How old is English?







[1] This is certainly true for well-established and dominant peoples in Europe. The French consider their language as the most cultured in the world, so do the Germans and of course the English. We can also speak about a French language universe, an English language universe, etc. People within such a universe have difficulty imagining that there are other languages in the world. Everything clearly happens within their own universe. Only smaller populations, who have more tradition in foreign languages, are more likely to escape from this rather narrow view of the world.

[2] S. Oppenheimer : The Origin of the British. e.g. page 146 and others

[3] C. Julius Caesar : "De Bello Gallico". Commenting the conquest of Aquitaine by his general, he wrote: "The people of Aquitaine can give the Romans lessons in good Latin".

[4] see: Wikipedia article on Occitan language - the version in French is the best.

[5] meaning: close to Brythonic

[6] There are more contemporary texts about the transition to a Roman language.

[7] Let's not exaggerate: the total vocabulary probably didn't exceed 10 000 words.








Changing languages


Most peoples believe they are the center of the world. Other peoples are considered less valuable, so any foreign language is second-class to their own [1].

Dominant peoples gladly believe that others should change their language into … a more civilized language, which is of course their own. Some Americans believe that the main language in India or in Hong Kong is English. But that’s not true. It is true that many people worldwide do speak English as a first language, or learned English as a second language. But this does not mean that this foreign language is used on a daily basis in the kitchen. When a language is spoken in the kitchen then one knows that it is still very much alive.

It is not easy to force entire populations to change their daily language.

However, there are some examples in history of populations who changed their languages.

Time frame


How long does a language need to change completely? Note that languages evolve but never into an imposed, foreign language. A foreign language has to be learned.

* During 800 years the English language imposed itself in Ireland and most of the Irish saw no issue here. It worked: today the majority speaks English in daily life. Nevertheless, according to census figures released by the Central Statistics Office in 2004, out of the Republic's 4,2 million residents, there are approximately 1.6 million who regard themselves as competent in Irish. Of these, 350000 reported using Irish every day, 155000 weekly, 585000 less often, 460000 never, and 30000 didn't state how often. Of the 350000 who were reported to use Irish every day, the majority are schoolchildren who use it during their classes in Irish. The number of people in the Gaeltacht region of Ireland who use the language as their daily mother tongue has been variously cited as 70000 and 83000. See Website Central Statistics Ireland. When Ireland began to organize a cultural defense based upon their original language, it was virtually too late.
* In France, according to the "Office pour la Langue et la Culture d'Alsace" (OLCA - France) in 2001 61 % of the locals still spoke the original German language and not only at home. French is mainly used in public life. The reason: Alsace has been French for 400 years. The pressure, which was great in the 19th century (until 1870) and after 1918, upon the Alsatians is no longer there: the French authorities in Paris have discovered for a decade or so that a knowledge of German could be a serious advantage for the French state. Studying (in) German is today not only allowed, but even encouraged. 35.84% of the Alsatian students learned German in 2002. See: The O.C.L.A-website
* The Basque language has survived since the pre-history. It is a non-Indo-European language.
* The Flemish during the 19th and early 20th centuries were under immense pressure to adopt French as their native language, but the attempt failed completely. In contrast to the Irish, the Flemish almost immediately organized a stiff resistance.
* Arabic was introduced around AD 700 in Egypt together with Islam. In the 17th century, some 900 years later, the original Egyptian language, Coptic, was still spoken despite severe persecution. A good muslim had to speak Arab.
* The main language in Mexico is Spanish, but many of the local tribes still speak their original pre-Columbian language. Since 2003, 62 official languages are acknowleged in Mexico.

Imposing a language seems to be no longer fashionable.

Historians and linguists generally believe that Latin was introduced into Gaul around 50 BC, and evolved into French. This theory is probably not entirely correct. Genetic studies [2] reveal that the region around Paris is genetically distinct from e.g. Brittany (France). The whole south of Gaul (roughly south of the Loire) spoke Occitan before the Roman conquest [3]. Occitan is so close to Latin that Latin itself can be considered to be nothing more but a Occitan dialect [4]. It was most probably this Occitan which was introduced in the north of Gaul and not Latin itself. The local para-Brythonic [5] language changed into 'northern-Occitan' and became as French the language of the vast majority in the North around AD 850. In northern Gaul, Occitan was not imposed, but widely accepted. The Gaulish aristocracy organized local schools for their children. Schooling was not state subsidized until the end of the 19th century and had in most cases to be paid for privately. Less fortunate people had no access to schooling. The Gaulish aristocracy used the 'new' language early on to prove that they were educated, that their parents could afford schooling. In 486 AD, Clovis and his Franks conquered Gaul. Although the Franks spoke a Germanic language (proto-Flemish), they didn't manage to change the language in Gaul. The present language transition simply went on. How can one explain that the Anglo-Saxons did succeed in changing the language in Britain?

The transition needed at least some 900 years to become complete (54 BC - 850 AD). In the 5th century, Sidonius Appolinaris, a Christian missionary, complained in a letter to Rome about the fact that half the population in Gaul couldn't understand his (Occitan) sermons. [6]

The original language of northern Gaul remains partly a mystery. A likely candidate is a Brythonic language, but remote from the language spoken in Armorica (Brittany) and West Britain, mixed with strong and early Occitan influences (maybe 50% of all words) and probably also Germanic words [7] . Some words, now qualified as francique , could have been present in the language before the conquest of the Franks. The intimate relation of para-Brythonic with the southern Occitan language may explain why the language change happened apparently without resistance. The German words were suppressed in official texts, as those texts had to be written in the official Occitan dialect: Latin. Later, those Germanic words, already spread within the population simply came back. Forget the idea that French is derived from vulgar Latin. There was no such thing as vulgar Latin. There were only other Occitan dialects. So, the language gap was less wide than initially supposed.

The more an oppressed language is close to a new one, the faster a transition will happen. It is feasible to learn a close language without lessons. Native Dutch speakers can ‘pick up' German (or English) but not French. Since the 16th century official national languages, along with a fixed writing standard, were introduced in Europe and they had little trouble imposing themselves upon the local dialects. But when the gap is much bigger, like between French and German, or Welsh and English, things are less simple and much slower.

800 up to 1000 years seems to be the average time period of the transition from the original local language to the new imposed one.
During the last 200 years, the general education (schooling) system proved to increase greatly the speed of language change.

Some conditions though must come together to alter a language:
People willing to impose their language upon the locals must have military supremacy, cultural supremacy and economic supremacy. The new language must have been been sufficiently represented within or very near the targeted population and this during a long period. On top of that, the imposed language must provide added value. Without those combined conditions, local, well established populations will not change their language.