael wrote:Most "silent letters" are used in loanwords from the French language, which despite English's Germanic origins, has had a huge influence on it.