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The role of a language’s history

May 19, 2013


One of the most useful branches of knowledge to anyone using a philological approach to either the study or acquisition of languages is the history and to a lesser extent categorization of actual languages. Most simply put, the reason for the utility of knowing a language’s history or at least its classification lies in the nature of the philological approach which uses similarities between languages to speed up language acquisition. The closer any two languages are, the more such similarities will occur. Knowing what languages will be close to each other, in what ways they are close and how close they actually are therefore becomes a major help.

Example: English

Map of Great Britain ca. 878 depicting the Dan...

Image via Wikipedia

If one considers the case of English for example, Old English is purely Germanic and was so close to Old Norse that it was regarded as a dialect of it. The closest Germanic dialect to English is Frisian. The reason for example Beowulf, the only entirely extant epic poem in the language, tells a story set in what is now southern Sweden is because the people in England and in Scandinavia largely shared a common culture– even when not politically united. Although the island of Britain was previously settled by speakers of Gaelic languages, the Celtic influence in the language consists largely of place names and pronunciation of vowels. The Latin presence via Roman settlement is largely negligible because the Romans never colonized in large numbers and were not present in the island for much more than a couple of hundred years. The Angles and Saxons however came in force and stayed. Why their language bears so little influence from the language of the previous population is a bit of a mystery but the simplest explanation is that (1.) they assimilated the local population, not the other way round, (2.) Latin had not taken a firm hold but had weakened the hold of the Celtic languages in key regions and (3.) those people who could fled before the invaders. During the Anglo-Saxon period, the only other major event of linguistic import was the Danish invasions and settlements which led to the creation of the region known as the Danelaw. While essentially a related dialect, Old Danish did have some notable differences as the cultures had started to diverge. The bulk of English therefore consists of Germanic roots and structures with a healthy dose specifically of Old Danish roots for items whose usage the Danes brought to England.

The Normans of course invaded and took over as a ruling class, but their numbers were always comparatively few. While they banned official use of Old English, making Old French the legal and court language of the land, sheer numbers causes the two languages to fuse. As such, Old French and through it Latin and Greek have largely influenced English in words which are either less common and hence more erudite or which are related to customs and practices the Normans brought with them.

After that, within England, the language evolved free of major disruption. Yet at the same time, as English power and settlement spread worldwide, external influences were inevitably brought back to the home country. Of course, those influences were largely borrowings or other fairly incidental influences apart from the accents and of course spelling. As English became a world-spanning language, the existent of a consistent written language became increasingly useful. Unlike most other languages, no single English dialect was chosen to be standard, and only Americans in any manner reformed spelling to reflect pronunciation.

So ultimately English is a fusion language largely consisting of French and especially Germanic influences. Thus the language is Indo-European and belong to the Germanic branch but with strong Romance overtones.

So, in practical terms what does this mean for English-speaking learners of other languages? Most notably, English speakers have a set of tools available when learning languages which will prove most obvious when learning Germanic and Romance languages, especially French and Frisian. The trick is to learn to use these tools optimally. When learning French, many words will be spelled precisely as the equivalent word in English even if pronounced differently, for example.

Every word has its peculiarities and even true cognates can diverge in meaning. The classic example is the word personne in French and the word person in English. These two words derive from the same linguistic origin; they are true cognates but their meanings are very different. No approach can ever eliminate the hard work and effort from learning a language entirely. One can only minimize the effort.

Writing System

A writing system for any given language will either be developed specifically for a given language that uses it or borrowed and adapted from another language. Even when the writing system evolved for specific use with a specific language, that writing system may have developed for the needs of an older form of the language which has since changed markedly.

Example: 5 Related alphabets

Alphabets compared

Alphabets compared

The overwhelming majority of languages outside of India and eastern Asia (and indeed even a few there) use one of a few related alphabets. The parent alphabet is the Phoenician or Hebrew alphabet. From this developed the Arabic and Greek alphabets, and from the latter in turn developed the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. A disproportionate number of the world’s languages are written in these five related alphabets.

If one is reading this blog, then almost certainly one will be familiar with the English alphabet which is adapted from the Latin alphabet. So, when one goes to learn a language using some variant of the Latin alphabet, one already has an approximate idea how the letters will be pronounced. What one really needs to learn then in such cases is how the use of the letters one already knows may differ in the target language and any additional letters the target language may have.

For many people, the next most familiar alphabet will be the Greek alphabet. The parallel between the Latin and Greek alphabets is fairly exact, especially when one knows that the Latin c and g were originally not distinguished. Use  this parallel to aid learning. (Facts such as that the Romans and Greeks did not equate the Latin f with the Greek φ also provide hints at the fine points of ancient pronunciation.) Once one has established the rough correspondence between letters of the target alphabet and of an alphabet one already knows, again one needs then only learn the differences peculiar to the target language. (The image to the right is not quite right but gives an idea.)

The same process applies to the Hebrew, Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets. One should spend a couple of hours of perhaps one afternoon learning the alphabet of th target language and then move on. Periodic review will not go amiss but the best review is looking things up in a dictionary.


Phonology does not arise out of nowhere. So if one knows a language close to the target language, then a good starting approximation will be that of the language one knows modified by the rules of the target language. The best way to know that two languages are related is by knowing a language’s history. For example, I was praised at university for my pronunciation of Latin which simply modified my pronunciation of Spanish, a daughter language of Spanish.

Instead of an example here I’m going to give a useful bit of advice to those learning to read languages. No one will care if your pronunciation is terrible but you will get more enjoyment out of reading the language if you try to pronounce it correctly. In other words, the poetry (for example) will sound better read the way it is meant to be read, but at the same time deficiencies in one’s pronunciation should not stop one from reading. For example, some people will simply never get Chinese tonality quite right, but that should not stop them from enjoying Chinese literature.

VocabularyGrammar/Syntax and Idioms

Languages evolve. This is the most basic rule of languages. As such, one language will develop over time into another and languages which become distinct may have a common parent language. Thus, similar words in Romance languages are more likely to have related meanings than apparently similar words in unrelated or more distantly related languages. Likewise, grammar, syntax and even figures of speech are likely to be similar in related languages.

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