The Evolution of the English Language
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The Evolution of the English Language

The article discusses the evolution, development and stages of the English language.Detailed history and examples are also provided.
 English is a West Germanic language that originated from various dialects brought to Britain by invaders from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the Netherlands. Initially, ‘Old English’ was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England (Angles and Saxons being names of the members of the Germanic people). One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate.

The original Old English language was then influenced by two further waves of invasion: the first by speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language family, who conquered and colonized parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries; the second by the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. These two invasions caused English to become "mixed" to some degree.

Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Germanic core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance languages (Latin-based languages). This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a "borrowing" language of great flexibility, resulting in an enormous and varied vocabulary.

Old English (500-1100 AD)

The invaders' Germanic language displaced in some areas the indigenous Brythonic languages of what became England. The original Celtic languages remained in parts of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (where Cornish was spoken up to the 19th century). The dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxons formed what is now called Old English. The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is the epic poem Beowulf composed by an unknown poet.

Old English did not sound or look like the Standard English of today. Any native English speaker of today would find Old English unintelligible without studying it as a separate language. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English; and many non-standard dialects such as Scots and Northumbrian English have retained many features of Old English in vocabulary and pronunciation. Old English was spoken until sometime in the 12th or 13th century.

Later, English was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Old Norse, spoken by the Norsemen who invaded and settled mainly in the north-east of England. The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distinct.

The Germanic language of these Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by contact with Norse invaders, which might have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). English words of Old Norse origin include anger, bag, both, hit, law, leg, same, skill, sky, take, and many others, possibly even including the pronoun they.

The introduction of Christianity added another wave of Latin and some Greek words. The Old English period formally ended sometime after the Norman conquest (starting in 1066 AD), when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the Norman-French speaking Normans. The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development.

Middle English (1100-1500 AD)

For about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only one of the Anglo-Norman languages, which was a variety of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period and originating from a northern dialect of Old French, whilst English continued to be the language of the common people. Middle English was influenced by both Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French.

Even after the decline of Norman, French retained the status of a formal or prestige language and had (with Norman) a significant influence on the language, which is visible in Modern English today. A tendency for Norman-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day; most modern English speakers would consider a "cordial reception" (from French) to be more formal than a "hearty welcome" (Germanic). Another example is the very unusual construction of the words for animals being separate from the words for their meat: e.g., beef and pork (from the Norman bœuf and porc) being the products of 'cows' and 'pigs', animals with Germanic names. English was also influenced by the Celtic languages it was displacing.

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. The most famous writer from the Middle English period was Geoffrey Chaucer, and The Canterbury Tales is his best-known work. English literature started to reappear around 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 since the Conquest. In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English. By the end of that 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. 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.

Early Modern English (1500-1800 AD)

Modern English is often dated from the Great Vowel Shift, which took place mainly during the 15th century. This was a change in pronunciation that began around 1400. Vowel sounds began to be made further to the front of the mouth and the letter "e" at the end of words became silent. In Middle English name was pronounced "nam-a," five was pronounced "feef," and down was pronounced "doon." In linguistic terms, the shift was rather sudden, the major changes occurring within a century. The shift is still not over; however, vowel sounds are still shortening although the change has become considerably more gradual.

English was further transformed by the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardising effect of printing. By the time of William Shakespeare (mid-late 16th century), the language had become clearly recognizable as Modern English. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published, the Table Alphabeticall. English has continuously adopted foreign words, especially 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.

Modern English (1800-present)

In 1755, Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary, his Dictionary of the English Language. The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the Earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

Also significant beginning around 1600 AD was the English colonization of North America and the subsequent creation of American English. Some pronunciations and usages "froze" when they reached the American shore. In certain respects, some varieties of American English are closer to the English of Shakespeare than modern Standard English ('English English' or as it is often incorrectly termed 'British English') is. Some "Americanisms" are actually originally Standard English expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost at home (e.g., fall as a synonym for autumn, trash for rubbish, and loan as a verb instead of lend).

The American dialect also served as the route of introduction for many Native American words into the English language. Raccoon, tomato, canoe, barbecue, savanna, and hickory have Native American roots, although in many cases the original Indian words were mangled almost beyond recognition. Spanish has also been great influence on American English. Mustang, canyon, ranch, stampede, and vigilante are all examples of Spanish words that made their way into English through the settlement of the American West. A lesser number of words have entered American English from French and West African languages.

Likewise dialects of English have developed in many of the former colonies of the British Empire. There are distinct forms of the English language spoken in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other parts of the world.

To illustrate the differences between these forms of English, a few sample texts of each form is given below.

First, Old English, as seen in the epic poem Beowulf :

Hwæt! W? G?r-Dena in ge?rdagum,

þ?odcyninga,þrym gefr?non,

h? ð? æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Sc?fing sceaþena þr?atum,

monegum m?gþum, meodosetla oft?ah,

egsode eorlas. Syððan ?rest wearð

f?asceaft funden, h? þæs fr?fre geb?d,

w?ox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þ?h,

oðþæt him ?ghwylc þ?ra ymbsittendra

ofer hronr?de h?ran scolde,

gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs g?d cyning!

As it can be seen, this form of English is completely unintelligible to the modern reader.

The Middle English form, seen in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is shown next, which is more intelligible, with some words that elude understanding:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open yë

(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Some of the words and their meanings;

soote: sweet , swich licour: such liquid, Zephirus: the west wind, eek: also

holt: wood, the Ram: Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac, yronne: run

priketh hem Nature: Nature pricks them, hir corages: their hearts

The Early Modern English was the language of William Shakespeare and John Milton, among others. Here’s an extract from Paradise Lost by John Milton:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,

Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,

In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth

Rose out of chaos: or if Sion hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God, I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,

That with no middle Flight intends to soar

Above the Aonian mount, whyle it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

And lastly, Modern English as seen in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist:

"Please, sir, I want some more."

The master was a fat, healthy man, but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder, and the boys with fear.

"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.

"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle, pinioned him in his arms, and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

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