‘Green-eyed monster’ and ‘stiff upper lip’: the evolution of the English language

Throughout history, thousands of words have been adopted from around the world into the English vocabulary. Writing for History Extra, Charlie Haylock takes us on a tour of the historical origins of many of the words and phrases we still use today

‘Inkhorn’ was the term for an inkwell made out of a small horn and became a nickname for the new words being created by playwrights and poets, such as William Shakespeare. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

The evolution of spoken English began from the fifth century, with waves of attack and eventual occupation by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. They spoke the same West Germanic tongue but with different dialects. Their intermingling created a new Germanic language; now referred to as Anglo-Saxon, or Old English.

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During the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings would plunder and settle, bringing with them another version of the same Germanic language, now referred to as Old Norse. The English and Viking amalgamation would become the second step in establishing a spoken English and the basis for the varying English dialects today.

In his book In a Manner of Speaking – The Story of Spoken English, Charlie Haylock, with the help of illustrations from cartoonist Barrie Appleby, explores the language – from the origins of Old English in northern Europe to the abbreviated language of texts used today…

c1916: British soldiers sitting around a lamp in their trench. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Norman influence

In 1066, the Normans had an eclectic mix of languages: a Frankish influenced northern French dialect; Old Norse from their Viking roots; Flemish from the army supporting William I’s wife, Matilda of Flanders; and the Brythonic based language of the mercenary Bretons. The Normans kept the basic structure of the English language, but during the Middle English period they introduced around 10,000 words of their own into the English tongue. Many words were related to officialdom and are evident in the vocabulary surrounding administration, parliament, government, the legal profession and the crown. Many more words filtered down into everyday matters including food production, such as: beef; pork; herb; juice and poultry. They introduced words beginning with ‘con’, ‘de’, ‘dis’ and ‘en’, such as: conceal; continue; demand; encounter; disengage and engage.

They also included words ending in ‘age’ and ‘ence’ as in: advantage; courage; language and commence.

'Soccer' and 'diaper' are among many 'American' words that are more faithful to the old English tongue than those used in Britain today, says James Evans. Other 'Americanisms' were used in Shakespeare's plays before the first English colony was established in Virginia. (L to R: Photos by Hulton Archive/Getty Images; DeAgostini/Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Renaissance

The English Renaissance saw thousands of Greek- and Latin-based words enter the language. This occurred via the Italian Renaissance, and was greatly helped by English poets, authors and playwrights, especially Elizabethan-era playwright William Shakespeare who wrote many plays centred in Italy including Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Two Gentlemen of Verona.

These wordsmiths also made up and created many thousands of new words, leading to a debate known as the ‘Inkhorn Controversy’. ‘Inkhorn’ was the term for an inkwell made out of a small horn and became a nickname for the new words being created by playwrights and poets.

Thomas Elyot, a prolific writer during the English Renaissance, was an advocate for inkhorn words, says Charlie Haylock. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
Thomas Elyot, a prolific writer during the English Renaissance, was an advocate for inkhorn words, says Charlie Haylock. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

One advocate for inkhorn words was Thomas Elyot, a prolific writer during the English Renaissance. He was well studied in both Latin and Greek, and as such, was able to introduce many new concocted words into the English vocabulary. Those academics and scholars totally against inkhorn words included Thomas Wilson who was not only an academic and scholar, but also as an author, diplomat, judge, privy councilor and Dean of Durham. He is likely best known for two publications, The Rule of Reason, conteinynge the Arte of Logique set forth in Englishe, and his most famous book, The Arte of Rhetorique. He was against the flowery extravagant speech and inkhorns of the English Renaissance and advocated a simpler way of writing, using words derived from Old English rather than from Latin and Greek.

Nevertheless, inkhorn words prevailed and William Shakespeare alone made up an estimated 1,750 words and idioms, many of which are household phrases today.

Many of the phrases we use today were first written by playwright William Shakespeare. (Illustration courtesy of 'In a Manner of Speaking' by Charlie Haylock and Barrie Appleby)
Many of the phrases we use today were first written by playwright William Shakespeare. (Illustration courtesy of ‘In a Manner of Speaking’ by Charlie Haylock and Barrie Appleby)

Overseas imports

Elizabethan exploration, privateering and piracy was another source for English vocabulary. These came mainly from the Spanish and Portuguese, including many Caribbean and Native American words explorers from the nations had adopted, such as ‘tobacco’ and ‘potato’.

Stuart colonialism on the eastern shores of America saw a great number of words from Native Americans being adopted and entering the English language direct, including ‘canoe’, and ‘hammock’. The Pilgrim Fathers and subsequent English settlements adopted even more.

The "Cobbe Portrait," thought to be the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime, circa 1612, oil on panel, unknown artist. The Latin legend "Principum amicitias!" included at the top of the portrait translates as "The Friendships of Princes!" and is thought to be a quote from Horace's Odes, book 2, ode 1. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Britain’s share in world trade saw a steady rise during the Tudor and Stuarts’ exploration policies through to the Victorian Empire building. This increase in trade would see another wave of new words entering the English vocabulary from foreign climes, including words from the Netherlands such as: landscape; scone; booze; schooner; skipper; avast; knapsack; easel; sketch – and a great deal more.

The British empire at its height encompassed one quarter of the Earth’s land mass, and ruled over hundreds of millions of different peoples throughout the world. The English language evolved alongside this empire, with words being adopted into the vocabulary. Numerous words from India alone have become common in English today, such as: pyjamas; khaki; bungalow; jodhpurs; juggernaut; curry; chutney; shampoo and thug – to name but a few.

The American influence

American influence on English has been profound. American literature became more popular in England, as did films with the advent of the movies and Hollywood, along with songs, music and dance and many American programmes on television. The USA were also allies of Britain in two world wars and still use British-based USAF airfields. All these factors together with the age of the computer, means that even more Americanisms and phrases have been adopted into the English vocabulary.

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

One example is the phrase ‘stiff upper lip’. It’s believed that this originated as the Americans saw the English aristocracy speaking with a strict ‘standard English’, which necessitated an immobile upper lip to pronounce it, no matter what the circumstances.

Other examples of American-influenced phrases include: no axe to grind; sitting on the fence; poker face; stake a claim – and words such as: bedrock; smooch; raincoat; skyscraper; joyride; showdown; cocktail and cookie.

The evolution continues…

The English language has never had an official standard. It has evolved through the centuries and adopted many thousands of words through overseas exploration, international trade, and the building of an empire. It has progressed from very humble beginnings as a dialect of Germanic settlers in the 5th century, to a global language in the 21st century. It is a rich language with tens of thousands more words in its vocabulary than any other language and as Maria Legg writes in her foreword to In a Manner of Speaking: “Indeed, a history of the language must necessarily be a history of its people too.”

Charlie Haylock is the author of In a Manner of Speaking – The Story of Spoken English (Amberley Books 2017), which is illustrated by cartoonist Barrie Appleby.

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This article was first published by History Extra in March 2017.