Linguistic Detective Work
Suppose you needed to figure out where English speakers originally came from, but you knew absolutely nothing about European or American history and had no access to a book or any other written source (a strange hypothetical, I know). How could you do it?
You might simply start with the part of the world where most English-speakers are found, reasoning that’d be the place where the language was spoken for the longest. This would lead to assume that the English language comes from North America. Perhaps, you might reason, English was first spoken in New York City and spread through the world from there. But there are three clues buried in the language which tell you that you’d be wrong.
The first is where related languages are spoken. There are a lot of French and Spanish speakers in North America, and their languages are clearly related to English. You can even tell from place-names in and around New York City — like Harlem, Brooklyn, and Nassau — that the people there once spoke Dutch, a Germanic language even more closely related to English than French or Spanish. But only in northern and western Europe will you find all the languages in the Germanic family — English, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and other smaller dialects. This is a big hint that English comes from Europe.
The second is diversity. The longer a language is spoken somewhere, the more local and regional dialects and accents develop. And anyone who travels in the U.K. is struck by how quickly the way people talk changes. Manchester, London, Cardiff, and Edinburgh are all within a day’s journey by train, but native speakers from those towns sound noticeably different. There is still quite a lot of diversity in eastern North America, too.
If you start in Newfoundland and work your way down the Atlantic coast to Florida, so you’ll hear a lot of accents. But not as many in quite a short distance as in Britain. And on the west coast of North America and in Australia and New Zealand, English is more uniform still. Plus, a native English speaker from Sydney sounds more like a native English speaker from London than a native English speaker from Boston does. It’s a hint that English-speakers having been living on the east coast…