History of the English language

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History of the English language


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English is primarily a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects, brought to Britain by Germanic invaders and/or settlers from the places which are now called North West Germany and the Netherlands. It uses a vocabulary unlike other European languages of the same era. A large portion of the modern English vocabulary came from the Anglo-Norman languages. English is considered a "borrowing" language.

Middle English differed from Old English because of two invasions which occurred during the Middle Ages. The first invasion was by people who spoke North Germanic languages. They conquered and colonised parts of Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The second invasion was by the Normans of the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and eventually developed an English form of this, called Anglo-Norman. A new vocabulary introduced at this time heavily influenced many organizations including the church, the court system and the government. European languages including GermanDutchLatin and Ancient Greek influenced the English vocabulary during the Renaissance.

Old English initially was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. The Late West Saxon dialect eventually became dominant. Written Old English of 1000 AD was similar to other Germanic languages such as Old High German and Old Norse in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Written Old English is relatively unintelligible today, in contrast to written Modern English and written Middle English. Close contact with the Scandinavians resulted in much grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the English language, which had been based on Anglo-Frisian. These changes did not reach South West England until the Norman invasion in 1066. Old English developed into a full-fledged literary language, based on the most common manner of speaking in London during the 13th century.


The languages of Germanic peoples gave rise to the English language (the best known are the AnglesSaxonsFrisiiJutes and possibly some people such as Franks, who traded, fought with and lived alongside the Latin-speaking peoples of the Roman Empire in the centuries-long process of the Germanic peoples' expansion into Western Europeduring the Migration Period). Latin loan words such as winecup, and bishop entered the vocabulary of these Germanic peoples before their arrival in Britain and the subsequent formation of England.

TacitusGermania, written around 100 AD, is a primary source of information for the culture of the Germanic peoples in ancient times. Germanics were in contact with Roman civilization and its economy, including residing within the Roman borders in large numbers in the province of Germania and others and serving in the Roman military, while many more retained political independence outside of Roman territories. Germanic troops such as the TungriBatavi and Frisii served in Britannia under Roman command. Except for the Frisians, Germanic settlement in Britain, according to Bede, occurred largely after the arrival of mercenaries in the 5th century. Most AnglesSaxons and Jutes arrived in Britain in the 6th century as Germanic pagans, independent of Roman control, again, according to Bede who wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 731 AD. Although Bede mentions invasion by AnglesSaxons and Jutes, the precise nature of the invasion is now disputed by some historians, and the exact contributions made by these groups to the early stages of the development of the English Language, are contested.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that around the year 449 Vortigern, King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles allegedly led by the Germanic brothers Hengist and Horsa) to help repel invading Picts. In return, the Anglo-Saxons received lands in the southeast of Britain. In response "came men of AldSeaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons,Angles and Jutes). The Chronicle refers to waves of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. Modern scholars view Hengist and HorsaasEuhemerised deities from Anglo-Saxon paganism, who ultimately stem from the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

However it is important to remember that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was not a contemporaneous record of these assumed folk-movements. It was first written around 850 AD, up to four hundred years after the events it is describing. Therefore we cannot assume that the Chronicle is an accurate record for the fifth and sixth centuries, or that the events referred to actually took place.

Old English – from the mid-5th century to the mid-11th century


The first page of the Beowulfmanuscript

Main article: Old English

After the Anglo-Saxon settlement, the Germanic language displaced the indigenous Brythonic languages and Latin in most of the areas ofBritain that later became England. The original Celtic languages remained in parts of ScotlandWales and Cornwall (where Cornish was spoken into the 18th century), although large numbers of compound Celtic-Germanic placenames survive, hinting at early language mixing. Latin also remained in these areas as the language of the Celtic Church and of higher education for the nobility. Latin was later to be reintroduced to England by missionaries from both the Celtic and Roman churches, and it would, in time, have a major impact on English. What is now called Old English emerged over time out of the many dialects and languages of the colonising tribes. Even then, Old English continued to exhibit local variation, the remnants of which continue to be found in dialects of Modern English. The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is the epic poem Beowulf composed by an unknown poet.

Old English varied widely from modern Standard English. Most native English speakers today find Old English unintelligible without studying it as a separate language. Nevertheless, English remains a Germanic language, and approximately half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words bestrong and water, for example, derive from Old English. Many non-standard dialects such as Scottish English (with its heavy Scots influence) and Northumbrian English have retained features of Old English in vocabulary and pronunciation. Old English was spoken until some time in the 12th or 13th century.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Old English was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Old Norse, spoken by the Norsemenwho invaded and settled mainly in the North East of England (see Jórvík and Danelaw). The Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians spoke related languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more divergent.

The Germanic language of the Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by extensive contact with Norse colonizers, resulting perhaps in cases of morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). The Vikings had a very significant effect on English culture and language by interacting with ordinary people, which was further encouraged by the Christianization of the Danes. Converting the Danes allowed intermarriage, further forcing the two groups to mingle and encouraging language cohabitation.] While the heightened level of mingling indicates large amounts of lexical borrowing, it is difficult to define how and when those borrowings occurred. That being said, English borrowed approximately two thousand words from Old Norse, includingangerbagbothhitlawlegsameskillskytake, and many others, possibly even including the pronoun they.

The introduction of Christianity from around 600 encouraged the addition of over 400 Latin loan words into Old English, such as priestpaper, and school, and fewer Greek loan words. The Old English period formally ended some time after the Norman conquest of 1066, when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the Normans, who spoke a French dialect called Old Norman.

Middle English – from the late 11th to the late 15th century[edit]

Main article: Middle English

Further information: Middle English creole hypothesis

For centuries following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and high-ranking nobles in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles spoke Anglo-Norman, a variety of Old Norman, originating from a northern langue d'oïl dialect. Merchants and lower-ranked nobles were often bilingual in Anglo-Norman and English, whilst English continued to be the language of the common people. Middle English was influenced by both Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French (see characteristics of the Anglo-Norman language).

The more idiomatic, concrete and descriptive a style of English is, the more it tends to be from Anglo-Saxon origins. The more intellectual and abstract English is, the more it tends to contain Latin and French influences.

Until the 14th century, Anglo-Norman and then French was the language of the courts and government, but for example the Pleading in English Act 1362 made English the only language in which court proceedings could be held, though the official record remained in Latin.

Even after the decline of Norman French, standard French retained the status of a formal or prestige language—as in most of Europe during the period—and had a significant influence on the vernacular English, which is visible in Modern English today (see English language word origins and List of English words of French origin). A tendency for French-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day. For example, most modern English speakers consider a "cordial reception" (from French) to be more formal than a "hearty welcome" (from Germanic). Another example is the unusual circumstance of the words for animals being separate from the words for their meat, e.g. beef and pork (from the French bœuf and porc) are the products of "cows" and "pigs"—animals with Germanic names.

English was also influenced by the Celtic languages it was displacing, especially the Brittonic substrate, most notably with the introduction of the continuous aspect (to be doing or to have been doing), which is a feature found in many modern languages but developed earlier and more thoroughly in English.[14]

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old Norman or Latin. A large number of Norman words were taken into Old English, with many doubling for Old English words. The Norman influence is the hallmark of the linguistic shifts in English over the period of time following the invasion, producing what is now referred to as Middle English.

English literature reappeared after 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, was the first English government document to be published in the English language after the Norman Conquest. In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English. By the end of the 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.


Opening prologue of The Wife of Bath's Tale Canterbury Tales.

Geoffrey Chaucer is the most famous writer from the Middle English period, and The Canterbury Tales is his best-known work. Although the spelling of Chaucer's English varies from that of Modern English, his works can be read with minimal assistance.

The English language changed enormously during the Middle English period, both in grammar and in vocabulary. While Old English is a heavily inflected language (synthetic), an overall diminishing of grammatical endings occurred in Middle English (analytic). Grammar distinctions were lost as many noun and adjective endings were leveled to -e. The older plural noun marker -en largely gave way to -s, and grammatical gender was discarded. Approximately 10,000 French (and Norman) loan words entered Middle English, particularly terms associated with government, church, law, the military, fashion, and food.

English spelling was also influenced by Norman in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters þ (thorn) and ð (eth), which did not exist in Norman. These letters remain in the modern Icelandic alphabet, having been borrowed from Old English via Western Norwegian.

Early Modern English – from the late 15th to the late 17th century

Main article: Early Modern English

The English language underwent extensive sound changes during the 1400s, while its spelling conventions remained rather constant.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. Consequent to the push toward standardization, the language acquired self-conscious terms such as "accent" and "dialect".[16] By the time of William Shakespeare (mid 16th - early 17th century),[17] the language had become clearly recognisable as Modern English. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published, the Table Alphabeticall.

Increased literacy and travel have facilitated the adoption of many foreign words, especially borrowings from Latin and Greek since the Renaissance. (In the 17th century, Latin words were often used with the original inflections, but these eventually disappeared). As there are many words from different languages and English spelling is variable, the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, most notably in the West Country. During the period, loan words were borrowed from Italian, German, and Yiddish. British acceptance of and resistance to Americanisms began during this period.[18]

Modern English – from the late 17th century to the present[edit]


Title page from the second edition of the Dictionary

Main article: Modern English

The Dictionary of the English Language was the first full featured English dictionary. Samuel Johnson published the authoritative work in 1755. To a high degree, the dictionary standardized both English spelling and word usage. Meanwhile, grammar texts by LowthMurray,Priestly, and others attempted to prescribe standard usage even further.

Early Modern English and Late Modern English vary essentially in vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from the Industrial Revolution and the technology that created a need for new words as well as international development of the language. TheBritish Empire at its height covered one quarter of the Earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries. British English and American English, the two major varieties of the language, are spoken by 400 million persons. Received Pronunciation of British English is considered the traditional standard. The total number of English speakers worldwide may exceed one billion.

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