Podcasts for ESL Teachers
The History of English by Kevin Stroud

Kevin Stroud explains how English inherited words and grammar from ancient Sanskrit.

Linguistically speaking, English is perplexing. Here is a language that is grammatically simple but difficult to master in areas of pronunciation and style. When you consider the total number of English speakers, the statistics are comparable to Mandarin. Additionally, English is the most sought-after foreign language in the world.  Throughout a series of over 100 episodes, Kevin Stroud gives a detailed analysis of why and how this mutt language has taken a place of global prominence.

What Kind of Language Is English?

English is characterized as a Germanic language (within the Indo-European family), meaning part of its history includes the groups of people who lived in Northern Europe a little over two thousand years ago. It doesn’t come from German but has the same common origin as German. Yet, English got its start more than six thousand years ago, earlier than the Roman conquest, when the Proto-Indo-European language was spoken. Kevin Stroud starts from this point to illustrate the path that English has taken over the millennia.

English is a Germanic language. Its history includes groups of people who lived in Northern Europe, and also the Saxons who lived near what is now Denmark.

If you took French or Spanish classes in high school, you know there are many cognates (or similar words) between the Romance languages and English. So why isn’t English considered a Romance language too? Mr. Stroud likens English to a giant, ancient tree. English is the strong trunk, as old as time, and the branches and leaves are the words that have been absorbed. When the Romans conquered Britain, English had already been an age-old tongue. Hence, Instead of dying out, it became Latinized. The Latin-speaking Romans were heavily influenced by the Greek culture and language, which English subsequently incorporated as a byproduct.

Fast forward to 1066, and we see William of Normandy invade England, becoming the Conqueror. This French-speaking king naturally forced his language on his new subjects. Instead of becoming extinct, English once again became stronger. Because of this crucial event, almost half of English words have a French origin. Using these and other significant events, Mr. Stroud gives a clear presentation on why and how English managed to dominate its dominators.

Although Warwick Castle hardly resembles the structure William the Conquerer lived in, these are the grounds where he made his home and held court.

Periods of English After Year 1

Going back to your English literature classes, you might remember that recorded English is divided into three periods – Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.

Beowulf is an example of Old English, although we probably learned the Modern English translation in our high school classes. Here are the first few lines of the epic poem, in its untranslated form:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

As you can see, it is just like reading a foreign language which you have no knowledge of. If you were to be transported back into this era, the spoken words would be just as unintelligible.

What does runic writing have to do with English? This is one of the talking points in Mr. Stroud’s podcast series.

After Beowulf, the Norman conquest brought about a decisive change in English. Thus we refer to this period as Middle English, of which Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the most famous example:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soot
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour

While we can extract the meaning from the text, we would not understand Middle English in spoken form. This is the main reason why Middle English has been sectioned off from Modern English.

Modern English was established in the 1500s. This is the English we speak, even though our vernacular doesn’t sound nearly as cultured as a Hamlet soliloquy. Shakespeare is one of the most recognized Modern English writers, but the entire Elizabethan era was marked by a flourishing literary movement. Here is an excerpt from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, written by John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare:

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Although the prose (it is not considered verse) is flowery, it is understandable. Likewise, we would have understood spoken English of the 1500s. Each of these three periods is extensively outlined by Mr. Stroud, especially how it relates to our present-day pronunciation.

Shakespeare’s English is considered to be within the same era as 21st-century English.

What We Can Glean

Is Kevin Stroud going to help us with how we teach syntax and pronunciation? Probably not. However, he gives an entire historical perspective of the evolution of English. This is the only way we can answer questions about its inconsistencies. The most difficult aspects of English are its apparent lack of pronunciation rules and its astoundingly robust vocabulary. In fact, English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world.  We presumably won’t be lecturing about the fine points of comparative linguistics to our students. Nevertheless, knowing why we have house and houses, but mouse and mice can only strengthen us as ESL teachers.

2019-01-29T15:46:00+00:00

About the Author:

Along with my amazing career as an ESL teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to write for blogs such as Feedback Panda. As well as loving my job, my interests include traveling far and wide, playing piano, listening to Finnish metal, reading material from every genre, Netflix bingeing, cooking, rescuing animals, watching the stock market, linguistics, studying German, and renovating my old cabin-style home! One of my goals is to visit at least 25% of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, but in the meantime, I live in Florida with my dog, Thisbe and my cat, Pete.