Latest Research 19th Century Masterfile


A Brief History of the English Language

english-language.jpg

Language is in a constant state of evolution. All of the words we use daily found their way into the modern lexicon via a distinct history. The history of how English came to look and sound the way it does today gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of how cultures interact with and influence one another.

English Pre-History

In order to get an idea of the start of the English language, we can go back to the Indo-European language. An ancient language probably spoken by people living in northeastern Europe around 3000-2000 B.C., the Indo-European influence can be heard in German, Greek, and Sanskrit, as well as English. The conquests and occupations of foreign cultures upon Britain, each bringing their own language, have built off of Indo-European to create something distinct over the years.

Anglo-Saxon

In the 5th century AD, three Germanic tribes came to Britain: The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. They brought with them similar languages that had a huge influence on the language spoken in the area. The resulting language is now known as Anglo-Saxon. It existed alongside Latin, which came into play with the Roman occupation of 55 B.C. Latin persisted in administrative and academic contexts, but wasn’t employed as much in common daily use.

While the clear precursor to the English language spoken today, Anglo-Saxon would be unintelligible to modern speakers. About half of our current words have Anglo-Saxon roots, but the rest come from a hodgepodge of other sources.

Middle English

The next big shift in the language of Britain came with the Norman conquest of 1066. The Norman language was an early version of French and its influence brought the language around to something more recognizable to the modern reader. Students who read Chaucer in school have a taste of what it looked like.

The Norman language was primarily used by the wealthy of the time, causing a linguistic class division in the area for several centuries. In the 14th-century, English began to re-claim general dominance over the Norman language, but with a good number of French words now added in.

Early Modern English

The 1400s brought some considerable change to the English language. To start with, pronunciation underwent a transformation in what is now called “the great vowel shift.” The advent of the printing press in the middle of the century brought with it the ubiquity of the written word, which began the transition towards a normalization of spelling. With London at the center of the English printing world, written English came to be defined by the London dialect.

As British explorers roamed the world, they brought words back from a number of foreign countries, increasing the English vocabulary and infusing it with increased diversity. William Shakespeare did his part by adding a host of new terms and phrases to the language through his writing. All these changes bring us very close to the modern era of English, but history had a few more changes to throw at the language.

Late Modern English

The 15th and 16th centuries saw the spread of English throughout the world via British colonialism, giving it the status of the one of the world’s dominant languages that it still enjoys today. In the late 18th century, several scholars and grammarians aimed to further normalize the spelling and use of English words by writing comprehensive dictionaries, like Johnson’s and Bailey’s.

The scientific discoveries of the 19th century required the development of a whole new area of language. New theories, new elements, new substances and new processes all needed names. The English language continued to grow to meet the needs of the new age.

As will be of no surprise to readers, computers and the internet follow in 19th-century science’s footsteps, bringing a long list of new words into common usage. Terms like “blog,” “selfie,” and the shortened versions of phrases commonly employed in text messages, have made their way into the official English lexicon.

In spite of the hopes of certain scholars over the years who sought to stop the ever-changing nature of the language, English just keeps evolving. As society changes, the need to describe new experiences and ideas remains, and English continually rises to the task. Newspaper articles pop up every year to announce the new words to be added to the dictionary, an official sanctioning of terms already common in every day usage. The evolution of the English language has long provided historians insights to the changing cultures that used it, and continues today to reflect the trends and tendencies of modern society.

© 2017 Paratext LLC