The history of the English language
really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain
during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes,
crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that
time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic
speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders - mainly into what is now
Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from Englaland and their language
was called Englisc - from which the words England and English are derived.
Old English (450-1100 AD)
The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed
into what we now call Old English. Old English did not sound or look like
English today. Native English speakers now would have great difficulty
understanding Old English. 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. Old English was spoken until around 1100.
Middle English (1100-1500)
In 11th century AD, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern
France), invaded and conquered England. The new conquerors (called the Normans)
brought with them a kind of French, which became the language of the Royal
Court, and the ruling and business classes. For a period there was a kind of
linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper
classes spoke French. In the 14th century English became dominant in Britain
again, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English.
It was the language of the great poet Chaucer (c1340-1400), but it would still
be difficult for native English speakers to understand today.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation
(the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and
shorter. From the 16th century the British had contact with many peoples from
around the world. This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that
many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also
meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and
more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English.
Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most
publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English
dictionary was published.
Late Modern English (1800-Present)
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
Different Dialects of English
From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted in the
creation of a distinct American variety of English. Some English pronunciations
and words "froze" when they reached America. In some ways, American English is
more like the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some
expressions that the British call "Americanisms" are in fact original British
expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost for a time in Britain
(for example trash for rubbish, loan as a verb instead of lend, and fall for
autumn; another example, frame-up, was re-imported into Britain through
Hollywood gangster movies). Spanish also had an influence on American English
(and subsequently British English), with words like canyon, ranch, stampede and
vigilante being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the
settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana) and West
African words (through the slave trade) also influenced American English (and
so, to an extent, British English).
Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the USA's dominance
of cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology (including the
Internet). But there are many other varieties of English around the world,
including for example Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English,
South African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.