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The History of the English Language

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extract beowulf

At the sight of the above quotation, you would not probably believe that it is in English. Some could even say it is German if they listened to it[1]. However, it is English –in its first stage.

Where does English come from? Has it derived from the old inhabitants of the British Isles’ languages, that is, the Celtic languages? Why does English seem to have so many words that can be understood by French people and other speakers of Romance languages?

Not a Celtic Legacy

The Celts, a nomadic people of Indo-European language, inhabited the British Isles long before our common era. But their influence in the English language is close to zero. The Celtic languages, though, can be seen in the modern Irish (Gaelic), Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton.

The current territory of England became part of the Roman Empire as the Province of Britannia in 43 AD. The Romans dominated England for about 400 years, but then abandoned the island as the Barbarians threatened the Empire. Feeling defenceless and bound to be attacked, the Celts invited the Jutes to settle in the east coast of Britain so that they “protected” them from raids, and in turn, they could settle in the south. But soon other Germanic tribes began to arrive.

AlfredAngles, Saxons, and Jutes then took dominance of the island, pushing the Celts into current Wales[2] and Scotland. The territory became known as Englaland (from “Angla-land”, the Land of the Angles), referring to the three peoples collectively.

The invading tribes spoke variations of a West Germanic tongue. In time, the formerly uncivilised seafaring invaders began to settle in the land as farmers. The newcomers were even Christianised by the year 597 AD. By this time, the ancient runic alphabet used by the Anglo-Saxons, designed to be carved on stone, was replaced by the Latin alphabet, with the addition of some new letters, taken from the runes, to represent particular sounds of “Englisc.” Some Latin words were also added to the language, especially Church related terms. The first known instances of English literature were written in this period. One of them has recently become famous due to its 2007 film: Beowulf.

Towards the end of the 8th century, after a series of battles, the Vikings invaded Britain, both geographically and linguistically. Many Scandinavian terms were introduced into the English language, and grammar was also affected by this interaction.

Norman Conquest and Middle English

The Norman Conquest was, in my opinion, the event that had the greatest impact on the English language. William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066. Normans_BayeuxAlong with him came Norman noblemen who established in the island. For about 300 years, French was the language of the upper classes while the people continued to speak Anglo-Saxon. This duality can still be seen, for example, in the fact that animals in the field, the ones farmed by the English, kept their English names, such as sheep, cow, pig, etc., but the meals were enjoyed by the Norman nobles, so they are called lamb, beef, pork, etc. Both languages, however, were developed, and some 10,000 words of French origin were added into English, most of which can still be found in Modern English. Pronunciation became much softer, and grammar was simplified[3].

French could have become the language of the people as well, had it not been for the Hundred Years War against France. The more they stayed in Britain, the more the noblemen started to see themselves as English. Besides, French came to be seen as the language of the enemy. English literature of the time, as well as John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible (1384), evidence this revival of English as a national language.

Many words from Greek and Latin were also incorporated during the Renaissance, and many writers and Bible translators are given credit for adding new words to the language as well (representatives of these groups are Shakespeare and Tyndale).

The introduction of the printing press in England helped enormously in the unification and standardization of the many English dialects that were spoken throughout England. Dictionaries and Grammars started to be published, as well as newspapers and cheaper books, which allowed the lower classes to have access to readings.

Modern English Language

The Industrial Revolution, originated in England, and the many discoveries and innovations that continue to this day have contributed many words to English, or given new meanings to already existing words.


The English language has continued to be influenced by foreign cultures. The British Empire expansion and colonialism created contact with many and diverse cultures, which provided the language with many new words. Australasian peoples, India and other Asian nations, the many African tribes, and even Native American and Canadian inhabitants as well as the black slaves in the independent United States… all of these have influenced the English with new terms that could reflect their different customs and traditions.

To this day, English continues to be flexible –a language in constant change which gets richer and richer.

What do you think? Why has English become the most studied language in the world? Will it continue to be so? Your opinions and suggestions are welcome! Did you enjoy the article? Like it and share it with your friends!

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[1] The extract belongs to the first lines of Beowulf. You can listen to it here.

[2] Actually, “Wales” comes from Germanic “weales” (meaning “foreigners”), which the invaders used to refer to the Celts.

[3] Anglo-Saxon language was highly inflectional, hence word order was not important. In the following link, you can find an interesting video about the Germanic and Romance aspects of the English language:

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