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History of English
What’s happening right now— the English language. A language spoken by more than a billion people with many, many different accents. And according to last year’s Harvard Google study, a language with more than a million words growing at a rate of 8500 new words every single year. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Where did English begin?
Well, for that answer, we’re going to have to go all the way back to the year 400, and even earlier to this little Germanic peninsula jutting off at an angle inhabited by people who appropriately were called Angles. Now, these Angles began immigrating to an island named Britain. In fact, there were so many Angles there, you may as well have called it Angle Land.
Angle Land, England. Before they had Latin characters, they wrote their language not in letters, but in what are known as roons. And everything was fine and dandy until 1066 when the Normans invaded and won.
One of the neatest changes that still affects us today is the fact that this new Norman ruling class would refer to the meat they were served using their own words like beef or pork. But the poor old Anglo Saxons who had to tend to the animals still used their early old English words, for instance, cow and pig. And to this day, that is why English is one of the very few languages on Earth that has a different name for the meat of an animal than the name of the animal it came from.
English did this a lot, borrow words from other languages and other people and just plop it right down into the English vocabulary. So see, English is really fun, or should I say fun is really English? That’s right, unlike all of these borrowed words, the word fun can be traced all the way back to the Angles and the protogermanic word phono, which referred to a piece of cloth or rag. It eventually came to mean a piece of fabric, say a hoisted flag that flew in the breeze. And then it just came to mean anything that was high flying or buoyant, you know, like fun stuff.
Singling out which words in English were borrowed and which ones were originally Germanic could be a pretty fun exercise, for instance, supervise is derived from Latin, but oversee, that’s straight up Germanic. Well, what would English sound like if we just got rid of all these words that didn’t originally come from the Angles?
Well, what you would have is what is known as Anglish. Anglish is really fun to read, because it’s not really a real language, it’s just an exercise that we can do nowadays. My favorite is this passage explaining atomic theory. Of course, you can’t call it atomic theory because, for instance, the word atom is Greek meaning something that cannot be divided any further, so instead of using the word atom, writers will use words like uncleft. And instead of using a word like theory, they’ll use a word like beholding. There’s a link in the description to read all of uncleft beholding. But now let’s talk about accents.
We don’t all speak English the same way, and as a confession, I’m going to say I’m terrible at impressions—accents, dialects— I pretty much only ever talk like this. Luckily, I read the science, and young children are the best at picking up new accents. So I brought along my friend Todd.
Nicely done! -Thank you! -Classic Vsauce move. Now, Todd is from ???, and he is fantastic at accents. Gratzi, Michael, gratzi. I’m impressed every day. But here’s a challenge for you, are you ready? Challenge. -I want you to do an impression of exactly how you think George Washington spoke.
Let me just picture him, I’ve seen him on a quarter before. I think he probably sounded like this. Wassup, players? So, y’all gonna vote for me? I ain’t gonna take two terms, just give me one – one shot, uh, one and done, baby, you know what I’m saying? Naw, seriously, father, I did not chop down that cherry tree.
I like that, but you know what? There’s no way to be wrong. Well, I mean, there are ways to be wrong, but we don’t know the real answer, because back at the time that America first became a country, the classic British accent didn’t even exist yet. I quite like the Queen’s English, yes. Yeah, that would be completely foreign to them.
But here’s what’s really mind blowing about what the British gave to America— southern drawl. That’s right, these people known as the cavaliers came over to America before it was an actual independent country, and they brought things like the word y’all, snickerdoodle, varmit, and they brought the word axed instead of ask, and the word ain’t. As well as emphasizing the first syllable of words like guitar, July, and police. Man, I’ve taken a lot of heat from English people from being from Texas and all that, and they started it, didn’t they?
But listen to this, the bo language was a language spoken on an island off the coast of India, and then last year, this woman died. She was the final speaker of the language. All I can think about is that lady trying to connect to people like oh, let us share in the cultural joke, you know, the famous cultural joke of the Bo people.
Yes, yes, it was probably quite lonely, Todd. Modern English as we know it didn’t really begin that long ago. Think of it this way, there’s a time capsule buried here in New York that is not going to be opened until the year 6939. By then, English itself may be completely different or possibly extinct, and so they actually included a drawing of the human mouth where they diagrammed out where you need to put your tongue to say the letters like we say them today. And we only have to wait almost 5,000 years? What a bargain, how convenient for everyone! Yeah, what are we gonna do in the meantime?
Well, you could head over to my channel for some comedy stuff. We did an episode of Vsauce called Vsauce Unplugged. There’s a lot of meat information over there about the brain and language, some joking around, and I got to talk to Dale. Dale the mouse. He does not play around. -No. Be sure to check out the cheese shorts over on Todd’s channel.
It’s much more funny than Vsauce, but when you’re there, and every time I’m there I’m just impressed by the characters and the accents and the language. We’ve got all sorts of stuff, we’ve got behind the scenes awesome stuff, we got stand up, we’ve got me going to China, we’ve got all sorts of comedy stuff. Come over for a visit, I’ll give you a bowl of soup, come on. Yeah, come on, I’ll see you there, and as always, thanks for watching.
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