History of English
The English language is spoken by 750 million people in the
world as either the official language of a nation, a second language,
or in a mixture with other languages (such as pidgins and creoles.) English
is the (or an) official language in England, Canada, Australia and New
Zealand; however, the United States has no official language.
Indo-European language and people
English is classified genetically as a Low West Germanic language of
the Indo-European family of languages. The early history of the Germanic
languages is based on reconstruction of a Proto-Germanic language that
evolved into German, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, and the Scandinavian
In 1786, Sir William Jones discovered that Sanskrit contained many cognates
to Greek and Latin. He conjectured a Proto-Indo-European language had
existed many years before. Although there is no concrete proof to support
this one language had existed, it is believed that many languages spoken
in Europe and Western Asia are all derived from a common language. A few
languages that are not included in the Indo-European branch of languages
include Basque, Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian; of which the last three
belong to the Finno-Ugric language family.
Speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) lived in Southwest Russia around
4,000 to 5,000 BCE. They had words for animals such as bear or wolf (as
evidenced in the similarity of the words for these animals in the modern
I-E languages.) They also had domesticated animals, and used horse-drawn
wheeled carts. They drank alcohol made from grain, and not wine, indicating
they did not live in a warm climate. They belonged to a patriarchal society
where the lineage was determined through males only (because of a lack
of words referring to the female's side of the family.) They also made
use of a decimal counting system by 10's, and formed words by compounding.
This PIE language was also highly inflectional as words had many endings
corresponding to cases.
The spread of the language can be attributed to two theories. The I-E
people either wanted to conquer their neighbors or look for better farming
land. Either way, the language spread to many areas with the advancement
of the people. This rapid and vast spread of the I-E people is attributed
to their use of horses for transportation.
The subgroup of Germanic languages contains many differences that set
them apart from the other I-E languages.
1. Grimm's Law (or the First Sound Shift) helps to explain the
consonant changes from P-I-E to Germanic.
- a. Aspirated voiced stops became Unaspirated voiced stops (Bʰ,
dʰ, gʰ became b, d, g)
- b. Voiced stops became Voiceless stops (B, d, g became p, t, k)
- c. Voiceless stops became Voiceless fricatives (P, t, k became f,
θ, x (h))
Verner's Law explains other exceptions that Grimm's law does not include.
2. Two Tense Verbal System: There is a past tense marker (-ed)
and a present tense marker (-s) on the verb (without using auxiliary verbs.)
3. Weak Past Tense: Used a dental or alveolar suffix to express
the past (such as -ed in English, -te in German, or -de in Swedish.)
4. Weak and Strong Adjectives: Each adjective had a different
form whether it was preceded by a determiner or no determiner.
5. Fixed Stress: The stress of words was fixed on the first syllable.
6. Vowel Changes (Proto Germanic)
- Short o to short a (Latin: hortus, English: garden)
- Long a to long o (Latin: mater, OE: modor)
7. Common Vocabulary: Words developed that hadn't been used before,
such as nautical terms (sea). Others include rain, earth, loaf, wife,
meat and fowl.
Old English (449 - 1066 CE)
The Old English language (also called Anglo-Saxon) dates back to 449
CE. The Celts had been living in England when the Romans invaded. Although
they invaded twice, they did not conquer the Celts until 43 CE and Latin
never overtook the Celtic language. The Romans finally left England in
410 CE as the Roman Empire was collapsing, leaving the Celts defenseless.
Then the Germanic tribes from the present-day area of Denmark arrived.
The four main tribes were the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. These
tribes set up seven kingdoms called the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy that included:
Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Wessex, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia. Four
dialects were spoken in these kingdoms: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian and
Northumbrian. The Celts moved north to Scotland, west to Ireland and south
to France, leaving the main area of Britain.
In 731 CE, Bede wrote the "Ecclesiastical History of the English
People" in Latin. It detailed the sophisticated society of the Germanic
tribes. They had destroyed the Roman civilization in England and built
their own, while dominance shifted among the kingdoms beginning with Kent
and Northumbria. They aligned with the Celtic clergy and converted to
Christianity. Laws and contracts were written down for a sense of permanence
and control. The Tribal Hidage, a list of subjects who owed tribute to
the king, was written during the Mercian period of power.
Alfred the Great was the king of Wessex from 871-899 while Wessex was
the dominant kingdom. During his reign, he united the kingdoms together
and commissioned the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, a historical record of important
events in England that continued 200 years after his death. Alfred also
settled a truce with the Vikings who repeatedly invaded the area. The
Treaty of Wedmore was signed in 878 CE and this "Danelaw" gave
the northeast half of England to the Danes for settlement. However, because
the languages were so similar, the Danes quickly assimilated and intermarried
into the English society.
Although the Danes brought their own writing system with them, called
the Futhorc, it was not used in England. It is commonly referred to as
Runes. The Insular Hand was the name of the writing system used in England,
and it contained many symbols that are no longer found in Modern English:
the aesc, thorn, edh, yogh and wynn, as well the macron for distinguishing
Characteristics of the Old English language
The Germanic tribes were exposed to Latin before they invaded England,
so the languages they spoke did have some Latin influence. After converting
to Christianity, Latin had more influence, as evidenced in words pertaining
to the church. Celtic did not have a large impact on English, as only
a few place names are of Celtic origin, but Danish (Old Scandinavian)
did contribute many vocabulary words.
Nouns could be of three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter; but these
were assigned arbitrarily. Numbers could be either singular or plural,
and there were four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.
In all, there were seven groups of declensions for nouns.
The infinitive of verbs ended in -an. In the present tense, all verbs
had markers for number and person. The weak past tense added -de, while
the strong past tense usually involved a vowel change. Old English also
had many more strong verbs than modern English.
Adjectives could be weak or strong. If preceded by a determiner, the
weak ending was added to the adjective. If no determiner preceded the
adjective, then the strong endings were used. They also agreed in gender,
case and number with the nouns they described. The comparative was formed
by adding -ra to the adjective, while the superlative had many endings:
-ost, -ist, -est, and -m. Eventually the -ost and -m endings combined
to form the word "most" which is still used before adjectives
in the superlative today.
Adverbs were formed by adding -e to the adjective, or -lic, the latter
which still remains in modern English as -like.
The syntax of Old English was much more flexible than modern English
becase of the declensions of the nouns. The case endings told the function
of the word in the sentence, so word order was not very important. But
as the stress began to move to the first syllable of words, the endings
were not pronounced as clearly and began to diminish from the language.
So in modern English, word order is very important because we no longer
have declensions to show case distinctions. Instead we use prepositions.
The general word order was subject - verb - object, but it did
vary in a few instances:
1. When an object is a pronoun, it often precedes the verb.
2. When a sentence begins with an adverb, the subject often follows the
3. The verb often comes at the end of a subordinate clause.
Pronunciation was characterized by a predictable stress pattern on the
first syllable. The length of the vowels was phonemic as there were 7
long and 7 short vowels. There were also two front rounded vowels that
are no longer used in modern English, [i:] and [ɪ:]. The i-mutation
occurred if there was a front vowel in the ending, then the root vowel
became fronted. For example, fot becomes fot+i = fet
(This helps to explain why feet is the plural of foot.)
Pronunciation of consonants:
|between voiced vowels
|next to a front vowel
|next to a front vowel
between other vowels
|at beginning of word
|between voiced vowels
|between voiced vowels
Middle English (1066 - 1500 CE)
The period of Middle English begins with the Norman invasion of 1066
CE. King Edward the Confessor had died without heirs, and William, Duke
of Normandy, believed that he would become the next king. However, upon
learning that Harold was crowned king, William invaded England, killed
Harold and crowned himself king during the famous Battle of Hastings.
Yet William spoke only French. As a result, the upper class in England
began to speak French while the lower classes spoke English.
But by 1250 CE, French began to lose its prestige. King John had lost
Normandy to the French in 1204 CE, and after him, King Edward I spoke
only English. At this time, many foreigners entered England which made
the nobility feel more "English" and so encouraged more use
of the English language. The upper class tried to learn English, but they
did still use French words sometimes, which was considered somewhat snobbish.
French still maintained its prestige elsewhere, and the upper class did
not want to lose it completely. Nevertheless, the Hundred Year's War (1337-1453
CE) intensified hatred of all things French. The Black Death also played
a role in increasing English use with the emergence of the middle class.
Several of the workers had been killed by the plague, which increased
the status of the peasants, who only spoke English. By 1362 CE, the Statute
of Pleading (although written in French) declared English as the official
spoken language of the courts. By 1385 CE, English was the language of
instruction in schools. 1350 to 1400 CE is known as the Period of Great
Individual Writers (most famously, Chaucer), but their works included
an apology for writing in English.
Although the popularity of French was decreasing, several words (around
10,000) were borrowed into English between 1250 and 1500 CE (though most
of these words were Parisian rather than Norman French). Many of the words
were related to government (sovereign, empire), law (judge, jury, justice,
attorney, felony, larceny), social life (fashion, embroidery, cuisine,
appetite) and learning (poet, logic, physician). Furthermore, the legal
system retained parts of French word order (the adjective following the
noun) in such terms as fee simple, attorney general and accounts payable.
Characteristics of Middle English
The writing system changed dramatically in Middle English:
- þ and ð were replaced by th (and sometimes y, as in ye
- c before i or e became ch
- sc became sh
- an internal h was added after g
- hw became wh
- cw became qu
- the new symbols v and u were added; v was used word initially, and
u was used everywhere else
- k was used much more often (cyning became king)
- new values were given to old symbols too; g before i or e was pronounced
ǰ; ʒ became j, and c before i and e became s in some cases
- a historical h (usually not pronounced) was added to some words (it
was assumed that these words had once begun with an h): honor, heir,
honest, herb, habit
- sometimes words were written with o but pronounced as [ʊ] but
later were pronounced [ʌ]: son, come, ton, some, from, money, honey,
front, won, one, wonder, of
Because of the stress shift to the beginning of the word, Middle English
lost the case suffixes at the ends of nouns. Phonological erosion also
occurred because of this, and some consonants dropped off while some vowels
became əand dropped off too. The generalized plural marker became
-s, but it still competed with -n.
Verb infinitives dropped the -an ending, and used "to" before
the verb to signify the infinitival form. The third person singular and
plural was marked with -(e)th; but the singular also competed with -(e)s
from the Northern dialect. More strong (irregular) verbs became weak (regular)
Adjectives lost agreement with the noun, but the weak ending -e still
remained. The comparative form became -er and the superlative became -est.
Vowels tended to be long in the adjective form, but short in the comparative
form (late - latter). The demonstratives these and those were added during
this period. And the adverb ending -lič became -ly; however, some
"flat" adverbs did not add the -ly: fast, late, hard.
The dual number disappeared in the pronouns, and the dative and accusative
became the object forms of the pronouns. The third person plural pronouns
replaced the old pronouns with th- words (they, them, their) borrowed
from Scandinavian. She started being used for the feminine singular subject
pronoun and you (plural form) was used in the singular as a status marker
for the formal.
Syntax was stricter and more prepositions were used. New compound tenses
were used, such as the perfect tenses, and there was more use of the progressive
and passive voice. The use of double negation also increased as did impersonal
constructions. The use of the verbs will and shall for the future tense
were first used too. Formerly, will meant want and shall meant obliged
- Loss of initial h in a cluster (hleapan - to leap; hnutu - hut)
- [w] lost between consonant and back vowel (w is silent in two, sword,
- [č] lost in unstressed syllable (ič - I)
- [v] lost in middle of words (heofod - head; hæfde - had)
- Loss of final -n in possessive pronouns (min fæder - mi fæder)
and the addition of -n to some words beginning with a vowel (a napron
- an apron, a nuncle - an uncle)
- Voiced fricatives became phonemic with their voiceless counterparts
- [ž] phoneme was borrowed from French as the voiced counterpart
- Front rounded vowels merged with their unrounded counterparts
- Vowel length became predictable (lost phonemic status); an open syllable
with no consonant following it contained a long vowel, while a closed
syllable with at least one consonant following it contained a short
In addition, there were dialectal differences in the north and south.
The north used -(e)s for the plural marker as well as for the third person
singular; and the third person plural pronouns began with th- (borrowed
from Scandinavian). The south used -(e)n for the plural, -(e)th for the
third person singular, and h- for the third person plural pronouns. The
north used [a] and [k] while the south used [o] and [č] for certain
words. Eventually, the northern dialect would become the standard for
modern English regarding the grammatical endings, but the southern pronunciation
of [o] and [č] would also remain.
Early Modern English (1500 - 1650/1700 CE)
William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476 and the
East Midland dialect became the literary standard of English. Ten thousand
words were added to English as writers created new words by using Greek
and Latin affixes. Some words, such as devulgate, attemptate and dispraise,
are no longer used in English, but several words were also borrowed from
other languages as well as from Chaucer's works. In 1582, Richard Mulcaster
proposed in his treatise "Elementaire" a compromise on spelling
and by 1623, Henry Cockrum published his English dictionary.
Characteristics of Early Modern English
Adjectives lost all endings except for in the comparative and superlative
forms. The neuter pronoun it was first used as well as who as a relative
pronoun. The class distinctions between formal and informal you were decreasing,
so that today there is no difference between them. More strong verbs became
weak and the third person singular form became -(e)s instead of -(e)th.
There was a more limited use of the progressive and auxiliary verbs than
there is now, however. Negatives followed the verb and multiple negatives
were still used.
The Great Vowel Shift (1400-1600) changed the pronunciation of all the
vowels. The tongue was placed higher in the mouth, and all the verbs moved
up. Vowels that were already high ([i] and [u]) added the dipthongs [aj]
and [aw] to the vowels of English.
Several consonants were no longer pronounced, but the spelling system
was in place before the consonant loss, so they are still written in English
today. The consonants lost include:
- Voiceless velar fricative lost in night; pronounced as f in laugh
- [b] in final -mb cluster (dumb, comb)
- [l] between a or o and consonant (half, walk, talk, folk)
- [r] sometimes before s (Worcestershire)
- initial clusters beginning with k and g (knee, knight, gnat)
- [g] in -ing endings (more commonly pronounced [ɪn])
Finally, assibilation occurred when the alveolars [s], [d], [t], and
[z] preceded the palatal glide [j], producing the palatal consonants:
[š], [ǰ], [č], [ž]
Early Grammarians (18th Century)
A proposal for an Academy of the English Language was first brought forth
by Jonathan Swift in 1712, but the Parliament voted against it. Nevertheless,
several grammarians wrote dictionaries and grammar books in a prescriptive
manner - telling people what to do or not to do with the language. Samuel
Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was published
in 1755 and Robert Lowth's Introduction to English Grammar appeared
in 1762. Early grammarians felt that language should be logical, therefore,
the double negative was considered incorrect (two negatives equal one
positive) and should not be used. They also didn't like shortened or redundant
words, borrowing words from other languages (except Latin and Greek),
split infinitives, or prepositions at the end of the sentence.
A more scientifically minded attitude took hold by the 19th century when
the Oxford English Dictionary was proposed in 1859. It was to be a factual
account of every word in the English language since 1000 including its
main form, pronunciation, spelling variations, part of speech, etymology,
meanings in chronological order and illustrative quotations. The project
was begun in 1879 under its first editor, James AH Murray. The first edition
was published in 1928, with supplements in 1933 and 1972-6. The second
edition was published in 1989 and it recognized American and Australian
English, as the International Phonetic Alphabet for pronunciation.
Beginnings of Modern English
In England, several changes to English had occurred since 1700. These
include a loss of the post-vocalic r (so that the r is only pronounced
before a vowel and not after); an increase in the use of the progressive
tenses; and a rise in class consciousness about speech (Received Pronunciation.)
Since 1900, a very large amount of vocabulary words has been added to
English in a relatively short period. The majority of these words are
related to science and technology, and use Greek and Latin roots.
Immigrants from Southeastern England began arriving on the North American
continent in the early 1600's. By the mid-1800's, 3.5 million immigrants
left the British Isles for the United States. The American English language
is characterized by archaisms (words that changed meaning in Britain,
but remained in the colonies) and innovations in vocabulary (borrowing
from the French and Spanish who were also settling in North America).
Noah Webster was the most vocal about the need for an American national
identity with regards to the American English language. He wrote an American
spelling book, The Blueback Speller, in 1788 and changed several
spellings from British English (colour became color, theatre became theater,
etc.) In 1828, he published his famous American Dictionary of the
Dialects in the United States resulted from different waves of immigration
of English speakers, contact with other languages, and the slave trade,
which had a profound impact on African American English. A dialectal study
was done in 1920 and the findings are published in the Linguistics
Atlas of the U.S. and Canada.
English around the World
Although the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
have English as an official language, the United States does not have
an official language. This is how it's possible to become a US citizen
without speaking English. Canada also has French as an official language,
though it is mostly spoken in the province of Quebec. Because many of
the English speakers who originally inhabited Canada came from the US,
there is little difference in the American and Canadian dialects of English.
Similarly, Australian and New Zealand English have few differences, except
Australia was originally settled as a penal colony and New Zealand was
not. New Zealanders were more attached to the Received Pronunciation of
the upper class in England, so their dialect is considered closer to British
Cockney (and its Ryhming Slang) is an interesting dialect of English
spoken in London's east end. The initial h of words is dropped, glottal
stops are used frequently and labiodentals are used in place of interdentals.
The Rhyming Slang refers to a word by referring to two things, the last
of which rhymes with what is being referred to. For examples, money is
"bees and honey," gloves is "turtle doves," suit is
"whistle and flute" and trouble is "Barney Rubble."
Even more confusing, sometimes the second word (which rhymes with the
word being referred to) is omitted, so that money is called just "bees."
British colonialism has spread English all over the world, and it still
holds prestige in South Africa, India, and Singapore, among other nations.
In South Africa, English became an official language, along with Afrikaans
and 9 African languages, in the 1996 constitution. However, only 9.6% of
the country's 51 million people are native English speakers (2011 census). Twenty percent
are descendants of Dutch farmers who speak Afrikaans, and the rest are
native Africans. Although the British won the Boer Wars of 1899-1901 against
the Dutch farmers (the Boers), Britain still promised the Boers self-government
under the Union of South Africa. By 1948, these Afrikaners won state elections
and remained in power through the 1990's. Apartheid (which segregated
the Afrikaners and Africans) officially ended under Nelson Mandela's reign,
and although Afrikaans was the language used more often, the Africans
wanted English as the official language. Hence the compromise of 11 official
India became an independent from Britian in 1947, and the English language
was supposed to be phased out by 1965. However, today English and Hindi
are the official languages. Indian English is characterized by treating
mass nouns as count nouns, frequent use of the "isn't it?" tag,
use of more compounds, and a different use of prepositions. In Singapore,
Chinese, Malay and Indian languages have an impact on the form of English
spoken. Everyone is taught English in the school system, but there are
a few differences from British English as well. Mass nouns are treated
as count nouns, "use to" means usually, and no articles are
used before occupations.
Creoles of English can be found on the coast of West Africa, China, and
on islands of the Pacific and Caribbean (especially the West Indies.)
Originally, these creoles were pidgins so that English-speaking traders
could conduct business. Over time, they became the native languages of
the children and evolved into creoles.
(Source: A History of English by Barbara A. Fennell)