The History of the English Language


On Wednesday, we had our first grammar test of the semester. In a very short amount of time (what can I say — I’m a procrastinator), I came to learn about features of the English language that I didn’t even know existed. I learned about the eight parts of speech, the twelve verb tenses and how to form them each of them using the five principal parts of a verb; I learned about the four types of conditionals; I learned about the spelling and pronunciation rules for verbs ending in –s in the simple present and –ed in the simple past.

What I couldn’t help but notice is that while we learn a lot about the features of English, and how to teach English, we haven’t learned a thing about the history of English. Where did English come from and how did it evolve into the language we know today? Here’s a brief overview of the transformation of the English language*:

  • Old English (AD 400 – 1066)
    • 400s: Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) invade Celtic Britain bringing with them a common language that became the basis for Old English
  • Middle English (1066 – 1500)
    • 1066: William of Normandy invades England bringing French influence
      • A class division occurs: to communicate with the French-speaking aristocrats, the English-speakers adopt Latinate words alongside their own
    • Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) writes The Canterbury Tales
    • 1476: William Caxton introduces the printing press to England
      • French and Latin influences English orthography; English spreads
  • Early Modern English (1500 – 1800)
    • The Great Vowel Shift establishes new standards of English pronunciation
    • The Renaissance and The Enlightenment
      • Revival of Ancient Roman and Greek learning introduces Latin and Greek words into English (often alongside French doublets)
    • Shakespeare (c. 1564-1616) writes
    • British Colonialism
      • Increased contact with other peoples (China, India, Persia) leads to exchange of borrowed words
      • 1607: first English settlement (Jamestown) settled in the New World (modern USA)
  • Late Modern English (1800 – Present)
    • 1800s: The Industrial Revolution brings new technological innovations and invention of new corresponding language

We often consider English to be a Romance language because nearly 60% of our words are derived from French and Latin, while only about 25% are of Germanic origin (Old/Middle English, Old Norse, Dutch). Modern linguistic purists have called for a transition of English back to its Germanic roots in a movement known as the “Anglish movement.” Proponents of this movement seek to use only words of Germanic origin in place of Romance words (e.g. using rainshade instead of umbrella, or onlook instead of regard). English syntax remains the same (since it follows a Germanic structure), and so it is intelligible, but undoubtedly, a bit strange-sounding. You can learn more about Anglish with this video by Langfocus.

*Sources: English Words from Latin and Greek Elements by Donald M. Ayers; English Club’s History of English.

Photo courtesy of Fine Art America.


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