Consider English

English is the only language I can speak or read very well. In fact, I can only read English writing from the past 400 years or so because, like most languages, English changes continually. The older a piece of writing is, the harder it will be for modern English speakers to understand it. For example:

1604
We are of all Nations the people most loving and most reverently obedient to our Prince, yet are wee (as time hath often borne witnesse) too easie to be seduced to make Rebellion, upon very slight grounds. Our fortunate and oft prooved valour in warres abroad, our heartie and reverent obedience to our Princes at home, hath bred us a long, and a thrice happy peace…King James I

1485
HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond \ and so regned that there was a myȝty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme \ And the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil \ and so by meanes kynge Vther send for this duk \ chargyng hym to brynge his wyf with hym \ for she was called a fair lady \ and a passynge wyse \ and her name was called IgrayneLe Morte d’Arthur

1390s
Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone? \ Wy, taak it al! Lo, have it every deel! \ Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel; \ For if I wolde selle my bele chose, \ I koude walke as fressh as is a rose; \ But I wol kepe it for youre owene toothCanterbury Tales

1020
Cnut cyning gret his arcebiscopas and his leod-biscopas and Þurcyl eorl and ealle his eorlas and ealne his þeodscype, twelfhynde and twyhynde, gehadode and læwede, on Englalande freondlice. And ic cyðe eow, þæt ic wylle beon hold hlaford and unswicende to godes gerihtum and to rihtre woroldlage.Cnut the Great

800s
Ā-lēdon þā lēofne þēoden, \ bēaga bryttan on bearm scipes, \ mærne be mæste. Þær wæs mādma fela, \ of feor-wegum frætwa gelæded: \ ne hyrde ic cymlīcor cēol gegyrwan \ hilde-wæpnum and heaðo-wædum, \ billum and byrnum; him on bearme læg \ mādma mænigo, þā him mid scoldon \ on flōdes æht feor gewītan.Beowulf

Languages are a little bit like genes: people get them from their parents, and they are in a continual process of gradual change. When two groups of people who initially share a language become isolated from one-another, their languages gradually become more and more different as time goes on.

French, Spanish, Italian, Portugese, and Romanian are called the Romance languages, and they are all derived from Latin. Latin was spoken throughout southern Europe during the period of Roman rule (roughly, 200 BCE – 479 CE). During this period Rome’s centralised government brought a steady flow of officials back and forth from the capital to the provinces, and made long-distance travel relatively safe. Thus there was a continual flow of people around the empire, which ensured that the same Latin language was spoken throughout, at least by the wealthier members of society.

However after Roman rule collapsed in the 400s people didn’t move around so much. Local kings or tribal leaders were often at war with each-other, so it wasn’t safe to travel over long distances. The economy contracted, which meant that fewer people could afford to travel, and since people had less money to spend long-distance trade became less profitable. Regions became isolated from one-another, and over time the languages they spoke diverged so much as to become mutually unintelligible.

English has many similarities to the Romance languages, particularly French, because there has been a fair amount of contact over the years between English speakers and speakers of Latin and French. However English is not derived from Latin, but from Germanic languages which were spoken by people who, in Roman times, lived in the region of Northern Germany and Scandinavia. The modern-day languages that English is most closely related to are German, Dutch, Frisian, and Afrikaans.

The story of the origin of the English language goes like this. When Roman military control broke down in the 400s, Germanic tribes who lived in Denmark, northern Germany, and the southern parts of Norway and Sweden, took the opportunity to migrate and conquer new lands. Several of these tribes, including the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, migrated to the south-east of what is now England, where they probably interacted with the various Celtic peoples who already lived there. Some of these Celts were Christian, spoke Latin, and were to a greater or lesser extent culturally Roman, while others still kept their ancient Celtic languages, religions, and cultural practices. Out of this melting pot, during (very roughly) the period 400 CE – 700 CE, the earliest version of the English language was born.

In a way it’s a ironic that today’s English-speaking western world views itself as the cultural successor of ancient Rome, since in terms of our language, we are much more closely related to the northern barbarian tribes who battled the Romans for centuries, and eventually tore their empire apart.

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