A short history of the origins and development of English, from Old English, through Middle English to Late Modern English, plus a series of useful links.
The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders – mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from Englaland and their language was called Englisc – from which the words England and English are derived.
Old English (450-1100 AD)
The greatest Old English poem is Beowulf, which belongs to the seventh century. It is a story of about 3,000 lines, and it is the first English epic (a story in poetry of the adventures of a brave man or men). The name of its author is unknown.
Beowulf is not based upon events in England, but about Hrothgar, King of the Danes, and about a brave young man, Beowulf, from southern Sweden, who goes to help him. Hrothgar is in trouble. His great hall, called Heorot, is visited by night by a terrible creature named Grendel, which lives in a lake and comes to kill and eat Hrothgar’s men. One night Beowulf waits in secret for Grendel, attacks it, and in a fierce fght pulls its arm off! It manages to reach the lake again, but dies there. Then its mother comes to the hall in search of revenge, and the attacks begin again. Beowulf follows her to the bottom of the lake and after a struggle kills her there. Later, as an aged warrior-king, Beowulf has to defend his country against a fire-breathing dragon, guarding a huge treasure. He kills the creature but is badly wounded in the fight, and dies. The poem ends with a sorrowful description of Beowulf’s funeral fire. Here are a few lines of it:
“… alegdon tha tomiddes maerne theoden
laeleth hiofende hlaford leofne
ongunnon tha on beorge bael-fyra maest
wigend weccan wudu-rec astah
sweart ofer swiothole swogende leg
The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what we now call Old English. Old English did not sound or look like English today. Native English speakers now would have great difficulty understanding Old English. 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. Old English was spoken until around 1100.
Middle English (1100-1500)
An example of Middle English from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340(?)–1400)
WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth 5
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye, 10
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende 15
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.
In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England. The new conquerors (called the Normans) brought with them a kind of French, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business classes. For a period there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French. In the 14th century English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English. It was the language of the great poet Chaucer (c1340-1400), but it would still be difficult for native English speakers to understand today.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
A passage from “King Lear” in the 1623 First Folio written in Early Modern English by William Shakespeare.
Sir, I loue you more than words can weild ye matter,
Deerer than eye-sight, space, and libertie,
Beyond what can be valewed, rich or rare,
No lesse then life, with grace, health, beauty, honor:
As much as Childe ere lou’d, or Father found.
A loue that makes breath poore, and speech vnable,
Beyond all manner of so much I loue you.
Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British had contact with many peoples from around the world. This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.
Late Modern English (1800-Present)
The same passage from “King Lear” by William Shakespeare written in Late Modern English
Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter,
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour,
As much as childe e’er loved, or father found.
A love that makes breath poor and speech unable,
Beyond all manner of ‘so much’ I love you.
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.
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