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A Brief History of the English Language

A Biography of the English Language
Picture Credit: “A Biography of the English Language” by jontangerine is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


The Evolution of our Language

English takes its place as one of the world’s predominant forms of communication, with its influence extending over as many as two-billion people globally. The English language has evolved through the centuries and taken onboard thousands of words from overseas exploration, international trade, and the building of an empire. On its journey, it has progressed from signs and sounds to grunts, taking itself from very humble beginnings as a dialect of invading settlers in the 5th century to a global language in the 21st century. The arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD was pivotal in influencing the English language. The tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what we know today as Denmark and Northern Germany.

Until the Germanic tribes arrived, 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 called Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from “Englaland”, and their language was called “Englisc” – from which come the words “England” and “English”.

The English language history has three main periods: Old English (450-1150 AD), Middle English (1150-circa 1500 AD) and Modern English (since 1500). Over the centuries, the English language has been influenced by many other languages. English is actually descended from an ancient parent language now called Proto-Indo-European, spoken about 5,000 years ago in an area north of the Black Sea in southeastern Europe, but that language is no longer spoken. Nobody even really knows what it sounded like. Yet, Proto-Indo-European is believed to be the ancestor of most European languages. These include the languages that became ancient Greek, ancient German and the ancient Latin.

English is a constantly changing language that has been influenced by a plethora of different cultures and languages, such as Latin, French, Dutch, and Afrikaans.

What caused the English language to change over the centuries?

Some of the main influences on the evolution of the English language include:

  • Trade and migration. As trade was conducted, the interaction of cultures caused language shifts to accommodate these changes.
  • Technology and new inventions. New words and phrases were invented to describe things that didn’t exist before.
  •  Old words acquired new meanings.

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry in France
The cloth, over 68 metres long, tells about the Norman conquest of England. Its importance is inestimable as it marks the beginning of French influence on the English language.

Bayeux Tapestry repro - Normans advancePicture Credit: “Bayeux Tapestry repro – Normans advance” by ukdamian is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

What is English?

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 on the internet. It is acknowledged as the most learned and spoken foreign language in the world.

English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian[1] languages brought to Britain in the mid 5th to 7th centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon migrants from what is now northwest Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands.

The four main dialects of English to evolve over time were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish and West Saxon; the last of these formed the basis for the literary standard of the later Old English period[2], although the dominant forms of Middle and Modern English developed mainly from Mercian.

The Anglo-Saxons settled in the British Isles from the mid-5th century and dominated most of southern Great Britain. Their language, now called Old English, originated as a group of Anglo-Frisian languages which were spoken, at least by the settlers, in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages, displacing the Celtic languages (and, possibly, even British Latin) that had previously dominated.

Old English reflected the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established in different parts of Britain. The Late West Saxon[3] dialect eventually became dominant. A significant subsequent influence on the shaping of Old English came from contact with the North Germanic languages spoken by the Scandinavian Vikings who conquered and colonised parts of Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries, which led to much lexical borrowing and grammatical simplification. The Anglian dialects had a greater influence on Middle English.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, Old English was replaced, for a time, by Anglo-Norman[4] (also known as Anglo-Norman French) as the language of the upper classes. This is regarded as marking the end of the Old English or Anglo-Saxon era, as during this period, the English language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman, developing into a phase known now as Middle English[5]. Many Norman and French loanwords entered the local language in this period, especially in vocabulary related to the church, the court system, and the government.

As Normans are descendants of Vikings who invaded France, Norman French was influenced by Old Norse, and many Norse loanwords in English came directly from French. Middle English was spoken to the late 15th century. The system of orthography[6] that was established during the Middle English period is largely still in use today. Later changes in pronunciation, however, combined with the adoption of various foreign spellings, mean that the spelling of modern English words appears highly irregular.

The language we now call English is a blend of many languages. Even the original Anglo-Saxon was itself already a blend of the dialects of west Germanic tribes living along the North Sea coast:

  • The Saxons in Germany and eastern Holland;
  • The Jutes, possibly from northern Denmark (the area now called Jutland); and
  • The Angles, probably living along the coast and on islands between Denmark and Holland.

It is also likely that the invaders intent on occupying Britain included Frisians from northern Holland and northern Franks from southern Holland (whose relatives gave their name to France).  Incredibly, the dialects were close enough for each to understand the other.

Later, in the 800s, the Northmen (Vikings) came to England, mostly from Denmark, and settled in with the Anglo-Saxons from Yorkshire to Norfolk, an area that became known as the Danelaw.  Others from Norway ruled over the people in the northwest, from Strathclyde to the north of Wales.  The Norse language they spoke resembled Anglo-Saxon[7].

Early Modern English[8] – the language used by William Shakespeare – dates from around 1500. It incorporated many Renaissance-era language loans from Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as borrowings from other European languages, including French, German and Dutch. Significant pronunciation changes in this period included the ongoing Great Vowel Shift[9], see below, which affected the qualities of most long vowels. Modern English proper, similar in most respects to that spoken today, was in place by the late 17th century.

History and Evolution of the English Language

English, as we know it today, came to be exported to other parts of the world through British colonisation and is now the dominant language in Britain and Ireland, the United States and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many smaller former colonies and is widely spoken in India, parts of Africa, and elsewhere.

Partially due to influence of the United States and its globalised efforts of commerce and technology, English took on the status of a global lingua franca in the second half of the 20th century – especially true in Europe, where English has largely taken over the former roles of French and (much earlier Latin) as a common language used to conduct business and diplomacy, share scientific and technological information, and otherwise communicate across national boundaries. The efforts of English-speaking Christian missionaries have resulted in English becoming a second language for many other groups.

This picture is reproduced showing how the English language has changed over the years.

History of English - WikipediaPicture Attribution – CelticBrain, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons


Global variation among different English dialects and accents remains significant today. Here are some British dialects that exist today in Britain and, in many cases, use different spellings and word structure[10]:

  • Brummie: the name comes from Brummagem and Bromwichham, both historical alternate names for the large city of Birmingham, where people speak this dialect.
  • Cockney: not completely dissimilar to Essex, the Cockney accent is regarded as a mark of the poorer working classes in the East End of London.
  • Essex: people from Essex have a dialect that is so distinct where they come from is immediately known.
  • Geordie: spoken by people from Newcastle, it is one of the strongest and most distinctive accents in England.
  • RP (Received Pronunciation): the accent of the Home Counties area (the counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex) is closest to what people call Queen’s English, aka Received Pronunciation (RP) or Standard English.
  • Scottish: heavily influenced by the Gaelic language (which is still spoken in certain areas of Scotland) and also the Norse languages from Viking invaders.
  • Scouse: the people from Liverpool are called Scousers (or Liverpudlians), and their dialect (which, like Geordie, is very strong and instantly recognisable) is called Scouse.
  • Welsh: it has a culture and language of its own that’s spoken by half a million people.
  • West Country: the counties of Gloucestershire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall have a dialect considered closest to the old British language of Anglo-Saxon.
  • Yorkshire: the largest county in England, it has a distinctive accent.

The Great Vowel Shift 

The Great Vowel Shift was a series of changes in the pronunciation of the English language that took place mainly between 1400 and 1700, beginning in southern England and has now effectively influenced all dialects of English. Through it, the pronunciation of all Middle English long vowels was changed. Some consonant sounds also altered, particularly those that became silent; the term Great Vowel Shift sometimes includes these consonant changes.[11]

The standardisation of English spelling began in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Great Vowel Shift is the major reason English spellings now often deviate considerably from how they represent pronunciations[12]. The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist, who coined the term. The causes of the Great Vowel Shift are unknown, and although they have been a source of intense scholarly debate, there is no firm consensus. The greatest changes occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries, and its origins are at least partly phonetic. Some suggestions on causes are:

  • Population migration: is the most accepted theory, some scholars have argued that the rapid migration of people to the southeast of England from the East and Central Midlands of England[13] following the Black Death produced a clash of dialects that made Londoners distinguish their speech from the immigrants by changing their vowel system[14].
  • French loan words: Others argue that the influx of French loan words was a major factor in the shift.[15]
  • Middle-class hyper-correction: Yet others assert that because of the increasing prestige of French pronunciations among the middle classes (perhaps related to the English aristocracy’s switching from French to English around this time), a process of hyper-correction may have started a shift that unintentionally resulted in vowel pronunciations that are inaccurate imitations of French pronunciations.[16] – cite_note-9
  • War(s) with France: An opposing theory states that the wars with France and general anti-French sentiments caused hyper-correction deliberately to make English sound less like French.[17]


English Heritage offers this by way of explanation of the names that many places in Britain are called[18]:

Picture Credit: “Lindfield Village Signpost” by Dumphasizer is marked with
CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Look on any map for the names of a town, city, village or hamlet in England and you’ll hear mysterious echoes of our country’s polyglot past. They hint at forgotten Saxon settlers, powerful Norman landowners and long-lost geographical features. In languages as diverse as Celtic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon and French, place names reference hills and rivers, fearsome fortresses and peaceful forest clearings. Many of the original words have been badly mangled by centuries of inept pronunciation and inconsistent spelling – but that usually just adds to their charm. Armed with just a little etymological expertise, you can easily decode common parts of place names. You’ll begin to notice some simple suffixes like ‘ton’ (farm or hamlet), ‘ham’ (village or estate), ‘ly’ or ‘ley’ (wood or a clearing), ‘stow’ (place or meeting place) and ‘bury’ (fort). These might be appended to names of local landmarks like rivers, making the meaning fairly obvious, as with the village of Isham in Northamptonshire. The river Ise is nearby, so Isham simply means ‘the village by the river Ise’.”

For a comprehensive list of British place-name etymology, see HERE.

English Words of Foreign Origin

A full list of English words of foreign origin would be quite lengthy as the English language has borrowed words from many languages. However, there are several notable and interesting English words that have their roots in languages from all over the world, for example:

  • Africa – banana, jumbo, yam, zebra
  • Arabic – safari
  • China – ketchup, pekoe, shanghai
  • Dutch – cookie
  • France – catalogue, essence, gourmet, justice, massage, perfume, regret, terror
  • German – wanderlust
  • Hindi – loot
  • Italian – alarm, ballot, cartoon, cantaloupe
  • Japan – karaoke, tycoon, hibachi, sushi
  • Norway – fjord, krill, ski, slalom
  • Philippines – manilla, ylang-ylang (a flower)
  • Russian – balaclava, kefir, mammoth
  • Sanskrit – guru
  • Spanish – aficionado, cigar, mosquito, patio
  • Wales – corgi (dog), crag, penguin
  • Yiddish – bagel, klutz, spiel

There are comprehensive lists of English words by country or language of origin, with many surprises) at:

Sources, References and Further Reading

This paper is but a Brief History of the English Language. There is much to learn about how our distant ancestors’ grunts and gestures became the rich language we have today. Some of the following sources have been used in this short paper, and suggestions for further reading are provided below:

  1. The Anglo-Frisian languages are the Anglic (English and Scots) and Frisian varieties of West Germanic languages. See:
  2. Old English – the earliest form of the English language – was spoken and written in Anglo-Saxon Britain from c. 450 CE until c. 1150 (thus it continued to be used for some time after the Norman Conquest of 1066).
  3. West Saxon was one of four distinct dialects of Old English. The three others were Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian (the latter two were similar and are known as the Anglian dialects). West Saxon was the language of the kingdom of Wessex, and was the basis for successive widely used literary forms of Old English: the Early West Saxon of Alfred the Great’s time, and the Late West Saxon of the late 10th and 11th centuries. Due to the Saxons’ establishment as a politically dominant force in the Old English period, the West Saxon dialect became the strongest dialect in Old English manuscript writing. See:
  4. When William the Conqueror led the Norman conquest of England in 1066, he, his nobles, and many of his followers from Normandy, but also those from northern and western France, spoke a range of langues d’oïl (northern varieties of Gallo-Romance). One of these was Old Norman, also known as “Old Northern French”. Other followers spoke varieties of the Picard language or western registers of general Old French. This amalgam developed into the unique insular dialect now known as Anglo-Norman French, which was commonly used for literary and eventually administrative purposes from the 12th until the 15th century. It is difficult to know much about what was actually spoken, as what is known about the dialect is restricted to what was written, but it is clear that Anglo-Norman was, to a large extent, the spoken language of the higher social strata in medieval England. See:
  5. Middle English was a form of the English language spoken after the Norman conquest (1066) until the late 15th century. The English language underwent distinct variations and developments following the Old English period. Scholarly opinion varies, but the Oxford English Dictionary specifies the period when Middle English was spoken as being from 1150 to 1500. This stage of the development of the English language roughly followed the High to the Late Middle Ages. Middle English saw significant changes to its vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and orthography (see below). Writing conventions during the Middle English period varied widely. Examples of writing from this period that have survived show extensive regional variation. See:
  6. An orthography is a set of conventions for writing a language, including norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation. See:
  7. Source:
  8. Early Modern English or Early New English is the stage of the English language from the beginning of the Tudor period to the English Interregnum and Restoration, or from the transition from Middle English, in the late 15th century, to the transition to Modern English, in the mid-to-late 17th century. Before and after the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603, the emerging English standard began to influence the spoken and written Middle Scots of Scotland. The grammatical and orthographical conventions of literary English in the late 16th century and the 17th century are still very influential on modern Standard English. See:
  9. See:
  10. Source:
  11. Source: Stockwell, Robert (2002). “How Much Shifting Actually Occurred in the Historical English Vowel Shift?” (PDF). In Minkova, Donka; Stockwell, Robert (eds.). Studies in the History of the English Language: A Millennial Perspective. Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-017368-9.
  12. Source: Denham, Kristin; Lobeck, Anne (2009). Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Cengage Learning. p. 89. ISBN 9781413015898.
  13. Source: Millward, C. M.; Hayes, Mary (2011). A Biography of the English Language (3rd ed.). Wadsworth Publishing. p. 250. ISBN 978-0495906414.
  14. Source: Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature by Martin Montgomery, Alan Durant, Nigel Fabb, Tom Furniss, Sara Mills
  15. Millward, C. M.; Hayes, Mary (2011). A Biography of the English Language (3rd ed.). Wadsworth Publishing. p. 250. ISBN 978-0495906414.
  16. Nevalainen, Terttu; Traugott, Elizabeth Closs, eds. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of the History of English. Oxford University Press. p. 794. ISBN 9780199996384.
  17. See: Asya Pereltsvaig (3rd August 2010). “Great Vowel Shift — part 3”. Languages of the World.
  18. At:

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