NOTICE: Citizendium is still being set up on its newer server, treat as a beta for now; please see here for more.
Citizendium - a community developing a quality comprehensive compendium of knowledge, online and free. Click here to join and contribute—free
CZ thanks our previous donors. Donate here. Treasurer's Financial Report -- Thanks to our content contributors. --

History of the English language

From Citizendium, the Citizens' Compendium
Revision as of 15:14, 24 November 2006 by Francis Tyers (Talk | contribs) (Links: lol "The apparent lack of scientific references is not a coincidence.")

Jump to: navigation, search

English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic settlers from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the Northern Netherlands. Initially, Old English was a group of dialects reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, 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 a variety of French. 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 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 process of the Germanic invasion of 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, cook, dragon, fork, giant, gem, inch, kettle, kitchen, linen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, oil, pillow, pin, pound, punt (boat), soap, street, table, wall, and wine. The Romans also gave English words which they had themselves borrowed from other languages: anchor, butter, cat, chest, devil, dish, and sack.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern, 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 south-east 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 Frisian than any single one of the others.

Old English

For more information, see: Old English language.

The invaders dominated the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants, whose languages survive largely in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. The dialects spoken by the invaders 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 north-east 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 may 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.

There were several major dialect areas of Old English: Northumbrian in the north, Kentish in the southeast, West Saxon in the southwest, and Mercian in the central Midlands region. Although Mercian is the most direct ancestor of Modern English, few documents survive in it; the vast majority of written materials are in West Saxon, which functioned as the prestige dialect because it was the speech of the Saxon seat of power at Winchester.

Old English had no written form (aside from the occasional use of runes) until the introduction of Christianity; with it came a relatively phonetic alphabetic system, as well as loanwords from Latin and some Greek. Danish incursions along the Eastern coasts created an area of influence known as the Danelaw, and Danish had a substantial influence, particularly on the pronoun system. The Old English period formally ended with the Norman conquest, when the language was influenced, to an even greater extent, by the Norman French-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 an historian named Camden, who seems to be the person most responsible for the term becoming well-known in modern times."

Middle English

For more information, see: Middle English.

For about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only a variety of French 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).

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old French 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 French in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters þ and ð, which did not exist in French. The best-known writer from the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer, and of his works The Canterbury Tales is best known.

English literature started to reappear ca 1200, when a changing political climate, and the decline in Anglo-Norman, made it more respectable. 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

For more information, see: 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. As there are many words from different languages, and English spelling is variable (to be charitable), 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.

Historic English text samples

Old English

Beowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately 900

Hwæt! Wē Gār-Dena in geārdagum,
þēodcyninga, þrym gefrūnon,
ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,
monegum mǣgþum, meodosetla oftēah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ǣrest wearð
fēasceaft funden, þæs frōfre gebād,
wēox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þāh,
oðþæt him ǣghwylc þāra ymbsittendra
ofer hronrāde hȳran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs gōd cyning!

Which can be translated as:

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!

(translation by Francis Gummere)

Middle English

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century

Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages


  • soote: sweet
  • swich licour: such liquid
  • Zephirus: the west wind (Zephyrus)
  • eek: also
  • holt: wood
  • the Ram: Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac
  • yronne: run
  • priketh hem Nature: Nature pricks them
  • hir corages: their hearts

Early Modern English

From Paradise Lost by John Milton, 1667

 Of man's disobedience, and the fruit
 of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
 Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
 With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
 Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
 Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
 Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst ispire
 That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
 In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth
 Rose out of chaos: or if Sion hill
 Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
 Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
 Invoke thy aid to my adventures song,
 That with no middle Flight intends to soar
 Above the Aonian mount, whyle it pursues
 Things unattempted yet in prose of rhyme.

Modern English

From the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Thomas Jefferson

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to
dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to 
assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which
the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the
opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel
them to the separation.

See also