The Amazing Origins of English

— by Matt Beam, Grade 7 teacher


English is a complex language no doubt, but thankfully there is an interesting and fascinating history behind it all. Talking to your children about the rich history of the language and of England helps to break English into recognizable sections and it connects all of us to the captivating story of the language’s creation.

As one very astute presenter recently put it at the Academy of Orton‑Gillingham Practitioners and Educators Conference: Blame it on the Anglo-Saxons! They are the folks at the beginning of the story at approximately 500 AD, who came to what is now called England and populated it over the last several hundred years.

Print out this map or use a world map to explore the earth and geography with your children. Map work is often a favourite of our students and a great place for you to connect with your child about places, ideas and current events. Perhaps begin by tracing the roots of your own family to Canada before engaging in the roots and the movement of English.

Map of England and Western Europe
The Angles, Jutes and Saxons sailed from various locations along the European and Scandinavian coast to what we now called England. These Germanic peoples who settled on this big island were farmers and so their language was full of words to do with everyday life such as cow, sun, shovel, work, etc.

With your child, try to guess what other common words might be Anglo-Saxon. Online or hardcopy dictionaries will have the origins of the words and will quickly tell you if you are correct. You will surprise yourselves how often you can get this right if you try to think like a farmer who didn’t have a tractor — or electricity.
Most of the words your children have been exposed at Claremont School to this point are Anglo-Saxon. They are one-syllable words, numbers 1-100, basic colour words, simple body parts, Sight Words, and most words vowel teams such as ee for feet and oo for goose, for example.

The Anglo-Saxons are also responsible for the spelling rules your children have been learning, including the FLSZ rule, the 111 Rule and the Drop the E rule. Your children are gradually becoming experts using these rules. Get them to explain these Anglo-Saxon linguistic practices as you help them explore the origins of the peoples and languages they came from.

While the later influences on English will be taught mostly in the upper grades, the story is still interesting the tell. In 1066, William the Conquerer of Normandy (now France), did just that — he beat out several hopefuls including Harold, the supposed heir to the English title, and Harald Hardrada, a Viking King, and began to rule England.

With William of Normandy came French, the language of the courts, and Latin, the language of the church, words like contract and scripture respectively. Here is when the multisyllabic words are introduced some of which your kids will know such as study, subject, agenda, and cursive.

Later, with the Renaissance in Europe, spanning from the 14th-17th centuries, in which classical art and intellect had a revival, Greek also had a big comeback. Greek words with Combining Forms such as geography (geo- meaning earth and -graph meaning writing) were used.

Sit down with your child and see how many words you can make with the Combining Form geo- and the Combining Form -graph.

Now try the same thing with these words: Biology, hydroplane, autograph.

And then take a break, which is actually an Anglo-Saxon word, indicating that the original sowers of our great and elaborate language also had a rest every once in a while!