Have you ever wondered how English, with approximately 750,000 words, developed into the wonderfully detailed and complex language that it is today?
Unlike languages that developed within the boundaries of one country (or one distinct geographical region, like Iceland, Lithuania, and Latvia), English, since its beginnings 1,600 or so years ago, evolved by crossing boundaries and through invasions, thus picking up words and phrases from other languages along the way.
The English language can be divided up into three distinct periods, Old English, Middle English, Modern English and Late Modern English.
Old English (450-1100 AD)
Before the Saxons, the language spoken in what is now England was a mixture of Latin and various Celtic languages which were spoken before the Romans came to Britain (during 54-55 BC). The Romans brought Latin to Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire for over 400 years. Many of the words passed on from this era are those coined by Roman merchants and soldiers. These include win (wine), candel (candle), weall (wall).
During the 5th century AD three Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) came to the British Isles from various parts of north-west Germany as well as Denmark. These tribes pushed out most of the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants from England into Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. One group even migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants still speak the Celtic language of Breton today.
Around 878 AD Danes and Norsemen, also called Vikings, invaded the country and introduced many Norse words into the language, particularly in the north of England. Words derived from the Norse language include: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window, husband and many more.
A famous text during this period is Beowulf, an epic poem about the great adventures of a Scandinavian explorer during the 6th Century AD, the writer is unknown.
Middle English (1100-1500)
In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England. The new conquerors, called the Normans, brought with them the French language, which in turn became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business classes.
During the Middle Ages three languages were spoken in England: the lower classes spoke their native Anglo-Saxon language, the upper classes spoke Norman French, whereas Latin was mainly used by the Church and was deemed the language of learning.
Eventually, in the 14th century English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words, such as crown, castle, court, parliament, army, beauty, banquet, art, poet, romance, duke, servant, peasant, traitor and governor.
Given that the English underclass cooked for the Norman upper class, the words for most domestic animals are English (ox, cow, calf, sheep, pig, deer), while the words for the meats derived from them are French (beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, venison).
The most famous example of Middle English is Thomas Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories about a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury, England. The portraits that he paints in his tales give us an idea of what life was like in medieval England.
Modern English (1500-1900)
Modern English developed after William Caxton established his printing press at Westminster Abbey in 1476. Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany around 1450, but Caxton set up England’s first press.
The invention of the printing press made books available to more people. Books also became cheaper and more of the population learned to read. Printing also standardized the English language, so that the spelling and grammar became fixed.By this time, English was not very different from the English we use today.
There were three key developments in the world at the beginning of the Modern English period which influenced the English Language: the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and British colonialism.
It was during the English Renaissance that most of the words from Greek and Latin entered English. This period in English cultural history (early 16th century to the early 17th century) is sometimes referred to as ‘the Elizabethan age’ or ‘the age of Shakespeare’, named after the English Renaissance’s most important monarch and most famous author respectively. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there was an explosion of culture in the form of support of the arts, popularization of the printing press, and explorations.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), famous English playwright gave the English language many phrases and sayings, which English speakers still use every day. A few examples are ‘The world is my oyster’; ‘off with his head!’; ‘laughing stock’; ‘seen better days’.
At almost the same time as Shakespeare, came the printing of the widely used King James edition of the Bible in 1611. This was significant, as for almost the first time, anyone who could read had access to the Bible in their own language.
The Industrial Revolution in England began in the 18th century. This also had a significant effect on the development of the language as new words had to be invented or existing ones modified to cope with the rapid changes in technology.
These words were named after the inventor or were given the name of their choice (trains, engine, pulleys, combustion, electricity, telephone, telegraph, camera).
We mustn’t forget that Britain was a colonising empire for 200 years between the 18th and 20th centuries and the English language continued to change as the British Empire moved across the world – to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, India, Asia and Africa. They sent people to settle and live in their conquered places and as settlers interacted with indigenous people, new words were added to the English vocabulary. For example, kangaroo and boomerang are native Australian Aborigine words, pukka and turban came from India, coffee and cotton are Arabic words.
Late Modern English (20th century onwards)
Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the USA’s dominance of telecommunications and popular culture. However, there are many other varieties of English around the world, including for example Australian English, African English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English, and Caribbean English. With this increasing diversity, words from many other languages have been borrowed. So English continues to change and develop, with hundreds of new words arriving every year.