How is the name for one's own language created?

  • 6
    Being from England myself, I'm a bit crestfallen to realise this question could even be asked. I know the days when half the world map was coloured red are long gone, but have we really fallen that far below the radar? Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 15:42
  • 8
    @FumbleFingers: Your dismay seems to be based on the idea that the word "English" logically must have been derived from the pre-existing word "England". But that need not be the case; one could just as logically suppose that "England" was called "England" because that's where the English speakers lived. Or that both words "England" and "English" were created at the same time from some common root, like, say "Angle". Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 16:38
  • 1
    @Eric Lippert: Not really. I knew the substance of @drm65's Answer anyway. I just thought it was odd. Most people wouldn't ask, for example, where did the the word Chinese come from, surely? They'd ask about the word China. Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 17:22
  • 2
    @EricLippert, I marvel at how much you manage to read into @FumbleFingers' mind. A precious gift indeed. Lest you apply it to me as well, let me tell you in advance that I have never (publicly at least) claimed that the colour green was named so after the lush vegetation of medieval Greenland. Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 19:09
  • 2
    @Alain: Ah, but have you ever claimed that wolves are called wolves because they wolf their food? Or that fish are called fish because of their questionable business practices? No? Well, there goes another beautiful theory spoiled by a vexing fact. Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 19:15

3 Answers 3


Supposedly, it is a corruption of Anglish, aka: the language of the Angles. They were a Germanic tribe that invaded/colonized Britain after the Romans legions left, in concert with the Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians.

Oddly (and perhaps confusingly), the name the Celtic-speaking residents used to refer to the invaders (and later Normans used for their English-speaking subjects) was "Saxons". Often formally "Anglo-Saxon" was used instead. Also, the modern language found to be closest to English is Frisian. Sadly, the Jutes get no such lasting recognition, except from historians.

This map from Wikipedia shows the supposed original invasion area in Kent, with a proposed tribal makeup. enter image description here

The speculation is that the language started out as a sort of pidgin between the various German tribal languages. This is the theory for why the the word gender rules that a lot of other Germanic languages require were dropped.

  • Welsh is a Celtic language, and the Welsh word for Englishman is Saes.
    – Hugo
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 9:33
  • 2
    @Hugo, "and the Welsh word for Englishman is Saes." Which I'm sure you know is a cognate of the word "Saxon" (G. "Sachsen"). In Gaelic, similarly, Englishman is "Sasunnach". Regarding the Jutes, a reason often put forward to explain their relative oblivion is that they were a less important entity (possibly a smaller tribe under Frankish rule, from the lower Rhine; not from Jutland). This is more consistent with their settlement area in Kent and Hampshire. The Saxons instead would be a tribal confederacy and the Angles a simple tribe. Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 0:08

According to Dictionary.com:

Origin: before 900; Middle English; Old English Englisc, equivalent to Engle (plural) the English (compare Latin Anglī; see Angle) + -isc -ish

And for "Angle" (link above):

noun: a member of a West Germanic people that migrated from Sleswick to Britain in the 5th century a.d. and founded the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. As early as the 6th century their name was extended to all the Germanic inhabitants of Britain.

Origin: < Old English Angle plural (variant of Engle ) tribal name of disputed orig.; perhaps akin to angle 2 if meaning was fisher folk, coastal dwellers

  • That's pretty how all the languages got their names. More interesting question is how the tribal names come to exist, but that's outside the scope of this site.
    – Philoto
    Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 15:04
  • 1
    @RobGt: usually only artificially constructed languages like Esperanto are deliberately named. Otherwise "the language of the XXX tribe" tends to end up as <adjective-derived-from-XXX>, with all the usual corruptions and "Your Finger You Fool" misunderstandings.
    – user1579
    Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 15:42

Although @drm65 and @T.E.D. have given correct answers to the original question, I thought I would deal with the “not Angles but Angels” reference raised in the comments on the question by @Joe Blow.

The “not Angles but Angels” story has no bearing on the derivation of “English,” but it is a real story related by Bede in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, book 2, chapter 1, near the end of the chapter. Bede relates a story concerning Pope Gregory the Great encountering some English slaves for sale in the marketplace at Rome (this was before he became Pope himself, though). When told that they were pagans, he said:

‘Heu, pro dolor!’ inquit, ‘quod tam lucidi uultus homines tenebrarum auctor possidet, tantaque gratia frontispicii mentem ab interna gratia uacuam gestat!’ Rursus ergo interrogauit, quod esset uocabulum gentis illius. Responsum est, quod Angli uocarentur. At ille: ‘Bene,’ inquit; ‘nam et angelicam habent faciem, et tales angelorum in caelis decet esse coheredes. (Ecclesiastical History II.i)

Which translates as:

“Alas! what pity,” said he, “that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances; and that being remarkable for such graceful aspects, their minds should be void of inward grace.” He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. “Right,” said he, “for they have an Angelic face, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven.” (Source, translator uncertain but likely L.C. Jane’s 1903 edition)

The exact phrase “non angli sed angeli” does not appear in the original Latin as you can see; it is a later distillation of the basic sentiment into a more succinct construction.

The original is much more fun than this translation; it’s basically an opportunity for Gregory — or for Bede — to show off his Latinity by making some amusing puns. I’m not fully familiar with how the story has been received in the centuries since Bede wrote, but as Joe Blow’s reference demonstrates, it retains some limited currency even today.

Lastly, note that it is not certain that the incident occurred, or if it did, that this is an accurate report. Fair and unbiased reporting of history was not a high priority for Bede, who was after all writing an ecclesiastical history connecting England more firmly to the rest of Christendom.

  • 1
    Many thanks for that interesting trip down a medieval lane! Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 20:18
  • Bede is also the only real historical reference to the existence of the Jutes, and the source of nearly all the historical information I provided in my answer. An obscure monk living past the edge of civilization in his own time, but a hugely important person to us today.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 20:43

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.