Explore the fascinating journey of British English evolution and uncover the quirks that make it uniquely perplexing yet charming. Delve into the etymology of words shaped by diverse influences, revealing humorous insights along the way.
British English: A Language All Its Own
Let’s face it, British English is a delightful mess that baffles everyone. You might think that being born in this land of tea and crumpets would mean we find it easier, but oh, how wrong that assumption can be!
Prepare to journey through the charming maze of British English. Where words playfully dance through centuries of history and a cuppa can mean a lot more than just a drink.
A Melting Pot of Influences
The reason British English is so tricky is that it has diverse influences.
Throughout its history, our little island has had many invaders. From the ancient Celts to the Romans, Vikings to the Normans, including contributions from the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes tribes. All left their mark in our landscape, customs, and, of course, our language.
Let’s start with the ancient Celts
There were a multitude of ancient Celtic tribes, each having their own dialect. However, the main Celtic languages mentioned today are Brittonic, Gaulish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh. Although my Cornish readers will shout at the screen to include Cornish on this list.
Believe it or not, there is a list of Celtic words or words of Celtic origin that still exist in the English language. My favourites include:
• Gob (beak or mouth)
What have the Romans ever done for us?
The Romans gave us Latin, and English has lots of words of Latin origin.
We have changed some of these words to make them more like other English words by changing the ending e.g., ‘office’ from the Latin officium. But, just to confuse everyone, we kept some other Latin words intact.
- etc. (et cetera used for ‘and so forth’)
- agenda (things to be done)
- a.m. (ante meridiem, before noon) and p.m. (post meridiem, after noon)
- ultra (beyond)
- P.S. (post scriptum, Post Script)
Help, the Vikings are coming!
Yes, the earliest Viking activity in England comprised coastal raids. But by the 870s, the Danes had traded sword for plough and settled across most of Northern England in an area governed by treaties known as the Danelaw. England even had Danish kings from 1018 to 1042.
Without the Vikings, English would be missing some fantastic words like:
- Berserk (berserkr means “bear-shirt” a Viking warrior who entered battle wearing nothing for armour but an animal skin)
- Muck (myki means cow dung)
- Skull (skulle)
- Knife (knifr)
- Die (deyja)
Each group left behind a piece of their vocabulary, resulting in a hodgepodge of linguistic gems.
But it’s not just the invaders and settlers that influenced our vocabulary. Exploration and the growing trade routes across the globe affected the English language, too.
British English Etymology: A Journey Through Time
Word nerds like me love to delve into the origins of words, tracing their evolution like curious time travellers. British English is a goldmine of such verbal mysteries.
Take “gobsmacked,” for instance. This delightful term originated from “gob” (mouth) and “smacked” (as in hitting), aptly describing the feeling of being utterly astonished.
The complexities of Old English
Did you know Old English (Englisċ, pronounced [ eŋɡliʃ ] ), or Anglo-Saxon, is the original version of English? People spoke it back in the day in England and parts of Scotland during the Middle Ages.
Old English came from the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century and people started writing in it in the 7th century. Once the Normans took over in 1066, the upper classes started talking in Anglo-Norman (related to French) instead of English. This marked the end of Old English.
What’s the most common root of modern English?
Have you heard of the Oxford English Corpus (OEC)? It’s a collection of written text that contains over two billion words! All written in the English language.
I read in The Story of English that the first 100 most used words in English are from Old English. Except for “people” which is from the Latin “populus” and “because”, in part from the Latin “causa“.
If you want to know the history of English words, you’ve got to check out the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It’s published by Oxford University Press. This book is the ultimate guide to the history of English and how it’s used all over the world. Word nerds, scholars, and researchers will find everything they need here.
British English: Embrace the Quirkiness
So, why is British English so bewildering, even for its own inhabitants? It’s a mix of historical influences, linguistic evolution, and a sprinkle of eccentricity. Instead of getting frustrated, let’s embrace the quirkiness. After all, it’s what makes British English an enchanting and endlessly fascinating linguistic puzzle.
Remember, even native speakers stumble upon the linguistic oddities. As we sip our tea and nibble on biscuits (not cookies!), let’s raise a cup to the delightful chaos that is British English.
So, the next time you’re lost in translation, just remember – we’re all in this linguistic rollercoaster together!
Cheers to embracing the linguistic labyrinth with a hearty laugh!
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