Regardless of the many languages one is fortunate to be fluent in, English takes its place as one of the world’s predominant forms of communication with its influences extending over as much as +2 billion people globally.
Quirks and inconsistencies aside, the history surrounding its monumental rise is both a fascinating and rich one, and while we promise to be brief, you just might pick up a thing or two that may stimulate your interest in studying English with us here at Oxford International English Schools.
Where it all started
Ever wondered how English with approximately 750,000 words came to be the wonderfully expressive and multifaceted language it is today?
Unlike languages that developed within the boundaries of one country (or one distinct geographical region), English, since its beginnings 1,600 or so years ago, evolved by crossing boundaries and through invasions, picking up bits and pieces of other languages along the way and changing with the spread of the language across the globe.
Many of you will be forgiven for thinking that studying an English Language course consists of English grammar more than anything else. While English grammar does play a part when taking courses to improve English overall, it is but a small part of the overall curriculum where one becomes immersed in a history that was partly influenced by myths, battles, and legends on one hand, and the everyday workings of its various social class on the other.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the English language itself really took off with the invasion of Britain during the 5th century. Three Germanic tribes, the Jutes, Saxons and Angles were seeking new lands to conquer, and crossed over from the North Sea. It must be noted that the English language we know and study through various English language courses today had yet to be created as the inhabitants of Britain spoke various dialect of the Celtic language.
During the invasion, the native Britons were driven north and west into lands we now refer to as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. The word England and English originated from the Old English word Engla-land, literally meaning “the land of the Angles” where they spoke Englisc.
Old English (450-1.100)
The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders – mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from “Englaland” [sic] and their language was called “Englisc” – from which the words “England” and “English” are derived. Their language, now known as “Old English“, was soon adopted as the common language of this relatively remote corner of Europe. Although you and I would find it hard to understand Old English, it provided a solid foundation for the language we speak today and gave us many essential words like “be”, “strong” and “water”.
Albert Baugh, a notable English professor at the University of Pennsylvania notes amongst his published works that around 85% of Old English is no longer in use; however, surviving elements form the basis of the Modern English language today.
Old English can be further subdivided into the following:
- Prehistoric or Primitive (5th to 7th Century) – available literature or documentation referencing this period is not available aside from limited examples of Anglo-Saxon runes;
- Early Old English (7th to 10th Century) – this period contains some of the earliest documented evidence of the English language, showcasing notable authors and poets like Cynewulf and Aldhelm who were leading figures in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature.
- Late Old English (10th to 11th Century) – can be considered the final phase of the Old English language which was brought about by the Norman invasion of England. This period ended with the consequential evolution of the English language towards Early Middle English.
Middle English (1.100 – 1.500)
The Viking invasion: With the Viking invasions (Vikings were a tribe of Nordic people that ransacked their way through Northern and Northwestern Europe 1,000-1,200 years ago), Old English got mixed up with Old Norse, the language of the Viking tribes. Old Norse ended up giving English more than 2,000 new words, including “give” and “take”, “egg”, “knife”, “husband”, “run” and “viking”.
The French are coming: Although English was spoken widely on the British Isles by 1,000 AD, the Norman invasion established French as the language of royals and of power. Old English was left to the peasants, and despite its less glamorous status, it continued to develop and grow by adopting a whole host of Latin and French words, including everyday words such as “beer”,”city”, “fruit” and “people”, as well as half of the months of the year. By adopting and adapting French words, the English language also became more sophisticated through the inclusion of concepts and words like “liberty” and “justice”.
A. Early Middle English
The period of Middle English extends roughly from the twelfth century through the fifteenth. The influence of French (and Latin, often by way of French) upon the lexicon continued throughout this period, the loss of some inflections and the reduction of others (often to a final unstressed vowel spelled -e) accelerated, and many changes took place within the phonological and grammatical systems of the language. A typical prose passage, especially one from the later part of the period, will not have such a foreign look to us as Aelfric’s prose has; but it will not be mistaken for contemporary writing either. The following brief passage is drawn from a work of the late fourteenth century called Mandeville’s Travels. It is fiction in the guise of travel literature, and, though it purports to be from the pen of an English knight, it was originally written in French and later translated into Latin and English. In this extract Mandeville describes the land of Bactria, apparently not an altogether inviting place, as it is inhabited by “full yuele [evil] folk and full cruell.”
In þat lond ben trees þat beren wolle, as þogh it were of scheep; whereof men maken clothes, and all þing þat may ben made of wolle. In þat contree ben many ipotaynes, þat dwellen som tyme in the water, and somtyme on the lond: and þei ben half man and half hors, as I haue seyd before; and þei eten men, whan þei may take hem. And þere ben ryueres and watres þat ben fulle byttere, þree sithes more þan is the water of the see. In þat contré ben many griffounes, more plentee þan in ony other contree. Sum men seyn þat þei han the body vpward as an egle, and benethe as a lyoun: and treuly þei seyn soth þat þei ben of þat schapp. But o griffoun hath the body more gret, and is more strong, þanne eight lyouns, of suche lyouns as ben o this half; and more gret and strongere þan an hundred egles, suche as we han amonges vs. For o griffoun þere wil bere fleynge to his nest a gret hors, 3if he may fynde him at the poynt, or two oxen 3oked togidere, as þei gon at the plowgh.
The spelling is often peculiar by modern standards and even inconsistent within these few sentences (contré and contree, o [griffoun] and a [gret hors], þanne and þan, for example). Moreover, in the original text, there is in addition to thorn another old character 3, called “yogh,” to make difficulty. It can represent several sounds but here may be thought of as equivalent to y. Even the older spellings (including those where u stands for v or vice versa) are recognizable, however, and there are only a few words like ipotaynes “hippopotamuses” and sithes “times” that have dropped out of the language altogether.
We may notice a few words and phrases that have meanings no longer common such as byttere “salty,” o this half “on this side of the world,” and at the poynt “to hand,” and the effect of the centuries-long dominance of French on the vocabulary is evident in many familiar words which could not have occurred in Aelfric’s writing even if his subject had allowed them, words like contree, ryueres, plentee, egle, and lyoun.
In general word order is now very close to that of our time, though we notice constructions like hath the body more gret and three sithes more þan is the water of the see. We also notice that present tense verbs still receive a plural inflection as in beren, dwellen, han, and ben and that while nominative þei has replaced Aelfric’s hi in the third person plural, the form for objects is still hem.
All the same, the number of inflections for nouns, adjectives, and verbs has been greatly reduced, and in most respects Mandeville is closer to Modern than to Old English.
History of the English language
Charles Laurence Barber comments, “The loss and weakening of unstressed syllables at the ends of words destroyed many of the distinctive inflections of Old English.”
Similarly, John McWhorter points out that while the Norsemen and their English counterparts were able to comprehend one another in a manner of speaking, the Norsemen’s inability to pronounce the endings of various words ultimately resulted in the loss of inflectional endings.
This brings to mind a colleague’s lisp and I take to wondering: if this were a few hundred years ago, and we were in medieval Britain, could we have imagined that a speech defect would bring about the amazing changes modern history is now looking back on? Something to ponder…
Refer to the image below for an idea of the changes to the English language during this time frame.
B. Late Middle English
It was during the 14th century that a different dialect (known as the East-Midlands) began to develop around the London area.
Geoffrey Chaucer, a writer we have come to identify as the Father of English Literature and author of the widely renowned Canterbury Tales, was often heralded as the greatest poet of that particular time. It was through his various works that the English language was more or less “approved” alongside those of French and Latin, though he continued to write up some of his characters in the northern dialects.
It was during the mid-1400s that the Chancery English standard was brought about. The story goes that the clerks working for the Chancery in London were fluent in both French and Latin. It was their job to prepare official court documents and prior to the 1430s, both the aforementioned languages were mainly used by royalty, the church, and wealthy Britons. After this date, the clerks started using a dialect that sounded as follows:
- gaf (gave) not yaf (Chaucer’s East Midland dialect)
- such not swich
- theyre (their) not hir
As you can see, the above is starting to sound more like the present-day English language we know.
If one thinks about it, these clerks held enormous influence over the manner of influential communication, which ultimately shaped the foundations of Early Modern English.
Early Modern English (1500 – 1800) – the tempest ends in a storm: In the 14th-15th century, following the Hundred Years War with France that ended French rule of the British Isles, English became the language of power and influence once again. It got a further boost through the development of English literature and English culture, spearheaded by William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s influence on the development of the English language and its unique and rich culture is hard to grasp; the man is said to have invented at least 1,700 words, including “alligator”, “puppy dog”, and “fashionable”, in addition to penning classics like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet!
A. Early Modern English
The changes in the English language during this period occurred from the 15th to mid-17th Century, and signified not only a change in pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar itself but also the start of the English Renaissance.
The English Renaissance has much quieter foundations than its pan-European cousin, the Italian Renaissance, and sprouted during the end of the 15th century. It was associated with the rebirth of societal and cultural movements, and while slow to gather steam during the initial phases, it celebrated the heights of glory during the Elizabethan Age.
It was William Caxton’s innovation of an early printing press that allowed Early Modern English to become mainstream, something we as English learners should be grateful for! The Printing Press was key in standardizing the English language through distribution of the English Bible.
Caxton’s publishing of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (the Death of Arthur) is regarded as print material’s first bestseller. Malory’s interpretation of various tales surrounding the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, in his own words, and the ensuing popularity indirectly ensured that Early Modern English was here to stay.
It was during Henry the VIII’s reign that English commoners were finally able to read the Bible in a language they understood, which to its own degree, helped spread the dialect of the common folk.
The end of the 16th century brought about the first complete translation of the Catholic Bible, and though it didn’t make a markable impact, it played an important role in the continued development of the English language, especially with the English-speaking Catholic population worldwide.
The end of the 16th and start of the 17th century would see the writings of actor and playwright, William Shakespeare, take the world by storm.
Why was Shakespeare’s influence important during those times? Shakespeare started writing during a time when the English language was undergoing serious changes due to contact with other nations through war, colonisation, and the likes. These changes were further cemented through Shakespeare and other emerging playwrights who found their ideas could not be expressed through the English language currently in circulation. Thus, the “adoption” of words or phrases from other languages were modified and added to the English language, creating a richer experience for all concerned.
It was during the early 17th century that we saw the establishment of the first successful English colony in what was called The New World. Jamestown, Virginia, also saw the dawn of American English with English colonizers adopting indigenous words, and adding them to the English language.
The constant influx of new blood due to voluntary and involuntary (i.e. slaves) migration during the 17th, 18th and 19th century meant a variety of English dialects had sprung to life, this included West African, Native American, Spanish and European influences.
Meanwhile, back home, the English Civil War, starting mid-17th century, brought with it political mayhem and social instability. At the same time, England’s puritanical streak had taken off after the execution of Charles I. Censorship was a given, and after the Parliamentarian victory during the War, Puritans promoted an austere lifestyle in reaction to what they viewed as excesses by the previous regime. England would undergo little more than a decade under Puritan leadership before the crowning of Charles II. His rule, effectively the return of the Stuart Monarchy, would bring about the Restoration period which saw the rise of poetry, philosophical writing, and much more.
It was during this age that literary classics, like those of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, were published, and are considered relevant to this age!
B. Late Modern English
The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of the British Empire during the 18th, 19th and early 20th-century saw the expansion of the English language.
The advances and discoveries in science and technology during the Industrial Revolution saw a need for new words, phrases, and concepts to describe these ideas and inventions. Due to the nature of these works, scientists and scholars created words using Greek and Latin roots e.g. bacteria, histology, nuclear, biology. You may be shocked to read that these words were created but one can learn a multitude of new facts through English language courses as you are doing now!
Colonialism brought with it a double-edged sword. It can be said that the nations under the British Empire’s rule saw the introduction of the English language as a way for them to learn, engage, and hopefully, benefit from “overseas” influence. While scientific and technological discoveries were some of the benefits that could be shared, colonial Britain saw this as a way to not only teach their language but impart their culture and traditions upon societies they deemed as backward, especially those in Africa and Asia.
The idea may have backfired as the English language walked away with a large number of foreign words that have now become part and parcel of the English language e.g. shampoo, candy, cot and many others originated in India!
C. English in the 21st Century
If one endevours to study various English language courses taught today, we would find almost no immediate similarities between Modern English and Old English. English grammar has become exceedingly refined (even though smartphone messaging have made a mockery of the English language itself) where perfect living examples would be that of the current British Royal Family. This has given many an idea that speaking proper English is a touch snooty and high-handed. Before you scoff, think about what you have just read. The basic history and development of a language that literally spawned from the embers of wars fought between ferocious civilisations. Imagine everything that our descendants went through, their trials and tribulations, their willingness to give up everything in order to achieve freedom of speech and expression.
Everything has lead up to this point where English learners decide to study the language at their fancy, something we take for granted as many of us have access to courses to improve English at the touch of a button!
Perhaps you’re a fan of Shakespeare, maybe you’re more in tune with John Milton or J.K. Rowling? Whatever you fancy, these authors, poets and playwrights bring to life more than just words on a page. With them comes a living history that continues to evolve to this day!
The historical aspect of English really encompasses more than the three stages of development just under consideration. English has what might be called a prehistory as well. As we have seen, our language did not simply spring into existence; it was brought from the Continent by Germanic tribes who had no form of writing and hence left no records. Philologists know that they must have spoken a dialect of a language that can be called West Germanic and that other dialects of this unknown language must have included the ancestors of such languages as German, Dutch, Low German, and Frisian. They know this because of certain systematic similarities which these languages share with each other but do not share with, say, Danish. However, they have had somehow to reconstruct what that language was like in its lexicon, phonology, grammar, and semantics as best they can through sophisticated techniques of comparison developed chiefly during the last century.
Similarly, because ancient and modern languages like Old Norse and Gothic or Icelandic and Norwegian have points in common with Old English and Old High German or Dutch and English that they do not share with French or Russian, it is clear that there was an earlier unrecorded language that can be called simply Germanic and that must be reconstructed in the same way. Still earlier, Germanic was just a dialect (the ancestors of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit were three other such dialects) of a language conventionally designated Indo-European, and thus English is just one relatively young member of an ancient family of languages whose descendants cover a fair portion of the globe.
oxfordinternationalenglish.com, “A brief history of the English language.”; lingualearnenglish.com, “A short history of the English language.”;