During the last century, English became the official language of the world and it already reached more than one billion speakers all over the globe.
Although it is generally accepted that English is not one of the hardest languages to learn, its fast dissemination involves much more than this. It involves historical facts.
The rise of the USA after the second Great War was the first step for an economic and cultural supremacy in the world. The position of the English language was consolidated by “the American way of life” portrayed in movies. In addition to that, the technologic innovation in that period was also important for the establishment of the American influence worldwide and besides that, it was extremely important and necessary to assure that influence during the cold war.
Nowadays English is the world’s second most spoken language, behind Mandarin only, and it is the most used language in international markets, in scientific resources and in the internet. English is the most learned and spoken foreign language in the world and the number of non-native speakers grow year after year.
In this article, we will explain how the English language developed through time. We will bring important facts, people and languages that somehow contributed to the evolution of the English, as we know today.
Pre English (Before the year 500)
English just like most of the European languages spoken today is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. Sometime around the year 3500 BC, the Indo-Europeans started to spread across Europe and in 600 BC, a specific group called the Celts settled in the British Isles. This immigration kept growing for centuries until the Roman occupation, which occurred around 55 BC.
Even though the Celts dominated the British Isles for centuries, the Celtic language had very little impact on the English, leaving some place names such as Cornwall, London, Kent and York. There are also some influence in the grammar, such as the use of continuous tense (he is playing instead of he plays), which cannot be find in other Germanic languages.
Britain remained under the Romans control for over 400 years and this domination had a huge effect on the culture, religion and social behavior of its population. However, the use of Latin by the natives was restricted to the members of upper classes in the society and the constant attacks from the Celts made the Romans give up on their permanent occupation plans. The influence of the Latin from that time in the modern English language is also very limited. Therefore, most of the linguistic legacy of the Romans takes form in dozens of words, such as candel (candle), plante (plant), rosa (rose), port (harbor), piper (pepper) and others.
Old English (500 – 1100)
After the Roman withdrawal, a series of Germanic tribes, such as the Jutes, Angles, Saxons and Frisians invaded the British Isles and over time, they started to establish permanent bases. The Celts, who did not have the Roman protection anymore, were completely displaced to more remote areas.
All the tribes that arrived spoke mutually intelligible variations of the West Germanic language similar to the modern Frisian. The tribes settled in seven kingdoms and some evidences from that time can be found in name of places in England such as Luton, Reading, Nottingham, Bradford, and Birmingham among others.
Around the year 600 AD, St. Augustine and his missionaries from Rome spread the Christianity through the whole England and not so long after that, the Anglo-Saxons adopted the new Roman alphabet with the addition of some letters for sounds that could not be found in Latin. Once again the Latin language was restricted to both upper class and church members. During this period of time, important words such as fork, school, tower, paper, circle, bishop, priest, angel, baptism, monk and lily were included in the language.
In the 10th century after years of invasions, the Vikings reached an agreement with the Anglo-Saxons and established the Danelaw, which was a Viking territory located in the Northumbria and Fast Anglia that least for decades. The Vikings spoke Old Norse, which was a North Germanic language that heavily influenced not only the modern language but also the accent and the pronunciation of words in Northern England. The influence of Old Norse is found today in words like skin, leg, neck, fellow, sky, cake, egg, skirt, bank, law, anger, knife, like, smile, hug, window, weak, wrong, mistake, ugly, ill, seem, want among others.
Many consider the king of Wessex Alfred the Great, the English language savior. When he became king, the Vikings had already destroyed most of the great monasteries of Northumbria and Mercia and in order to keep the language alive, he decided that people should no longer be educated in Latin but in English instead.
Old English was a very complex language compared to the modern English. There were seven classes of strong verbs and three of weak verbs with their ending changing in many situations. Nouns had three different genders that could inflect up to five cases and adjectives could have eleven forms. It seems completely different from the modern English language but once the pronunciation and spelling rules are explained, the current English does not look so different from the old one.
Middle English (500 – 1100)
In the year 1066, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded and settled in the Britain Islands with nobles and court. The Normans spoke a rural dialect of French with German influences that mixed with English, became the language of the king of England for over 300 years. The lower classes kept speaking English and the development of both languages together is called the Middle English.
The Anglo-Norman French influenced the English language with many words and important changes. The words castle, crown, prince, parliament, city, judge, court, appeal, verdict, army, soldier, peace, obedience, mansion, beauty, many, literature among others, were included in the English language during this period. Some English words were the composition of a French and a German word, for example, gentleman.
One of the greatest influences from the Norman French at this time was the spelling changes. Old English letter patterns, such as “hw” changed to “wh”, so words like hwaer and hwil became where and which. Latin words related to medicine, literature, law and religion, such as legal, private, history, library, tolerance, infinite, solar, recipe were included in the vernacular.
During this period, English became the third language of its own country and for that reason; many of the grammatical complexities and inflections disappeared. Noun genders and adjective inflections no longer existed except for singular and plural.
Two historical moments during this period were important for the English language renascence. The first one was the Hundred Year War against France that created a strong rejection to the French language and the second moment was the Black Death that killed one third of the English population including a high number of the clergy. After the plague, the once lower class of English speakers grew in social importance and the rejection of the French language made the king Edward III in 1362, to be the first one to address the parliament in English.
Early Modern English (1500 – 1800)
The initial time of the Early Modern English started with the “Great Vowel Shift”. The Great Vowel Shift is a radical change in the pronunciation, in which the vowel sounds are higher and longer finally separating the English words from their foreigner counterparts.
Words from Latin and Greek such as, genius, species, tedium, nausea, anatomy, meditate, biography, system, expensive, concept, invention, technique, temperature, capsule, area, complex among others, were imported to the English language. Some Latin adjectives were introduced such as, marine, pedestrian, masculine, feminine and paternal.
An important point in the development of Modern English was the advent of the printing press. During this period, there were five main dialects in England with huge differences in spelling and pronunciation. The printing press contributed significantly for the English’s standardization and the differences between the dialects got smaller.
There were several important facts during this period but the most important was the action of one person that changed the English language forever and his name is William Shakespeare. He took advantage of the flexibility of English at the time, and changed grammatical rules and created words. He personally created over 2000 neologisms, such as critical, majestic, monumental, homicide, obscene, countless, premeditated, excellent, hint, lonely, pedant, accommodation and others that are common until today.
Late Modern English (1800 – Present)
The Late Modern English started with the industrial and scientific revolution and the need to describe new things and new invents such as, oxygen, nuclear, protein, bacteria, caffeine, electron, train, electricity, camera, telegraph and others. These words were basically brought from Latin and Greek.
Another crucial point during this period was the colonialism and the British Empire. During this period, Britain ruled almost one quarter of the world and English adopted many foreigner words from other languages and from its colonies, such as boomerang and kangaroo from Australia, thug, jungle, candy and shampoo from India, yoghurt from Turkish, carnival, design, piano and fiasco from Italian and many other words.
You could see here how the history of the English language is fascinating. The most incredible part is that English is still developing and changing. Every year new words are created and become highlights such as, selfie, meme, sharenting, uber, gosh, jomo and others. Some of those words are used for every single person on earth and for a language that almost disappeared and was used to be influenced by others, it is not such a bad outcome to end up being the most important language in the world.