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A Brief History of the
English Language


The English language belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest to English language are Scots and Frisian. Frisian is a language spoken by approximately half a million people in the Dutch province of Friesland, in nearby areas of Germany, and on a few islands in the North Sea.

The English language history has three main periods: Old English (450-1100 AD), Middle English (1100-circa 1500 AD) and Modern English (since 1500). Over the centuries, the English language has been influenced by many other languages.

Old English (450 - 1100 AD): During the 5th Century AD, from various parts of what today is northern Germany and Denmark, three Germanic tribes - Angles, Saxons, and Jutes crossed the North Sea and came to the British Isles. These three tribes pushed out most of the Britons, Celtic-speaking inhabitants from England into Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. One group of them moved to the Brittany Coast of France where today their descendants still speak the Celtic Language of Breton.

Through the years, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes mixed their different Germanic dialects. This group of dialects forms what linguists refer to as Old English or Anglo-Saxon. The word "English" was in Old English "Englisc", and that derives from the name of the Angles. The Angles were named from Englaland, their land of origin, from which is the word "England".

Before the envasion of the Germanic tribes, 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 (54-5BC). Celtic tribes lived there in the Iron Age for more than 500 years until the arrival of the Romans. 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), belt (belt), weall (wall). ("Language Timeline", The British Library Board)

The influence of Celtic upon Old English was slight. In fact, very few Celtic words have lived on in the English language. But many of place and river names have Celtic origins: Kent, York, Dover, Cumberland, Thames, Avon, Trent, Severn.

In 597 AD St. Augustine was sent to England by the pope Gregory the Great. The arrival of St. Augustine and the introduction of Christianity into Anglo-Saxon England brought more Latin words into the English language. They were mostly related with the naming of Church dignitaries, ceremonies, etc. Some, such as church, bishop, baptism, monk, eucharist and presbyter came indirectly through Latin from the Greek.

Around 878 AD Danes and Norsemen, also called Vikings, invaded the country and English got many Norse words into the language, particularly in the north of England. The Vikings, being Scandinavian, spoke a language (Old Norse) which, in origin at least, was just as Germanic as Old English.

Words derived from Norse include: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window (wind eye), husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they, their, them. ("The Origin and History of the English Language", Kryss Katsiavriades)

From the Old English period several written works have come to us. The most famous is a heroic epic poem called "Beowulf" but the name of the person who wrote it is unknown. "Beowulf" is the oldest known English poem and it is remarkable for its length - 3,183 lines.

Middle English (1100-circa 1500 AD): In 1066 AD William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England with his armies and became king. The French became the language of the rulling class. The Old French took over as the language of the administration, court, and culture. Latin was mostly used for written language, especially that of the Church.

By about 1200, England and France had split. English changed a lot, because it was mostly being spoken instead of written for about 300 years. The use of Old English came back, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English. Most of the words embedded in the English vocabulary are words of power, such as crown, castle, court, parliament, army, mansion, gown, beauty, banquet, art, poet, romance, duke, servant, peasant, traitor and governor. ("Language Timeline", The British Library Board)

Because the English underclass cooked for the Norman upper class, the words for most domestic animals are English (ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, deer) while the words for the meats derived from them are French (beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, venison). ("The Origin and History of the English Language", Kryss Katsiavriades)

The Middle English is also characterized for the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift. It was a massive sound change affecting the long vowels of English. Basically, the long vowels shifted upwards; that is, a vowel that used to be pronounced in one place in the mouth would be pronounced in a different place, higher up in the mouth. The Great Vowel Shift occurred during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" is an emblematic example of Middle English. It is a collection of stories about a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury, England. The Tales give us information of what life was like in fourteenth century England.



Modern English (1500 to the present): In 1476, William Caxton, an English merchant, diplomat, and writer set up the England's first-ever press in The Almonry area of Westminster. The first book known to have been printed there was Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Caxton became the first English retailer of printed books. At that time the Bible and some other valuable manuscripts were printed. The invention of the printing press helps books to be available to more people. The books became cheaper and more people learned to read.

Shakespeare wrote during the period now known as Early Modern English (1500–1700). Shakespeare invented over 1700 of English common words such as dawn, moonbeam, elbow, green-eyed, etc. Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall was the first dictionary and in it he listed and defined just 3000 words. The dictionary was published in 1604.

At the time of the English Renaissance many 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 age of Shakespeare" or "the Elizabethan era". During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, considered by many historians to be the golden age in English History, there was flourishing of the culture - support of art, poetry, music, literature, and theatre, popularization of the printing press, as well as massive amounts of sea travel.

During the Industrial Revolution in England (which began early in the eighteenth century) new technical words entered the English language as inventors created various products and machinery. They were named after the inventor or given the name of their choice: train, engine, reservoir, pulley, hydraulic, condenser, electricity, telephone, telegraph, camera, etc. (See more words)

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, for 200 years Britain was an Empire. English language continued to change as the British Empire reached to all corners of the world: the North America, Australia, New Zealand, India, some other countries in Asia, and Africa. While people who settled and lived there interacted with natives, new words were added to the English vocabulary. For example, 'kangaroo' and 'boomerang' are native Australian Aborigine words, 'juggernaut' and 'turban' came from India. (See more borrowings from different languages.)

English continues to change and develop, with hundreds of new words arriving every year. But even with all the borrowings from many other languages the heart of the English language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. The grammar of English is also distinctly Germanic - three genders (he, she and it) and a simple set of verb tenses.

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