English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic invaders from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the Netherlands. Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate.
The original Old English language was then influenced by two further waves of invasion: the first by speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language family, who conquered and colonized parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries; the second by the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. These two invasions caused English to become "mixed" to some degree.
Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance languages (Latin based languages). This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a "borrowing" language of great flexibility, resulting in an enormous and varied vocabulary.
Proto-EnglishThe languages of Germanic tribes gave rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and perhaps even the Franks, who traded and fought with the Latin-speaking Roman Empire in the centuries-long process of the Germanic peoples' expansion into Western Europe). Many Latin words for common objects entered the vocabulary of these Germanic peoples before any of their tribes reached Britain; examples include camp, cheese, cook, fork, inch, kettle, kitchen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, pillow, pound (unit of measurement), punt (boat), street and wall. The Romans also gave the English language words which they had themselves borrowed from other languages: anchor, butter, chest, copper, dish, sack and wine.
Our main source for the culture of the Germanic peoples (the ancestors of the English) in ancient times is Tacitus' Germania. While remaining quite conversant with Roman civilisation and its economy, including serving in the Roman military, they retained political independence. Some Germanic troops served in Britannia under the Romans (e.g. Saxon shore). We can be almost certain that Germanic settlement in Britain was not intensified until arrival of mercenaries in the 5th century as described by Gildas, since had the English arrived en-masse under Roman rule, they would have been thoroughly Christianised as a matter of course. As it was, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived as pagans, independent of Roman control.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 449, Vortigern (or Gwrtheyrn from the Welsh tradition), King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles allegedly led by Hengest and Horsa) to help him in conflicts with the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast of England. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles and Jutes). The Chronicle talks of a subsequent influx of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. Modern scholarship considers most of this story to be legendary and politically motivated, and the identification of the tribes with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes is no longer accepted as an accurate description , especially since the Anglo-Saxon language is more similar to the Frisian languages (some Frisians emigrated in Britain in the 3rd century) than any of the others.
Old EnglishBrythonic languages of what became England. The original Celtic languages remained in parts of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (where Cornish was spoken into the 19th century). The dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxons formed what is now called Old English. The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is the epic poem "Beowulf" composed by an unknown poet; it is thought to have been substantially modified, probably by Christian clerics long after its composition.
Old English did not sound or look like the Standard English of today. Almost any native English speaker of today would find Old English unintelligible without studying it as a separate language. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English; and many non-standard dialects such as Scots and Northumbrian English have retained many features of Old English in vocabulary and pronunciation. Old English was spoken until sometime in the 12th or 13th century.
Later, English was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Norse, spoken by the Vikings who invaded and settled mainly in the north-east of England (see Jórvík and Danelaw). The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distinct.
The Germanic language of these Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by contact with Norse invaders, which might have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). English words of Old Norse origin include anger, bag, both, hit, law, leg, same, skill, sky, take, and many others, possibly even including the pronoun they.
The introduction of Christianity added another wave of Latin and some Greek words. The Old English period formally ended sometime after the Norman conquest, when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the Norman-French-speaking Normans. The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development. According to Lois Fundis , "The first citation for the second definition of 'Anglo-Saxon', referring to early English language or a certain dialect thereof, comes during the reign of Elizabeth I, from a historian named Camden, who seems to be the person most responsible for the term becoming well-known in modern times".
Middle EnglishFor about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only one of the langues d'oïl called Anglo-Norman, which was a variety of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period and originating from a northern dialect of Old French, whilst English continued to be the language of the common people. Middle English was heavily influenced by both Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French (see Anglo-Norman language, Characteristics).
Even after the decline of Norman, French retained the status of a formal or prestige language and had (with Norman) a significant influence on the language, which is visible in Modern English today (see English language, Word Origins and List of English words of French origin). A tendency for Norman-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day; most modern English speakers would consider a "cordial reception" (from French) to be more formal than a "hearty welcome" (Germanic). Another example is the very unusual construction of the words for animals being separate from the words for their food products e.g. beef and pork (from the Norman bœuf and porc) being the products of the Germanically named animals 'cow' and 'pig'.
While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old Norman or Latin. A large number of Norman words were taken into Old English, with many doubling for Old English words. The Norman influence is the hallmark of the linguistic shifts in English over the period of time following the invasion, producing what is now referred to as Middle English. English was also influenced by the Celtic languages it was displacing, most notably with the introduction of the continuous aspect, a feature found in many modern languages, but developed earlier and more thoroughly in English. English spelling was also influenced by Norman in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters þ (thorn) and ð (eth), which did not exist in Norman. The most famous writer from the Middle English period was Geoffrey Chaucer and of his works, The Canterbury Tales is the best known.
English literature started to reappear around 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, were the first English government document to be published in the English language since the Conquest. Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English when he did so in 1362. By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in limited circles somewhat longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.
Early Modern EnglishModern English is often dated from the Great Vowel Shift, which took place mainly during the 15th century. English was further transformed by the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardising effect of printing. By the time of William Shakespeare (mid-late 16th century), the language had become clearly recognizable as Modern English. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.
English has continuously adopted foreign words, especially from Latin and Greek, since the Renaissance. (In the 17th century, Latin words were often used with the original inflections, but these eventually disappeared). As there are many words from different languages and English spelling is variable, the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, most notably in the West Country.
Modern EnglishSamuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary, his Dictionary of the English Language.
The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the Earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.
Historic English text samples
Old EnglishBeowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately AD 900
Which, as translated by Francis Gummere, means:
! Wē in, , , . Oft , , , . , hē, under , , him , . Þæt wæs!
Here is a sample prose text, the beginning of The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan. The full text can be found at The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, at Wikisource.Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
Ōhthere sǣde his hlāforde, Ælfrēde cyninge, ðæt hē ealra Norðmonna norþmest būde. Hē cwæð þæt hē būde on þǣm lande norþweardum wiþ þā Westsǣ. Hē sǣde þēah þæt þæt land sīe swīþe lang norþ þonan; ac hit is eal wēste, būton on fēawum stōwum styccemǣlum wīciað Finnas, on huntoðe on wintra, ond on sumera on fiscaþe be þǣre sǣ. Hē sǣde þæt hē æt sumum cirre wolde fandian hū longe þæt land norþryhte lǣge, oþþe hwæðer ǣnig mon be norðan þǣm wēstenne būde. Þā fōr hē norþryhte be þǣm lande: lēt him ealne weg þæt wēste land on ðæt stēorbord, ond þā wīdsǣ on ðæt bæcbord þrīe dagas. Þā wæs hē swā feor norþ swā þā hwælhuntan firrest faraþ. Þā fōr hē þā giet norþryhte swā feor swā hē meahte on þǣm ōþrum þrīm dagum gesiglau. Þā bēag þæt land, þǣr ēastryhte, oþþe sēo sǣ in on ðæt lond, hē nysse hwæðer, būton hē wisse ðæt hē ðǣr bād westanwindes ond hwōn norþan, ond siglde ðā ēast be lande swā swā hē meahte on fēower dagum gesiglan. Þā sceolde hē ðǣr bīdan ryhtnorþanwindes, for ðǣm þæt land bēag þǣr sūþryhte, oþþe sēo sǣ in on ðæt land, hē nysse hwæþer. Þā siglde hē þonan sūðryhte be lande swā swā hē meahte on fīf dagum gesiglan. Ðā læg þǣr ān micel ēa ūp on þæt land. Ðā cirdon hīe ūp in on ðā ēa for þǣm hīe ne dorston forþ bī þǣre ēa siglan for unfriþe; for þǣm ðæt land wæs eall gebūn on ōþre healfe þǣre ēas. Ne mētte hē ǣr nān gebūn land, siþþan hē from his āgnum hām fōr; ac him wæs ealne weg wēste land on þæt stēorbord, būtan fiscerum ond fugelerum ond huntum, ond þæt wǣron eall Finnas; ond him wæs āwīdsǣ on þæt bæcbord. Þā Boermas heafdon sīþe wel gebūd hira land: ac hīe ne dorston þǣr on cuman. Ac þāra Terfinna land wæs eal wēste, būton ðǣr huntan gewīcodon, oþþe fisceras, oþþe fugeleras.This may be translated as:
Ohthere said to his lord, King Alfred, that he of all Norsemen lived north-most. He quoth that he lived in the land northward along the North Sea. He said though that the land was very long from there, but it is all wasteland, except that in a few places here and there Finns [i.e. Sami] encamp, hunting in winter and in summer fishing by the sea. He said that at some time he wanted to find out how long the land lay northward or whether any man lived north of the wasteland. Then he traveled north by the land. All the way he kept the waste land on his starboard and the wide sea on his port three days. Then he was as far north as whale hunters furthest travel. Then he traveled still north as far as he might sail in another three days. Then the land bowed east (or the sea into the land — he did not know which). But he knew that he waited there for west winds (and somewhat north), and sailed east by the land so as he might sail in four days. Then he had to wait for due-north winds, because the land bowed south (or the sea into the land — he did not know which). Then he sailed from there south by the land so as he might sail in five days. Then a large river lay there up into the land. Then they turned up into the river, because they dared not sail forth past the river for hostility, because the land was all settled on the other side of the river. He had not encountered earlier any settled land since he travelled from his own home, but all the way waste land was on his starboard (except fishers, fowlers and hunters, who were all Finns). And the wide sea was always on his port. The Bjarmians have cultivated their land very well, but they did not dare go in there. But the Terfinn’s land was all waste except where hunters encamped, or fishers or fowlers.
Middle EnglishFrom The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century
Glossary:Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open yë
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
- soote: sweet
- swich licour: such liquid
- Zephirus: the west wind (Zephyrus)
- eek: also (Dutch ook; German auch)
- holt: wood (German Holz)
- the Ram: Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac
- yronne: run (German gerannt)
- priketh hem Nature: Nature pricks them
- hir corages: their hearts
Early Modern EnglishFrom Paradise Lost by John Milton, 1667
Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth
Rose out of chaos: or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle Flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, whyle it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
Modern EnglishTaken from Oliver Twist, 1838, by Charles Dickens
The evening arrived: the boys took their places; the master in his cook's uniform stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out, and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared, the boys whispered each other and winked at Oliver, while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger and reckless with misery. He rose from the table, and advancing, basin and spoon in hand, to the master, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity—
"Please, sir, I want some more."
The master was a fat, healthy man, but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder, and the boys with fear.
"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.
"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."
The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle, pinioned him in his arms, and shrieked aloud for the beadle.