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The History of English Language

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English

English has evolved over thousands of years, changing and adapting to suit the needs of the people who speak it. Someone alive twenty generations ago would have spoken a completely different version of English to the one we use today.

Let’s go back to where it all started.

Old English (5th-11th century)

English was originally a group of West-Germanic dialects (or ‘Anglo-Frisian’) spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who had invaded Britain in around 5AD. Their language (‘Old English’) is the earliest form of the language we call English today.

Literature was written during this period, including the well-known poems ‘Beowulf’ (a story of a monster-slaying hero) and the Exeter Book (a collection of riddles). These have allowed linguists to develop an understanding of how Old English looked and how it was used.

Features of Old English include the use of grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter genders, as in German) and the use of four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Again, like modern-day German!). There were also a lot more inflectional endings, meaning that word order was much freer.

FUN FACT: Many Old English place names have survived up to the present day such as ‘Plymouth’ meaning the mouth of the River Plym and ‘Oxford’ meaning a ‘ford for Oxen’. England itself is named after the Angles (ie. ‘Land of the Angles’) as well as the area of ‘East-Anglia’!

What language family does English belong to?

Like people, languages can be related to each other. Countries in the same family usually have a common linguistic ancestry (ie. derive from the same language).

The English language belongs to the Indo-European language family (which consists of most languages in Europe and European settlement). The Indo-European family can then be split further into groups (eg. the Romance languages and Germanic languages). English is part of the West-Germanic family, along with German and Dutch. You can see the language groups as siblings - they share common parents but still have their differences!

Middle English (ca. 11th-15th century)

Fast forward to 1066 and Britain is experiencing another invasion, this time from the Normans. This marks the beginning of a new era of language called Early Middle English.

During this time, English was briefly replaced by Anglo-Norman French. This was mostly used by the upper classes, while regional varieties of English were still being used by ordinary people. Due to the occupation of the Anglo-Normans and the use of French in writing, not much Early Middle English literature has survived.

Many of the Old English grammatical features were lost or simplified. For example, grammatical case endings and other inflections disappeared. This led to sentence structures (or ‘syntax’) becoming more complex and word order becoming more important. Early Middle English also adopted plenty of Anglo-Norman French vocabulary, particularly in areas such as the church, law, politics, and the arts (ie. the areas occupied mainly by the upper-class population).

FUN FACT: We still see the remains of the Old English plural inflection -en in words such as ‘oxen’ and ‘children’!

Going into the Late Middle English period (ca. 14th-15th century), English saw further changes. This included a push for standardisation, changes in our writing system, and changes in pronunciation, which is part of the reason modern-day spellings are so irregular!

The most famous surviving piece of literature from this period is ‘The Canterbury Tales’, written by Chaucer in the 1390s. Chaucer’s writing was mostly based on the East-Midlands dialect, a dialect which was also used in the Chancery Standard. It was this Chancery Standard that William Caxton used when he introduced the printing press to Britain in 1476. This helped to stabilise the English language and drive standardisation.

Early Modern English (ca. 15th-18th century)

The 15th century marks the beginning of Early Modern English. A key event during this time was the Great Vowel Shift, an event true to its name. Over the course of around 300 years, the pronunciation of long vowels shifted ‘upwards’ to a shorter version of the vowel (either raised vowels or diphthongs).

The Middle English words ‘weef’ and ‘heer’ are now the words ‘wife’ and ‘her’. Try saying the Middle English word then the current word - notice how the vowels change from a lower position to higher up in the mouth.

The push for standardisation continued during this time, particularly in the spelling system. It was the London-based dialect that was seen as the standard, which led to the recognition of other ‘accents’ and ‘dialects’ (new terms acquired to describe regional variations). The use of the printing press was a way of establishing spelling conventions (ie. the ‘correct’ way of spelling words). The first English dictionary, called ‘A Table Alphabeticall’ was released in 1604 and, not soon after, the King James Bible was published, in 1611. However, standardisation was still a work in progress, so there were still many inconsistencies in spelling during this time.

The Early Modern English period was also the time of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who is regarded as the greatest writer in the history of English. Shakespeare introduced over 1,700 words to the English language, including the words ‘lonely’, ‘fashionable’, and ‘swagger’. Pretty impressive stuff!

By the end of the 16th century, English was seen as of equal importance in learning to the classical languages, such as French and Latin. However, it was still seen as inelegant by some.

Late modern English (ca. 18th-Present)

The Late Modern English period saw the rise of the British Empire, as well as the industrial revolution. Modern English remained pretty much the same in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and spelling; however, a lot of new vocabulary was introduced.

The industrial revolution was a time of innovation, and new words were needed to name the inventions. New means of transportation, machinery, materials, and techniques were all being developed and many of these were of British origin. English became the common language of science and technology with many scientific publications being written in English.

FUN FACT: The words ‘spinning wheel’ and ‘steam engine’ were coined during the industrial revolution.

Colonialism and the growth of the British Empire in the 16th century meant that English was adopted in regions across the world, including North America, Australia, New Zealand, India (and surrounding areas), and Africa.

Many countries in these areas have developed their own dialects of English over the years, which are now recognised as their own varieties and called ‘New Englishes’. Examples of ‘New Englishes’ include American English, Indian English, Caribbean English, and Singaporean English (sometimes called ‘Singlish’).

FUN FACT: New words and expressions were adopted into English from many different countries, such as the word ‘pyjamas’ deriving from the Hindi word ‘payjamah’.

In more recent times, we’ve seen the rising influence of American culture and American English. Throughout the 20th century, American influences such as big American corporations, Hollywood, pop songs, fast food, and fast fashion were distributed around the world. People were therefore listening to music, watching films, and buying products that were all written in the English language.

FUN FACT: The menu items of American fast-food chains often remain the same to give the full American experience. For example, in France, you’ll find ‘Big Mac’ and ‘McChicken’ written on the menu.

With over 1.35 billion speakers, English has become one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Today’s version of English is very different from the Old English spoken by our ancestors. English is still evolving and will continue to adapt to the linguistic needs of its speakers. The recent development of technology and text speak (e.g. ‘thank u, c u l8r’) is a prime example of this.

So what does the future hold for the English language? Well, according to linguist David Crystal, English is one of the most 'desirable Lingua Franca[s]' worldwide (Crystal 1999). It exists in many different varieties, from British English to Indian English to Singaporean English, and we expect to see these varieties develop even further as time goes on.

The History of English Language - Key takeaways

  • The English language belongs to the Indo-European language family and originated as a West-Germanic dialect.
  • Old English (5th-11th century) was brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons in 5AD Britain and was very different to what we know today.
  • The Middle English period (11th-15th century) began when the Normans invaded Britain in 1066 bringing Anglo-Norman French. During this period there was a push for standardisation and the printing press was established.
  • The Early Modern English period (15th-18th century) saw the Great Vowel Shift and was the time of William Shakespeare.
  • The Late Modern English period (18th-Present) saw the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the British Empire. There has also been the influence of American culture and English has become one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
  • Crystal, D. 'The future of Englishes', English Today, 1999, 15 (2), 10-20.

The History of English Language

English first originated as a group of West-Germanic dialects (or ‘Anglo-Frisian dialects’ to be more specific) spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded Britain in around 5AD. Their language, now conveniently named ‘Old English’, is the earliest form of the language that we know today. 

There is no specific founder of the language, however, Geoffrey Chaucer is seen as the father of the English language. Chaucer was an outstanding poet and made great contributions to English literature such as The Canterbury Tales (1392).

The English language first evolved after invasions by groups such as the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. Since then many other factors have influenced English such as standardisation, the Great Vowel Shift, contact with other countries during colonisation, the Industrial Revolution, and developing technologies.

Some of the oldest languages in the world include Sanskrit, Tamil, and Hebrew.

English first originated in 5AD when the Anglo-Saxons first invaded Britain.

Final The History of English Language Quiz

Question

What year did the English language originate?

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Answer

English first originated in around 5AD.

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Question

Who invaded Britain in 5AD speaking West-Germanic dialects?

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Answer

The Anglo-Saxons brought English as a group of West-Germanic dialects in 5AD.

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Question

What is the earliest form of English that we know today?

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Answer

‘Old English’ is the earliest form of the language that we know today.

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Question

Name a feature of Old English.


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Answer

Features of Old English include the use of grammatical gender, the use of cases, and the use of inflections,

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Question

What language family does English belong to?


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Answer

English belongs to the Indo-European family, more specifically the West-Germanic family.

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Question

When was Middle English spoken?


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Answer

11th-15th century

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Question

Who invaded Britain in 1066 and what language did they speak?


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Answer

The Normans invaded Britain in 1066 speaking Anglo-Norman French. 

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Question

Word order became more important in the Middle English period. True or false?


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Answer

True

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Question

What innovation did Chaucer introduce to Britain in 1476?


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Answer

The Printing Press

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Question

What standard did Caxton use when he introduced the printing press?


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Answer

Chancery Standard

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Question

What key event occurred during the Early Modern English period?

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Answer

The Great Vowel Shift

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Question

What happened during the Great Vowel Shift?


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Answer

The pronunciation of long vowels shifted ‘upwards’ to a shorter version of the vowel.

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Question

Which poet had a great influence on the English language during the Early Modern English period?


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Answer

Shakespeare had a great influence on English. He was regarded as the greatest writer in the history of English and introduced over 1,700 words to the language.

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Question

The Late Modern English period saw the rise of the _________, as well as the ___________. Fill in the blanks.


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Answer

The Late Modern English period saw the rise of the British Empire, as well as the industrial revolution.

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Question

How did the industrial revolution affect the English language?


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Answer

The industrial revolution was a time of innovation, and new words were needed to name the inventions. English became a common language of science and technology with many scientific publications being written in English. 

Show question

Question

How did colonisation affect the English language?


Show answer

Answer

Colonialism and the growth of the British Empire in the 16th century meant that English was adopted in regions across the world. Many countries in these areas have developed their own dialects of English, now called ‘New Englishes’.

Show question

Question

In more recent times, we’ve seen the rising influence of _________ culture and _________ English. Fill in the blanks.


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Answer

In more recent times, we’ve seen the rising influence of American culture and American English. 

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