History of the English Language

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Scholars have argued over the origin of language offering such theories as the "bow-wow," the "pooh-pooh," and the "go-go." Presently there is no clearly accepted theory about its beginning.

?3000-2000 B.C. Indo-European language was the foundation of many modern languages including English. Similarities such as "mother"/"mater"/"madre" encouraged linguists to work back through the languages which had such words in common. From this process they concluded that there once had been a common language although there is no written record of this language. One of the important ways this was done was through the recognition of sound changes such as "p" to "f" or "v" recorded by Jacob Grimm and known as Grimm's Law.

From about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 450 Celts were the predominant tribe of people living in England. However, from evidence such as Stonehenge, it is clear that there were people inhabiting the island before them. The Celts possessed an early Indo-European language, but it does not appear to have been extensively incorporated into the language of the Anglo-Saxon arrivals, but place names such as "Kent" do survive in modern English.

Beginning about A.D. 50, Romans arrived in England and provided protection to the Celts until 410. From the language of the Romans, Latin may have been incorporated into the Celtic language, but little of it survives from this period. Place names with the suffix "chester," meaning camp, are evidence of their influence.

Between 450 and 1100, Old English was established with the arrival of Anglo-Saxon tribes consisting of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. They spoke a Germanic form of Indo-European. As the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons became the predominant force in England. From this group, the foundation of modern English was begun. Their government in the form of a clan consisted of two classes: the eorls and ceorls. They had a strong oral tradition recited by scops or poets. Their written language was in the form of runes which did not lend itself to sustained forms of writing necessary for literature to be recorded.

The arrival of Christian missionaries in 600 led by Augustine sent by Pope Gregory added another Latin or Roman influence. Begun at Canterbury, Christianity spread quickly through the island. Missionaries brought Roman and Greek myths as well as religious terms to the language. Monks in monasteries recorded the oral literature of the language printing Anglo-Saxon literature by hand and illuminating it as a form of art.

Viking or Norse invasions from 800 added place names ending in "by" such as "Derby" and words beginning with the "sc" sound such as "scatter" and "skill." They also brought Norse mythology to the language.


Anglo-Saxon English was characterized by a deep guttural sound. A word's use was determined by its ending rather than its location within the sentence. Words were compounded as a means of expanding a limited vocabulary. Forms of letters no longer in use made their language appear quite different from modern English. These consisted of the letters "" used in place of "a," and the letters "___" and "___" used instead of "th." The "th" of "the" and the "th" of "that" were treated as separate sounds. In addition, "sc" was pronounced as "sh" and "c" was pronounced as a "k." There were four major dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, and West Saxon (the dialect of the Beowulf author).

The movement to Middle English is dated from the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The French or Norman takeover by William the Conqueror changed the social structure into one consisting of an upper class speaking French, a lower class of serfs speaking Anglo-Saxon, and the clergy speaking Latin. Because the language was divided along class lines, interesting changes in the language occurred. Certain words of French origin were used to designate a term in a more refined or "polite" way while the same term of Anglo Saxon origin came to be considered more vulgar or less refined. An example would be "pork" and "swine."

In time, this meshing of languages resulted in a softened sound. In addition, the language became simpler. The position of a noun in a sentence, rather than the ending attached to the noun, determined its usage. Verbs were weakened meaning only an "ed" was added to change their tense rather than requiring a separate form. The major dialects consisted of Northern, West Midland, East Midland, Kentish, and Southern. London was located in the East Midland area, and this dialect became in time to be dominant over the others. Since Chaucer was from London, The Canterbury Tales is closer to modern English than writing of the same period which comes from another region.

Beginning in 1500, what is considered Modern English began to appear. With the introduction of the printing press in 1476 by William Caxton, consistency in spelling and usage became more common. Shakespeare's London was the center of commerce and literature and so was its form of the language. By 1600 spellers were in use; by 1700 Latinate grammars had been developed to give rules to usage; and by 1800 Noah Webster's dictionary began to formalize American English. Additions to the language have been made by the influence of such diverse groups as American Indians, Orientals, and computer hackers. The diversity has created a language rich in synonyms and new vocabulary. Today there are more than 600,000 words included in the English language.

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