The history of language is complex, to say the least, and every bit as fascinating as any other aspect of history. In fact, language changed and evolved over the centuries due in large part to major historical events, including wars, one nation invading or conquering another, marriages between nobles, and a long list of other factors much too numerous to include in this discussion. So in order to understand where English fits into the languages of the world, it’s much easier to start from what we know now in the present day rather than attempt to delve too much into the complicated history of language.
Today, most linguists would agree that there are two European language families: Germanic and Romance, both of which originated from a prehistoric language family usually referred to as Indo-European. The Germanic family includes English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Frisian, Flemish, Afrikaans and Yiddish. English is part of the West Germanic subgroup of this language family, along with Afridaans, Dutch, German, and a few more. The Romance languages are those that are derived from Latin, and include Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, Provençal, Catalan, Rhaeto-Romance, and Romanian. Other language families that originated from the prehistoric Indo-European language include Albanian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Italic and Greek.
The reason why English is classified as a Germanic language may not be obvious at all since so much of our vocabulary comes from Romance languages – French and Latin in particular. But the reason for the Germanic designation extends far back into language history. Much like a family tree, the roots of English emerged generations ago, when one dialect of the Indo-European language evolved into Common Germanic. One dialect of Common Germanic was West Germanic, and in turn one of the dialects of West Germanic became Old English. Over the past several hundred years, Old English evolved into our present-day English language.
However, just because English is designated as Germanic doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been influenced by non-Germanic languages. In fact, during its estimated 1,400 years of existence, English has adopted vocabulary from an incredibly broad range of other languages – from the more obvious Romance languages of French and Latin, as mentioned earlier, to the lesser-known contributors such as Greek and Italian, among others.
Like all other languages, English continues to change and evolve. Just in the course of a single lifetime, you might be surprised to find out how many words have been adopted into common usage – words that were either rarely used or didn’t exist at all several decades ago. Not only does English borrow terms from other languages, it also constantly develops unique vocabulary based to a large extent on current trends and world events (just consider the computer terms that are now so commonly used, for example). Just as we can trace our English language roots back to Old English – a language that would most likely sound entirely foreign to most of us – so our current form of the language will no doubt sound just as odd to English speakers a few hundred years from today.