Development of the English Language – A Short But Comprehensive Guide

You may have been writing and speaking in the English language, but you probably don’t know that the English language, which was preceded by Celtic, belongs to the Germanic languages. The development of the English language started with the invasion of Britain by three Germanic tribes (the Saxons, Angles and Jutes) during the 5th century. At the time of the invasion the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language, however, the invaders successfully pushed most of the Celtic speakers west and north mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

The Angles tribe came from Englaland and spoke the language called Englisc, it is from these that the words England and English were derived. Over time the language became influenced by Germanic, Latin, Scandinavian and French dialects. Here is the breakdown of the development of the English language.

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Old vs Modern English
Old versus modern English

Periods of the English Language

Over the years, there have been 3 main periods of the English language and they are as follows.

  • Old English (450-1100 AD)

The old English was a fusion of the languages of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. The invading tribes spoke similar languages which made it easy to fuse. However, about half of the commonly used words in Modern English today all have Old English roots (English language and Indo-European language Family).

Additionally, modern English speakers would have great difficulty understanding Old English simply because it does not look or sound like English today. The old English remained the main language up until around 1100 AD.

  • Middle English (1100-1500 AD)

Sometime in 1066, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy which is a part of modern France invaded and conquered England. The invasion led to the change of language in the royal court, the conquerors brought with them a kind of French. As they were the new ruler, the version of French they brought with them became the language of the Royal Court, the ruling and business classes.

This change in language brought about a kind of linguistic class division in which the upper classes spoke French and the lower classes were left speaking English. However, in 1204, the French lost control of England thereby resulting in the gradual emergence of English as the literary language once again.

The English language became dominant in Britain once again with the addition of many French words. The language was later termed middle English. It is more similar to modern English than the old English but it will still be difficult for the modern English speaker to understand. Also, middle English was the language of Chaucer (the great poet).

  • Modern English

Modern English is further divided into two periods namely: early modern English and late modern English

Early modern English (1500-1800)

At the end of middle English, there were several changes that occurred to the language which accounts for the particular form of English spelling and pronunciation we have today. The vowels began to be pronounced shorter and shorter it was referred to as the Great Vowel Shift. The Great Vowel Shift and the Renaissance of Classical learning led to many new words and phrases entering the language.

This period was the time that vocabulary of English took on the form which it exhibits today as the words on loan from French were consolidated as well as the whole series of new classical loan-words from Greek and Latin, were adopted into the language.

Furthermore, the invention of printing was the indication that there is now a common language in print. Printing led to the standardization of English as spelling and grammar became fixed.

Late Modern English (1800-Present)

The difference in vocabulary is the major thing that separates Early Modern English from Late Modern English as Late Modern English has many more words. The reasons for the increase in words is due to two principal factors which are:

    • The Industrial Revolution and technology led to several advances and discoveries in science and technology, thereby causing a need for new words phrases, and concepts to describe these ideas and inventions (learn about the firsts in English)
    • The British Empire at its height covered one-quarter of the earth’s surface, thereby leading to the English language adopting foreign words from many countries.

Periods of the English language

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