At NCG, we allow you to study English in any of our specialist colleges, by enrolling on a English speaking course in some of the most outstanding student cities, like Liverpool, Dublin and Manchester – so it’s no surprise that we’re fascinated by the language.
From its ancient origins to today’s dynamic and adaptive communication tool, the history of the English language is varied and intriguing.
We want to take you on a brief journey from its origins, through to Old and Middle English, all the way to today’s Modern tongue, to explore how the language has evolved and thrived throughout the ages.
The original origins of the English language, like many others in Europe, can be traced all the way back to the Neolithic Period around 5000 BC, to a prehistoric people known as the Indo-Europeans or Proto-Indo-Europeans.
These ancient people lived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and it’s widely thought that many of the world’s modern languages are descended from the Indo-European language, including those throughout most of Europe, North and South America.
Indo-Europeans began to spread across Europe and Asia around 3500-2500 BC, as a result their languages began to diverge and develop. A particular branch settled in the regions of Germania, between modern Germany, and southern Sweden – and became known as Germanic, or Proto-Germanic. These Germanic tribes eventually migrated from the continent to Britain.
The ancient lexicon of Britain certainly began to change with this invasion of Germanic Tribes. Before that it had already been diluted over the centuries, starting with the earliest understood inhabitants of Britain, known as the Celts, through to the Latin of the Romans, and the Old Norse language of Viking invaders.
Gradually the Germanic tribes had settled over most of the mainland, separating into smaller kingdoms. To this day, many modern day place names still provide evidence of their settlements, like Reading, ending with the Anglo-Saxon “ing” – meaning “people of, and many more.
Eventually, one kingdom became the most dominant, the Saxons. This new Anglo-Saxon nation was known by a few names, notably as Britannia under the Romans, but was soon called Anglaland or Englaland, later shortened to England. It’s thought by many historians that what’s now referred to as Old English, emerged around this time.
Old English gradually developed into four distinct dialects, Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish. There are still a few words in Old English that are recognisable or even identical in spelling to words used today.
Him, he, for, on, and, of – are just a few examples of words that have retained the same spelling – whilst others bare some resemblance to their modern meanings, such as wæs to was and wæreto were.
After many centuries of transition – from the coming of literacy with St. Augustine and his Roman missionaries, through to the time of huge Viking invasions and Alfred the Great – Old English was constantly changing, expanding and progressing with lexical enrichment. It had gradually developed into a full poetic language, complete with alliteration, synonyms, subtleties of meaning and more.
It wasn’t until the Norman Conquest of 1066, that Old English began to transition into what’s now known as Middle English. William the Conqueror and the invading Normans spoke a rural dialect of French, with Germanic influences – called Anglo-Norman French.
A huge section of the country’s population at this time, mainly the peasants and lower class, still spoke English. The mix of Old English and Anglo-Norman slowly grew as the people speaking them started to intermarry, and Middle English was the result. The Normans introduced thousands of words into the English language, along with many French-based synonyms, like amity instead of friendship, or liberty instead of freedom.
Old English began to breakdown, but despite the Viking and Norman lexical re-shuffles, the English language proved resilient, and still emerged as the dominant speech of the country some 200 years after the Norman Conquest.
From the beginnings of modern English literature with Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous “Canterbury Tales” in the early 1380s, to the Great Vowel Shift that extended from the sixteenth century to the modern day – English slowly developed into the language we now recognise.
The vowel pattern revolution effectively redistributed their occurrence in many words, with higher long vowel sounds that were pronounced further forward in the mouth – similar to their present pattern. Entire words changed as a result of the difference in pronunciation, a few examples include, stone from stan, heart from herte, and rope from rap.
Innovations continued with the vocabulary, the 16th and early 17th centuries witnessed the English Renaissance, which included massive Elizabethan and Shakespearean influences. Another major factor in English development also came with one of history’s greatest technological innovations, the arrival of the printing press. This saw further Latin and Greek influences on the lexicon, and more importantly stabilised spelling and grammar.
Distinctive dialects later developed as English mixed with other cultures all over the globe, largely in colonised areas.
The modern day English language is now chock full of annoying inconsistencies, along with inexplicable differences in spelling and pronunciation, largely due to the rich and complex history that we’ve only really scratched the surface of here.
Many will agree that it remains one of the most influential and important languages in the world today. English has proven itself to be an extremely flexible and resilient language, that’s been constantly able to evolve and adapt itself to other vocabularies and cultures.
It has absorbed and survived invasions and incursions, saved itself from being wiped out on numerous occasions, and has only ever gotten stronger – evidenced by its sheer worldwide diversity to this day.