A Level English Language Website
Where does English come from?
If you wound the clock back 2,000 years and were listening to some people in Britain having a conversation, you would not hear the English you are familiar with, nor even an old-sounding form of English. This is because you would be listening to a Celtic language (to give yourself a rough idea of what this would sound like, think of today's Welsh). So, where does English come from? If you were standing in northern Germany, the chances are that you would recognise the odd word. English has its roots in the Germanic dialects of the tribes of north-western Europe.
How did this 'English' end up in England? According the Venerable Bede, a monk writing at Jarrow, the year AD 449 saw the arrival of three Germanic tribes - Angle, Saxon and Jutish. The problem is that Bede made this remark about three hundred years after the event, so we must treat it with some caution. It is unlikely that there were three distinct tribes. Moreover, it is not the case that that particular year saw some kind of dramatic conquest by the Anglo-Saxons. Prior to that date, Britain had had trading links with northern Europe and some settlement had taken place; after that date, although the influx of Anglo-Saxons increased, there was no instant conquest, but a rather slow movement from the east of Britain to the west, taking place over some 250 years.
What happened to the native Celtic-speaking tribes of Britain? Where the Anglo-Saxons settled there is evidence of some integration with the local population. However, the Anglo-Saxons never got as far as the northern and western extremes of Britain. The Celtic languages - notably Cornish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic - proceeded relatively independently of English in what are now Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.
So, can one say that the English spoken today comes from the Germanic dialects of those tribes from northern Europe? Not exactly. In terms of the structure of English (its grammar and sound system) and also its most commonly used words, one can trace a clear line back towards those settlers and one can draw parallels with other Germanic languages. But the English we speak today has been influenced by many other languages. This is most noticeably true of vocabulary, where English has assimilated a multitude of words from other languages, but particularly from French and Latin.