A Short History of the English Language

by Anne Agard

To understand this reading better, also look at the Timeline for the History of English.

Note about European dates:

B.C.E. (Before the Christian Erea) and B.C. (Before Christ) mean the same thing.

C.E. (Christian Era) means the same thing as A.D. ( = Anno Domini, Latin meaning “in the year of the Lord)

The meanings of the terms B.C. and A.D. imply a belief in Christianity, and for that reason many people prefer terms B.C.E and C.E instead.

This is the year 2015 C.E.

500 B.C.E. was 2,565 years ago.

We are now in the 21st century C. E. The 20th century was the 1900’s and the 19th century was the 1800’s. Rome conquered Britain in 55 B.C.E, during the first century B.C.E.

People have lived in Britain for tens of thousands of years, but little is known about their languages prior to about 2500 ago. At that time, the Celtic peoples spread over Europe, and inhabited what is now France, Spain, Germany and England.

This map shows the greatest extent of Celtic settlement.

Celtic languages were spoken in most of Britain for about a thousand years. During the second half of that time, from 55 B.C.E. to the early 5th century C.E., Britain was part of the Roman Empire. During this period, the British Celtic ruling classes became largely Romanized, and spoke Latin and well as their native Celtic language.

This map shows the Roman Empire at its height, in the second century C.E.

After the Roman Empire collapsed about 1600 years ago, Britain was invaded by tribes from the European continent who spoke Germanic languages (that is, languages similar to modern German). The Celtic peoples retreated to the northern and western parts of Britain (Scotland, Ireland and Wales), and the Germanic language known as Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, became the dominant language.

This map shows the part of England controlled by the Anglo-Saxons in 800 C.E.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, Anglo-Saxons fought with and defeated Viking invaders from Scandinavia. The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings spoke closely related languages, and during the 10th century, the two peoples lived together fairly peacefully in many areas, and their languages mixed together.

This map shows the Viking migrations of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries.

Here is an example of what English was like in the 10th century. It is a story about how, hundreds of years before, a pope saw English slaves for sale in Rome, and decided to send Christian missionaries to England:

“Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, “Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon.”

Here is a translation of the text into modern English:

“Again he asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, “Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be angels’ companions in heaven.”

You can see that for a speaker of modern English, Anglo-Saxon is a foreign language.

In 1066, England was invaded by the Normans. The Normans were Vikings who, a few generations before, had settled in France and become French-speakers. French is a language descended from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. After 1066, French became the language of the upper classes in England, and Anglo-Saxon was the language of the conquered people, who became poor laborers and servants. This situation continued for only a few hundred years, however. Most upper-class people spoke both languages because all their servants and workers were Anglo-Saxons, and in many cases a conquering Norman lord took and married an Anglo-Saxon lady from the family who had previously owned the land. The two languages began to mix together, and by the 14th century, most people spoke what is now called “Middle English.” It basically comes from Old English, with a lot of French vocabulary mixed into it. This is a passage from Chaucer, the great 14th-century poet and story-teller

“A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the tyme that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrie,

Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.”

Here it is in modern English:

“A knight there was, and that a worthy man,

That from the time that he first began

To ride out, he loved chivalry,

Truth and honor, freedom and courtesy.”

A native speaker of English can understand some of a Middle English text, but not all of it.

The late 16th and early 17th centuries were the greatest period of English literature. This was the time when Shakespeare wrote, and when the famous King James translation of the Bible was done.

Here is how the 17th century translation of the Bible begins:

“In the Beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

Here is a famous passage from Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.”

You can see that in these passages, English is close to what we speak today. Most native English speakers can understand most of the English from this period, especially if they get help with a few unfamiliar words or phrases.

Since the 17th century, English has continued to change and grow; the biggest change has been the addition of many new Latin and Greek words for new technological and scientific concepts and inventions. Also, British and American English became different, but not as different as many English language learners imagine them to be.

During the late 20th and 21st centuries, English increasingly became an international language of business and technology. New variations of English used by non-native speakers in these fields, for example “Singapore English” and “Indian English” have taken on their own grammatical forms.

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