Thursday, July 28, 2011

Where does the English language come from?

Most European languages and many others from southern and western parts of Asia belong to the Indo-European group of languages, which includes languages spoken by almost three billion native speakers all around the world. Two of these are the most widely spoken languages in the world: Spanish and English, which come from different branches of the common Indo-European trunk. This picture portrays the main languages that supposedly derive from a common tongue that has disappeared. 
Indo-European branches of the language tree.

 As you can see, English is a Germanic tongue, but it has been largely influenced by Latin and French, and more than half its vocabulary comes from these two languages, making it as much a Germanic as a  Romance language.
Origins of 
English PieChart
The origin of English words. From Wikipedia Commons

But why has it received such a large influence of these two languages? The reason can be found in History. 

Around the 5th century AD some Germanic tribes invaded Britain. They were mostly Angles and Saxons coming from what is now Germany. They brought with them their language and did not mix with the older inhabitants of the British Isles, the Celts, who were mostly pushed towards the westernmost part of the country, a more mountainous and unassailable area where they settled and maintained their culture and language to this day: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are still alive and kicking, however, they have not influenced English, and very few words remain in it, many of them being place names.
Celtic languages today: green: Irish, red: Manx, blue: Scottish Gaelic, yellow: Welsh, orange: Cornish, pink: Breton

The Romans had conquered the British Isles some centuries before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but, unlike in other parts of Europe, their language, Latin, was not widely spoken by the original inhabitants and so, once the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, all influence of Latin died with it. However, it was much later, when the new inhabitants of the Isles became Christians when Latin became important, as it was the language of the church. Many English words such as bishop (from Latin episcopus) entered the language at this early stage. 

Latin kept on exerting some influence on the English language up to the 17th century, because it was the language of culture as teachers and students at universities used it for their studies and spoke and wrote in it. The period of the Renaissance was especially fruitful, with hundreds of words entering the language at the time and many writers, including Shakespeare, are responsible for coining new words of Latin origin.

The Anglo-Saxons suffered invasions from other Germanic tribes such as the Vikings, but the one that brought greater influence on the language was that of the Normans, a Germanic tribe that had previously settled on the north of France and had made French their language. So, when they conquered Britain in the 11th century, after the famous Battle of Hastings (1066), French became the language of the court and the nobility, and English was consigned to the popular classes and mainly spoken at home. 
The Battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry
For 200 years at least French remained the language of ordinary intercourse among the upper classes in England but, eventually, it was English that became widely spoken and the use of French was restricted to some legal terms only. However, this Old English was so much influenced already by French that it is known by a different name: Middle English. That is, the original Germanic language had changed enormously in the course of two centuries losing most of the inflection and adding hundreds of new words which sound perfectly English to us, even though they are originally French. One example is the word table.

Apart from Latin and French, other languages have influenced English to a smaller extent, but that will be dealt with in another blog post.

Now this test will help you check what you have learnt so far.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Both, either, neither

We use both, either and neither when we are talking about two things.

Both is used with plural nouns to mean “the two” or “the one as well as the other”.
Either can have two pronunciations: / ˈiːðər/ (mainly in American English) and / ˈaɪðər / and means “one or the other”.
Neither can also have two pronunciations: / ˈniːðər/ (mainly in American English) and /ˈnaɪðə(r)/ and means “not one nor the other.
Both of us at the surf beach, San Sebastián - Donostia, Spain

This travel blog photo's source is TravelPod page: San Sebastion – Spain
Both of us at the surf beach

These words can be used as determiners or pronouns. When they are determiners, they are followed by nouns:
Both books are very good.
I didn't like either book (not the one or the other)
Neither book is very good.
They can also be used with the preposition of. In this case, they can be followed by:
  • The + noun: Both of the children were late.
  • These /those + noun: Neither of these students will pass.
  • Possessives (my, your...) + noun: Has either of your sisters visited you?
Both can be used with or without of in the three cases stated above:
Both the children were late.
Both is used without of if there is no article, possessive or demonstrative before the noun:
She was operated on both eyes.
But it's impossible to use it without of before personal pronouns:
Both of them were born in France. (*Both them is not possible).
The same holds true for either and neither:
Either of you could do it. *Either you is not possible.
Neither of us lives here. *Neither us is not possible.

Both is always used with a plural verb, whereas either and neither are usually used with singular verbs. However, in an informal context, the plural verb can be heard, and this is specially so when used with the preposition of:
Both children want to play football.
Neither of them speaks French. Neither of them speak French (informal)
Either of them is OK with me. Either of them are OK with me. (informal)

If both refers to the subject of the sentence, it can also be put with the verb (after the verb to be or auxiliary verbs and before main verbs):
We are both tired. (after to be)
We both live in Spain. (before main verbs)
We have both studied at university. (after an auxiliary verb in compound tenses).
Neither of us
Image: 'IMG_0343'

Both, either and neither can also be used as pronouns, that is, they go without a noun:
I'll take both.
“Which one do you want?” “Either, I don't mind”
“Are they British or American?” “Neither. They are Canadian”.

In order to connect ideas, you can use these paired conjunctions:
  • Both...and...
Both Tom and Peter are my friends.
  • Either...or...
You can either drive or walk to school
  • Neither...nor...
He neither smokes nor drinks.
  • Not only...but also.... is similar to both... and...., but the verb accords with the last element:
Not only my sister, but also my brother lives with my parents.
Both my sister and my brother live with my parents.

Either and neither can be used instead of also or too to express agreement in negative sentences:
“I don't like smoking” “I don't either” / “Neither do I”
Notice that both structures have the same meaning but one is used with a negative verb while the other, being already negative, is used with a positive verb. Notice also the inverted word order of the last sentence. The word nor can be used instead of neither in this context, being nor slightly less formal:
He can't sing and nor/neither can I.
“I am not going” “Nor /neither am I”.
And now some exercises for you to check what you have learnt:

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