Has English Existed For 2000 Years?

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.

5 comments

  1. This is the reason why I have trouble calling old English or Latin a dead language. They have changed and evolved into modern English, and the various Romance languages respectively. I always thought this is analogous to humans. I don’t look like I did 40 years ago, yet I am the same person. It’s true that no one uses the ancient languages as their first language. I don’t think that means that they are dead, anymore than the ‘me’ of 40 years ago is.

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    • If analogous to humans, I think Old English and Latin are the equivalent of ancestors you have never known or interacted with while they were alive. There is no way you could have interacted with them since they lived and thrived long before your time. All that remains right now is the bones in their graves, and with these bones, we may reconstruct what their lives were like. This is, however, only a glimpse of their actual lives.

      What remains of the ancient languages, such as Latin and Old English, in written form is merely a fragment of the Latin and Old English once spoken. We are looking only at the bones. We are not looking at a living, evolving being that has flesh and blood. Hence the conclusion of “dead” may be the most appropriate way to describe what remains.

      If ever we revive Latin or Old English, it is unlikely to be exactly as it was spoken long ago, although we may get close by using methods of “reconstruction” and “imitation”. It would be like we dig up our ancestors’ bones, reconstruct their lives and consequently imitate their lifestyle. This endeavour itself is philosophically interesting, because it reconnects us with our ancestry, but it does not exactly bring back the dead in any literal sense.

      We may ponder whether “revived” languages, such as Latin or Cornish, are actually the same entity as the languages that were previously called dead, since no one in their lifetime has heard how they were spoken long ago.

      It appears to be the same question as: If you live perfectly like your ancestor(s) you never knew, are you the same person as your ancestor(s)? Some might answer “yes” for philosophical reasons, but most might be inclined to say “no”. After all, if a part of our ancestors lives on in us, and we decide to live like our ancestors, would that not mean we are the same as our ancestors? I think the philosophical answer lies in consciousness, even though consciousness might be a controversial subject.

      There is no evidence there is a direct transfer of consciousness between you and your ancestor(s) whom you never knew. The same might be said about the relationship between Old English and Modern English: No one who speaks English today was there to consciously witness Old English as it was spoken long ago, because the consciousness of Old English has been lost with its death, just as the consciousness of our ancestor whom we never knew has been lost.

      This may, however, be criticised from a philosophically animistic point of view. What if the consciousness is not lost, but the spirit lives on? May perhaps the spirit of the Old English language still exist? And may spirits that speak Old English still be out there? I think, however, all animists can agree that, although a spirit may interact with the living, a spirit is not alive but dead.

      A spirit or soul may return to the realm of the living according to some animistic belief systems, but is the being that that spirit/soul inhabits truly the same person as the previous body it inhabited? According to some animists, it is, but according to others, it is not. As you may see, it is, in the end, a matter of belief or worldview.

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