Written by Dyami Millarson
Yes and no. Yes, English enjoys 2000 years of continuity in one form or another, because it is descended from Proto-Germanic. No, Modern English has not been in use for 2000 years, because it comes from Middle English, which comes from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), which comes from Anglo-Frisian, which comes from Proto-Germanic. If one intends to claim that English has been the same for 2000 years, and that 2000 years ago people spoke English, this is blatantly false. The English language has changed a lot and it was not the same language 2000 years ago. However, if one intends to claim that English enjoys historical continuity, and that it has ancient origins, this is true.
We know that there is a more than 2000 years of ‘historical contuinity’ between English and Proto-Germanic. This is not to claim they are the same. To the contrary, English is not Proto-Germanic and vice versa. However, English is a Germanic language and therefore it has a linguistic history of more than 2000 years. In fact, the contuinity of English stretches back even further, because Proto-Germanic is descended from Proto-Indo-European, which means English may not just claim a contuinity of 2000 years, but much more than 2000 years. However, the origins of Proto-Indo-European are obscure and therefore we do not know with certainty whatever came before.
In any case, we may assume that Proto-Indo-European did not appear ex nihilo but followed a natural history of language development just like English over the last 2000+ years. We may assume this because there is no indication Proto-Indo-European would not have followed an evolutionary path like its descendants and other natural languages that exist today. This being the case, we may claim that English enjoys linguistic continuity since the dawn of time.
We do, however, know very little about languages spoken between the period of Proto-Indo-European and the dawn of humanity. We can be quite sure that Proto-Indo-European enjoys a natural linguistic history and therefore natural linguistuc continuity, but we do not know how far that continuity stretches, because a lot could have happened. Did Proto-Indo-European descend from a creole or pidgin at some point? How much did language contact play a role? Should we surmise that the natural development of Proto-Indo-European stretches back indefinitely and therefore it has enjoyed continuity literally since the dawn of humanity (or at least since the first language-using hominids)? These are fascinating matters for the philosophy of language, and all we can say right now is we cannot put an exact date on the continuity of Proto-Indo-European, which is a relevant issue for the continuity of English. However, we may say ‘since time immemorial’ and we may only speculate about how long that might exactly be, which is the chief reason why this is particularly interesting for language philosophy.