History of English - Learn more about the history of the English language - Introduction to Linguistics - ielanguages.com

History of English

Learn more about the history of the English language. If you are teaching English as a second language, my free ESL lesson plans are available to download. If you are learning English, check out English vocabulary for my recordings as well as Yabla and FluentU for language learning through videos and subtitles. If you want to learn even more English, I suggest the English courses at Udemy.

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 languages.

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.

Germanic Languages

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 long vowels.

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 verb.

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:

f v
between voiced vowels
c č
next to a front vowel
g j
next to a front vowel
between other vowels
h h
x, ç
at beginning of word
s z
between voiced vowels
ð ð
between voiced vowels
r trilled
sc š
cg ǰ

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 meaning the)
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) as well.

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 to.

Pronunciation changes:

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, answer)
[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 for [š] 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 vowel

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.


American English

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 English Language.

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 English.

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 languages.

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.

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Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at ielanguages.com.