The English language is classified under the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Its history is conventionally, if not neatly, classified into three main periods namely Old English (450-1100AD), Middle English (1100-circa 1500) and Modern English (since 1500). It’s however important to note that like many languages, the English language has been influenced by a variety of other languages over the centuries.
The Germanic settlers spoke a dialect which came to be known as Anglo-Saxon, now more commonly known as Old English. It ended up displacing the Latin of the former Roman rulers as well as the indigenous Brittonic Celtic in many of the areas of Britain that later became Kingdom of England. And while large numbers of compound Celtic-German place names still survive thus hinting at early language mixing, the truth remains that Celtic language remained in parts of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Local variation continued to affect Old English and remnants of this are still evident in Modern English. The main dialects of Old English were West Saxon, Kentish, Northumbrian and Mercian.
Futhorc was a runic script that was used to write Old English. It was soon replaced by Latin alphabet version that was introduced in the 9th century by Irish missionaries. The Early West Saxon of Alfred the Great’s time or the late West Saxon was the main forms of literary output. The poem Beowulf composed by an anonymous poet is the most famous surviving work from the period of Old English.
The addition of 400 Latin loan words to the Old English language was inspired by introduction of Christianity from around 600. Some of the words introduced at this time include predecessors of paper, school and priest as well as a number of Greek loan words. The northern and eastern parts of England were subject to Old Norse influence particularly due to settlement and rule of the Scandinavians.
Old English is today considered by many native English speakers as unintelligible, regardless of the fact that most of the Modern English words owe their roots to Old English. Compared to Modern English, the grammar of Old English featured a great deal of inflection and in many ways similar to German grammar.
This is a form of English that was spoken starting at the time of Norman Conquest which occurred in 1066 till the end of the 15th century. Anglo-Norman was spoken for centuries after the conquest by England’s high ranking officials as well as the Norman Kings. It was also spoken in British Isles. Many lower ranked nobles and merchants were bilingual and spoke both English and Anglo-Norman. The English language was considered one spoken only by the commoners. Anglo-Norman and Anglo-French were both major influencers of Middle English. French and Anglo-Norman were the language spoken by governments and in courts until the 14th century. With the decline of the Norman French, French was now considered a prestigious language.
At this time more than 10,000 French words were introduced to Middle English and most of these had more or less to do with food, military, fashion, law, church and government. Old Norse was a major influence of the Middle English and so were the native British Celtic languages. Some scholars have been known to argue that Middle English was a creole language that arose due to contact between Old English and either Anglo-Norman or Old Norse.
The reemergence of English literature in 1200’s signaled a change in the political climate as well as a decline in Anglo-Norman. This made English more respectable. In 1258, Provisions of Oxford became the first government document to be published in English since the Norman Conquest. Parliament was first addressed in English by King Edward III. While official records remained in Latin, English was made the only language that could be used during court proceedings by the Pleading in English Act of 1362. Official documents began being written or produced in the English language in the 15th century. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is the most famous literary work of Middle English period.
A tone of changes in pronunciation, spelling and grammar affected the English language during this period. An overall diminishing of grammatical endings occurred while grammar distinctions were lost since many adjective endings and nouns were leveled to –e. The plural marker –en gave way to –s while grammatical gender was done away with.
Early Modern English underwent many changes particularly when it came to sound. The spelling conventions however remained for the most part constant. The history of Modern English dates back to the Great Vowel Shift, which occurred during the early 15th century. The standardized effect of printing, as well the spread of a standardized London-based dialect in administration and government played a vital role in transformation of the language. Self-conscious terms such as dialect and accent were thus developed. It was clearly recognizable as Modern English by mid-16th and early 17th centuries during the time of William Shakespeare. The first English dictionary known as Table Alphabeticall was published in 1604.
Adoption of many foreign words including borrowings from Greek and Latin during the Renaissance period was facilitated by increased travel and literacy. And because English spelling is highly variable and many words are borrowed from dozens of languages, the probability of mispronunciation is high.
The Dictionary of the English Language was the first authoritative dictionary to be published in 1755. It helped standardize word usage and spelling of English. Other texts that came afterwards that helped prescribe standard usage can be attributed to Lowth, Murray and Priestly just to name a few.
Both Early Modern English and Late Modern English vary in vocabulary. However, Late Modern English has more words as compared to Early Modern English. This can be attributed to technology and Industrial Revolution which created a demand for more words as well as international development of language. The English language acquired many words from various parts of the world at a time when the British Empire conquered and ruled over a quarter of the earth’s surface.
There are two major varieties of Modern English spoken today namely American English and British English and the total number of English speakers worldwide is estimated to be more than one billion.