How English gave birth to surprising new languages

Languages are ever changing, mixing and mutating, and sometimes they give birth to new ones. Sanskrit gave birth to Hindi and others; Latin is ancestor to a set of languages including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian; more recently, Afrikaans came from Dutch. But how about English? What will it give birth to?

Three important factors linguists have identified in languages giving birth to other languages are time, separation, and contact. All languages change with time, as speakers innovate and economise and each generation reanalyses what it received from its forebears. This does not quickly make a new language, but it can over time; Latin went through this to become Italian, but Shakespearean English and modern English are still seen as two versions of the same language, as are Ancient Greek and modern Greek.

Separation – geographical distance, cultural divergence, political independence – helps give a changed version of a language an independent identity. As Max Weinreich famously said (and linguists often repeat), a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Political separation has allowed Danish and Norse to be distinct.
English spoken

Contact with other languages is a very important force: mutual influence leads to borrowing of words and even grammatical structures. If a language’s speakers move en masse into an area where another language is spoken, there may be considerable cross-influence, and one or both languages may simplify grammar because their speakers are learning each other’s languages. Influence from Danish, Norse, and French helped Anglo-Saxon become Chaucer’s English, and French is a descendant of Latin with some influence from Celtic and Germanic languages.

Read more: BBC