Histories    |     Facts    |     Archives    |     About Us    |     Contact Us

The Great Melting Pot of Language

A History of the English Language

The history of English is a complex and dynamic history. It is often, albeit perhaps too neatly, divided into four periods: Old English, Middle English, Early-Modern English, and Late-Modern English. English is classified genetically as a Low West Germanic language of the Indo-European family of languages. Currently, nearly two billion people around the globe understand it. It is the language of aviation, science, computing, international trade, and diplomacy. It holds a crucial place in the cultural, political, and economic affairs in countries all over the world. From its early beginnings as a series of Germanic dialects, English has been remarkable in both its colonizing power and its ability to adopt and amass vocabulary from all over the world. Yet it was nearly wiped out in its early years (Bragg 2003).

Old English (500-1100AD)

It is nearly impossible to identify the birth of a language, but in the case of English, it is safe to say that it did not exist before the West Germanic tribes settled Britain. During the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., West Germanic tribes from Jutland and southern Denmark (Norseland) invaded the British Isles. These tribes--which included the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes--spoke a Germanic language now termed Old English, a language which is similar to modern Frisian. Out of these tribes, four major dialects of Old English emerged, Northumbrian in the north of England, Merican in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the Southeast. These tribes, along with the English language, may well have been wiped out altogether by Viking raiders if not for a Wessex king named Alfred the Great. After defeating the Vikings, who threatened both the English way of life and its language, Alfred the Great encouraged English literacy throughout his kingdom (McCrum, et al 1986).

Before the Germanic tribes arrived, the Celts were the original inhabitants of Britain. When the Germanic tribes invaded England, they pushed the Celt-speaking inhabitants out of England into what is now Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. The Celtic language survives today in the Gaelic languages, and some scholars speculate that the Celtic tongue might have influenced the grammatical development of English, though the influence would have been minimal (Bryson 1990).

Around A.D. 850, Vikings or Norsemen made a significant impact on the English language by importing many North Germanic words into the language. From the middle of the ninth century, large numbers of Norse invaders settled in Britain, especially in the northern and eastern areas and, in the eleventh century, a Danish (Norse) King, Canute, ruled England. The North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had a fundamental influence on English. They added basic words such as “that,” “they,” and “them,” and also may have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and cases (Bragg 2003).

The majority of words that constitute Modern English do not come from Old English roots (only about one sixth of known Old English words have descendants surviving today), but almost all of the 100 most commonly used words in modern English do have Old English roots. Words like “water,” “strong,” “the,” “of,” “a,” “he” “no” and many other basic modern English words derive from Old English (Bragg 2003). Still, the English language we know today is a far cry from its Old English ancestor. This is evidenced in the epic poem Beowulf, which is the best known surviving example of Old English (McCrum, et al 1986), but which must be read in translation to modern English by all but those relative few who have studied the work in the original. The Old English period ended with the Norman Conquest, when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the French-speaking Normans.

The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500)

In 1066, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England and the Anglo-Saxons. After the invasion, the Norman kings and the nobility spoke a dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman, while English continued to be the language of the common people. This class distinction can still be seen in the English language today in words such as “beef” vs. “cow” and “pork” vs. “pig.” The aristocracy commonly ate beef and pork, which are derivatives of Anglo-Norma, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle and hogs, retained the Germanic and ate cow and pig. Many legal terms, such as “indict,” “jury,” and “verdict” also have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ruled the courts. It was not uncommon for French words to replace Old English words; for example, “uncle” replaced “eam” and “crime” replaced “firen.” French and English also combined to form new words, such as the French “gentle” and the Germanic “man” forming “gentleman” (Bryson1990). To this day, French-based words hold a more official connotation than do Germanic-based ones.

When the English King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France in 1204, the Norman nobles of England began to lose interest in their properties in France and began to adopt a modified English as their native tongue. When the bubonic plague devastated Europe, the dwindling population served to consolidate wealth. The old feudal system crumbled as the new middle class grew in economic and social importance as did their language in relation to Anglo-Norman. The highly inflected system of Old English gave way to, broadly speaking, the same system of English found today which, unlike Old English, does not use distinctive word endings. Unlike Old English, Middle English can be read (albeit with some difficulty) by modern English speakers. By 1362, the linguistic division between the nobility was largely over and the Statue of Pleading was adopted, making English the language of the courts and Parliament. Edward the III became the first king to address Parliament in English in 1362, and the first English government document to be published in English since the Norman Conquest was the Provisions of Oxford. And the most famous literary example of Middle English is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Middle English period came to a close around 1500 with the rise of Modern English (McCrum, et al 1986).

Early Modern English (1500-1800)

The Renaissance brought with it widespread innovation in the English language. The rediscovery of classical scholarship created an influx of classical Latin and Greek words into the language. While Latin and Greek borrowings diversified the language, some scholars adopted Latin terms awkwardly and excessively, leading to the derogatory term “inkhorn.” An important item for scholars, an inkhorn was simply a horn pot that held ink for quills...but later it became a deprecatory term for pedantic writers who borrowed obscure and opulent terms such as “revoluting” and “ingent affability” (Bragg 2003). The invention of the printing press also marked the division from Old English to Modern English as books became more widespread and literacy increased. Soon publishing became a marketable occupation and books written in English were often more popular than books in Latin. The printing press also served to standardize English. The written and spoken language of London already influenced the entire country, and with the influence of the printing press, London English soon began to dominate. Indeed, London standard became widely accepted, especially in more formal context. Soon English spelling and grammar were fixed and the first English dictionary was published in 1604 (Bryson 1990).

In the fifteenth century, the Great Vowel Shift--a series of changes in English pronunciation--further changed the English language. These purely linguistic sound changes moved the spoken language away from the so-called “pure” vowel sounds which still characterize many Continental languages today. Consequently, the phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were lost, resulting in the oddities of English pronunciation and obscuring the relationship of many English words and their foreign roots. The Great Vowel Shift was rather sudden and the major changes occurred within a century, though the shift is still in process and vowel sounds are still shortening, albeit much more gradually. The causes of the shift are highly debated. Some scholars argue that such a shift occurred due to the “massive intake of Romance loanwords so that English vowels started to sound more like French loanwords. Other scholars suggest it was the loss of inflectional morphology that started the shift” (Bragg 2003).

Late-Modern English (1800-Present)

The pronunciation, grammar, and spelling of Late-Modern English are essentially the same as Early-Modern English, but Late-Modern English has significantly more words due to several factors. First, discoveries during the scientific and industrial revolutions created a need for a new vocabulary. Scholars drew on Latin and Greek words to create new words such as “oxygen,” “nuclear,” and “protein.” Scientific and technological discoveries are still ongoing and neologisms continue to this day, especially in the field of electronics and computers. Just as the printing press revolutionized both spoken and written English, the new language of technology and the Internet places English in a transition period between Modern and Postmodern.

Second, the English language has always been a colonizing force. During the medieval and early modern periods, the influence of English quickly spread throughout Britain, and from the beginning of the seventeenth century on, English began to spread throughout the world. Britain’s maritime empire and military influence on language (especially after WWII) has consequently been significant. Britain’s complex colonization, exploration, and overseas trade both imported loanwords from all over the world (such as “shampoo,” “pajamas,” and “yogurt”) and also led to the development of new varieties of English, each with its own nuances of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Significantly, one of England’s colonies, America, created what is known as American English and, in some respects, American English is closer to the English of Shakespeare than the modern Standard British English(or the modern Queen’s English) because many Americanisms are originally British expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost at home (e.g., “trash” for “rubbish”). Native American and Spanish vocabulary have also been a great influence on American English, importing or adopting such words as “raccoon,” “canoe,” “mustang,” “ranch,” and “vigilante” (Bragg 2003).

Global English

Recently, English has become a lingua franca, a global language that is regularly used and understood by many countries where English is not the first/native language. In fact, when Pope John Paul II went to the Middle East to retrace Christ’s footsteps and addressed Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the Pope didn’t speak Arabic, Italian, Hebrew, or his native Polish; instead, he spoke in English. In fact, English is used in over 90 countries, and it is the working language of the Asian trade group ASEAN and of 98 percent of international research physicists and chemists. It is also the language of computing, international communication, diplomacy, and navigation. Over one billion people worldwide are currently learning English, making it unarguably a global language.

-- Posted January 27, 2008


Bragg, Melvyn. 2003. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Bryson, Bill. 1990. Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. New York: Perennial.

McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. 1986. The Story of English. New York: Viking.