English has gone through quite a journey. It started as a West Germanic language that came about through dialects, invasions, and borrowing from other languages. It began to form in the 5th century AD and continues to develop until this day as perhaps the most international language. The following paragraphs will explore the progression of English in its initial formation, Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.
The English language can be said to have started with an invasion. This is not surprising since the popularity of a language is often political. According to the Oxford International English Schools, “Three Germanic tribes, the Jutes, Saxons and Angles were seeking new lands to conquer, and crossed over from the North Sea. It must be noted that the English language we know and study through various English language courses today had yet to be created as the inhabitants of Britain spoke various dialects of the Celtic language. During the invasion, the native Britons were driven north and west into lands we now refer to as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales” (“A Brief History of the English Language”). The word “English” originated from the language of the Angles tribe, which spoke “Englisc.” There is little documentation on what the language sounded like before 5th century AD when the Angles came to Britain to invade.
Old English can be said to have started around 450 AD, when it became the predominant language of the Anglo-Saxons. The language was not static, however. Old English had a history about 700 years of usage, and can be divided into three periods:
With the Norman conquest, much changed in the English language. The introduction of French elements into the language and the transformation of its grammar were the most significant. According to Oxford International English Schools, “It was during this period that the English language, and more specifically, English grammar, started evolving with particular attention to syntax. An interesting fact to note is that this period has been attributed with the loss of case endings that ultimately resulted in inflection markers being replaced by more complex features of the language” (“A Brief History of the English Language”). This time was also the period of Chaucer: “the father of English literature.” His Canterbury Tales became so popular that it made English properly compete with the dominant languages in the region at that time: French and Latin. Overall, Middle English was spoken from 1150 AD to about 1500 AD.
Around 1500, a period of great transformation came to the language. According to EnglishClub.com, “Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century, the British had contact with many peoples from around the world.
This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language” (“History of English”). With this added vocabulary and new ways of expression in English, the language became more flexible and potent. After many books of English were printed in London, the language became standardized—especially with the first English dictionary published in 1604 (“History of English”).
In summary, English came from being a West Germanic dialect to a powerful language in its own right through the literature of London, the addition of many loan words, and adaptations to its grammar and syntax. With Chaucer, English became about as popular as French and Latin after the Norman conquest of Britain. But it was not until the 1600s that the language became standardized.
“A Brief History of the English Language.” Oxford International English Schools, 15 Mar. 2019, www.oxfordinternationalenglish.com/a-brief-history-of-the-english-language/.
Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. Routledge, 2012.
“History of English.” EnglishClub, www.englishclub.com/history-of-english/.