History of the English Language

How English went from backwoods gibberish to the most dominant language in the world.

In the year 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund was taking part in the Council of Constance to end the fighting going on amongst the Western Catholic Church.  While speaking during the council, Sigismund misused the Latin word schisma, or schism, as if it were a feminine word instead of a neutral one.  When called out on his mistake, Sigismund stated that, since he was the Emperor, the word would be feminine going forward.  An older archbishop then rose shakily to his feet and boldly stated that “Caesar non supra grammaticos,” or “The Emperor is not above the grammarians” (Gibbs).  The archbishop was putting his foot down and saying that nobody has the right to alter words as they please.  This mindset that language is above reproach, that it is almost holy and cannot be altered, has been present throughout history.  Unfortunately for the grammarians of the world, however, language is a fluid, almost living, thing.  It flows this way and that, changing and evolving as it goes.  It has been this way for many of the languages that have ever existed.  The English language is no different and has gone through many major changes.  The original inhabitants of the British Isles spoke a Celtic Indo-European language, but that was quickly forgotten after events such as the Anglo-Saxon invasion, the Norman Invasion, the Great Vowel Shift, the Industrial and Technological revolutions, and the eventual crowning of it as the Lingua Franca of the business world.  The changes imposed can be seen in many works of literature composed over the centuries, including “Beowulf”, “The Canterbury Tales”, and the works of Shakespeare.  Not only have these changes in the English language had an impact on billions of humans throughout history, but it has also had an incredible impact on the literature that has been written in English throughout the ages.

When discussing any language, however, it is important to distinguish between the written and spoken versions it.  In China, for example, there are countless versions of the spoken language, often to the point where people from one part of the country would not be able to understand what is being said by a person from a distant region.  However, they both would use the same written language and be able to communicate that way (Lin).  The same is true of many Western languages, such as German, French, and, of course, English.  While most English speakers these days would be able to understand the majority of what a fellow native English speaker from another country is saying (other than slang terms), there are exceptions.  Things like British Cockney, highlands Irish, and American Creole are difficult for many people other than those who speak in those accents to understand.  If all of those people were speaking to each other through writing, however, they would understand each other perfectly.

Another important distinction between written and spoken languages is the speed at which they change.  In an article discussing the differences, William Bright states that “Spoken language, everywhere and always, undergoes a continual change of which speakers may be relatively unaware. Written language, because of its permanence and standardization, shows slower and less sweeping changes” (Bright).  The Chinese written language, for example, has remained relatively unchanged for over 3000 years (Lin).  As stated before, however, the spoken version of it has branched off in multiple directions.  English, on the other hand, has seen both the written and spoken version changed dramatically over the last 1500 years, due mostly to the invasion of the British Isles by different groups of people.

Before the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the majority of people living in the English Isles were Celtic people who are believed to have spoken a form of Indo-European.  There are no surviving examples of their written or spoken language, so little is known about what exactly it was that they spoke.  Their language, however, had little impact on English.  A few words are believed to be sprinkled throughout, but most of it has been lost to history (Mastin).

Beginning in the fifth century CE, the British Isles saw a series of invasions and migrations by several different Germanic tribes: The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes.  These tribes have since been combined into the term Anglo-Saxons (Mastin).  The door to the British Isles was left open for the invasion of these tribes after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and their abandonment of the territory.  Once the Romans were gone, the Anglo-Saxons quickly stormed in.  These tribes all spoke versions of the West German dialect, which eventually all merged and “As a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, the British and/or Latin spoke in lowland Britain disappeared and was replaced by Old English, the direct ancestor of modern English” (Hills).  For the former inhabitants of the island, they all became second-class citizens.  The only way for them to move up in the world was to assimilate themselves with their conquerors by adopting their customs and language.

beowulf text

Along with the new language came the first known instances of the English language being written down.  While there is not a great amount of literature that has survived from this time period, some of the work that has endured include the epic poem “Beowulf”, as well as poems such as “The Wanderer” and “The Dream of the Rood”.  While it is called Old English, it would be hard for anybody who was not aware of that title to look at the language written down and think that it had any relation to modern English.  For example, the first three lines of “Beowulf” in Old English are “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, / þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, / hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon”, which translates into Modern English 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” (Grummere).

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, / þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, / hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon

Two of the main elements that influenced Old English literature were Christianity and oral storytelling tradition.  The two were often infused, with Christian elements being inserted into traditional oral stories that focused on the heroic ideal.  Most of the poems of the time had been passed down through the generations by storytellers and were most often told in alliterative verse.  Not only does the repeating sounds of alliteration create a more enjoyable story to listen to, but it also makes it easier for the storytellers to remember that way.  While the identity of most Old English authors remains unknown, the few we do know of include King Alfred, Cynewulf, Caedmon, and Bede (English).  The Old English period lasted from around the late 5th century CE to the year 1066 CE, a timespan of just over five hundred years.

The next shift in the English language came as the result of the Norman Conquest.  The politics, disputes, and rivalries that led to William of Normandy setting out to conquer Normandy are more complex than the events portrayed in the show “Game of Thrones”.  The simple explanation is that the current king of England, Edward the Confessor, died in early 1066.  Three men claimed the throne: Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, and William of Normandy.  In the end, William came out on top and became the sole king of England (Ibeji).

Normandy borders the English Channel in the northern part of France.  The people living there at the time spoke a version of French with heavy Germanic influence that is referred to as either Anglo-Norman or Norman French, and it was much different than what most others spoke at the time and does not have much in common with modern day French (Mastin).  This language soon swept across England as the newly crowned William the Conqueror began confiscating land and giving it to his own people, noted in the classic tome “The Domesday Book”.  Norman French soon became the language spoken by the royal court and almost all the upper classes.  This forced many people at the time to learn two or three different languages just to be able to communicate with the different people now inhabiting the British Isles (Butler and Beer).  English was rarely written for a time after the invasion and was only the third most spoken language on its own home island.  It took nearly two centuries for the English language to regain its dominance.

The effect of this mingling began to have a strong and lasting impact on the written English language, with the Normans gradually inserting over 10,000 words into English (Mastin).  Literature at that time begins to strongly resemble more modern English.  While still difficult for a person in the present day to fully understand, it can at least be recognized as English for the most part.  Much more literature from this time than Old English has survived to the modern day, such as the first instance of the Christian Bible being translated into English (a great act of heresy at the time), but easily the most famous Middle English author is Geoffrey Chaucer.

The Knight

Chaucer’s most well-known work, “The Canterbury Tales”, begins with an introduction of his characters.  The original Middle English version describing the Knight begins “A KNYGHT ther was, and that a worthy man, / That fro the tyme that he first bigan / To riden out, he loved chivalrie, / Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie. / Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre”, which translates to Modern English as “A KNIGHT there was, and what a gentleman, / Who, from the moment that he first began / To ride about the world, loved chivalry, / Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy. / Full worthy was he in his sovereign’s war” (Chaucer).  We can begin to see many more words that look familiar, as well as others that are similar but spelled slightly different.

The spoken version of Middle English, however, would be incredibly difficult for a modern English speaker to understand.  Many of the rules of the language were different at the time, and it creates a speech that is similar in many aspects to a very strong Irish accent, but with many strange variants thrown in.  A perfect example of the ways speech was different is the word “knight,” or “knyght” in Middle English.  A modern person would say it as “nite”, making both the K and the GH silent in the word.  A Middle English speaker, however, would pronounce both things, making a word that sounds like “Keh-neecht”.  Another difference was that the “e” at the end of words was pronounced as well instead of left silent.  These types of eccentricities are why Modern English has so many seemingly useless silent letters scattered around; they were once actively used.  Another big difference was nearly all vowel sounds in general.  Words that seem simple sound like a different language when spoken in Middle English.  There are numerous videos online of people speaking in Middle English, and it is well worth your time to take a listen to them.

The Norman Invasion was one of the last great events that changed the English Language.  The language started to become more standardized (thanks mostly to the printing press) and any changes begin to come much more naturally, with new words slowly emerging and older ones falling out of favor.  Much of that change that did still occur would come from the spoken word, which in turn would get transferred into the written word.

The first of these noted changes is what is called the Great Vowel Shift (GVS).  While there is some debate about the time that this shift took place, as well as whether it can be called a real event at all, there is no doubt that English began to be spoken differently over centuries after Chaucer first penned “The Canterbury Tales”.  One contributing factor to the GVS was the rise of the printing press.  Before literature was mass produced, all books had to be handwritten.  This was most often done by monks in monasteries.  There was no official spelling of most words, so individuals would spell the way that seemed best to them according to whatever dialect they spoke.  The printing press had a wonderful impact on written English by making it uniform across all people who spoke and wrote it (Nordquist).  Another vital tool in standardizing words was the creation of the first English dictionary in 1604 by a schoolteacher (and only 800 years after the first Arabic dictionary) (Mastin).

One of the best examples available showing both the beginnings of standardized spelling and the effects of the GVS is in the works of William Shakespeare.  Arguably the most famous English language author of all time, his work is a wealth of information for scholars to learn about the way English was written and spoken at the time.  An example of his writing comes from the first act of his play “King Lear”, where he writes “Peace, Kent! / Come not between the dragon and his wrath. / I loved her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery. Hence, and avoid my sight!” (Shakespeare).  While the structure of Shakespeare’s language is often clunky and hard to follow to a modern reader, the words themselves are nearly all spelled the same way then that they are still to this day.  This transition marks the first point that a modern person could read English literature and not need more than a handful of words translated for them.

The GVS is also the reason that many of the oddities of the English language mentioned before came into being.  To make things even more complicated, while most of the English words changed, many of them did not, which leads to even more confusion with words being spelled the exact same but pronounced completely different.  There have been attempts through the years to simplify the language and make the written words more closely match the phonetic sounds of spoken English.  Nothing has ever gotten much traction, unfortunately, and at this point, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be an organized effort to make things easier.

While the writing half of English had become standardized and recognizable to Modern English speakers, the spoken version still had enough difference to it that most people today would have some difficulty in following it.  This difference in speaking, however, has more to do with accents than rules of speaking.  As with Middle English, there are videos online of actors performing Shakespeare in its original pronunciation.  While listening to it, there are certain words that do not translate over well, but the vast majority of it is easily understandable and a person can follow the story without much trouble.

Another notable change in English around the time of Shakespeare was the infusion of many Greek, French, and Latin words.  Latin was still considered the language of the educated, and many writers and scholars of the time made concerted efforts to introduce more of the words into the language.  As opposed to most former changes that were more natural progressions, these changes were purposeful and intended to make English a more respected and scholarly language, with many the words brought in this way dealing with areas of science and nature (Mastin).

After World War II, with America and Britain coming out as the victors and becoming global superpowers, English quickly took the place of French as the dominant language in nearly every aspect of international communication.

It was during the time of later stages of the Great Vowel Shift that the English language was given its greatest boost to importance.  It was at this time that the mighty English Empire began to take shape, and English-speaking explorers and settlers began spreading out across the globe.  English gained a hold in parts of Africa, India, and China, as well as becoming the dominant languages in North America and Australia.  By the time of the industrial revolution, the sun never set on the English Empire nor the English language.

With the rising status of the United States of America and its predominately English-speaking populace, the English language has continued to grow in influence around the world.  Up until the end of the second world war, French had been the lingua franca of business and diplomacy, and science was still conducted in Latin for the most part.  Many of the founding fathers of the US, for example, spoke both French and Latin.  After World War II, with America and Britain coming out as the victors and becoming global superpowers, English quickly took the place of French as the dominant language in nearly every aspect of international communication.  Americans made huge investments into education during the middle parts of the 20th century, and many of the greatest scientific innovations of the time were coming from the US, forcing others to adapt to English to keep pace.  Only time will tell if Americans, and the English language in tow, will be able to maintain their dominance in the world.

The evolution of the English language has been an incredibly epic journey.  There were a few times when the entire language was nearly wiped out entirely, such as the three hundred years following the Norman Conquest.  It has become a jumbled mash of different languages, borrowing freely from anything it could get its hands on; Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, and German are all well represented in modern day English.  It is this jumbled mess of languages, combined with rules that may or may not apply to certain words, and the lasting effects of the Great Vowel Shift that make the English language one of the most challenging languages in the world for people to learn.  Even native speakers often have difficulty understanding all the rules and contradictions that English has to offer.  Despite these glaring flaws, however, the language can also be extremely beautiful.  A skilled author or poet can lead their readers through a whole spectrum of emotions and create scenes vivid enough that they can feel like they are there.  On top of that, the language continues to grow and evolve.  While there have been no major changes to it over the last few centuries, little changes happen all the time.  New words pop up all the time, and others fall out of use.  No matter how hard the grammarians fight to keep the language pure and free of slang, there is no doubt that students in four hundred years will struggle to read the things being written today the same way that modern English speakers struggle to read Shakespeare.


Works Cited

Bright, William. “What’s the Difference Between Speech and Writing.” n.d. Linguistic Society of America. Web. 29 April 2018.

Butler, M.H. and John Bernard Beer. “English Literature.” 27 December 2017. Encyclopædia Britannica. Web. 29 April 2018.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” n.d. Librarius . Web. 29 February 2018.

English. “English 201 and 202.” n.d. University of Massachusetts Amherst. Web. 29 April 2018.

Gibbs, Laura. “Caesar non supra grammaticos.” 12 May 2007. Bestiaria Latina. Web. 29 April 2018.

Grummere, Frances. “Beowulf.” 1 July 1993. Poetry Foundation. Web. 29 April 2018.

Hills, Catherine. “The Anglo-Saxon invasion and the beginnings of the ‘English’.” n.d. Our Migration Story. Web. 29 April 2018.

Ibeji, Mike. “Key Events of the Conquest.” 17 February 2011. BBC. Web. 29 April 2018.

Lin, Cathy. “Chinese Language.” n.d. EthnoMed. Web. 29 April 2018.

Mastin, Luke. “The History of English.” 2011. The History of English. Web. 29 April 2018.

Nordquist, Richard. “What was the Great Vowel Shift.” 22 March 2018. ThoughtCo. Web. 29 April 2018.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” n.d. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Web. 29 April 2018.


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