History of the English Language

Part of Beowulf, a poem written in Old English. Indo-European language and people. Characteristics of the Old English. The Germanic tribes. The infinitive of verbs. Dialects in the United States. The most famous writers from the Middle English period.

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History of the English Language

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 and their language was called Englisc - from which the words England and English are derived.

Old English (450-1100 AD) Part of Beowulf, a poem written in Old English.

The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what we now call Old English. Old English did not sound or look like English today. Native English speakers now would have great difficulty understanding Old English. 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)

An example of Middle English by Chaucer.

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, where 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 the great poet Chaucer (c1340-1400), but it would still be difficult for native English speakers to understand today.

Modern English

Early Modern English (1500-1800)

Hamlet's famous "To be, or not to be" lines, written in Early Modern English by Shakespeare.

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 contact with many peoples from around the world. 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 main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

Varieties of English

From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. Some English pronunciations and words "froze" when they reached America. In some ways, American English is more like the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some expressions that the British call "Americanisms" are in fact original British expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost for a time in Britain (for example trash for rubbish, loan as a verb instead of lend, and fall for autumn; another example, frame-up, was re-imported into Britain through Hollywood gangster movies). Spanish also had an influence on American English (and subsequently British English), with words like canyon, ranch, stampede and vigilante being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana) and West African words (through the slave trade) also influenced American English (and so, to an extent, British English).

Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the USA's dominance of cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology (including the Internet). But there are many other varieties of English around the world, including for example Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.

English is a member of the Germanic family of languages.

Germanic is a branch of the Indo-European language family.

The English language is spoken by 750 million people in the world as either the official language of a nation, a second language, or in a mixture with other languages (such as pidgins and creoles.) English is the (or an) official language in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; however, the United States has no official language.

Indo-European language and people

English is classified genetically as a Low West Germanic language of the Indo-European family of languages. The early history of the Germanic languages is based on reconstruction of a Proto-Germanic language that evolved into German, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, and the Scandinavian languages.

In 1786, Sir William Jones discovered that Sanskrit contained many cognates to Greek and Latin. He conjectured a Proto-Indo-European language had existed many years before. Although there is no concrete proof to support this one language had existed, it is believed that many languages spoken in Europe and Western Asia are all derived from a common language. A few languages that are not included in the Indo-European branch of languages include Basque, Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian; of which the last three belong to the Finno-Ugric language family.

Speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) lived in Southwest Russia around 4,000 to 5,000 BCE. They had words for animals such as bear or wolf (as evidenced in the similarity of the words for these animals in the modern I-E languages.) They also had domesticated animals, and used horse-drawn wheeled carts. They drank alcohol made from grain, and not wine, indicating they did not live in a warm climate. They belonged to a patriarchal society where the lineage was determined through males only (because of a lack of words referring to the female's side of the family.) They also made use of a decimal counting system by 10's, and formed words by compounding. This PIE language was also highly inflectional as words had many endings corresponding to cases.

The spread of the language can be attributed to two theories. The I-E people either wanted to conquer their neighbors or look for better farming land. Either way, the language spread to many areas with the advancement of the people. This rapid and vast spread of the I-E people is attributed to their use of horses for transportation.

Germanic Languages

The subgroup of Germanic languages contains many differences that set them apart from the other I-E languages.

1. Grimm's Law (or the First Sound Shift) helps to explain the consonant changes from P-I-E to Germanic.

a. Aspirated voiced stops became Unaspirated voiced stops (B?, d?, g? became b, d, g)

b. Voiced stops became Voiceless stops (B, d, g became p, t, k)

c. Voiceless stops became Voiceless fricatives (P, t, k became f, ?, x (h))

Verner's Law explains other exceptions that Grimm's law does not include.

2. Two Tense Verbal System: There is a past tense marker (-ed) and a present tense marker (-s) on the verb (without using auxiliary verbs.)

3. Weak Past Tense: Used a dental or alveolar suffix to express the past (such as -ed in English, -te in German, or -de in Swedish.)

4. Weak and Strong Adjectives: Each adjective had a different form whether it was preceded by a determiner or no determiner.

5. Fixed Stress: The stress of words was fixed on the first syllable.

6. Vowel Changes (Proto Germanic)

Short o to short a (Latin: hortus, English: garden)

Long a to long o (Latin: mater, OE: modor)

7. Common Vocabulary: Words developed that hadn't been used before, such as nautical terms (sea). Others include rain, earth, loaf, wife, meat and fowl.

Old English (449 - 1066 CE)

The Old English language (also called Anglo-Saxon) dates back to 449 CE. The Celts had been living in England when the Romans invaded. Although they invaded twice, they did not conquer the Celts until 43 CE and Latin never overtook the Celtic language. The Romans finally left England in 410 CE as the Roman Empire was collapsing, leaving the Celts defenseless. Then the Germanic tribes from the present-day area of Denmark arrived. The four main tribes were the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. These tribes set up seven kingdoms called the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy that included: Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Wessex, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia. Four dialects were spoken in these kingdoms: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. The Celts moved north to Scotland, west to Ireland and south to France, leaving the main area of Britain.

In 731 CE, Bede wrote the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" in Latin. It detailed the sophisticated society of the Germanic tribes. They had destroyed the Roman civilization in England and built their own, while dominance shifted among the kingdoms beginning with Kent and Northumbria. They aligned with the Celtic clergy and converted to Christianity. Laws and contracts were written down for a sense of permanence and control. The Tribal Hidage, a list of subjects who owed tribute to the king, was written during the Mercian period of power.

Alfred the Great was the king of Wessex from 871-899 while Wessex was the dominant kingdom. During his reign, he united the kingdoms together and commissioned the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, a historical record of important events in England that continued 200 years after his death. Alfred also settled a truce with the Vikings who repeatedly invaded the area. The Treaty of Wedmore was signed in 878 CE and this "Danelaw" gave the northeast half of England to the Danes for settlement. However, because the languages were so similar, the Danes quickly assimilated and intermarried into the English society.

Although the Danes brought their own writing system with them, called the Futhorc, it was not used in England. It is commonly referred to as Runes. The Insular Hand was the name of the writing system used in England, and it contained many symbols that are no longer found in Modern English: the aesc, thorn, edh, yogh and wynn, as well the macron for distinguishing long vowels.

Characteristics of the Old English language

The Germanic tribes were exposed to Latin before they invaded England, so the languages they spoke did have some Latin influence. After converting to Christianity, Latin had more influence, as evidenced in words pertaining to the church. Celtic did not have a large impact on English, as only a few place names are of Celtic origin, but Danish (Old Scandinavian) did contribute many vocabulary words.

Nouns could be of three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter; but these were assigned arbitrarily. Numbers could be either singular or plural, and there were four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. In all, there were seven groups of declensions for nouns.

The infinitive of verbs ended in -an. In the present tense, all verbs had markers for number and person. The weak past tense added -de, while the strong past tense usually involved a vowel change. Old English also had many more strong verbs than modern English.

Adjectives could be weak or strong. If preceded by a determiner, the weak ending was added to the adjective. If no determiner preceded the adjective, then the strong endings were used. They also agreed in gender, case and number with the nouns they described. The comparative was formed by adding -ra to the adjective, while the superlative had many endings: -ost, -ist, -est, and -m. Eventually the -ost and -m endings combined to form the word "most" which is still used before adjectives in the superlative today.

Adverbs were formed by adding -e to the adjective, or -lic, the latter which still remains in modern English as -like.

The syntax of Old English was much more flexible than modern English becase of the declensions of the nouns. The case endings told the function of the word in the sentence, so word order was not very important. But as the stress began to move to the first syllable of words, the endings were not pronounced as clearly and began to diminish from the language. So in modern English, word order is very important because we no longer have declensions to show case distinctions. Instead we use prepositions. The general word order was subject - verb - object, but it did vary in a few instances:

1. When an object is a pronoun, it often precedes the verb.

2. When a sentence begins with an adverb, the subject often follows the verb.

3. The verb often comes at the end of a subordinate clause.

Pronunciation was characterized by a predictable stress pattern on the first syllable. The length of the vowels was phonemic as there were 7 long and 7 short vowels. There were also two front rounded vowels that are no longer used in modern English, [i:] and [?:]. The i-mutation occurred if there was a front vowel in the ending, then the root vowel became fronted. For example, fot becomes fot+i = fet (This helps to explain why feet is the plural of foot.)

Pronunciation of consonants:f v

f between voiced vowels


c c

k next to a front vowel


g j


g next to a front vowel

between other vowels


h h

x, c at beginning of word


s z

s between voiced vowels


? ?

? between voiced vowels


r trilled

sc s

cg j

Middle English (1066 - 1500 CE)

The period of Middle English begins with the Norman invasion of 1066 CE. King Edward the Confessor had died without heirs, and William, Duke of Normandy, believed that he would become the next king. However, upon learning that Harold was crowned king, William invaded England, killed Harold and crowned himself king during the famous Battle of Hastings. Yet William spoke only French. As a result, the upper class in England began to speak French while the lower classes spoke English.

But by 1250 CE, French began to lose its prestige. King John had lost Normandy to the French in 1204 CE, and after him, King Edward I spoke only English. At this time, many foreigners entered England which made the nobility feel more "English" and so encouraged more use of the English language. The upper class tried to learn English, but they did still use French words sometimes, which was considered somewhat snobbish. French still maintained its prestige elsewhere, and the upper class did not want to lose it completely. Nevertheless, the Hundred Year's War (1337-1453 CE) intensified hatred of all things French. The Black Death also played a role in increasing English use with the emergence of the middle class. Several of the workers had been killed by the plague, which increased the status of the peasants, who only spoke English. By 1362 CE, the Statute of Pleading (although written in French) declared English as the official spoken language of the courts. By 1385 CE, English was the language of instruction in schools. 1350 to 1400 CE is known as the Period of Great Individual Writers (most famously, Chaucer), but their works included an apology for writing in English.

Although the popularity of French was decreasing, several words (around 10,000) were borrowed into English between 1250 and 1500 CE (though most of these words were Parisian rather than Norman French). Many of the words were related to government (sovereign, empire), law (judge, jury, justice, attorney, felony, larceny), social life (fashion, embroidery, cuisine, appetite) and learning (poet, logic, physician). Furthermore, the legal system retained parts of French word order (the adjective following the noun) in such terms as fee simple, attorney general and accounts payable.

Characteristics of Middle English

The writing system changed dramatically in Middle English:

? and ? were replaced by th (and sometimes y, as in ye meaning the)

c before i or e became ch

sc became sh

an internal h was added after g

hw became wh

cw became qu

the new symbols v and u were added; v was used word initially, and u was used everywhere else

k was used much more often (cyning became king)

new values were given to old symbols too; g before i or e was pronounced j; ? became j, and c before i and e became s in some cases

a historical h (usually not pronounced) was added to some words (it was assumed that these words had once begun with an h): honor, heir, honest, herb, habit

sometimes words were written with o but pronounced as [?] but later were pronounced [?]: son, come, ton, some, from, money, honey, front, won, one, wonder, of

Because of the stress shift to the beginning of the word, Middle English lost the case suffixes at the ends of nouns. Phonological erosion also occurred because of this, and some consonants dropped off while some vowels became ?and dropped off too. The generalized plural marker became -s, but it still competed with -n.

Verb infinitives dropped the -an ending, and used "to" before the verb to signify the infinitival form. The third person singular and plural was marked with -(e)th; but the singular also competed with -(e)s from the Northern dialect. More strong (irregular) verbs became weak (regular) as well.

Adjectives lost agreement with the noun, but the weak ending -e still remained. The comparative form became -er and the superlative became -est. Vowels tended to be long in the adjective form, but short in the comparative form (late - latter). The demonstratives these and those were added during this period. And the adverb ending -lic became -ly; however, some "flat" adverbs did not add the -ly: fast, late, hard.

The dual number disappeared in the pronouns, and the dative and accusative became the object forms of the pronouns. The third person plural pronouns replaced the old pronouns with th- words (they, them, their) borrowed from Scandinavian. She started being used for the feminine singular subject pronoun and you (plural form) was used in the singular as a status marker for the formal.

Syntax was stricter and more prepositions were used. New compound tenses were used, such as the perfect tenses, and there was more use of the progressive and passive voice. The use of double negation also increased as did impersonal constructions. The use of the verbs will and shall for the future tense were first used too. Formerly, will meant want and shall meant obliged to.

Pronunciation changes:

Loss of initial h in a cluster (hleapan - to leap; hnutu - hut)

[w] lost between consonant and back vowel (w is silent in two, sword, answer)

[c] lost in unstressed syllable (ic - I)

[v] lost in middle of words (heofod - head; h?fde - had)

Loss of final -n in possessive pronouns (min f?der - mi f?der) and the addition of -n to some words beginning with a vowel (a napron - an apron, a nuncle - an uncle)

Voiced fricatives became phonemic with their voiceless counterparts

[z] phoneme was borrowed from French as the voiced counterpart for [s]

Front rounded vowels merged with their unrounded counterparts

Vowel length became predictable (lost phonemic status); an open syllable with no consonant following it contained a long vowel, while a closed syllable with at least one consonant following it contained a short vowel

In addition, there were dialectal differences in the north and south. The north used -(e)s for the plural marker as well as for the third person singular; and the third person plural pronouns began with th- (borrowed from Scandinavian). The south used -(e)n for the plural, -(e)th for the third person singular, and h- for the third person plural pronouns. The north used [a] and [k] while the south used [o] and [c] for certain words. Eventually, the northern dialect would become the standard for modern English regarding the grammatical endings, but the southern pronunciation of [o] and [c] would also remain.

Early Modern English (1500 - 1650/1700 CE)

William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476 and the East Midland dialect became the literary standard of English. Ten thousand words were added to English as writers created new words by using Greek and Latin affixes. Some words, such as devulgate, attemptate and dispraise, are no longer used in English, but several words were also borrowed from other languages as well as from Chaucer's works. In 1582, Richard Mulcaster proposed in his treatise "Elementaire" a compromise on spelling and by 1623, Henry Cockrum published his English dictionary. The printing press helped to standardize the spelling of English in its modern stages. The printing press led the path for the laser printer many, many years later in 1969 which lead to Canon, HP and Brother toner.

Characteristics of Early Modern English

Adjectives lost all endings except for in the comparative and superlative forms. The neuter pronoun it was first used as well as who as a relative pronoun. The class distinctions between formal and informal you were decreasing, so that today there is no difference between them. More strong verbs became weak and the third person singular form became -(e)s instead of -(e)th. There was a more limited use of the progressive and auxiliary verbs than there is now, however. Negatives followed the verb and multiple negatives were still used.

The Great Vowel Shift (1400-1600) changed the pronunciation of all the vowels. The tongue was placed higher in the mouth, and all the verbs moved up. Vowels that were already high ([i] and [u]) added the dipthongs [aj] and [aw] to the vowels of English.

Several consonants were no longer pronounced, but the spelling system was in place before the consonant loss, so they are still written in English today. The consonants lost include:

Voiceless velar fricative lost in night; pronounced as f in laugh

[b] in final -mb cluster (dumb, comb)

[l] between a or o and consonant (half, walk, talk, folk)

[r] sometimes before s (Worcestershire)

initial clusters beginning with k and g (knee, knight, gnat)

[g] in -ing endings (more commonly pronounced [?n])

Finally, assibilation occurred when the alveolars [s], [d], [t], and [z] preceded the palatal glide [j], producing the palatal consonants: [s], [j], [c], [z]

Early Grammarians (18th Century)

A proposal for an Academy of the English Language was first brought forth by Jonathan Swift in 1712, but the Parliament voted against it. Nevertheless, several grammarians wrote dictionaries and grammar books in a prescriptive manner - telling people what to do or not to do with the language. Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755 and Robert Lowth's Introduction to English Grammar appeared in 1762. Early grammarians felt that language should be logical, therefore, the double negative was considered incorrect (two negatives equal one positive) and should not be used. They also didn't like shortened or redundant words, borrowing words from other languages (except Latin and Greek), split infinitives, or prepositions at the end of the sentence.

A more scientifically minded attitude took hold by the 19th century when the Oxford English Dictionary was proposed in 1859. It was to be a factual account of every word in the English language since 1000 including its main form, pronunciation, spelling variations, part of speech, etymology, meanings in chronological order and illustrative quotations. The project was begun in 1879 under its first editor, James AH Murray. The first edition was published in 1928, with supplements in 1933 and 1972-6. The second edition was published in 1989 and it recognized American and Australian English, as the International Phonetic Alphabet for pronunciation.

Beginnings of Modern English

In England, several changes to English had occurred since 1700. These include a loss of the post-vocalic r (so that the r is only pronounced before a vowel and not after); an increase in the use of the progressive tenses; and a rise in class consciousness about speech (Received Pronunciation.) Since 1900, a very large amount of vocabulary words has been added to English in a relatively short period. The majority of these words are related to science and technology, and use Greek and Latin roots.

American English

Immigrants from Southeastern England began arriving on the North American continent in the early 1600's. By the mid-1800's, 3.5 million immigrants left the British Isles for the United States. The American English language is characterized by archaisms (words that changed meaning in Britain, but remained in the colonies) and innovations in vocabulary (borrowing from the French and Spanish who were also settling in North America). Noah Webster was the most vocal about the need for an American national identity with regards to the American English language. He wrote an American spelling book, The Blueback Speller, in 1788 and changed several spellings from British English (colour became color, theatre became theater, etc.) In 1828, he published his famous American Dictionary of the English Language.

Dialects in the United States resulted from different waves of immigration of English speakers, contact with other languages, and the slave trade, which had a profound impact on African American English. A dialectal study was done in 1920 and the findings are published in the Linguistics Atlas of the U.S. and Canada.

English around the World

Although the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have English as an official language, the United States does not have an official language. This is how it's possible to become a US citizen without speaking English. Canada also has French as an official language, though it is mostly spoken in the province of Quebec. Because many of the English speakers who originally inhabited Canada came from the US, there is little difference in the American and Canadian dialects of English. Similarly, Australian and New Zealand English have few differences, except Australia was originally settled as a penal colony and New Zealand was not. New Zealanders were more attached to the Received Pronunciation of the upper class in England, so their dialect is considered closer to British English.

Cockney (and its Ryhming Slang) is an interesting dialect of English spoken in London's east end. The initial h of words is dropped, glottal stops are used frequently and labiodentals are used in place of interdentals. The Rhyming Slang refers to a word by referring to two things, the last of which rhymes with what is being referred to. For examples, money is "bees and honey," gloves is "turtle doves," suit is "whistle and flute" and trouble is "Barney Rubble." Even more confusing, sometimes the second word (which rhymes with the word being referred to) is omitted, so that money is called just "bees."

British colonialism has spread English all over the world, and it still holds prestige in South Africa, India, and Singapore, among other nations. In South Africa, English became an official language, along with Afrikaans and 9 African languages, in the 1996 constitution. However, only 3% of the country's 30 million people are native English speakers. Twenty percent are descendants of Dutch farmers who speak Afrikaans, and the rest are native Africans. Although the British won the Boer Wars of 1899-1901 against the Dutch farmers (the Boers), Britain still promised the Boers self-government under the Union of South Africa. By 1948, these Afrikaners won state elections and remained in power through the 1990's. Apartheid (which segregated the Afrikaners and Africans) officially ended under Nelson Mandela's reign, and although Afrikaans was the language used more often, the Africans wanted English as the official language. Hence the compromise of 11 official languages.

India became an independent from Britian in 1947, and the English language was supposed to be phased out by 1965. However, today English and Hindi are the official languages. Indian English is characterized by treating mass nouns as count nouns, frequent use of the "isn't it?" tag, use of more compounds, and a different use of prepositions. In Singapore, Chinese, Malay and Indian languages have an impact on the form of English spoken. Everyone is taught English in the school system, but there are a few differences from British English as well. Mass nouns are treated as count nouns, "use to" means usually, and no articles are used before occupations.

Creoles of English can be found on the coast of West Africa, China, and on islands of the Pacific and Caribbean (especially the West Indies.) Originally, these creoles were pidgins so that English-speaking traders could conduct business. Over time, they became the native languages of the children and evolved into creoles.

English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic invaders from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the 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.

English changed enormously in the Middle Ages. Written Old English of 1000 AD is similar in vocabulary and grammar to other old Germanic languages such as Old High German and Old Norse, and completely unintelligible to modern speakers, while the modern language is already largely recognizable in written Middle English of 1400 AD. This was caused by two further waves of invasion: the first by speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language family, who conquered and colonized parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries; the second by the French Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. A large proportion of the modern English vocabulary comes directly from Old French.

Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English. However, this had not reached southwest England by the 9th century AD, where Old English was developed into a full-fledged literary language. This was completely disrupted by the Norman invasion in 1066, and when literary English rose anew in the 13th century, it was based on the speech of London, much closer to the center of Scandinavian settlement. Technical and cultural vocabulary was largely derived from Old French, with heavy influence from Norman French in the courts and government. With the coming of the Renaissance, as with most other developing European languages such as German and Dutch, Latin and Ancient Greek supplanted French as the main source of new words. Thus, English developed into very much a "borrowing" language with an enormously disparate vocabulary.


The languages of Germanic peoples gave rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxons, Frisii, Jutes and possibly the Franks, who traded and fought with the Latin-speaking Roman Empire in the centuries-long process of the Germanic peoples' expansion into Western Europe during the Migration Period). Some Latin words for common objects entered the vocabulary of these Germanic peoples before their arrival in Britain and their subsequent formation of England.

The main source of information for the culture of the Germanic peoples (the ancestors of the English) in ancient times is Tacitus' Germania, written around 100 AD. While remaining conversant with Roman civilisation and its economy, including serving in the Roman military, they retained political independence. Some Germanic troops served in Britannia under the Romans. It is unlikely that Germanic settlement in Britain was intensified (except for Frisians) until the arrival of mercenaries in the 5th century as described by Gildas. As it was, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived as Germanic pagans, independent of Roman control.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern, King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles allegedly led by the Germanic brothers Hengist and Horsa) to help him in conflicts with the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast of Britain. 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. However, modern scholars view the figures of Hengist and Horsa as Euhemerized deities from Anglo-Saxon paganism, who ultimately stem from the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.[1]

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Main article: Old English language

The invaders' Germanic language displaced the indigenous Brythonic languages in most of the areas of Great Britain that were later to become England. The original Celtic languages remained in parts of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (where Cornish was spoken into the 19th century). What is now called Old English emerged over time out of the many dialects and languages of the colonising tribes.[2] Even then, it continued to exhibit local language variation, the remnants of which continue to be found in dialects of Modern English.[3] The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is the epic poem Beowulf composed by an unknown poet.

Old English did not sound or look like the Standard English of today. Any native English speaker of today would find Old English unintelligible without studying it as a separate language. 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; and many non-standard dialects such as Scots and Northumbrian English have retained many features of Old English in vocabulary and pronunciation.[4] Old English was spoken until sometime in the 12th or 13th century.[5][6]

Later, English was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Old Norse, spoken by the Norsemen who invaded and settled mainly in the north-east of England (see Jorvik 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.

The Germanic language of these Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by contact with Norse invaders, which might have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). English words of Old Norse origin include anger, bag, both, hit, law, leg, same, skill, sky, take, and many others, possibly even including the pronoun they.

The introduction of Christianity added another wave of Latin and some Greek words. The Old English period formally ended sometime after the Norman conquest (starting in 1066 AD), when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the Normans, who spoke a French dialect called Old Norman. The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development.

Middle English

Main article: Middle English

Further information: Middle English creole hypothesis

For about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only one of the French langues d'oil, that we call Anglo-Norman, which was a variety of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period and originating from a northern dialect of Old French, whilst English continued to be the language of the common people. Middle English was influenced by both Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French (see characteristics of the Anglo-Norman language).

Even after the decline of Norman-French, standard French retained the status of a formal or prestige language - as with most of Europe during the period - and had a significant influence on the language, which is visible in Modern English today (see English language word origins and List of English words of French origin). 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 example is the very unusual construction of the words for animals being separate from the words for their meat: e.g., beef and pork (from the French b?uf and porc) being the products of 'cows' and 'pigs', animals with Germanic names.

English was also influenced by the Celtic languages it was displacing, especially the Brittonic substrate, most notably with the introduction of the continuous aspect--a feature found in many modern languages but developed earlier and more thoroughly in English.[7]

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. The Norman influence is the hallmark of the linguistic shifts in English over the period of time following the invasion, producing what is now referred to as Middle English.

The most famous writer from the Middle English period was Geoffrey Chaucer, and The Canterbury Tales is his best-known work.

English literature started to reappear around 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, was the first English government document to be published in the English language since the Conquest. In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English. 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. language english verb dialect

English spelling was also influenced by Norman in this period, with the /?/ and /?/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters ? (thorn) and ? (eth), which did not exist in Norman. These letters remain in the modern Icelandic alphabet, which is descended from the alphabet of Old Norse.

Early Modern English

Main article: 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 15th - early 16th century),[8] the language had become clearly recognizable as Modern English. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published, the Table Alphabeticall.

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.

Modern English

Main article: Modern English

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

The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the Earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

Grammatical changes

The English language once had an extensive declension system similar to Latin, modern German or Icelandic. Old English distinguished between the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases; and for strongly declined adjectives and some pronouns also a separate instrumental case (which otherwise and later completely coincided with the dative). In addition, the dual was distinguished from the more modern singular and plural.[9] Declension was greatly simplified during the Middle English period, when accusative and dative pronouns merged into a single objective pronoun. Nouns in Modern English no longer decline for case, except for the possessive, and for remnants of the former system in a few pronouns.

Evolution of English pronouns

"Who" and "whom", "he" and "him", "she" and "her", etc. are remnants of both the old nominative versus accusative and also of nominative versus dative. In other words, "her" (for example) serves as both the dative and accusative version of the nominative pronoun "she". In Old English as well as modern German and Icelandic as further examples, these cases had distinct pronouns.

This collapse of the separate case pronouns into the same word is one of the reasons grammarians consider the dative and accusative cases to be extinct in English -- neither is an ideal term for the role played by "whom". Instead, the term objective is often used; that is, "whom" is a generic objective pronoun which can describe either a direct or an indirect object. The nominative case, "who", is called simply the subjective. The information formerly conveyed by having distinct case forms is now mostly provided by prepositions and word order.

Modern English morphologically distinguishes only one case, the possessive case -- which some linguists argue is not a case at all, but a clitic (see the entry for genitive case for more information). With only a few pronominal exceptions, the objective and subjective always have the same form.

Interrogative pronouns Case Old English Middle English Modern English

Masculine/Feminine (Person) Nominative hwa who who

Accusative hwone / hw?ne whom who / whom1

Dative hwam / hw?m


Genitive hw?s whos whose

Neuter (Thing) Nominative hw?t what what

Accusative hw?t what / whom

Dative hwam / hw?m

Instrumental hw? / hwon why why

Genitive hw?s whos whose2

1 - In some dialects who is used where Formal English only allows whom, though variation among dialects must be taken into account.

2 - Usually replaced by of what (postpositioned).


First person personal pronouns Case Old English Middle English Modern English

Singular Nominative ic I / ich / ik I

Accusative me / mec me me

Dative me

Genitive min min / mi my, mine

Plural Nominative we we we

Accusative us / usic us us

Dative us

Genitive user / ure ure / our our, ours

(Old English also had a separate dual, wit ("we two") etcetera; however, no later forms derive from it.)

Second person personal pronouns

Old and Middle English singular to the Modern English archaic informal Case Old English Middle English Modern English

Singular Nominative ?u ?u / thou thou (you)

Accusative ?e / ?ec ?e / thee thee (you)

Dative ?e

Genitive ?in ?i / ?in / ?ine / thy /thin / thine thy, thine (your)

Plural Nominative ge ye / ?e / you you

Accusative eow / eowic you, ya

Dative eow

Genitive eower your your, yours

Note that the ye/you distinction still existed, at least optionally, in Early Modern English: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" from the King James Bible.

Here the letter ? (interchangeable with ? in manuscripts) corresponds to th.

Formal and informal forms of the second person singular and plural Old English Middle English Modern English

Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural

Case Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal Formal Informal

Nominative ?u ge you thou you ye you

Accusative ?e / ?ec eow / eowic thee you

Dative ?e eow

Genitive ?in eower your, yours thy, thine your, yours your, yours

(Old English also had a separate dual, ?it ("ye two") etcetera; however, no later forms derive from it.)


Third person personal pronouns Case Old English Middle EnglishModern English

Masculine Singular Nominative he he he

Accusative hine him him

Dative him

Genitive his his his

Feminine Singular Nominative heo heo / sche / ho / he / ?ho she

Accusative hie hire / hure / her / heore her

Dative hire

Genitive hire hir / hire / heore / her / here her, hers

Neuter Singular Nominative hit hit / it it

Accusative hit hit / it / him

Dative him

Genitive his his / its its

Plural Nominative hie he / hi / ho / hie / ?ai / ?ei they

Accusative hie hem / ham / heom / ?aim / ?em / ?am them

Dative him

Genitive hira here / heore / hore / ?air / ?ar their, theirs

(The origin of the modern forms is generally thought to have been a borrowing from Old Norse forms ??ir, ??im, ??ira.

The two different roots co-existed for some time, although currently the only common remnant is the shortened form 'em.

Cf. also the demonstrative pronouns.)

Historic English text samples

Beowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately AD 900Hw?t! We Gar-Dena in geardagum, ?eodcyninga ?rym gefrunon,

hu ?a ??elingas ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing scea?ena ?reatum,

monegum m?g?um, meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas. Sy??an ?rest wear?

feasceaft funden, he ??s frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum, weor?myndum ?ah,

o???t him ?ghwylc ?ara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade h?ran scolde,

gomban gyldan. ??t w?s god cyning!

Which, as translated by Francis Gummere, reads:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings

of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,

we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,

from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,

awing the earls. Since erst he lay

friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:

for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,

till before him the folk, both far and near,

who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,

gave him gifts: a good king he!

Here is a sample prose text, the beginning of The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan. The full text can be found at The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, at Wikisource.

Ohthere s?de his hlaforde, ?lfrede cyninge, ??t he ealra Nor?monna nor?mest bude. He cw?? ??t he bude on ??m lande nor?weardum wi? ?a Wests?. He s?de ?eah ??t ??t land sie swi?e lang nor? ?onan; ac hit is eal weste, buton on feawum stowum styccem?lum wicia? Finnas, on hunto?e on wintra, ond on sumera on fisca?e be ??re s?. He s?de ??t he ?t sumum cirre wolde fandian hu longe ??t land nor?ryhte l?ge, o??e hw??er ?nig mon be nor?an ??m westenne bude. ?a for he nor?ryhte be ??m lande: let him ealne weg ??t weste land on ??t steorbord, ond ?a wids? on ??t b?cbord ?rie dagas. ?a w?s he swa feor nor? swa ?a hw?lhuntan firrest fara?. ?a for he ?a giet nor?ryhte swa feor swa he meahte on ??m o?rum ?rim dagum gesiglau. ?a beag ??t land, ??r eastryhte, o??e seo s? in on ??t lond, he nysse hw??er, buton he wisse ??t he ??r bad westanwindes ond hwon nor?an, ond siglde ?a east be lande swa swa he meahte on feower dagum gesiglan. ?a sceolde he ??r bidan ryhtnor?anwindes, for ??m ??t land beag ??r su?ryhte, o??e seo s? in on ??t land, he nysse hw??er. ?a siglde he ?onan su?ryhte be lande swa swa he meahte on fif dagum gesiglan. ?a l?g ??r an micel ea up on ??t land. ?a cirdon hie up in on ?a ea for ??m hie ne dorston for? bi ??re ea siglan for unfri?e; for ??m ??t land w?s eall gebun on o?re healfe ??re eas. Ne mette he ?r nan gebun land, si??an he from his agnum ham for; ac him w?s ealne weg weste land on ??t steorbord, butan fiscerum ond fugelerum ond huntum, ond ??t w?ron eall Finnas; ond him w?s awids? on ??t b?cbord. ?a Boermas heafdon si?e wel gebud hira land: ac hie ne dorston ??r on cuman. Ac ?ara Terfinna land w?s eal weste, buton ??r huntan gewicodon, o??e fisceras, o??e fugeleras.

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