The History of English

Modern English is a language shaped by the many political and social events that impacted Britain over the course of history. Though English is classified as a Germanic language, more than half of its vocabulary is derived from Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish, and many commonly used nouns were adopted wholesale from languages as diverse as Greek, Persian, Hindi-Urdu and Native American languages. To understand why we say goose and geese but not moose and meese, or why you have teeth and not tooths, it is necessary to understand the sociopolitical history of English itself.

Prehistory

Proto Indo European is the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, including Old English. PIE is estimated to have been spoken as a single language from 4500 BC to 2500 BC and all Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian and Romance languages are descended from it. This is why many of the words used in Old English bear resemble words in other languages. For example, the PIE word for 2 is 'duwo'. The 'd' softens to a 't' in Old Germanic to become 'twai', so in Old English we get twa, which became the modern English two, the modern Swedish två, the modern German zwei and the modern Icelandic tveir.

5th to 6th Century

Old English is a Germanic language, and so has many of the quirks of Germanic languages such as an inflectional case system, grammatical genders and runic letters. The grammatical shift known as i-mutation took place separately in various Germanic languages from around 450 or 500 AD, and it was also around this time that the Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to settle in Britain. These tribes brought their language and culture with them as they displaced the native Celtic language speakers, which is why English speakers have 'one tooth', but 'many teeth', and you see 'a man' but 'many men'. Old English had the same mutation, sometimes for words which are now regular, for example, boc - book but bec - books, and used it extensively in its formation of verbs.

7th Century

Cædmon's Hymn is considered to be the oldest surviving non-runic record of Old English poetry. Its composition is estimated to between 658 and 680, with it surviving copies being recorded in the early part of the 8th century. It is attested in 19 verified manuscript witness, all of which are copies of the Historia Ecclesiastica. The hymn is a short eulogistic verse, attributed to Cædmon, an illiterate cow-herd employed by the monastery of Whitby.

Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes Uard metudæs maecti end his modgidanc uerc Uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihwaes eci dryctin or astelidæ he arist scop aelda barnum heben til hrofe haleg scepen tha middungeard moncynnæs Uard eci Dryctin æfter tīadæ firum foldu Frea allmectig
Now we must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and his purpose, the work of the father of glory as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders; he first created for the children of men heaven as a roof, the holy creator Then the guardian of mankind, the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth, the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

8th Century

The Ruthwell Cross is a stone cross probably dating from the 7th or 8th century, when the village of Ruthwell, Scotland, was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. A runic inscription surrounds the carving on one side of the cross, though it is widely believed these runes were added later than the rest of the carvings, possibly as late as the 10th century. The runes are distinct from Norse Futhark, and are generally referred to as Anglo-Saxon runes.

ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ ᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨ ᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ

Krist wæs on rodi. Hweþræ' þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum

Christ was on the cross. Yet the brave came there from afar to their lord

9th Century

The Vikings began to raid England in the late 8th century, and eventually the Great Heathen Army arrived to conquor and settle. Much like the Angles, Jutes and Saxons that came before them, they brought their language - Old Norse - with them. This Scandinavian influence is still evident in many of placenames, especially in the North-East of England, with towns like Wetherby - Sheep's town and Scunthorpe - Skuma's homestead. However, another effect the Vikings had was related to existing dialects of English. The four main dialects were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish and West Saxon. The Northumbrian dialect, which was spoken as far north as Edinburgh, survives as the Scots language spoken in Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland. Modern English derives mostly from the Anglian dialect, however, it is the West Saxon dialect of Old English which is commonly taught. This is because, under the rule of King Alfred, Wessex survived mostly intact, while others did not. As a result, a great many surviving texts, including the vitally important Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and famous Beowulf, are written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

10th Century

Beowulf is perhaps the most famous of all Old English texts, and while the date of composition is hotly contested, the manuscript was most likely produced between 975 and 1025. The poem has no title in the manuscript, and is preceeded by a life of Saint Christopher, the Wonders of the East, and a translation of a letter from Alexander to Aristotle. Another heroic epic, Judith, follows Beowulf in the manuscript, though damage to some pages show that Judith preceeded Beowulf at some point in the manuscripts binding. The scribe writing Beowulf changes part-ways through the poem, and as a result, the poem mixes the West Saxon and Anglian dialects of Old English, though it predominantly uses West Saxon, another reason for the dominance of the West Saxon dialect in academic teaching.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

11th Century

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 heralded the most significant change for Old English, as it was the beginning of the Norman conquest of England. With William the Conquorers victory, the ruling elite became dominated by Old Norman speakers, and though English continued to be used by the common people, Norman French was the language of the elite. As a result, French grammar and loan words began to slowly creep into vernacular usage. This is why in Modern English we use 'cow' derived from the Old English 'cu', for the animal, but call its meat 'beef' from the French 'bœuf'.

12th Century

The Grave is considered to be the final example of an Old English poem and presents a transitional text between Old and Middle English. Found in Bodley 343, the poem tells the story of a soul speaking to its body; a motif found in two other Old English poems and many Middle English texts. Though the manuscript is from the 12th century, by which time Old English was undergoing its transformation into Middle English, the language used in The Grave has anachronistic markers indicating it was copied from an older source.

Ðe wes bold gebyld er þu iboren were ðe wes molde imynt er ðu of moder come ac hit nes no idiht ne þeo deopnes imeten nes gyt iloced hu long hit þe were
A house was built for you, before you were born. The earth was meant for you, before you came from your mother. But it wasn’t prepared, and its depth wasn’t measured; no one’s yet looked into how long it should be for you

13th Century

Middle English is the name given to the distinctly different form of English which emerged due to the intermingling of Norman and Old English. Over the 300 years following the conquest, English lost its eth (ð) and thorn (þ), as these did not exist in Norman. Grammar distinctions were lost as many noun and adjective endings were simplified to just '-e'. With a few notable exceptions such as 'oxen' and 'children', plural endings were simplified to '-s', and grammatical gender was discarded. However, Norman eventually began to decline in popularity, and vernacular English literature began to reappear after 1200. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, was the first English government document to be published in the English language after the Norman Conquest.

14th Century

English reasserted itself as the national language of Britain in the 14th Century. In 1362, Edward III became the first king of England to address Parliament in English. The Pleading in English Act 1362 made English the only language in which court proceedings could be held, though official records often remained in Latin. By the end of the century, even the royal court had switched to English. Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived in the late 14th century, is considered the father of English literature as he was one of the earliest and most famous writers to write predominantly in English during the Middle English period. His seminal work, The Canterbury Tales is taught in British schools even today.

I have gret wonder, be þis lyght, How that I live, for day ne nyght I may nat slepe wel nigh noght, I have so many an ydel thoght
~ Book of the Duchess, Geoffrey Chaucer

15th Century

Spelling in Middle English was not standardised and often reflected the pronunciation of the word more closely than modern English spelling. This is due to the Great Vowel Shift which took place during the 15th century. Through this vowel shift, all Middle English long vowels and some consonant sounds changed their pronunciation, with some letters becoming 'silent'. The language was further transformed by the spread of a standardized London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardizing effect of printing. This standardisation and phonetic shift marked the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English.

þe rurales, þat þey myghte semyn þe more worschipfull and honorable and þe redliere comyn to þe famyliarite of þe worthy and þe grete, leftyn hure modre tounge and labouryd to kunne spekyn Frenssh: and thus by processe of tyme barbariʒid thei in bothyn and spokyn neythyr good Frenssh nor good Englyssh.
~ Osbern Bokenham, 1440