This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the origin of the word OK and how it became a global phenomenon.
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Hello there! My name is Stephen and it is a great honour to welcome you to another episode of my podcast, English with Stephen. All of the episodes in this podcast are designed to help you learn English in under 10 minutes.
Today, I would like to answer a question I have heard from many of my students and seen a few times on my Facebook page: Where does English come from?
I think this is an important question for two reasons. First, any question about English is important if a student really wants to know. I believe that when people have this type of question it shows a genuine interest and I want to meet that interest and hopefully even increase the levels of interest.
Second, knowing a little bit about the history of English can provide answers to other questions about the vocabulary and grammar of English. You don’t need to be an expert on its history and read lots of books about it, but a little knowledge can go a long way!
All that, and more, after this.
Have you got any questions about English that nobody has ever answered? If so, leave me a message and I’ll try to find you an answer. I might create a podcast episode like this, or I might just write you an answer. You can leave me a message on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. Alternatively, you can find me on social media. I am on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and even YouTube. Just look for English with Stephen, or go to my site EnglishwithStephen.com, to get links to all my social media.
And now, back to the question of where English comes from.
So, we have to go back 1, 600 years. The island of Britain is dominated by the Romans. But the Romans are experiencing problems in their empire. They decide to retreat from Britain. They take their legions, their government, and their money out of Britain and leave the people alone.
The people mainly speak a Celtic language called Brittonic. There is some Latin, due to the influence of the Romans, but most ordinary people still speak Brittonic. Latin is used by the elites and is more common in the south of the island.
When Rome leaves Britain, they created several problems for the local people who are left in England.
First, they have no defence against raiders. For the last 400 years, Rome has provided defence with their armies. Young men were taken from England and sent around the empire to defend it in other places. The people who remain do not know how to fight or command an army. The people are open to attack from groups of bandits around northern Europe.
Second, the economy is destroyed. Under Rome, people have specialised economically. This means that one person might be excellent at making pots or jewellery, but that is all they can do. Most importantly, they don’t know how to farm and grow their own food. While Rome was in power, this was not a problem. They could make pots and sell them to the Romans and use the money to buy their food. But that market has now disappeared.
A third problem is that the whole structure of society has gone. One minute there was a strong, centralised system of government. And the next minute there is nothing. No way to organise people or get them working towards a certain goal.
And so the inevitable happens. Attacks from external and internal raiders. The people reorganise into small, local tribes or groups. The economy is broken. People go hungry.
At the same time, in Europe, there were groups of people who were looking for somewhere else to live. There is evidence that there was some sort of climate change going on in Northern Europe. The area around what is today Holland, northern Germany, and Denmark was severely affected. These people have never been conquered by the Romans. They speak a Germanic language, have their own strong organisations, they know how to farm, and they have lots of practice with fighting and defending themselves.
Today, we identify these people as four different groups: the Jutes, the Frisians, the Angles, and the Saxons. The Anglo Saxons!
So the people of Britain need help. The people of northern Germany need a place to live. It sounds like a good match, right, so the British invited the Angles and Saxons and so on to come and be mercenaries. That is, they would come and fight for the British and protect them from invading barbarians.
Nobody quite knows what happened next. Maybe the British decided not to pay their mercenaries and so the soldiers just took what they needed. Or maybe the mercenaries arrived, got paid, and then decided to take everything else.
Whatever happened, the result was the same. The Angles and the Saxons slowly took over the whole of the south of the island of Britain. Sometimes this was through conquest, and sometimes by mixing with the local people.
The newly arrived people had status. They could farm and grow food. They knew how to fight and protect themselves. If you were a local Brit, you wanted them to be your friends. You wanted to trade with them and get food from them and learn from them. The easiest way to do all of this is to speak their language.
So, the people who lived near these Germanic invaders stopped speaking Latin or their Brittonic languages and very quickly learned the new Anglo-Saxon language. After a few generations, this Anglo-Saxon language had changed to become different from the languages back in Germany. There were still a lot of similarities, but each generation introduced more changes.
And so, English was born. At this point, it is Old English. If you would like to see Old English then there is a famous poem called Beowulf. I will post a link on my site. You can see how it was written and compare it to modern English. At first, it looks like a totally different language. But if you look closely, you can see some words that are exactly the same.
This is not the end of the story for English. We have Vikings coming soon, and then some French-speaking invaders, and then war with France. All of these things, and more, change English into what it is today. However, those stories are for a different day and a different episode of this podcast.
Make sure you subscribe to get future episodes of English with Stephen. Thanks for listening today, and I hope you can leave a comment on my site, EnglishwithSTephen.com, or on my social media.