How old is English?


Back to the first page


In conclusion, the origin of the English language must go back to at least some 6000 years ago, and was certainly not introduced by the Anglo-Saxons.

Human migrations in Europe

Here is our personal attempt to pull European pre-history into a coherent narrative.

First wave

Between 43000 and 41000 years ago (approx.), a first wave of migrating people from the Middle East colonized all Mediterranean coasts. It was a brief interstadial event, about as warm as present-day. These Cro-Magnon people spoke languages which were not related to Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Initially, they colonized most of Western Europe, up to Scandinavia. But then (± 39000 BC) the climate deteriorated and they were forced to abandon the North and to stay around the warmer Mediterranean Sea. The Ice Age would reach its full depth.

Second wave

As soon as the climatic conditions allowed it (start of the pre-Younger Dryas in 12000 BC), a new, second wave hit Europe. Most of Continental Europe was recolonised by hunter-gatherers who came from the shores of the Black Sea and the Balkan region.

Two regions: one on the Atlantic shore and one in southeast Europe. Why? We can only guess: the Alps were for instance still covered with huge amounts of snow and ice. The main European mountain range stretches from Switzerland to the Black sea. It formed a formidable icy obstacle. In the east, the Danube offered a passage. The alternative was to avoid the mountains and to enter Europe via north Poland. So, we state that the two main roads to the north European plains and Britain were the Atlantic coasts, maybe the Rhone-Saone valley in France and the valley of the Danube.

The migrants who came from the shores of the Black Sea spoke an ancestral version of PIE.
These humans had learned how to deal with the ice-cold conditions during the Last Glacial Maximum. In fact, their technology to withstand the ice-cold conditions had reached such a level that they could have colonized northwest Europe much earlier. But the scarcity of food, especially wild game, severely limited this possibility.

The new climatic conditions created a world with a lot of grass, ideal for big game. During the Younger Dryas, roughly 12000 -> 8000 BC, most Europeans migrated seasonally: to the north in the spring and to the warmer south in autumn.Winterly concentrations of humans in respectively Bavaria and Aquitaine caused increasing language uniformity. By contrast, all regions on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea were littered with very different languages.

We call the language spoken during the Younger Dryas in modern Germany Maglemosian. Maglemosian is ancestral PIE.
The people on the Atlantic coasts spoke Azelian, a non-PIE language. We think that this Azelian language might be related to Basque, not that it actually was early Basque.

We suppose the existence of a northern Maglemosian language spoken by people who lived more like modern Eskimos close to the last Scandinavian Ice Sheet and who did not go south (or not that far) in winter (period: 12000 -> 8000 BC).

The Younger Dryas period had a climate (steppe = grassland) which favoured very much big animals like bison, deer, etc.

After the start of the much warmer Holocene (8000 BC), seasonal migration stopped. People remained within the boundaries of their hunting grounds. Over the following millennia, the languages in Europe diversified. What were at first dialects evolved into separate languages. But the language family background remained more or less intact.

During the Holocene, the grasslands changed into forests, which are much less favourable for big game. This means that the food supply for humans dwindled. And subsequently the human population.

Period: about 12000 BC up to around 4000 BC in the more remote corners of western Europe.

Third phase

Around ±7000-4050 BC, the spread of agriculture reintroduced the PIE language, especially in the less populated northern regions. The language base in the north was already present, but was now completely renewed. Maglemosian became proto-Germanic. This was not a third wave of human migrants. It was a technological and linguistic wave. Human migration did happen but as most inhabitable regions were already inhabited, this migration was limited in numbers.

The Azelian language around the North Sea was changed into proto-Germanic and the rest of the Atlantic coasts, including modern Portugal, changed into proto-Brythonic.

We suppose that agriculture eventually always prevailed.
- Where local hunter-gatherers strongly resisted the new way of life, their language faded out and left very little substrate words in the new local PIE language.
- Where locals accepted the new technology without much of a problem, they were able to keep a part of their native vocabulary.

We think that for instance the Maglemosian people who lived in the valley of the Danube, to the southeast of modern Austria, were open minded people. The similarity in language helped a lot. New PIE became mixed with the old version and gave birth to proto-German in the north of the valley and proto-Occitan (later: Latin) to the west of the Hungarian plain, closer to the Adriatic Sea. The latter language would later jump to Italy.

We think that the Azelian people who lived in Portugal and Galicia were at first reluctant to accept agriculture and its language, but eventually accepted it without much afterthought. The local language changed in proto-Brythonic. That language spread itself along the Atlantic coasts.

However, proto-Germanic reached the shores of the North Sea, including England, way before proto-Brythonic reached Cornwall.

[The spread of the Slavonic languages can be due to the rise of the Kurgan people in South Russia and happened later, around 3500 BC.]

PIE did not evolve in separate languages

PIE did not evolve into the modern European languages, it deferred while it spread according to the underlying (substrate) languages. This means that we reject the 'language tree' hypothesis where the languages are supposed to evolve one out of the other.
Example: Greek did not evolve out of PIE, it was (proto-)Greek as soon as the people who lived in Greece accepted agriculture, perhaps mixed with the farmers who came from Anatolia and had adopted its new PIE language. This means that Greek is as old as is agriculture in Greece, give or take a few hunderds years.

One consequence is that Germanic is older than Latin! But both are closely related because they were once very close neighbours.

website metrics