History of the English language
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic settlers and Roman auxiliary troops from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the Northern Netherlands. Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate. The original Old English language was then influenced by two waves of invasion. The first was by language speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic family; they conquered and colonized parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries. The second was the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. These two invasions caused English to become "mixed" to some degree (though it was never a truly mixed language in the strict linguistic sense of the word; mixed languages arise from the cohabitation of speakers of different languages, who develop a hybrid tongue for basic communication).

Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance branch of the European languages. This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a "borrowing" language of great flexibility and with a huge vocabulary.


The Germanic tribes who gave rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and perhaps even the Franks), traded with and fought with the Latin-speaking Roman Empire in the centuries-long process of the Germanic peoples' expansion into Western Europe from the East. Many Latin words for common objects therefore entered the vocabulary of these Germanic people even before any of these tribes reached Britain; examples include camp, cheese, ****, fork, inch, kettle, kitchen, linen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, pillow, pin, pound, punt (boat), street, and wall. The Romans also gave English words which they had themselves borrowed from other languages: anchor, butter, chest, devil, dish, sack and wine.

Our main source for the culture of the Germanic peoples, who are the ancestors of the English, in ancient times is Tacitus' Germania. While remaining quite conversant with Roman civilization and its economy, including serving in the Roman military, they retained political independence. We can be certain that Germanic settlement in Britain was not intensified until the time of Hengist and Horsa in the Fifth Century, since had the English arrived en-masse under Roman rule, they would have been thoroughly Christianized as a matter of course and of Roman law. As it was, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived as pagans, independent of Roman control.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern (or Gwrtheyrn from the Welsh tradition), King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles led by Hengest and Horsa) to help him in conflicts with the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast of England. Further aid was sought and in response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles and Jutes). The Chronicle talks of a subsequent influx of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. Modern scholarship considers most of this story to be legendary and politically motivated and the identification of the tribes with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes is no longer accepted as an accurate description (Myres, 1986, p. 46ff), especially since the Anglo-Saxon language is more similar to the Frisian languages than any single one of the others.

Old English

The invaders' Germanic language displaced the indigenous Brythonic languages of what became England. The original Celtic languages remained in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. The dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxons formed what is now called Old English. Later, it was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Norse, spoken by the Vikings who invaded and settled mainly in the northeast of England (see Jórvík and Danelaw). The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distinct, including the prefix, suffix and inflection patterns for many of their words. The Germanic language of these Old English speaking inhabitants of Britain was influenced by contact with Norse invaders, which might have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is a fragment of the epic poem "Beowulf", by an unknown poet, though substantially modified, likely by one or more Christian clerics long after its composition.

The period when England was ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings, with the assistance of Anglo-Saxon clergy, was a period when the Old English language was alive and growing. Since it was used for legal, political, religious and other intellectual purposes, Old English coined new words from native Anglo-Saxon roots, rather than "borrowing" foreign words. (This point is made in a standard text, The History of the English Language, by Baugh.)

The introduction of Christianity added another wave of Latin and some Greek words.

The Old English period formally ended with the Norman conquest, when the language was influenced, to an even greater extent, by the Norman-speaking Normans.

The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development. According to Lois Fundis, (Stumpers-L, Fri, 14 Dec 2001) "The first citation for the second definition of 'Anglo-Saxon', referring to early English language or a certain dialect thereof, comes during the reign of Elizabeth I, from a historian named Camden, who seems to be the person most responsible for the term becoming well-known in modern times."

Middle English

For about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only one of the langues d'oïl called Anglo-Norman. English continued to be the language of the common people. Various contemporary sources suggest that within fifty years of the invasion most of the Normans outside the royal court had switched to English, with French remaining the prestige language of government and law largely out of social inertia. For example, Orderic Vitalis, a historian born in 1075 and the son of a Norman knight, said that he learned French only as a second language. A tendency for French-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day; most modern English speakers would consider a "cordial reception" (from French) to be more formal than a "hearty welcome" (Germanic). Another homely example is that of the names for meats, such as beef and pork from French boeuf and porc. The animals from which the meats come are called by Anglo Saxon words, such as cow and pig. This might be because Anglo-Saxon peasants raised the animals; Norman-French lords ate the meat.

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old Norman or Latin. A large number of Norman words were taken into Old English, with many doubling for Old English words (examples include, ox/beef, sheep/mutton and so on). The Norman influence reinforced the continued changes in the language over the following centuries, producing what is now referred to as Middle English. Among the changes was an increase in the use of a unique aspect of English grammar, the "continuous" tenses, with the suffix "-ing". English spelling was also influenced by Norman in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters þ (thorn) and ð (eth), which did not exist in Norman. The most famous writer from the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer and of his works, The Canterbury Tales is the best known.

English literature started to reappear ca 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, were the first English government document to be published in the English language since the Conquest.[1] Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English when he did so in 1362.[2] By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in limited circles somewhat longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

Early Modern English

Modern English is often dated from the Great Vowel Shift, which took place mainly during the 15th century. English was further transformed by the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardising effect of printing. By the time of William Shakespeare (mid-late 16th century) the language had become clearly recognizable as Modern English.

English has continuously adopted foreign words, especially from Latin and Greek, since the Renaissance. (In the 17th century, Latin words were often used with the original inflections, but these eventually disappeared.) As there are many words from different languages and English spelling is variable, the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, most notably in the West Country.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary, his Dictionary of the English Language.