A Short History of the English Language

English belongs to the West Germanic group of languages that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the period between fifth and seventh centuries by Germanic invaders and settlers from the region now known as northwest Germany and the Netherlands.

The history of the English language really started with the arrival of the three Germanic tribes the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes in Britain during the 5th century AD. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic speakers were pushed towards 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.

Old English (450-1100 AD)

The settled Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what is now called Old English. Old English was very different in sound and look from the English today. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English. Old English was spoken until around 1100.

Middle English (1100-1500)

In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England. The new conquerors (called the Normans) brought with them a kind of French, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business classes. For a period there was a kind of linguistic class division; the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French. In the 14th century English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English. It was the language of Chaucer (c1340-1400), but it would still be difficult for native English speakers to understand today.

Modern English

Early Modern English (1500-1800)

Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British had begun to have contact with many peoples from other countries.

This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

Late Modern English (1800-Present)

The major difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, due to two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its peak spread over one quartaer of the earth’s surface, and the English language freely adopted foreign words from the languages.