The History of the English Language


The history of the English Language could be seen as a story of conquering peoples and creative adaptation by versatile locals. As will become clear, these conquerors insisted time after time on their language being spoken by the defeated and largely silenced locals! Just how the natives felt about this can only be imagined. Confused, baffled and resentful are just a few words that come to mind!

Let’s travel back in time to see how the language changed and developed through three main time periods.

Old English 400 – 1100 AD Time to speak Germanic dialects

The earliest trace of Old English can be found in inscriptions that date back to 450 AD. English is a language that has absorbed the range and number of conquering tribes that came to its shores and made the island their home.

Tribes of Saxons, Angles and Jutes came to Britain at this time and made the locals speak their Germanic form of the English language instead of the old Celtic languages spoken at the time. These German dialects became known as Old English.

By 597 St Augustine was in Britain beginning the conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

By 600, Old English or Anglo-Saxon covers most of England with many Latin words having been added to English language.

In 792 the Viking raids of Britain begin and introduce more Scandinavian words into the language. Confusing? It must have been.

Since that time, the language has continued to evolve, influenced by a variety of cultures and reilgions. English is nothing if not inclusive, as can be seen in the range of words absorbed from other languages.


Middle English 1100-1500 AD – Time to speak in French and write in Latin

When William the Conqueror came to Britain in 1066, he brought with him his many nobles who governed the country. They all spoke French so yes, you guessed right…..this became the main language and Latin was used for writing.

Old English was largely silenced in the corridors of governmental, religious and legal power and seen as vulgar and of lowly origin.

So Middle English became widely used in the British Isles culminating in the Great Vowel Shift, a change so tongue twistingly different that words had to be spoken using different part of the mouth!


Modern English

From 1500 the Great Vowel Shift came about bringing with it the English

Language as it has developed till today from the advent of William Caxton’s printing press onwards.

Language is a living and changing entity and hundreds of new words become part of normal speech every year. Think of how computer vocabulary is entering the language now.

Even with all the influences of other languages, the soul of the English language is in the roots of the Anglo-Saxon of Old English.

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Enjoy this infographic timeline of the English language!

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