History of English

Both native and second language learners of English often become frustrated with the language’s complicated grammar rules, easily confused words, and non-phonetic spellings. While familiarity with the evolution of the English language may not necessarily improve your writing, it will help to explain why learning English can be so challenging and reduce your anxiety about mistakes.

After experiencing numerous migrations from mainland Europe, what we now know as the as the British Isles were largely settled by the Celts. The Celts worked the land with simple tools and kept livestock in their small enclosed settlements. They spoke Celtic, a variation of the language that was spoken by the tribes of Gaul (France).

In 43 A.D., the Romans invaded the British Isles, bringing with them the Latin language. The Romans built numerous structures, including roads, aqueducts, and fortresses, some of which can still be seen today. Hadrian’s Wall, a massive dirt and stone fortification, ran across the main British Isle and marked the northern extent of Roman conquest. Scattered sections of Hadrian’s Wall, which roughly follows the border between modern day England and Scotland, are still intact and provide a major tourist attraction. Some English words of Latin origin, such as camp, inch, and wine, were adopted by the Gauls prior to their migration to the British Isles. Others, such as altar, cross, and priest, were the result of later Christian influence. Some Latin words, such as cactus, paralysis, and trivia were resurrected unchanged into the English language relatively recently, during the last five hundred years.   

After the decline of Roman rule in 410, the British Isles were invaded by Germanic peoples; they brought with them Old English. Hence, the English language itself was imported to the British Isles. Old English was then influenced by Norse, the language of the Vikings, who attacked and ruled the British Isles from about 800 to 1000. The Vikings contributed even more words to the English language, including egg, knife, and skillThursday, the name of the fourth day of the week, is another English adoption and a tribute to the Norse god Thor.

The British Isles faced yet another linguistic invasion in 1066 when William of Normandy succeeded in gaining the English throne at the battle of Hastings. Normandy was a part of France, and William and his appointed nobility spoke Norman French. While the commoners continued to speak English, the ruling class spoke a Latinate language. This created a social stratification: what was a cow to the commoner, was beef the noble; what was a chicken to those living in a farmhouse, was poultry to those inhabiting a castle. These socio-economic differences are still seen in the English language today.

Even after the Normans left, English was a hodgepodge of different tongues that varied by locality. Celtic influences remained in the western parts of the British Isles, Norse influences in the north, and Norman and other Latinate influences in the south. Standardization of the English language, centered around the administratively-important London dialect, began with the introduction of the printing press in the 1500’s. England, however, relied upon individuals such as Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary of the English Language for rules of usage instead of creating a national language committee, as did France with  the establishment of the French Academy. Today, the French still vigorously monitor changes in their language, while English remains open and adaptable.

12 responses to “History of English

  1. Gabriela Serrano

    It’s interesting to learn that English was influenced by so many different dialects. In a sense English is a borrowed language, having contributions from so many peoples and finally evolving into what it is today.

    • Josh Kaplan

      I, too, find it interesting how the English language has evolved. I wonder, with the influence of technology, how the language will continue to evolve. Will everyone be able to speak into a portable device, thus allowing a translation to be instantly possible in any dialect of any nationality? What changes would take place if everyone in the world could speak the same language?

  2. Noah Shepherd

    English is quite an interesting language. From its formation as a mixture of many different languages from across Europe, to its spread across the globe via the British Empire, and to its eventual worldwide prestige and influence as a language. However, I find that this article has a few irking historical inaccuracies.

    The Romans did not invade the British Isles as a whole – they merely invaded the modern countries of England, Wales, and parts of southern Scotland. They did not bother ever invading what they called Hibernia (Ireland).

    Again I find another error in the wording. The Anglo-Saxons did not invade the British Isles as a whole, they merely invaded parts of southern and southeastern England.

    The wordings could possibly confuse readers not familiar with the history of England and the English language. Otherwise, excellent read. I’m sure the English of the future will be far different than what we are speaking now, seeing as vernacular speech is quite different from what say, politicians speak.

  3. Fahim Abid

    It is very interesting to read that English is very flexible language. It is open to changes unlike any other language where a particular group has to approve certain words or phrases to be adopted to the main language. That is why English language is widely used by business professionals on daily basis. It is very easy to understand and communicate in English than any other languages. Technologically world is advancing rapidly and there are new things being invented, new names produced, new words, phrases produced, and English language is very keen in receiving these new comers without any scrutiny or approval of special committee.

  4. Something that was left out, which I found extremely interesting when mentioned in class, was how Noah Webster consciously changed the spellings of English words such as “theatre” to “theater” in order to pull away from the language spoke in Britain.
    The origins of the our word “Thursday” is very interesting as well. I can’t wait to use that bit of trivia with my friends and family. Finally, the fact that France actually has a politically connected system in which they vote words in and out was definitely an eye opener as to how certain societies progress their languages.

  5. taka

    english is such a crazy language, as a result, we have to live through the difference between figures of speech and parts of speech.

  6. Gaby Escobedo

    I enjoyed seeing the differences that a Commoner and a Noble had with English. ” I like to eat some cow” is nothing close to saying ” I like to eat some beef”. I also very much enjoyed the Thursday meaning, with the Norse God Thor. So it was very interesting finding those differences and learning the backgrounds of English.

  7. Bryanna Breazell

    I find it very interesting that such a vast group of people contributed in the creation of the language and today it is still a universal language. Being that the language has evolved over the years i can only imagine how much it will evolve in the future. I also find it interesting that the groups of people were so different but yet came to common ground with contributing to the language itself. In the passage, it stated that the commoners and the noble spoke different variation of the language which is very similar to English now a days. Depending on where you are from in the world, your English may be totally different from one who lives in a different geographical area than you. For instance, if you lived in England you would speak similar but may have a different way of expressing your words verses one who is from the United States.

  8. Stephanie Stone

    I’m so glad that you included a brief history of the English language in this module. I find both history and linguistics very interesting so I loved reading about this and learning more about my own native tongue. I had no idea that Old English came from Germany. Now i am wondering if modern German is an adaptation of Old English, and if not, where its roots originate.

  9. Sarah Armijo

    Very interesting to find out how the English language came from many different influences. I can see why it is so confusing. All the different grammar rules, easily confused words, and non-phonetic spellings certainly don’t allow an ease of learning. I actually do like that English is made up from so many different influences, and that it continues to expand with the times. What an interesting surprise that Old English was influenced by the language of the Vikings.

  10. Maritza Rangel

    The background to the English is amazing! It’s interesting learning all the different influences behind the English language and how it has evolved over time. English has definitely become a diverse and universal language and still continues to evolve.

  11. English is my second foreign language. My first one is German. It is so interesting to learn that these two have close roots, although they are so different from each other. I always like to learn history as well, so this combination of language and history is simply amazing. At the same time having read about Celtic influence, I wish I learned French instead of German. Could make it easier for me to study English.

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