Brief History of the English Language
OLD ENGLISH UNTIL 1066.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE
Old English (500-1100 AD)
Old English Words
The Angles came from an angle-shaped land area in contemporary Germany.
Their name “Angli” from the Latin and commonly-spoken, pre-5th Century
German mutated into the Old English “Engle”. Later, “Engle” changed to
“Angel-cyn” meaning “Angle-race” by A.D. 1000, changing to “Engla-land”.
Some Old English words which have survived intact include: feet, geese,
teeth, men, women, lice, and mice. The modern word “like” can be a noun,
adjective, verb, and preposition. In Old English, though, the word was
different for each type: gelica as a noun, geic as an adjective, lician as
a verb, and gelice as a preposition.
West Germanic invaders from Jutland and southern Denmark: the Angles (whose
name is the source of the words England and English), Saxons, and Jutes,
began populating the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
They spoke a mutually intelligible language, similar to modern Frisian–the
language of northeastern region of the Netherlands–that is called Old
English. Four major dialects of Old English emerged, Northumbrian in the
north of England, Mercian in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and
west, and Kentish in the Southeast.
These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what
is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland, leaving behind
a few Celtic words. These Celtic languages survive today in Gaelic
languages of Scotland and Ireland and in Welsh. Cornish, unfortunately, is
now a dead language. (The last native Cornish speaker, Dolly Pentreath,
died in 1777 in the town of Mousehole, Cornwall.) Also influencing English
at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions, beginning around 850,
brought many North Germanic words into the language, particularly in the
north of England. Some examples are dream, which had meant ‘joy’ until the
Vikings imparted its current meaning on it from the Scandinavian cognate
draumr, and skirt, which continues to live alongside its native English
The majority of words in modern English come from foreign, not Old English
roots. In fact, only about one sixth of the known Old English words have
descendants surviving today. But this is deceptive; Old English is much
more important than these statistics would indicate. About half of the most
commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Words like
be, water, and strong, for example, derive from Old English roots.
Old English, whose best known surviving example is the poem Beowulf, lasted
until about 1100. This last date is rather arbitrary, but most scholars
choose it because it is shortly after the most important event in the
development of the English language, the Norman Conquest.
In spite of the fact that the Romans built cities with walls around them
and magnificent roads all over the country, they did not influence all of
Britain because outside their wallsand camps the old Celtic language was
spoken and their language, Latin, never became a spoken language throughout
the whole of the country.
The real story of English in England begins in the first half of the fifth
century: when the Goths attacked Rome in A.D. 410, the Roman soldiers had
to leave Britain in order to help their countrymen; and the undefended
Britain was attacked and seized by the Angles from Schleswig, the Saxons
from Holstein and the Jutes from Jutland. Once more the Britons were driven
to the mountains of Wales and Scotland.
When the Romans came to Britain in 55 B.C. they found a race of Celtic
people called the Britons, and during the four hundred years that followed
the Roman invasion, Britain became a Roman colony.
The language spoken by those people developed into Welsh and Gaelic and
nowadays an Englishman wouldn’t understand a single word of those languages
because the language he speaks does not come from the Britons who fought
the Romans, and fled from other invaders, but from the Angles who made
England into ‘Angle-land’.
The language the new invaders spoke belonged to the Germanic speech family,
which we can separate into three main families: East Germanic, which
disappeared with Gothic in the eighth century, North Germanic, which
developed into Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic, and low and high
West Germanic, the low developed into Dutch, Flemish and English and the
high into German.
The language that the above mentioned invaders spoke was a west Germanic
member of the Indo-European languages. Although it is generally called
Anglo-Saxon there were, in fact, four dialects, the dialect of the Saxons
was called West Saxon, that of the Jutes was called Kentish, the other two
were called Northumbrian (north of the Humber) and Mercian. The ‘English’
they spoke was an inflicted language and there were five cases of nouns
(Nominative, Vocative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative), ‘strong’ and ‘weak’
forms of adjectives (each with five cases); there was a full conjugation of
verbs – complete with Subjunctive – and there was a system of grammatical
Fortunately, in modern English most of that has changed, grammatical gender
of nouns has completely disappeared, adjectives no longer agree with their
nouns in number, case or gender, nouns have only two cases (singular and
plural), verbs have very few forms and the subjunctive has almost
disappeared. Most of these changes were caused by two other invasions of
THE DANISH INVASION
The first of these invasions was by the Danes. The language spoken by these
invaders was very similar to the language of England – words like mother
and father, man and wife, summer and winter, house, town, tree, land,
grass, come, ride, see, think, and many others were the same in both
languages, so Saxon and Danes could just about understand each other.
Although the languages were similar, the endings were different; and as the
roots of the words were the same, Saxon and Dane found that they could
understand each other better if the inflectional endings were dropped.
Adding the language the Danes spoke brought a lot of positive gains in
vocabulary and grammar. The word law is Danish, so are leg, skin, knife,
sky and Thursday, some of the adjectives the Danes brought to English are
flat, happy, low, ugly, weak and wrong; among the verbs are want, cut,
call, die, lift and take. An interesting feature of the language is a
number of Danish forms existing side by side with, and usually with a
different meaning from, the English forms.
The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500)
Middle English, from 1066 until the 15th Century
The Norman Conquest/ the Linguistic Impact
Modern English patriots view the Battle of Hastings as a national
catastrophe; the year 1066 is the most well-known date throughout English
citizens. “No other conquest in European history has had such disastrous
consequences for the defeated”. However, modern England owes their
government, culture, and language to the ideas the Normans brought.
In the early years after the Conquest, Englishmen who pledged their
allegiance to the King were allowed to keep their land. Nevertheless,
between 1067 and 1070, there were many uprisings against the Norman rule,
including at least one disturbance each year. Many English, though,
cooperated with the new rulers.
The English “resented becoming an oppressed majority in their own country”.
In fact, there were only about 10,000 Normans living among one or two
million Saxons. To protect themselves, the Normans lived in small units.
They built castles from which a small group could rule a large area and
population. More than 4,000 landowners were replaced and forced to turn
over their land to less than 200 barons. England and Normandy now shared a
ruler, forming a connection between the two areas. William, still a Norman
Duke in addition to his English title, owed his allegiance to the King of
France, and therefore English politics became French politics.
Because of the allegiance William still owed to France, he spent most of
his time there, instead of in the country he ruled. This was a major change
from the previous rulers, who lived in the country. William never really
liked England or its people. He gave up trying to learn the language and
only stayed in the country when it was absolutely necessary. As a result,
he had to plan for when he would be absent. Under normal circumstances, a
family member would act as regent while the king was away. However, William
had no relatives whom he trusted enough to leave England in their hands.
This began the tradition of one of the king’s servants, usually a bishop,
representing the king while he was away.
Another political change in England was the formation of Anglo-Norman
feudalism. Several features of feudalism are: “vassalage, military
groupings, and the fragmentation of authority”. The time after the Conquest
was the first public demonstration of the power the king held over the
land. William essentially took back all of the land and redistributed it to
his own vassals or, as they came to be known, barons. The barons then
divided up their own sections and granted the areas to their own vassals. A
“feudal pyramid” can begin to be seen, in which the classes were very
defined, and everyone, in the end, was led by the king.
In addition to these political changes, their were cultural changes, too.
The Normans were shocked at their arrival to find such low moral and
cultural standards in England. With the invasion of the Normans, England
received a new ruling class, culture, and language. French became the
language of law, estates, song, verse, chanson, and romance. It was
considered the “language of the civilized”, and all of the noblepeople all
over Europe knew, in addition to their own language, French. The English
architects and artists borrowed French designs, such as Romanesque and
Gothic, which are now well-known as the styles of most of the famous
landmarks in Europe, such as Westminster Abbey, and Bath.
Prior to the invasion of French culture, England had been a land mostly
influenced by its neighbors to the north, what is now known as Scandinavia.
The language was in use from the first immigrants in the Fifth Century,
until it became common in the Eighth Century. It remained relatively
unchanged until 1150, when the linguistic effects of the Norman Conquest
began to appear in everyday use and the language shifted to Middle English.
Even in Modern English, the correlation between the two languages is
One of the most significant differences between Old English and Middle
English is the amount of borrowing from other languages, which expanded
mainly with the Norman Conquest. The Old English speakers hesitated from
using foreign words, and generally made up their own equivalent of words
rather than borrowing directly. The French, however, kept words and sounds
similar to their foreign roots. One example of foreign sounds directly
affecting English phonemics is the difference between v and f. In Old
English, these were both similar ways of saying f, like Modern English’s
long and short vowels. The introduction of the French word ver, which
sounded like Old English’s fer forced speakers and listeners to make a
difference between the two sounds.
Another effect that the Conquest had on the English language was due to the
scribes. As Old English quickly lost its status, the French scribes, who
didn’t care much about correctly spelled Old English began to write the
language phonetically, as they heard it with their French conventions. This
change can also be seen in Modern English, such as the shift from Middle
English u to the French ou as in house.
Both the English language and the culture have gone through many
evolutions, all as a result of the introduction of new ethnic groups into
Britain. From the first invasions of the Angles and Saxons in 450 A.D.
through the ongoing influx of immigrants from all over the world, England
has been a country influenced by its ever-changing population. The most
influential of these developments was the Norman Conquest in the year 1066.
The results of the Conquest have shaped the history of England, and are
still apparent in today’s English traditions, government, and language. By
looking at modern England, we can still see the threads that stemmed from
the influence of that event, so many years ago.
The Norman Invasion and Conquest of Britain in 1066 and the resulting
French Court of William the Conqueror gave the Norwegian-Dutch influenced
English a Norman-Parisian-French effect. From 1066 until about 1400, Latin,
French, and English were spoken. English almost disappeared entirely into
obscurity during this period by the French and Latin dominated court and
government. However, in 1362, the Parliament opened with English as the
language of choice, and the language was saved from extinction. Present-day
English is approximately 50% Germanic (English and Scandinavian) and 50%
Romance (French and Latin).
William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England
and the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD. (The Bayeux Tapestry, details of which
form the navigation buttons on this site, is perhaps the most famous
graphical depiction of the Norman Conquest.) The new overlords spoke a
dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman. The Normans were also of
Germanic stock (“Norman” comes from “Norseman”) and Anglo-Norman was a
French dialect that had considerable Germanic influences in addition to the
basic Latin roots.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, Latin had been only a minor influence on the
English language, mainly through vestiges of the Roman occupation and from
the conversion of Britain to Christianity in the seventh century
(ecclesiastical terms such as priest, vicar, and mass came into the
language this way), but now there was a wholesale infusion of Romance
The influence of the Normans can be illustrated by looking at two words,
beef and cow. Beef, commonly eaten by the aristocracy, derives from the
Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle,
retained the Germanic cow. Many legal terms, such as indict, jury, and
verdict have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. This
split, where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and
words frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can
be seen in many instances.
Middle English Words
Many new words added to Middle English during this period came from Norman
French, Parisian French, and Scandinavian. Norman French words imported
into Middle English include: catch, wage, warden, reward, and warrant.
Parisian French gave Middle English: chase, guarantee, regard, guardian,
and gage. Scandinavian gave to Middle English the important word of law.
English nobility had titles which were derived from both Middle English and
French. French provided: prince, duke, peer, marquis, viscount, and baron.
Middle English independently developed king, queen, lord, lady, and earl.
Governmental administrative divisions from French include county, city,
village, justice, palace, mansion, and residence. Middle English words
include town, home, house, and hall.
Sometimes French words replaced Old English words; crime replaced firen and
uncle replaced eam. Other times, French and Old English components combined
to form a new word, as the French gentle and the Germanic man formed
gentleman. Other times, two different words with roughly the same meaning
survive into modern English. Thus we have the Germanic doom and the French
judgment, or wish and desire.
It is useful to compare various versions of a familiar text to see the
differences between Old, Middle, and Modern English. Take for instance this
Old English (c.1000) sample:
Fder ure ue eart on heofonum
si in nama gehalgod tobecume in rice gewure in willa on eoran swa
swa on heofonum
urne gedghwamlican hlaf syle us to dg
and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfa urum gyltendum
and ne geld u us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele solice.
Finally, in Early Modern English (King James Version, 1611) the same text
is completely intelligible:
Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen.
Giue us this day our daily bread.
And forgiue us our debts as we forgiue our debters.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliuer us from euill. Amen.
In 1204 AD, King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France.
This began a process where the Norman nobles of England became increasingly
estranged from their French cousins. England became the chief concern of
the nobility, rather than their estates in France, and consequently the
nobility adopted a modified English as their native tongue. About 150 years
later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed about one third of the English
population. The laboring and merchant classes grew in economic and social
importance, and along with them English increased in importance compared to
This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English. The
most famous example of Middle English is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unlike
Old English, Middle English can be read, albeit with difficulty, by modern
By 1362, the linguistic division between the nobility and the commoners was
largely over. In that year, the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made
English the language of the courts and it began to be used in Parliament.
The Middle English period came to a close around 1500 AD with the rise of
The Norman invasion played a major part of the shaping of modern English.
The Normans were renowned for their learning, their military prowess and
their organizing ability. After defeating the English king Harold at
Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror began to organize England on the
Norman pattern. Many Frenchmen came to Britain and brought the rich
learning and developed civilization and culture of Normandy.
The Normans ruled with a hard hand and the defeated Saxons were oppressed.
For the next three centuries all the Kings of England spoke French: all the
power in Court, Church and Castle was in the hands of the Normans. The
language they spoke was French and they never dreamed of doing their
organizing in any other language than French or Latin. For about three
hundred years two languages were spoken side by side in England: the
‘official’ language was French, and English was only spoken by the common
The language of Saxon times was being changed, but it was in no danger of
dying out, and every change did something to improve the English language.
It took over three hundred years, but it happened, Norman and Saxon united
to form one language. When King Edward III opened Parliament in English in
1362 it became obvious that there was no turning back.
When English finally emerged as the language of England, it had been
greatly modified by the changes through which it had gone. The gradual
dropping of the inflectional endings and the general grammatical
simplification, which had begun in the times of the Danes, had gone on and
had been greatly accelerated by the collision with French. Moreover, for
three centuries English had been almost entirely a spoken language, no
longer restrained and kept from change by literary models.
The changes were revolutionary and English became the only language that
had managed to get rid of grammatical gender, case endings of nouns had
been reduced to one. Verb forms had been simplified, and in general the
whole language had been made much more flexible and expressive. If we take
a close look at the vocabulary in modern English, we will discover that
approximately 50 per cent. of the words in it are of French or Latin origin
and half of these were adopted between 1250 and 1400.
Despite this incredible French element, English remains fundamentally Anglo-
Saxon because although it is quite easy to make a sentence without any
French words it is practically impossible to make even a short sentence
without using Saxon words. Furthermore, the words which came into English
from French throw an interesting light on the social history of the times.
It would almost be possible to reconstruct the social history just by
examining the vocabulary of today. This examination would reveal that the
Normans were the ruling race because almost all the words expressing
government (including government itself) are of French origin. Words such
as: king, queen, lord and lady are Saxon; but prince, sovereign, throne,
crown, chancellor, minister, council, royal, state, country, people,
nation, parliament, duke, count and many others are all Norman.
The Normans also introduced words which expressed the new ideas of chivalry
and refinement such as: honour, glory, courteous, duty, polite, conscience,
noble, pity, fine and cruel. Through words like, arch, pillar, palace,
tower, and castle, we can see that they excelled in the art of building.
From their interest in war and warfare we got: war, peace, battle, armour,
officer, soldier, navy, captain, enemy, danger, march and company.
The Normans were great law-givers, and although the word law is
Scandinavian, the words, justice, judge, jury, court, cause, crime,
traitor, assize, prison, tax, money, rent, property and injury are all of
When English monks translated the scriptures into English, it was often far
easier to adopt the Latin or French word than to try and invent a new word.
Therefore, a large number of French words connected with religion came into
the language. These words include: religion, service, saviour, prophet,
saint, sacrifice, miracle, preach and pray.
The names of nearly all articles of luxury and pleasure are Norman and the
simpler things in life are English. Occasionally, we have two English
words, both derived from the same French word, but borrowed at different
times, and, as a result, having different pronunciations and usually
slightly different meanings. Examples of these are: warden, guardian;
warranty, guarantee, catch, chase. French words that came into the language
at an early time became fully anglicized both in accent and pronunciation.
The later importations, from the sixteenth century onwards, failed to
achieve this complete incorporation into the language. A feature of the
Germanic group of languages is that in words of more than one syllable the
accent is on the first syllable. This rule applies to early borrowings from
French: virtue, nature, honour, favour, courage, reason, captain. However,
words which came into the language at a later stage like: campaign,
connoisseur, garage and mnage have not yet managed to acquire this
On the one hand, it is hard to believe that words like table, chair,
castle, grocer and beauty haven’t always been part of English. On the other
hand, it is very easy to believe amateur, soufflet, valet, chaperon and
chef were imported. Words like garage are at a half-way stage, because we
are not sure whether we should pronounce this word the same way as we
pronounce carriage and marriage or whether it should be pronounced like
mirage and sabotage.
In almost every century since Norman times new words have entered the
In the sixteenth: pilot, rendez-vous, volley, vase, moustache, machine
In the seventeenth: reprimand, ballet, burlesque, champagne, nave, soup,
In the eighteenth: migre, guillotine, corps, espionage, depot, bureau,
canteen, brunette, picnic, police
In the nineteenth: barrage, chassis, profile, restaurant, menu, chauffeur,
In the twentieth; garage, camouflage, hangar and revue
The twenty-first century hasn’t seen any contributions from French yet.
An interesting effect of the Norman element has been to give English a sort
of bilingual quality, with two words, one of Saxon origin and one of French
origin, to express roughly the same meaning. Thus we have foe and enemy;
friendship and amity; freedom and liberty; unlikely and improbable;
fatherly and paternal; motherhood and maternity; bold and courageous; and
thousands more like these. Although there is very little difference in
meaning the Saxon word is always nearer the nation’s heart and has a
greater emotional atmosphere. Brotherly love is deeper than fraternal
affection; help expresses deeper need than aid; a hearty welcome is warmer
than a cordial reception.
THE CLASSICAL ELEMENT.
Both Latin and, to a lesser degree, Greek have been important contributors
to the English language, the Revival of Learning in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries created a nightmare for modern teachers of English,
because instead of trying to understand how English worked and make grammar
rules accordingly, Latin grammar was taught and the English language was
distorted to fit into the pattern of Latin grammar.
There are a great number of words formed from Greek prefixes tacked on to
words of English and other languages. For a complete list of Greek
prefixes, what they mean and how we use them, click here.
CONTRIGUTIO FROM OTHER LANGUAGES.
Italy, which was for so long the center of European culture, has given
words to our vocabulary of music and architecture: piano: piccolo, soprano,
solo, opera, miniature, studio, model, balcony, corridor.
Spanish has contributed: cargo, cigar, cigarette, cork, desperado,
renegade, potato, tobacco and chocolate.
Indian has given us: pyjamas, shampoo, bungalow, curry and ginger.
Persian gave us: bazaar, divan, lilac and check-mate.
Arabic gave us: admiral, lemon, alcohol, algebra, coffee, cotton and
The fact that there has never been any conscious worship of a ‘pure
English’ that opposed the introduction of new words into the language, has
more than likely contributed to help English become the universal language
of the twenty-first century.
Indo-European and Germanic Influences
English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This broad
family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-
European family includes several major branches:
1. Latin and the modern Romance languages;
2. The Germanic languages;
3. The Indo-Iranian languages, including Hindi and Sanskrit;
4. The Slavic languages;
5. The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian (but not Estonian);
6. The Celtic languages; and
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
The next wave of innovation in English came with the Renaissance. The
revival of classical scholarship brought many classical Latin and Greek
words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and many bemoaned
the adoption of these “inkhorn” terms, but many survive to this day.
Shakespeare’s character Holofernes in Loves Labor Lost is a satire of an
overenthusiastic schoolmaster who is too fond of Latinisms.
Many students having difficulty understanding Shakespeare would be
surprised to learn that he wrote in modern English. But, as can be seen in
the earlier example of the Lord’s Prayer, Elizabethan English has much more
in common with our language today than it does with the language of
Chaucer. Many familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by
Shakespeare, some 2,000 words and countless catch-phrases are his.
Newcomers to Shakespeare are often shocked at the number of cliches
contained in his plays, until they realize that he coined them and they
became cliches afterwards. “One fell swoop,” “vanish into thin air,” and
“flesh and blood” are all Shakespeare’s. Words he bequeathed to the
language include “critical,” “leapfrog,” “majestic,” “dwindle,” and
Two other major factors influenced the language and served to separate
Middle and Modern English. The first was the Great Vowel Shift. This was a
change in pronunciation that began around 1400. While modern English
speakers can read Chaucer with some difficulty, Chaucer’s pronunciation
would have been completely unintelligible to the modern ear. Shakespeare,
on the other hand, would be accented, but understandable. Long vowel sounds
began to be made higher in the mouth and the letter “e” at the end of words
became silent. Chaucer’s Lyf (pronounced “leef”) became the modern life. In
Middle English name was pronounced “nam-a,” five was pronounced “feef,” and
down was pronounced “doon.” In linguistic terms, the shift was rather
sudden, the major changes occurring within a century. The shift is still
not over, however, vowel sounds are still shortening although the change
has become considerably more gradual.
The last major factor in the development of Modern English was the advent
of the printing press. William Caxton brought the printing press to England
in 1476. Books became cheaper and as a result, literacy became more common.
Publishing for the masses became a profitable enterprise, and works in
English, as opposed to Latin, became more common. Finally, the printing
press brought standardization to English. The dialect of London, where most
publishing houses were located, became the standard. Spelling and grammar
became fixed, and the first English dictionary was published in 1604.
During this period, English became more organized and began to resemble the
modern version of English. Although the word order and sentence
construction was still slightly different, Early Modern English was at
least recognizable to the Early Modern English speaker. For example, the
Old English “To us pleases sailing” became “We like sailing.” Classical
elements, from Greek and Latin, profoundly influenced work creation and
origin. From Greek, Early Modern English received grammar, logic,
arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Also, the “tele-” prefix
meaning “far” later used to develop telephone and television was taken.
Late-Modern English (1800-Present)
The principal distinction between early- and late-modern English is
vocabulary. Pronunciation, grammar, and spelling are largely the same, but
Late-Modern English has many more words. These words are the result of two
historical factors. The first is the Industrial Revolution and the rise of
the technological society. This necessitated new words for things and ideas
that had not previously existed. The second was the British Empire. At its
height, Britain ruled one quarter of the earth’s surface, and English
adopted many foreign words and made them its own.
The industrial and scientific revolutions created a need for neologisms to
describe the new creations and discoveries. For this, English relied
heavily on Latin and Greek. Words like oxygen, protein, nuclear, and
vaccine did not exist in the classical languages, but they were created
from Latin and Greek roots. Such neologisms were not exclusively created
from classical roots though, English roots were used for such terms as
horsepower, airplane, and typewriter.
This burst of neologisms continues today, perhaps most visible in the field
of electronics and computers. Byte, cyber-, bios, hard-drive, and microchip
are good examples.
Also, the rise of the British Empire and the growth of global trade served
not only to introduce English to the world, but to introduce words into
English. Hindi, and the other languages of the Indian subcontinent,
provided many words, such as pundit, shampoo, pajamas, and juggernaut.
Virtually every language on Earth has contributed to the development of
English, from Finnish (sauna) and Japanese (tycoon) to the vast
contributions of French and Latin.
The British Empire was a maritime empire, and the influence of nautical
terms on the English language has been great. Words and phrases like three
sheets to the wind and scuttlebutt have their origins onboard ships.
Finally, the 20th century saw two world wars, and the military influence on
the language during the latter half of this century has been great. Before
the Great War, military service for English-speaking persons was rare; both
Britain and the United States maintained small, volunteer militaries.
Military slang existed, but with the exception of nautical terms, rarely
influenced standard English. During the mid-20th century, however,
virtually all British and American men served in the military. Military
slang entered the language like never before. Blockbuster, nose dive,
camouflage, radar, roadblock, spearhead, and landing strip are all military
terms that made their way into standard English.
It is important to note that modern English developed through the efforts
of literary and political writings, where literacy was uniformly found.
Modern English was heavily influenced by classical usage, the emergence of
the university-educated class, Shakespeare, the common language found in
the East Midlands section of present-day England, and an organized effort
to document and standardize English. Current inflections have remained
almost unchanged for 400 years, but sounds of vowels and consonants have
changed greatly. As a result, spelling has also changed considerably. For
example, from Early English to Modern English, lyf became life, deel became
deal, hoom became home, mone became moon, and hous became house.
Also significant beginning around 1600 AD was the English colonization of
North America and the subsequent creation of a distinct American dialect.
Some pronunciations and usages “froze” when they reached the American
shore. In certain respects, American English is closer to the English of
Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some “Americanisms” that the
British decry are actually originally British expressions that were
preserved in the colonies while lost at home (e.g., fall as a synonym for
autumn, trash for rubbish, frame-up which was reintroduced to Britain
through Hollywood gangster movies, and loan as a verb instead of lend).
The American dialect also served as the route of introduction for many
native American words into the English language. Most often, these were
place names like Mississippi, Roanoke, and Iowa. Indian-sounding names like
Idaho were sometimes created that had no native-American roots. But, names
for other things besides places were also common. Raccoon, tomato, canoe,
barbecue, savanna, and hickory have native American roots, although in many
cases the original Indian words were mangled almost beyond recognition.
Spanish has also been great influence on American English. Armadillo,
mustang, canyon, ranch, stampede, and vigilante are all examples of Spanish
words that made their way into English through the settlement of the
To a lesser extent French, mainly via Louisiana, and West African, through
the importation of slaves, words have influenced American English. Armoire,
bayou, and jambalaya came into the language via New Orleans. Goober, gumbo,
and tote are West African borrowings first used in America by slaves.
Chronology of the English Language
|55 BCE|Roman invasion of Britain under Julius Caesar|
|43 CE|Roman invasion and occupation under Emperor Claudius. |
||Beginning of Roman rule of Britain|
|436 |Roman withdrawal from Britain complete|
|449 |Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain begins|
|450-480|Earliest Old English inscriptions date from this period|
|597 |St. Augustine arrives in Britain. Beginning of Christian|
||conversion of the Anglo-Saxons |
|731 |The Venerable Bede publishes The Ecclesiastical History of|
||the English People in Latin|
|792 |Viking raids and settlements begin|
|865 |The Danes occupy Northumbria|
|871 |Alfred becomes king of Wessex. He has Latin works translated |
||into English and begins practice of English prose. The |
||Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is begun |
|911 |Charles II of France grants Normandy to the Viking chief|
||Hrolf the Ganger. The beginning of Norman French |
|c.1000|The oldest surviving manuscript of Beowulf dates from this|
|1066|The Norman conquest|
|c.1150|The oldest surviving manuscripts in Middle English date from |
||this period |
|1171|Henry II conquers Ireland|
|1204|King John loses the province of Normandy to France|
|1348|English replaces Latin as the medium of instruction in |
||schools, other than Oxford and Cambridge which retain Latin |
|1349-50|The Black Death kills one third of the British population|
|1362|The Statute of Pleading replaces French with English as the |
||language of law. Records continue to be kept in Latin. |
||English is used in Parliament for the first time |
|1384|Wyclif publishes his English translation of the Bible |
|c.1388|Chaucer begins The Canterbury Tales |
|c.1400|The Great Vowel Shift begins|
|1476|William Caxton establishes the first English printing press |
|1485|Caxton publishes Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur|
|1492|Columbus discovers the New World|
|1525|William Tyndale translates the New Testament|
|1536|The first Act of Union unites England and Wales |
|1549|First version of The Book of Common Prayer |
|1603|Union of the English and Scottish crowns under James the I|
||(VI of Scotland)|
|1604|Robert Cawdrey publishes the first English dictionary, Table |
|1607|Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New |
||World, established |
|1611|The Authorized, or King James Version, of the Bible is |
|1616|Death of Shakespeare|
|1623|Shakespeare’s First Folio is published|
|1666|The Great Fire of London. End of The Great Plague|
|1702|Publication of the first daily, English-language newspaper, |
||The Daily Courant, in London|
|1755|Samuel Johnson publishes his dictionary|
|1770|Cook discovers Australia |
|1776|Thomas Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence|
|1782|Washington defeats Cornwallis at Yorktown. Britain abandons |
||the American colonies|
|1788|British penal colony established in Australia|
|1803|Act of Union unites Britain and Ireland|
|1828|Noah Webster publishes his dictionary|
|1851|Herman Melville publishes Moby Dick |
|1922|British Broadcasting Company founded |
|1928|The Oxford English Dictionary is published |
How the English language grew
The Celtic Invasions
Legends tell us that the British Isles were originally inhabited by a race
of giants called the Firbolgs. History tells us that Celtic people lived in
Britain several thousand years ago.
Celtic languages were spoken in Britain before the Roman invasions. Some
have died out, such as Manx, which used to be spoken on the Isle of Man,
and Cornish, which was confined to the extreme south-western tip of
England. These languages, living or dead, have a very long history. They
were probably among the very first languages to be spoken by the people of
Thousands of years ago, there were peoples in central Europe known by the
ancient Greeks as Keltoi. We know them as the Celts. They were adventurous
and aggressive, travelling and invading many other areas, as far apart as
what we now call Bulgaria and Spain, the Netherlands and Italy.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Celts reached Ireland and then England. From
Ireland they went to Scotland. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are still spoken.
Welsh, another Celtic language, is still spoken. In England, efforts are
being made to keep the Celtic languages of Cornish and Manx alive.
Roman and Anglo-Saxon invasions
In 55 BC, Julius Caesar and his Roman legions arrived from the south. The
real invasion did not commence until 43 AD, and part of Britain was annexed
by the Roman Empire for about 300 years. The rulers and militia spoke
Latin, the ordinary people spoke their Celtic languages.
Major changes to the language of Britain started when the Angles, Saxons
and Jutes invaded from what we now call Germany and Scandinavia. The
languages they spoke were the forerunners of modern German. The first
invasion was in 449 AD. Over the next 150 years, they successfully took
over the whole of England. Indeed, by about 1,000 AD it was known as
England, the land of the Angles. The language which dominated in this
period is now known as Anglo-Saxon or Old English.
The Latin spoken by the Romans died out, but a new strand of Latin came
with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 6th century. For about
200 years, this had an influence on both the culture and the language of
The marauding Vikings!
But another series of invasions commenced – raiders came from Norway and
Denmark, starting around the end of the 8th century. The marauding
Norsemen, also known as Vikings, were on the move! They conquered various
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain, and Norse almost became the official
Alfred the Great, helped the Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen eventually worked
out how to live with each other. A division of the north and south of
England was made by a line called the Danelaw. During this period, the
young English language was absorbing words from Old Norse.
The language of the Vikings has not completely disappeared. Much of it can
be heard in Modern Icelandic. A Danish ambassador explained this to me in
an amusing way: ‘When the Vikings reached Iceland, both they and their
The final great invasion
In 1066, William the Conqueror arrived from the northern part of France,
still known as Normandy, and swept all before him. King Harold was beaten
at Hastings. William became king. For two or three hundred years, the
Normans controlled the country. Norman French was the official language
used in government, law and commerce. Latin remained the language of the
church and schools. Peasants, labourers, ordinary folk continued to speak
the Anglo-Saxon form of Old English but it was rarely put into writing
during this period.
From Old to Middle to Modern
However, over time, the various peoples, their cultures and languages, came
closer together. Norman French had an enormous influence over the language.
We now have a special term for English between the 12th and 15th centuries:
it is called Middle English. You cans see it in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poems.
It is said that Chaucer (1340?-1400) was responsible, through his writing,
for the revival of the English language. William Caxton (1422?-1491?), who
printed Chaucer’s works, also influenced this rebirth and the
standardisation of the language.
The works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and the Authorised Version of
the Bible (1611) show us what our language looked like as it moved into the
phase we know as Modern English.
Chronology of the history of English
|55 ; 54 BC|Julius Caesar lands|Celtic |
|43 |Roman conquest begins |Celtic ; Latin|
|End of 3rd|Attacks by Germanic tribes |Romanised Celtic ; |
|383-410|Withdrawal of Roman troops | |
|449 |Germanic invasions|Scattered Germanic |
|c. 547|Anglian kingdom north of Humber| |
|597 |Augustine starts christianisation |Largely Germanic|
||in Kent| |
|634 |Irish monks christianize| |
|655 |Christianisation of Mercia | |
||completed | |
|664 |Synod of Whitby | |
|787 |First wave of Danish invasions| |
|865 |Second wave of Danish invasions| |
|886 |Sovereignty of Alfred the Great| |
|964 |Monastic reform |Standardisation of Old|
|973 |Edgar crowned king of England| |
|991 |Third wave of Danish invasions| |
|1066|Norman conquest |Norman French official|
|1204|Normandy lost| |
|1258|Royal proclamation in English|English official language |
|1348-1350 |The Black Death | |
|1362|Parliament opened in English| |
|1382|Peasants’ Revolt| |
|1476|Caxton’s printing press in | |
|1531|Henry VIIIth breaks with Rome|Bible translations |
|1588|Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar|Standardisation|
|1607|English brought to America |American English|
|1639-86|English settlements in India|English as a trading|
|1664|Royal Society: committee|Standardisation|
|1759|Quebec gained| |
|1761|India a colony | |
|1805|Battle of Trafalgar| |
|1816|First inexpensive newspaper |Mass media|
|1858|Beginning of work on NED (later| |
|19th C|Technical progress|scientific language |
|1899-1901 |Boer war |English in S. Africa|
|1914-18|World War I|English as language of|
|1939-45|World War II|Spread of American English|