History of the English language

From Academic Kids

History of the English language


Old English

Main article: Old English language

Around the 5th century and on, the land of England was invaded by Germanic tribes, primarily the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Their Anglo-Saxon dialects developed into Old English. The most commonly used words today derive from those early Anglo-Saxon roots, but English vocabulary has also been greatly influenced over time.

The introduction of Christianity added the first wave of Latin and Greek words to the language.

Later, it was influenced by Scandinavian invaders who spoke Old Norse, which was probably mutually comprehensible with Old English. Various internal developments within Old English had already been reducing the role of inflections for some time, but the contact with Old Norse accelerated this process, especially in the Northern dialects.

It has been argued that the Danish contribution continued into the early Middle Ages.

The Old English period ended with the Norman conquest, when the language was influenced, to an even greater extent, by the Norman-speaking Normans.

The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of English and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development. According to Lois Fundis, (Stumpers-L, Fri, 14 Dec 2001) "The first citation for the second definition of 'Anglo-Saxon', referring to early English language or a certain dialect thereof, comes during the reign of Elizabeth I, from a historian named Camden, who seems to be the person most responsible for the term becoming well-known in modern times."

Old to Middle English

The Norman conquest had a significant impact on English, changing the spelling, and introducing many new words.

English continued to be the language of the common people, but initially it ceased to be the language of courts and officialdom. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until AD 1154, most other literature from this period was in French or Latin.

Various contemporary sources suggest that within fifty years most of the Normans outside the royal court had switched to English, with French remaining the prestige language largely out of social inertia. For example, Orderic Vitalis, an historian born in 1075 and the son of a Norman knight, said that he only learnt French as a second language.

English literature starts to reappear circa AD 1200, when a changing political climate, and the decline in Anglo-Norman, made it more respectable. By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched back to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in specialised circles for a while longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

In the meantime, the Normans learning English introduced many new words to the language, and French spelling conventions.

Middle and Modern English

Main articles: Middle English and Modern English

By about the time of the Renaissance, the language had evolved into what is known as Middle English, which Modern English speakers can understand with a little difficulty. From the late 1400s, the language changed further into what is described as Modern English, and as a result of the Great Vowel Shift.

Some of the sound changes that occurred during this period include:

  • the loss of /x/, mostly with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel (for example night > , later > by the Great Vowel Shift)
  • the reduction of the initial consonant clusters /kn/, /gn/, /wr/ to /n/, /n/, /r/ (for example know > , wrong > )

English has continued to assimilate foreign words, especially Latin and Greek, even to the present time. As a result of this history of assimilation, English today is commonly believed to have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. As there are many words from different languages the risk of mispronunciation is high. Vestiges of the older forms of English remain in a few regional dialects, notably in the West Country.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary.

Historic English text samples

Old English

Beowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately AD 900

Hwt! We Gar-Dena    in geardagum,
eodcyninga,    rym gefrunon,
hu a elingas    ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing    sceaena reatum,
monegum mgum,    meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.    Syan rest wear
feasceaft funden,    he s frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum,    weormyndum ah,
ot him ghwylc    ara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade    hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan.    t ws god cyning!

Which can be translated as:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!

(translation by Francis Gummere)

Middle English

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffry Chaucer, 14th century

Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury

 Whan that Aprill, 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 eye-
 (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Early Modern English

From Othello by William Shakespeare, 1603

   Iago: Though in the trade of Warre I have slaine men,
         Yet do I hold it very stuffe o'th' conscience 
         To do no contriu'd Murder: I lacke Iniquitie 
         Sometime to do me seruice. Nine, or ten times
         I had thought t'haue yerk'd him here vnder the Ribbes.

Othello: 'Tis better as it is.

Modern English

From the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Thomas Jefferson

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to
dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to 
assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which
the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the
opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel
them to the separation.

See also

External References

ja:英語史 zh:英语历史


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