The history of the English language

By Ricardo Schutz *


The English Language is the result of a complex history rooted in a faraway past.

There are signals of human presence in the British island much before the last ice age, when same had not yet become separated from the European continent. This recent geological phenomenon, which occurred more than 7,000 years ago, has also isolated the people who lived there on the disconcerting movements and on the obscurantism that characterized the early times of the Middle Age in Europe.

Archeological sites prove that the humid lands the Romans came to call Britain had already sheltered a fortunate culture 8,000 years before, even though little is known about it.

The Celtic

England’s history starts with the Celtic.

Around the year 1,000 B.C., after many migrations, several Indo-European language dialects becomes distinct groups of language, having the Celtic language as one of the main ones. The Celtic has populated regions that are currently known as Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and England and theirs even became the main language group all over Europe. It is thought that this group was originated from populations already inhabiting the European continent at the Bronze Age.

Roman Presence

Personally headed by Julio Caesar, the first recognized Roman invasions took place in 55 and 54 B.C. In 44 A.C., at the time of Emperor Claudius, the third invasion occurs. That is when the British island is attached to the Roman Empire as far as the border with Caledonia (current Scotland) and Latin starts to influence the Celtic-British culture.

The Anglo-Saxons

Due to the difficult times the Empire went through, Roman legions abandon Britannia in 410 A.C., leaving the Celtic inhabitants alone with their enemies (Scots and Picts). Since Rome did not have any military force for defense, the Celtics ask the Germanic tribes (Jutes, Angles, Saxons e Frisians) for help in 449 A.C. Such tribes, however, take the opportunity and become invaders, by settling down in the most fertile lands in Southeastern Great Britain, ruining villages and massacring the local populations. The surviving British Celtics take refuge in the West. A proof of the invaders’ violence is the fact that there is hardly any trace of the Celtic language left in the English one.

What will come to give rise to English is the Germanic dialects spoken by the Anglos and the Saxons. The word England, for instance, comes from Angle-land (land of the Angles). From then on, the English language history is split into three periods: Old English, Middle English and Modern English. The first half of the 1st century, when the German invasions occurred, tracks the beginning of the period called Old English.

Introduction to Christianity

In 597, the church sends missionaries led by Saint Augustine to convert the Anglo-Saxon into Christianity. The process occurs gradually and pacifically, marking the initial influence of Latin on the German language from the Anglo-Saxons, origin of the modern English. This influence occurs in two ways: introduction of a new vocabulary referring to religion and adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary to cover new areas of meaning. The need to reproduce texts from the bible also represents the commencement of the English literature.

The introduction of Christianity has also represented the rejection of Celtic cultural elements and their association with witchery. The current observation of Halloween on the night of October 31st is a reminiscent example of the Celtic culture from the viewpoint of Christianity.

By that time, England was divided into seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Old English, then spoken, was not actually a single language, but a variety of different dialects.

The dialects of the ancient English before Christianity were functional languages to describe tangible facts and meet the daily communication requirements. The vocabulary of Greek-Latin origin introduced by Christianity expanded the Anglo-Saxon language in the direction of abstract concepts.

By the end of 8th century, the first Vikings attacks against England take place. Originally from Scandinavia, these people made use of violence and their attacks provoked destruction in many regions over Europe. The Vikings  established in England were predominantly native from Denmark and spoke Danish. This period of over 200 years of the Danish presence in England naturally exerted some influence on Old English. However, due to the similarity between the two languages, it becomes difficult to accurately determine this influence.

Old English

Old English, sometimes also called Anglo-Saxon, in comparison with modern English, is an almost unrecognizable language in the pronunciation, as well as in vocabulary and grammar. For a native English speaker today, out of the 54 words of Our Father in Old English, less than 15% are recognizable in writing, and nothing would probably be recognizable if pronounced. The correlation between pronunciation and spelling, however, was much more closer than in the modern English. Grammatically, the differences are also substantial. In Old English, nouns decline and have gender (male, female and neutral), and verbs are conjugated.

The conquest of England by the Normans in the Hastings Battle

The Hastings Battle in 1066 was an event of great importance in the history of England. Not only did it represent a drastic political reorganization, but it also changed the traces of the English language, launching a new era.

The battle was fought between the Norman army, under the command of William, Duke of Normandy (North France) and the Anglo-Saxon army leaded by King Harold, in October 14th 1066.

The predecessor of Harold had had strong bonds with the court of Normandy and supposedly promised the throne of England to the Duke of Normandy. After his death, however, the council of the kingdom indicated Harold as the successor, causing William to appeal to war as a way to impose his intended rights.

The bloody battle was not over before the end of the day, with the King Harold and his brothers dead and a score of 1500 to 2000 warriors dead on the Norman side and too many others on the English side.

In a few days, William had conquered a victory that the Roman, Saxon and Danish had long and hardly been fighting to achieve. He had conquered a country with a million and a half inhabitants and probably the richest country in Europe then. For this achievement, he became known in history as William the Conqueror.

The regime thereafter established was characterized by the centralization, power, and naturally, by the language of the conquerors: the French dialect denominated Norman French. William himself did not speak English and, by the time of his death in 1087, there wasn’t a single region in England that wasn’t controlled by a Norman.

During the following 309 years, mainly in the first 150 ones, the language used by England’s aristocracy was French. Speaking French became the condition to those of Anglo-Saxon origin longing for a social ascent through gentleness and favors by the dominant class.

Middle English

The most important element of that period, which corresponds to Middle English, was undoubtedly the strong presence and influence of the French language on English. This true transfusion of French-Norman culture into the Anglo-Saxon nation, which lasted for three centuries, resulted mainly in a considerable contribution of vocabulary – nothing else. It points that even the strongest influence of a language places upon another, such influence usually does not go farther than enriching vocabulary, hardly affecting pronunciations or grammatical structure.

The centuries went by and the quarrels that happened between the Normans from the British islands and those from the continent, induced a new national feeling and, around the end of the 15th century, it had already become evident that English had prevailed. Even as a written language, English had already replaced French and Latin as the official language for documents. A new national literature was also starting to emerge.

A lot of new vocabulary was incorporated when new administrative, political and social concepts were introduced to words without any equivalents in English. In some cases, however, there were already some German-derived words, which either disappeared or co-existed with originally French equivalents, initially as synonyms, but over time, assuming different connotations. Examples:

Anglo Saxon






























In addition to the French influence on its vocabulary, Middle English was also characterized by the gradual loss of declination, the neutralization and loss of tonic vowels in the end of words and by the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift.

The Great Vowel Shift

A remarkable change when pronouncing English vowels occurred mainly during the 15th and 16th centuries. Nearly all vowel sounds, including diphthongs, suffered alterations and some consonants were no longer pronounced. In a general manner, the changes on the vowels corresponded to a movement towards the extreme spectrum of the vowels, like the exemplified in the graphic below.


Pronunciation before the 15th century

Modern Pronunciation






House or Haws


De-d (similar to dedo, in Portuguese)

Deed or Diyd


Fa-me (similar to the current pronunciation of father)



S’o (similar to the current pronunciation of saw)



To (similar to the current pronunciation of toe)


The sound system of the English language vowels before the 15th century was very similar to that of the other languages from Western Europe, including current Portuguese. Thus, the current lack of correlation between orthography and pronunciation of the Modern English mainly noticed in the vowels is greatly a consequence of that change occurred in the 15th century.

Modern English

While the Middle English was characterized by a remarked diversity of dialects, the Modern English represented a time of language standardization and merger. The advent of press in 1475 and the creation of a postal system in 1516 enabled the dialect spoken in London – already a political, social and economical center of England – to diffuse. Still, the availability of printed materials also led to education, turning the alphabet accessible by the middle class.

The reproduction and dissemination of a finally standardized spelling, however, coincided with the period in which the Great Vowel Shift was still in place. From this time on, the changes occurred in pronunciation were not joined by spelling reforms, revealing thus a conservative character of the English culture. That’s where the origin of the current lack of correlation between pronunciation and spelling in Modern English lies. D´Eugenio explains what happened as follows:

“The process to standardize the English language began in the early 16th century with the advent of lithography and ended up having the present forms determined during the 18th century when Samuel Johnson’s dictionaries was published in 1755, Thomas Sheridan’s was published in 1780 and John Walker’s one in 1791. Ever since, the English spelling has changed in only small details, while its pronunciation suffered great changes. The result is that today we have a spelling system based on the language as it was spoken in the 18th century being used to represent the pronunciation of the language in the 20th century”

Just like the first dictionaries were used to standardize spelling, the first works describing the English grammatical structure influenced the use of the language and brought some grammatical uniformity. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the emersion and the final incorporation of the auxiliary verb do in interrogative and negative sentences take place. Since the 18th century, the use of double negative words in a same phrase began to be considered incorrect, as in the example: She didn’t go neither.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616) represented a strong influence in the development of a literary language. His immense work is characterized by both the creative use of an existing vocabulary and the creation of new words. Nouns transformed into verbs and verbs into adjectives, as well as the free addition of suffixes and prefixes and the use of the figure language are frequent in Shakespeare’s works.

At the same time as literature was getting developed, the British colonialism of the 19th century was leading the English language to remote spots around the world, allowing contact with different cultures and enriching to the English vocabulary once more.

From the beginning of the Christian era to the 19th century, 6 languages were spoken in England: Celtic, Latin, Old English, Norman French, Middle English and Modern English. Such diversity of influences explains the fact that English is a less systematic language and less regular, when compared to Latin languages and even German.

American English

The longing for freedom of religion and the hope to achieve prosperity were the main determining factors of the North American colonization. The arrival of the first English immigrants in 1620 symbolizes the establishment of the English language presence in the New World.

At the time of the United States’ Independency, in 1776, when the national population reached around 4 millions, the North American dialect already showed distinct characteristics in comparison with those of the British islands. The contact with the reality of a new environment, with the native Indian cultures, with the Spanish from the surrounding regions colonized by Spain and with the enormous quantity of immigrants from the most varied parts of the world, stimulated a development in the wide British vocabulary.

Today, however, the differences between British and North American dialects are basically in pronunciation, as well as in small differences of vocabulary. Unlike to what happened between Brazil and Portugal, the United States of America and England have maintained strong cultural, commercial and political bonds. On the other hand, for 4 centuries, the Portuguese language has been developed into two substantially different dialects in Portugal and Brazil, the differences between the British and the North American dialects are less significant.

English as the world language

Recent historical facts explain the current role of English as the world language.

1. The economic power of England in the 19th century, levered by the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent expansion of the British colonialism, has reached a huge geographical area and forced an intense spreading of the English language;

2. The political-military power of the United States after the World War II and the remarkable economical and cultural influence has replaced French as the dominant language, initially in the diplomatic field and later that in commercial, industrial areas and others. It has put English in a solid and standard position in international communications; and,

3. The swift worldwide technological and industrial development, mainly driven by the North American science, turned the planet into a “global village”. Concepts of “information”, “super highway”, “global village”, etc, started being used to characterize a world in which a common language of communication is essential.

Chronological summary

10.000 – 6.000 B.C. – Archeological sites assure the presence of men in the lands found still linked with the European continent and that the Romans later would name as Britain.

1.200 – 500 -{}-a.C. – The Celtics settled down in Europe and the British islands.

55 e 54 a.C. – First Roman incursions for recognition, under the command of Julius Caesar.

44 A.D. – Roman legions, at the time of Emperor Claudius, invade and attach the main British island.

50 A.D. – Romans found Londinium by the borders of Thames.

410 A.D. – Roman legions abandon the British islands to defend Rome against the barbarian attacks.

450 – 550 A.D. – German tribes (Angles and Saxons) inhabit Britannia after the Roman legions migrated. Start of the Old English time.

500 – 1100 – Time corresponding to Old English.

465 A.D. – Legendary King Arthur’s likely birth date.

597 A.D. – Saint August and his missionaries arrive to convert the Anglo-Saxons into Christianity. It’s the beginning of the first period of Latin influence on the Anglo-Saxon language.

600 A.D. – England is now divided into 7 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

787 – 1000 A.D. – Scandinavian attacks (Vikings).

871 A.D. – King Alfred’s coronation, the king of Western Saxons, renowned as the King of England after sending the Vikings away.

1066 – Hastings Battle, the Norman French led by William defeat Harold and conquer England, yielding a period of 350 years of strong French influence over English.

1100 – 1500 – Time corresponding to Middle English.

1204 – King John, King of England, conflicts with the French King Philip, stressing the upcoming of a new time to value the English nationalist feeling.

1300 – Robert of Gloucester references the English languages as a language still spoken in English by “low people” only.

1362 – English is for the first time used in the opening of the British Parliament.

1400 – 1600 – Time when the change of vowels occur more intensely (Great Vowel Shift).

1475 – Advent of press, causing spelling to be standardized and leading to the dissemination of the spelling form of the London dialect.

1500 to today – Time corresponding to Modern English.

1516 – Henrique VIII creates the first posting system in England.

1564 – William Shakespeare’s birth.

1611 – The British church publishes King James Bible, what exerted an enormous influence in the language then.

1620 – The Pilgrims arrive at the North America and settle down in the Colony of Plymouth.

1755 – Samuel Johnson publishes A Dictionary of the English Language, providing English language with stability.

1762 – Bishop Robert Lowth publishes Short Introduction to English Grammar, the first influential English language grammar.111

1776 – United States’ Independence Declaration.

1700 – 1900 – Industrial Revolution, which levered the economic power in England, allowing the British colonialism to expand and the subsequent colonialism of the English language in the 19th century.

1945 – End of the World War II, symbolizing the beginning of a period of US political-military force and a subsequent and final economical, political and cultural influence until the present times.

1980 – 1990 – Sprouting of Internet.


Crack, Glen Ray. Battle of Hastings 1066 <;. Online. June, 27,  de 2001.

Crane, L. Ben, Edward Yeager and Randal L. Whitman. An Introduction to Linguistics. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1981.

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

D’Eugenio, Antônio. Major Problems of English Phonology. Foggia, Italy: Atlântica, 1982.

Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. Microsoft, 1997.

McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford, 1992.

Wallbank, T. Walter, Alastair M. Taylor and Nels M. Bailkey. Civilization Past and Present. Scott, Foresman & Co., 1962.

Other sites about the English history

English Made in Brazil – Bigger center of studies and forum of debates on English in the Brazilian Internet.

Merriam-Webster’s History of English – The excellent Merriam-Webster’s version of the history of the English language.

English Through the Ages – Very complete text plenty of linguistic information and sample texts in Old and Middle English.

History of English – Another collection of links about the history of English by the University of Joensuu, Finland.

* Ricardo Schutz, bachelor in Business administration and Law, mestrado in TESL (Teaching English the a Second Language) for Arizona State University.

This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The history of the English language

  1. Robert C says:

    I liked this article. Well written, excellent summary.

  2. Aham Al Shishani says:

    Well done, great work ,& I find it useful :).

  3. Pingback: The 100 most spoken languages on the world « World’s Observatory

  4. Glory says:

    I appreciate the way you summarized it

  5. owen c says:

    its shit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s