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It was a monk known as the Venerable Bede who is credited with giving historians the OE starting date of 449. I will discuss Bede later in this section; however, before I go further forward into the OE phase, I’d like to first step back some distance and discuss what we know of the origins of the English language.

Scholars have set the emergence of English as a distinct language at around CE 500. The English language of this period was no more than a “collection of dialects spoken by marauding Germanic tribes” (Svartvik 7). It was a primitive English, or a proto-language, from which the English we know today evolved. English is part of the Indo-European branch of languages.

The hypothesized, unattested, mother tongue of all Indo-European languages – including English – is referred to as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. A PIE model is a linguistic reconstruction of this hypothesized common ancestor. The PIE model is useful as a heuristic for conceptualizing the English language’s ancestral line and also when trying to explain the English language. Below is one interpretation of the PIE model by Professor Jack Lynch of Newark College of Arts & Sciences, Rutgers University.

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) Model [View larger]

Looking at the PIE model above, you might think it looks somewhat like a family tree. Notice the four branches of Italic, Hellenic, Celtic, and Germanic just under the model’s title: These four branches are of particular importance when thinking about English’s evolutionary journey; in fact, you could think of these four branches as sibling languages. Let’s look at each of these in turn:

  • Italic: Sometime around 43 BC, long before the Anglo-Saxons began invading the British Isles, the Romans had already arrived and brought with them Latin, a child language of Italic. Latin spawned what are called the ‘Romance languages’, and the Romance language that has had the most influence on English is French.
  • Celtic: Already present on the island before the Romans arrived were the “native inhabitants” (Crystal 8) who spoke a mix of languages from the Celtic family of languages. This language family was introduced to the native inhabitants by “a people” believed to have arrived on the British Isles sometime “around the middle of the first millennium AD” (Crystal 8).
  • Hellenic: Hellenic is the parent language of Greek. Greek was influential on the English language during the Renaissance period.
  • Germanic: Germanic is the parent language of West Germanic; West Germanic, in turn, is the parent language of English.

So, we have these four ‘cousin’ languages – English, French, Greek, and Latin – coming into contact with one another and intermingling. One thing that happens when languages make contact is they sometimes borrow each other’s words (also called loan words). Borrowed words can serve as evidence of contact between languages. I will touch on the concept of borrowing again in the next slide where I talk about the Danish invasions. Borrowing will be discussed in length in the ME section of this presentation.

Indo-European Migrations
Indo-European Migrations

Explore

An interesting interactive model of the Indo-European languages can be found at eLinguistics.net.


Image and file attributions: PIE models from The Indo-European Language Family Tree. Copyright © Jack Lynch. Used with permission of Jack Lynch. View pdf of this PIE model. View alternate PIE model pdf/png.