It has been said that the English language has borrowed from some 350 other languages. If in doubt, think of your local high street with all of its multi-cultural restaurants, bars and cafes and ask yourself where words like chilli, chutney, couscous, sushi and risotto come from. Even the humble ketchup has exotic origins, coming as it does, from China. But food is just one example of our cosmopolitan language.
Originally, the Celts inhabited Britain but were forced to flee to its distant corners by the arrival of the Romans. They spoke a sort of vernacular, more colloquial, version of Latin than the one we learnt at school called Vulgar Latin. Because many of them stayed behind and married into the new invading tribes - the Anglo-Saxons - we were left with a blend of Celtic, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, which was derived from Old German.
As if this was not enough of a linguistic cocktail, the Normans arrived in 1066 and, well the rest is history. English is based on a rare concoction of old Norman French, Old German, Latin and a tiny smattering of Celtic.
Latin was revived in Britain when Saint Augustine converted many of the islanders to Christianity, because if they wanted to read the Christian texts, they had to understand Latin.
Today, we can see that in many situations, we have a choice of words available to us. If we wish to evoke something simple and homely, we tend to use the Anglo-Saxon word, if we need a little more formality we are more likely to choose the word of French origin, and if we wish to sound scientific, technological or official, we will probably opt for a Latin-based word.
Ask, for example, is an Anglo-Saxon word, demand a French one, and interrogate a Latin one.
You get my drift...
While it has been estimated that we have almost a million words available to us in the English language today, while the Russians have 150,000 and the French 180,000, when Shakespeare was alive, there were only 21,500 words at his disposal. No wonder he had to create his own.
More about that anon!