The history of the English language, 4500 – 1700 BCE

Etymology is the study of the history of words, the words we use today in English are a culmination of thousands of years or interplay between cultures. Some of our words reached us by invasions, some by migrations and some through trade. Over the next few days, we are going to take a break from the norm and have a look at how the English language formed, but don’t worry, we’ll examine some words on our way.

It’s useful to have a vague idea of where our influence came from so this is a brief overview of how the English language has become what it is today. Keep in mind that dating this far back is not an exact science and the further back we go, the more approximate dates are.

Our story starts with Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, proto meaning ‘original’ – as in prototype; as the name suggests, it was the common tongue from which all modern Indian and European languages came. It was spoken in around 4500 BCE. The language was a lot more basic than what we have now and there were far fewer words; words would convey messages which were largely necessary for survival, ‘fire near cave’ and that sort of thing.

During the neolithic expansion (up to around 1700 BCE), the PIE language spread across Europe from its original home in and around what is now Ukraine. Most of the animals that hunted humans were wiped out by the last ice age allowing humans to switch from hunter-gatherers to farming civilisations, to advance and to expand. As we expanded local differences were created, much like the local dialects of today. Eventually, the changes became so marked that it was really the case that there were several different languages. The most important one for us is ‘Proto-Germanic’ as this is the one from which most of modern English came. But it’s also worth noting ‘Hellenic’ which gave us Greek and ‘Italic’ which gave us Latin, both of which influenced our language dramatically.

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