The history of the english language

The influence of other languages and dialects on the formation of the English language. Changes caused by the Norman Conquest and the Great Vowel Shift.Borrowing and influence: romans, celts, danes, normans. Present and future time in the language.

25,9 K

. ,

, , , , .


The history of the english language



The History of the English Language

From Germanic to Old English

Borrowing and Influence: Romans, Celts, Danes, Normans

The Development of Middle English

The Great Vowel Shift

The Present and Future of English




Language is one of the greatest cultural accomplishments the humanity has made. It evolves and develops together with the nation that speaks it. Such historical events as wars, exploration, colonization, migration make the language change, borrow new elements or sometimes even disappear. So, we may say that the history of the nation is reflected in its language.

The English language is no exception. Throughout the centuries it experienced the influence of many other dialects and languages and evolved from Germanic to Old, Middle, and Modern English. On the way it had revolutionary language upheavals such as the ones brought about by the Norman Conquest and the Great Vowel Shift [2].

Language makes us human. It is the use of language that differs us from animals, since the possession of abstract language is a uniquely human characteristic. The greatest cultural achievements are either made with the help of language or rely upon it for their accomplishment and dissemination.

Language is the main medium of human communication. There exist over six thousand languages in the world today, though we are losing some of them. They die, because there remain no persons speaking those languages. Some languages are more difficult than the others. For example, Finnish has more than ten noun cases; the verb system of Spanish is exceedingly complex and so on.

English has a lot of rules and numerous exceptions to all of them, it rapidly adopts new vocabulary, and its rules of reading are so vague that one has a hard time learning how to read in English. However these rules don't seem so strange for those who know the history of the English language. As any living creature, a language changes constantly and many of its unexplainable features have logical historical explanations.


The origin of English, as any other human language lies in the very deep past. Scientists state that humans have had language from the dawn of their existence and that the development of language was a great evolutionary leap that separated us from animals. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure when the English language was born, because it existed long before people learned to write down the sounds. That's why a lot of information conveyed orally and got lost on the way. Of course, oral tradition can preserve some information about old languages, but it not too much as the language changes constantly.

Scientists proved that hundreds of languages in the world derived from one ancestor. They called it Indo-European language as its language family included European and Indian languages. Scholars figured out how most European languages related to each other and what their ancestors must have been. The Indo-European family can be divided into two branches: Satem and Centum.

The Satem group includes the Indo-Iranian, Armenian, Albanian, and Balto-Slavic families. The Centum group includes the Tocharian, Anatolian, Hellenic (Greek), Italic (Latin), Celtic, and Germanic languages families. We are particularly interested in the Germanic branch, because it is the branch to which the English language belongs [3].

The Germanic branch in its turn is divided into three other branches: East Germanic, West Germanic and North Germanic. The English language belongs to the West Germanic group, which is in its turn divided into two parts, High and Low. High German was the language of uplands of Germany. The Low German languages include Old Saxon, Old Low, Old Frisian, and Old English.


The earliest use of Old English date from approximately 700 A.D. Before that time, we must rely on Latin chronicles and the techniques of the comparative method, because writing reached the Germans only in the IV century. Even after, the West and North Germanic couldn't boast any significant texts for several hundred years.

While studying the history of the English language it is important to remember that the British Isles were originally settled by Celts, who spoke Celtic languages (Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Gaelic, Manx). When Julius Caesar invaded Britain Latin became the dominant language in Britain for almost four hundred years. However after the withdrawal of the Roman legions the remaining Romano-British were sorely oppressed by the Celtic-speaking peoples whom they had dominated before. More over somewhere around 449 Germanic tribes started migrating to England and rapidly took over the island. They were the tribes of the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. These tribes spoke a form of Old English, and this language rapidly replaced Latin and Celtic. Although England was divided into numerous small kingdoms, the people seem to have been able to communicate with each other without difficulty. Then in 597, Pope Gregory the Great sent the missionary Augustine of Canterbury to England. Augustine replaced the idols with the Christian cross, therefore allowing people to maintain many of their traditional customs in their traditional places. With Christianity came both Latin and writing, and it the first written records of language come from that time. One of them is The Lord's Prayer in Old English, from the West Saxon Gospels [2].

The Lord's Prayer (Old English)

Fader ure u e eart on heofonum;

Si in nama gehalgod

to becume in rice

gewure ?in willa

on eor?an swa swa on heofonum.

Urne gedaghwamlican hlaf syle us todag

and forgyf us ure gyltas

swa swa we forgyfa? urum gyltendum

and ne gelad u us on costnunge

ac alys us of yfele solice.

Let us examine several lines of the prayer in detail.

Fader ure u e eart on heofonum

Si in nama gehalgod

Fader is recognizable as father, and ure is close enough to our. u means thou, e is a relative particle which can be translated as who. Eart is art and on heofonum means in the heavens. Si is a form of the verb to be that is lost from Modern English. in is thine and nama is name. [5].

Old English is West Germanic and rather close to Modern English. Closer than Celtic or Cothic, anyway. It has an additional set of sound shifts that makes the words sound more like Modern English. Its grammar is also evolving gradually toward that of Modern English.

Old English, like Modern German, still has strong verbs in which the vowel of the verb stem is changed to indicate changes in number or tense: Modern English to bite, bit comes from Old English bitan, bat. Old English also had weak verbs, which added an ending to indicate the past tense. Just like modern regular verbs.

Like modern English and German languages, Old English easily produced new compound words and was open to borrowing. It readily adopted Latin or Celtic words, for example.

Old English started its life in the British Isles as an essentially Germanic language with a native vocabulary. At its early stages it had experienced little influenced from other languages. Later the Old English had to go through several very significant contact periods in which foreign language influences would radically change the language.


Languages tend to borrow words from one another, it's a common practice, and English is no exception. Moreover it was especially prolific in its adoption of new words from outside sources. Even at the very beginning, it borrowed several Latin words. It is supposed that Anglo-Saxons took names from the Romans for things that did not exist in their own culture. For example,

win (wine) from Latin vinus;

popig (poppy); Old English sound g before and after front vowels is pronounced y

cytel (kettle),

pyle (pillow),

butere (butter),

weall (wall),

pytt (pit),

draca (dragon; the native Old English word was wyrm),

bisceop (bishop),

cirice (church), and so on.

Through the communication with a Romano-British population of the British Isles Anglo-Saxons could pick up some Celtic words, however Celtic languages had surprisingly little influence on Old English. They influenced the Old English in the realm of place names, most of which are Celtic. For example, Wor in Worcester, Ex in Exeter, and Win in Winchester, were Celtic. Rivers and hill in England have a very high proportion of Celtic names. Beside place names Old English borrowed some other words, for example:

binn (bin),

crag (rock),

ass (donkey),

cursian (to curse).

The first wave of Latin borrowing took place while Anglo-Saxon tribes were still living on the continent, but a much greater influence of Latin on Old English came from Christians in the VI-VII centuries. Roman Catholic Church was an enormously important cultural presence in England. In the beginning of the Christian period, key Latin terms were translated into Old English. They were a sort of neologisms. Strictly speaking such words were not borrowings, but translations. One of written examples of such a translation is Cdmon's Hymn. This poem was written in Latin, and than translated. Here is a part of it:

Nu sculon herian heofon rices weard

meotodes meahte ond his mod geanc

weorc wuldorfader swa he wundra gehwas

ece dryhten or astealde.

[Now we must praise the keeper of the heavenly kingdom the might of

the lord and his mind-wisdom, the work of the wonder-father, as he,

each of wonders, the eternal lord, first established.] [4]

Some decades later, Latin words were borrowed directly into English where they replaced their Old English translations. Many of the Latin borrowings were words for the church: angel, abbot, cleric, candle, hymn, chalice, mass, noon, nun, priest, temple etc. Among other borrowings were names of clothes, food and words relating to education, such as sock, sack, radish, beet, mussel, lobster, school, notary, grammatical.

Another wave of borrowing happened in the VIII-IX centuries, when Vikings started their attacks on British monasteries and villages. Small-case attack turned into a full-blown conquest. Eventually they got almost all of northern and eastern England under control. In the end there was a treaty between the Viking and British kings in which, among other things, Alfred, the British king recognized that the Danes would stay in England.

The influence of Scandinavian on English was enormous. Hundreds of words from all parts of speech were borrowed. As a result some of the most common modern English words have Scandinavian origin. For example the pronouns they and them the verb are (a form of be), prepositions like to and many others. The influence of Scandinavian is obvious not only in lexicon, but in grammar as well. For example, the ending -s in the third person singular, present indicative form of verbs (she smiles, he talks) comes from Scandinavian. But far more significant was the influence of the Scandinavian languages on the inflectional system of Old English. There were many, many words in common between Old English and the language of the Danes (man, wife, mother, father, summer, winter, smile, stand, ride, spin, set, over, under, and so on). For the purpose of better understanding the speakers of the Old English and Scandinavian languages stripped away the inflections and relied upon such cues as word order, to indicate grammatical relationships. This elimination of the inflectional system was a one of the most important steps toward modifying English from a synthetic to the analytic language it is today (although it was the Norman

There were a lot of common words in Old English and the Scandinavian languages, but some sound shifts occurred differently in North Germanic and West Germanic. For instance the distinction of combinations sk and sh. The voiceless velar stop k in the sk sound was, in early Old English, palatalizated, and entire cluster was pronounced sh. To indicate this sound, Old English writers used the cluster sc, as in scip (pronounced ship), fisc (fish).

Word borrowing from Scandinavian languages was not limited to a few semantic fields. In fact Scandinavian borrowings spread throughout the language: bank, bull, birth, dirt, fellow, kid, leg, foot, sister, flat, loose, skill, want, crave gape, window, get, give, raise, snub, screech, and take all come from Scandinavian. As Otto Jesperson noted, you cannot thrive, be ill, or die without Scandinavian words, nor can you even eat bread and eggs. [1] The influence of Scandinavian languages on English is enormous. They enriched English but also primed the language for some of the major steps in its future evolutions.


Old English had a long history of coexisting with Scandinavian languages. For some period that lasted about a century and a half, England and Normandy even was one kingdom. Old English turned into the language of common people. It was not spoken at the court, and most members of the aristocracy spoke Scandinavian languages better than Old English. However charters continued to be written in English and Latin, not French, for example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to be updated, in Old English. The Katherine Group texts also prove the idea that Old English was spoken rather widely after the Conquest. The Katherine Group includes the Lives of three virgin martyr saints (St. Katherine, St. Juliana, and St. Margaret), Hali Mei ?had (a discussion of the benefits of virginity), and Sawles Warde (a treatise on the care of the soul). These texts are also associated with Ancrene Wisse (a guide for nuns).

As a result, Old English was spoken by the lower classes, and rarely written, so its could evolve faster than it would have been if there was some written standard.

It was not until 1204, that English became once again the language of England. But the language now was different from the one that had been spoken a hundred and fifty years before. Here is an example of The Lord's Prayer in Middle English. It is different fro the one in Old English discussed in the previous paragraph.

Oure fadir at art in heuenes halwid be i name;

i reume or kyngdom come to be.

Be i wille don in here as it is doun in heuene.

Yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.

And foryeue to us oure dettis at is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure

dettouris at is to men at han synned in us.

And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.

Now the prayer is quite understandable to a Modern English speaker, and almost all of its the words exist in Modern English. The biggest difference lies in the pronunciation of vowels is somewhat different. It is the result of enormous changes in vowel pronunciation that come at the end of the Middle English period. The change from Old to Middle English mostly didn't affect consonants. Only W was lost in position when it was followed by an o and preceded by another consonant. So the Old English swa became so, hwa - who, and sc -sh.

Another pronunciation changes were not so significant but they affected greatly the Middle English grammar. In 1204, English was no longer a synthetic language, it became analytic. The system of inflections was almost completely eliminated, as well as the declensions of nouns and adjectives and the need for case agreement among nouns and adjectives. For example:

the e ending, became a part of the forms of the noun, resulting spellings like stone, robe. In a couple of centuries the final e stopped being pronounced, and the pronunciation became as it is today.

the plural ending of nouns -s remained in Modern English, but for a while it was balanced between another Old English plural form, -en (oxen, brethren).

Middle English lost grammatical gender. In the Old English period there were contradictions between grammatical and natural genders. So, the noun wif-mann (woman) had a masculine gender.

demonstrative pronouns were reduced. There remained only the and that, though the group was larger initially (se, seo at), and another group of demonstratives was compressed to this, those, these. Dual forms of personal pronouns were lost, and the Old English

Verbs also suffered some changes, and the biggest one was the decay of the strong verb system. Some strong verbs disappeared, others were transformed into weak verbs. Middle English is grammatically almost the same as Modern English


Another major event that affected greatly the English language was the Great Vowel Shift. Its simplest description is that the seven long Middle English vowel shifted higher (it is are called high front vowel) with greater closing of the mouth. That now became diphthong. So, in the Great Vowel Shift, fif (pronounced feef) becomes five (with the iy diphthong). The mid front vowel moved to the now vacant high front vowel space, and became high front vowel, so: mede (pronounced maid - eh) became meed. The low front vowel in its turn moved to slot left by the mid front vowels breke (pronounced bray - keh) became break. The next vowel from the back of the mouth moved to this spot: name (pronounced nahm - he) became name. The high back vowel in

Middle English mus (pronounced moose, (mouse)) became a diphthong, mouse. The sound that had been a mid back vowel jumped into that vacant high back vowel place: roote (pronounced row - teh) became root. A mid back vowel in tis turn moved to the slot of the previous low back vowel moved: goote (pronounced gaw - teh) becomes goat.

As one can see, this shift is only applicable to the long vowels. The short vowels were not affected and almost didn't change at all. Word elements that were not stressed did not undergo vowel changes.

The explanation of the Great Vowel Shift is rather controversial and sound as follows: at the time of the Shift England experienced a major demographic change. There was mass immigration from the north to the south of England after the Black Death and a shift from rural to urban living patterns.

Linguists suppose that the sudden arrival in the south of many individuals with northern accents or the arrival of many rural dwellers in urban areas triggered, a major pronunciation change.

The Great Vowel Shift was the most significant factor in changing Middle English into the language that we now speak, but not the only one.

The following grammatical changes happened:

the plural ending -n continued to lose ground and finally -s won the battle.

the apostrophe s ('s) appeared as the genitive ending. The genitive case was the Old English method of indicating possession. For strong nouns, the genitive singular ending was -es, stan (stone) - stanes (pronounced stahn - ehs) of the stone. In Middle English the genitive ending was unaccented it ends up being spelled with a variety of vowels, such as -is or -ys. Thus the apostrophe marks the missing e in the -es ending.

other significant grammar changes occurred in the pronouns and the verbs. In Old English, ge (pronounced ye) and u (pronounced thoo) indicated different numbers in the second person (ge - plural, u - singular). In the thirteenth century, the forms thou, thy, thee were used when addressing social inferiors, children, and close friends. The forms (ye, your, you) were a sign of respect. Eventually the thou forms disappeared from speech.

The ending of the third person singular verb in Middle English was -eth. In XVI-th century it became -s and both endings coexisted for some time, but by the eighteenth century, -eth had been lost from all speech.


history english language

As English has spread throughout the world certain dialects and speech forms have become more prestigious than others. In England Received Pronunciation (RP) is the dialect form of the Royal Family, the elite schools, the government, and the courts. RP marks the speaker as educated and socially important. However, RP is viewed with suspicion in some places. So, even politicians switch to the dialects of their own regions when speaking for the home audience. Some research has shown that people evaluating oral arguments in legal cases rated the arguments in the regional accent as more persuasive than those made in RP.

This explains why prestige dialects have not overwhelmed regional variants throughout the world, and why people persist in using regional forms of language.

On the one hand, a person can adopt the prestige dialect and avoid the more stigmatized form. It is the sign of education and cultural connections. On the other hand, a parson can choose the dialects of solidarity, trying to sound trustworthy and friendly. When people switch from one dialect to another, they are said to practice code switching.

Code switching is a very complicated process that allows individuals to mediate their own identities. A person's attitude toward identity is extremely significant in regional dialect performance. These attitudes toward identity explain why dialect forms whose speakers are discriminated against nevertheless persist.

The development of regional and class variations of English, and the persistence of stigmatized forms of the language, tell us some very important things about the future of English. This language is spoken in various forms by nearly one fifth of the population of the earth. And there is a network effect: the more people speak it, the more valuable it is to learn to speak it. For native English speakers this is obviously a good thing, as their natural linguistic ability, acquired in childhood, provides advantages in the worlds of commerce, entertainment, technology, and other areas where English is now a global standard. But the success of English has cost many other languages a lot. Scholars are worried that the more than six thousand living languages will be radically reduced in the next century, and only few major languages will survive the next five hundred years. This would be a tragic loss of human accomplishment no less horrible than the loss rare species.

But the spread of new dialect forms, the diversification of English, and the persistence of even the most stigmatized variants give us reasons for optimism.

It seems that we humans preserve our native languages, even under an intense pressure. We may switch codes, adopt prestige dialects, but still we retain the ability to speak in the languages that make us feel solidarity and comfort. Even if our language starts from the same root, it seems to have a drive to diversify, and to continual changes. The story of English has been one of change and diversity, and hopefully its future will be also.


Nowadays the English language is one of the dominant languages in the modern world. However its history is full of rises and falls. Over the centuries, English was influenced by several other languages. Old English, for example, was affected by the Latin and Celtic languages and the dialects of the tribes of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.

Later when Vikings, invaded England, the English language borrowed many Norse words, particularly in the north of England.

During the second period of its development the English language (Middle English) was affected and even almost completely replaced by Old French and Latin. The proper English language was considered to be a language of the lower class.

The Middle English is also characterized for the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift, a massive sound change that affected the long vowels.

Modern English developed after the establishment of the printing press in 1476. This invention made books available to more people, who now could learned to read.

The English language continues to change and develop, with hundreds of new words appearing every year. But despite all the borrowings from other languages the heart of the English language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English.


Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Crystal, David. The Stories of English. New York: Overlook Press, 2005.

Drout, M. D. A History of the English Language. Course Guide. Wheaton College, Recorded Books, LLC, 2005

Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams, eds. An Introduction to Language. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Heinle Publishing, 2002.

McCrum, Robert, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran, eds. The Story of English. New York: Penguin, 2002.

  • The old Germanic languages, their classification and principal features. The chronological division of the History of English. The role of the Wessex dialect. The Norman Conquest and its effect on English. The Germanic languages in the modern world.

    [34,7 K], 17.01.2010

  • The oldest words borrowed from French. Unique domination of widespread languages in a certain epoch. French-English bilinguism. English is now the most widespread of the word's languages. The French Language in England. Influence on English phrasing.

    [119,6 K], 05.09.2009

  • Traditional periodization of historical stages of progress of English language. Old and middle English, the modern period. The Vocabulary of the old English language. Old English Manuscripts, Poetry and Alphabets. Borrowings in the Old English language.

    [281,2 K], 27.03.2014

  • English language: history and dialects. Specified language phenomena and their un\importance. Differences between the "varieties" of the English language and "dialects". Differences and the stylistic devices in in newspapers articles, them evaluation.

    [29,5 K], 27.06.2011

  • History of the English language, its causes and global distribution. His role in global communication between peoples and as a major business. Comparison of British and American dialects. Proof of the importance of their various teaching for pupils.

    [119,7 K], 26.06.2015

  • A critical knowledge of the English language is a subject worthy of the attention of all who have the genius and the opportunity to attain it. A settled orthography is of great importance, as a means of preserving the etymology and identity of words.

    [28,1 K], 14.02.2010

  • Linguistic situation in old english and middle english period. Old literature in the period of anglo-saxon ethnic extension. Changing conditions in the period of standardisation of the english language. The rise and origins of standard english.

    [98,8 K], 05.06.2011

  • Characteristics of the English language in different parts of the English-speaking world. Lexical differences of territorial variants. Some points of history of the territorial variants and lexical interchange between them. Local dialects in the USA.

    [24,1 K], 19.04.2011

  • The general outline of word formation in English: information about word formation as a means of the language development - appearance of a great number of new words, the growth of the vocabulary. The blending as a type of modern English word formation.

    [54,6 K], 18.04.2014

  • The history of the English language. Three main types of difference in any language: geographical, social and temporal. Comprehensive analysis of the current state of the lexical system. Etymological layers of English: Latin, Scandinavian and French.

    [18,7 K], 09.02.2014

, , ..