Why the history and evolution of English is important for translation

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The English language is one of the most significant in today’s globalised world. Around 1.5 billion people speak English (only Mandarin and Spanish are spoken by more) and it is an official or national language in 58 states (plus 28 non-sovereign territories) around the world.

Yet this is by no means the end of the English language’s influence. It is one of the official languages of the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), the African Union, and many other international organisations.

And even that isn’t all! English is also the lingua franca of international business and the go-to language of discourse for academics in almost every field to communicate internationally.

Yet despite this level of global preeminence, the English language does have – and some would say cause – some challenges, including in its translation. Because there is a huge array of English dialects and variants. There are also thousands of loanwords to and from English.

The number of other languages and events that have influenced English down the years (and vice versa) is staggering. In a world where a huge percentage of the planet interacts or has interacted with English to some degree, its history and evolution are important to understand:

The roots of the English language (Old English 500-1100)

The origins of the English language are usually traced to the arrival of three Germanic tribes on the shores of Britain starting in the fifth century. These were the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons. They came as invaders and settled in the more southern and eastern parts of Britain.

Eventually, these Germanic tribes drove the Britons west and north, into what are today Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Cornwall. Britain’s conquerors spoke a number of Germanic languages and dialects, chiefly Englisc – sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, but most commonly Old English.

With three genders (similar to modern German), complicated grammar, five cases, and a vocabulary heavily borrowed from Old Norse, French, and Latin, Old English was a very different language to Modern English. It also had four main dialects.

As a West Germanic language, Old English was more closely related to German, Flemish, or Frisian. Its alphabet (called the futhorc) was initially based on runes before the Roman alphabet came to be adopted. Some of the best sources for what Old English looked like are:

  • The epic poem Beowulf
  • A series of five books called The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The latter – by the so-called “Father of English History”, a monk known as the Venerable Bede – was written in Latin but is an incredible source for what Anglo-Saxon society of the period was like, including language.

The Middle English transformation (1100 to 1500)

The Norman Conquest of 1066 transformed Britain to the extent that it is the first thing modern schoolchildren are taught about British history. Duke William of Normandy (known today as William the Conqueror) successfully invaded the then Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England.

William and the Normans he brought with him spoke French. It is somewhat simplistic to say that French became the language of the new largely Norman elite of English society following the Conquest, but it is an easy way to imagine a very complex linguistic situation:

  • Broadly speaking, French and Latin became the “accepted” languages at court and among the nobility. They were used in most law and administration.
  • The Old English spoken by the wider population began to absorb French loanwords. There was some mutual intelligibility, but the Normans couldn’t pronounce the unstressed syllables that ended some English words, changing the language.
  • The complex collection of dialects and variations of “English” spoken across England were yet to be standardised into what later scholars would term Middle English.

This would start to change in the late 1300s and early 1400s. The first sign of this is usually said to be the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer (most famously, the Canterbury Tales). This was one of the first popular literary uses of one of the vernacular English dialects spoken at the time.

Not long after, in the 1430s, clerks in the London Chancery (responsible for royal administration) switched from using the French and Latin preferred by the nobility and church in their records to the Central Midlands dialect of English (as opposed to Chaucer’s East Midlands dialect).

Over the next few decades, the Chancery and other royal bodies of administration and finance expanded on this kind of written “Chancery” English. This would soon be further developed and standardised following a key invention of the next century: the printing press.

The Renaissance and Early Modern English (1500 to 1800)

The Renaissance – the cultural and artistic explosion that started in Italy in and around the late 1400s – had a counterpart in England.

The English Renaissance reached its zenith in the Elizabethan period of the late 1500s. The English language underwent significant evolution at this time. Everything from vocabulary to grammar and punctuation changed dramatically.

Part of this was a process of standardisation that followed the invention of the printing press by William Caxton. Certain works were then published in a Chancery English that some printers further developed with elements of the local London dialect, including most prominently:

  • The Bible
  • The Death of Arthur by Thomas Malory (published under the Norman-French title of Le Morte d’Arthur), arguably history’s first “bestseller”
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton

By the Elizabethan period, another key player in the English Renaissance was also ready to – literally – take the stage: William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare wrote at a key time of transformation for the English language. Contact with other cultures through exploration, early colonisation, and concomitant changes in society introduced concepts for which there were effectively no English words.

To enable discussion, some words were stolen wholesale from other languages or modified by Shakespeare and numerous other writers active at the time. They became part of a rapidly evolving English language.

All in all, in the late 1500s and early 1600s, around 10 000 to 12 000 words were apparently added to English. Shakespeare alone allegedly coined (i.e. invented) over 1700 English words during his prolific career.

The Industrial Revolution and Late Modern English

The first English colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, on the North American continent of the early 1600s. Even from the early days, the English (soon-to-be American) colonisers adopted words from the native peoples.

In North America, this included words like “squash” and “moose” from Algonquian languages for flora and fauna that did not exist in the “Old World”. British trade (which became exploitation and colonisation) in India contributed words ranging from “shampoo” to “catamaran”.

British interactions with other parts of the world led to yet more expansion of the English vocabulary. The British Empire at its height in 1913 included nearly 1 in 4 people on the planet, a hugely diverse mix of people and places.

In “return” for the loanwords, the British Empire was not shy about introducing its language to the people it found, colonised, and – in some cases – enslaved. The view at the time was that this was part of the “duty” of white Europeans to “civilise” other parts of the world.

Simultaneously, the expansion of scientific and philosophical concepts borrowed from Latin or Greek that had begun in the Renaissance continued. New inventions and ideas needed words to describe them and those involved liberally borrowed from classical roots to create words including “bacteria”, “biology”, “gravity”, and many others.

English in the 21st Century

Today, partly due to the historical influence of the British Empire, English is a language spoken around the world.

Even as parts of the Empire achieved self-determination, many newly independent states opted to keep English as their official language. This was often in an effort not to elevate any one group in their society above another by choosing one language over another.

The continued rise of the English language was cemented by the English-speaking world largely becoming the centre of scientific progress during the Industrial Revolution and on into the latter parts of the 20th century.

Much as the invention of the printing press helped spread and standardise Middle English in England, the invention of other mass media – including motion picture technology – has helped English, particularly the American English spoken in Hollywood, reach audiences worldwide.

In the digital age, English is the most commonly used language on the Internet too. Thanks to its presence on every continent, it has become the global lingua franca in business and remains the common tongue of scientists and researchers worldwide as it has for several hundred years.

The evolution of the English language

When a speaker of Modern English looks at an Old English document, they usually have very little ability to understand it. The English language has come a long way since the first Germanic tribes stepped off their ships on what would one day become English shores.

English has been transformed by conquest and societal upheavals. It has been a mishmash of dialects, only one of several languages spoken in one corner of one small island. It was then exported around the world, changing and changed in turn by the languages it encountered.

As one of the centres of scientific progress for several centuries, it incorporated (and created) new words for emerging concepts and technologies that, in turn, cross-pollinated other languages as those other languages also contributed to Modern English in its current form.

The future of English and translation

As English spread globally, it changed as it met other languages. It evolved to discuss developments in science, technology, and society even as some of those developments were changing the language itself.

Yet the very global nature of English will be both a source of criticism and a challenge for the language – and many other languages – in years to come.

The global dominance of English, especially in business and online, means it is coming to be used in some parts of the world – especially by younger people – as often or even more often than their native language.

This has prompted concerns about the effect of English on global linguistic diversity. In some circles, it has also prompted concerns for English itself as it continues to rapidly absorb new terms and vocabulary coined in different cultures and also in the digital sphere.

Translation to and from English has played a critical role in the language’s development for centuries and is sure to continue to do so. Informed by our knowledge of its history, how the language and the world wrestle with these challenges is sure to be fascinating in the future too.


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