The Evolution of the English Language: A Brief History

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the origins of English? What are the key events in the evolution of the English language that were most instrumental in shaping it into the version we speak and write today?

English, as we know it today, is very different from its original Anglo-Saxon version. To understand how this came to be, we need to understand the evolution of the English language and the processes by which it transformed into English as we know it today.

Keep reading to learn about the evolution of the English language.

Unfolding the Evolution of English Through Time

The evolution of the English language happened in three phases: 1) the Anglo-Saxon phase, 2) the Medieval or the Middle English phase, 3) and the Modern English phase. Each phase is characterized by distinct influences and their resulting changes to the language’s vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and pronunciation.

1) The Anglo-Saxon Phase

The first evolutionary for the English language began when Germanic peoples known as the Angles and Saxons, hailing from what is now Northern Germany, began migrating to and conquering the Roman province of Britannia in the mid-5th century CE. 

These Angles and Saxons brought their North Sea Germanic dialects to their new home. The linguistic linkages between English and the dialects spoken in Northern Germany can still be detected today. They even gave their name to the new country—Angle-land, or England.

Different invading tribes settled in different regions of what is now England, lending their own unique linguistic stamp to different regions of the country. The echoes of this historical process of localized linguistic development can even be seen in the United States today, as different regions of North America were, in their turn, settled by people from different regions of the British Isles.

Old English

The proto-English spoken by the Angles and Saxons morphed over time into Old English. Christian missionaries arrived in 597 and began the process of Christianizing the population (or, at least, the political elite of the country). The rise of a new priestly class that needed to be able to read and write in order to understand and teach the Bible aided in the spread of literacy and helped give Old English a written form. 

Old English gradually supplanted the old Latin and Celtic influences in England. These latter linguistic traditions have left very little trace in modern England—astonishingly few English personal or place-names today have Latin or Celtic antecedents.

Old English is largely unintelligible to speakers and readers of Modern English. We can observe this by comparing lines of text. The Old English “Fæder ure şu şe eart on heofonum, si şin nama gehalgod” translates to the Modern English “Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”—the opening lines of the Lord’s Prayer.

Despite the seemingly alien nature of Old English, it does have some similarities of structure and syntax to the language we speak and write today. Although influences from subsequent linguistic waves over the British Isles displaced much of the Old English language (only about 1 percent of our vocabulary can be traced to it) some of our most fundamental words owe their origins to Old English, particularly words related to family—man, wife, child, brother, and sister, to name a few.

There was a great outpouring of Old English literature during the Anglo-Saxon period of English history. The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk, was the first English historian and chronicler; Caedmon was the first English poet; and Alcuin was the first English scholar of international reputation, a leading figure at the court of Charlemagne. In addition to these, we have a rich trove of Old English letters, charters, and legal texts that point to the vibrancy of the language. Works like Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn are the starting points of English literature.

The Vikings and the Scandinavian Influence

From the 8th to the 10th centuries CE, the British Isles suffered a new wave of invasion and settlement. This time, the invaders were Vikings from what are now the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Scholars are unclear as to why these invasions started when they did, but they left a profound and lasting influence on the English language. A political settlement with the Anglo-Saxon kings in the mid-9th century granted the Vikings a specified area in Northeastern England in which they could live and settle. This area was known as the Danelaw.

The linguistic stamp of the Danelaw can still be observed in England today, as the Viking invaders infused Old English with new loanwords taken from their Old Norse languages. Important words like husband, sky, and leg can be dated back to the Viking Age.

The importation of Scandinavian words also made the Old English language more flexible, because these words often supplemented words that already existed in Old English instead of completely replacing them. This gave Old English a host of synonyms and doublets that allowed different words to be used to express slightly different ideas. Old English also absorbed syntax and grammatical structure from Old Norse, a testament to the language’s fluidity, even at this early stage in its development.

2) The Middle English Phase

The second phase in the evolution of the English language started roughly at the intersection of the 11th and the 12th century, when the Norman king William I conquered England and displaced the reigning Anglo-Saxon ruling elite. The Normans were people from Normandy, in Northern France, themselves descended from Viking ancestors. The Norman Conquest, unlike the earlier Saxon and Viking invasions, was not a mass migration. Instead, it was a replacement of one set of elites by another—the Old English nobility was dispossessed and replaced by a new Anglo-Norman governing class, but life and language continued on normally for the vast majority of the English population.

Norman French, not English, was the language of the ruling elite in England for centuries after the Norman Conquest—after 1066, no English monarchs spoke English as their primary language until Henry IV’s coronation in 1399. The words imported into today’s English from Norman French distinctly show this social/linguistic split. It is no coincidence that the roughly 10,000 words that owe their origins to the Norman Conquest are disproportionately concentrated in subject matters like court (duke, baron) and jurisprudence (jury, felony), while words like baker and miller having to do with everyday life or ordinary trades are disproportionately Anglo-Saxon in origin.

Largely left to its own devices, English developed organically during the Middle Ages. The ruling Anglo-Norman elite took little notice of developments in English, because it was the language of commoners.

This was the era when English developed many of its more recognizable features, like uninflected verbs with stable consonants (inflection is a change in the form of a word, often the ending, to reflect different contexts like gender, mood, and tense). In English, however, verbs and other parts of speech tend to be the same regardless of these different contexts. As we shall see later, such developments were to prove greatly advantageous to English as it spread throughout the world.

Medieval Developments

By the mid-14th century, English had reasserted itself as a language of government and law, likely due to the fact that the political links between England and France were severed over the course of the centuries. Moreover, we see a shift in the character of written English—Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a clear departure from Old English. It is written in what we call Middle English, a form far more recognizable to modern readers.

The biggest part of this change was the loss of inflection and gender, but other forms of simplification and unification were taking place. For example, Old English had six noun endings to denote a plural, but only two survived into Middle and Modern English (“-s” as in hands and “-en” as in oxen, with the latter being extremely rare and used only for a handful of words). Verb forms were also being reduced, with fewer options to denote the tense of a word.

Although Medieval English dialects could vary widely even across short distances, the language was becoming more standardized in the Late Middle Ages. This had much to do with the influence of London. The relatively simple grammatical structure of the English dialect in this city as compared to other dialects, its large population, its role as the national seat of government and commerce, and its proximity to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge gave London English advantages that ensured its ultimate triumph over other, local forms of the language.

This was a long and uneven historical process—it didn’t happen all at once and it didn’t happen at the same speed everywhere. Vestigial irregular verbs (those whose conjugation does not follow the usual pattern remain in the language like bear/bore and wear/wore. In addition, there are still parts of South Yorkshire in the north of England where archaic pronouns like thee and thou survive to this day. Lastly, non-English Celtic languages for a long time remained the primary mode of speech in the fringes of the British Isles, like Western Ireland, Wales, and Highland Scotland.

3) The Modern English Phase

The Modern English phase extends from the 16th century to the present day. Perhaps the biggest change during this phase was the culmination of the revolution of the phonology of English (the Great Vowel Shift), running roughly from 1400-1600 CE, during which English speakers began pushing vowels closer to the front of their mouths. The word life, for example, was pronounced lafe in Shakespeare’s time, with the vowel lodged further back in the throat. 

At this time, English began to be regarded for its potential as a language of literature. No writer took greater advantage of the incredible flexibility and richness of the English language than Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon alone added some 2,000 words to the language, such as mimic, bedroom, lackluster, hobnob. He also introduced a host of new phrases we still use today, like “one fell swoop” and “in my mind’s eye.” Shakespeare greatly elevated and exalted the English language.

For much of the history of the evolution of the English language, however, words defied standard spelling, with even Shakespeare offering a bewildering array of different and inconsistent spellings for the same words throughout his works. The first steps toward standardization only began with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century and the gradual spread of written works (and thus, literacy) throughout England. 

By 1640, there were over 20,000 titles available in English, more than there had ever been. As printed works produced by London printers began to spread across the country, local London spelling conventions gradually began to supplant local variations. What this also meant was that old spellings became fixed just as many word pronunciations were shifting because of the Great Vowel Shift. Our inheritance is a written language with many words spelled the way they were pronounced 400 years ago. As a result, English spellings often bedevil non-native speakers, as well as those who’ve spoken the language their whole lives. Pronunciation and spelling are frequently divergent. To take just one example, the sh sound can be spelled sh as in mash; ti as in ration; or ss as in session. The troublesome orthography (the set of conventions for writing) of English can be seen in words like debt, know, knead, and colonel, with their silent letters, as well as their hidden, but pronounced letters.

Grammar Police

The organic and sometimes haphazard evolution of English has led some figures to call for the establishment of a central body to create rules about and regulate the usage of the language. Such bodies do exist in other languages. The Académie Française, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century, still serves as the official body regulating proper usage of the French language (how seriously its rules are taken by actual Francophones is another matter). English men of letters like John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, and Jonathan Swift believed that English might benefit from the establishment of such an academy.

But this idea was also greeted with hostility by opponents like the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, US President Thomas Jefferson, and theologian Joseph Priestley, all of whom argued that an “official” authority on English would inhibit the evolution of the language, exert an overly conservative and stodgy influence on usage, and freeze the language at a particular point in time. Ultimately, no “English Academy” was established.

Many celebrate this outcome as a positive development for the language, one that freed it from being saddled with a set of cumbersome and inflexible rules imposed by an elitist and out-of-touch body. In the absence of an official organization, English has relied upon informal and self-appointed grammarians and lexicographers to define its rules.

These figures write books and give lectures on proper or standard usage of the language, but they are usually ignored by the vast majority of the population. Even high-profile elites in the worlds of academia, politics, and culture frequently misuse words (confusing flout with flaunt, as US President Jimmy Carter once did in a televised address) or use technically improper forms of the language (splitting an infinitive as in the Star Trek phrase “to boldly go” instead of the more proper “to go boldly”).

Many of the rules of English we observe today are the arbitrary creations of self-appointed authorities who lived centuries ago and offered little or no rationale for the rules they promulgated. The 18th-century English clergyman and amateur grammarian Robert Lowth is a good example of such a figure. It is to Lowth that we owe many of the arbitrary rules of usage that we see in style guides and textbooks all over the English-speaking world such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, the prohibition against double negatives like “I don’t want no potatoes,” and the subtle, but different meanings of between and among

Other grammar police of the time and of later ages declared that it was unacceptable to combine Greek and Latin root words into a single new word, and so railed against words like petroleum (combining the Latin petro and the Greek oleum). These deeply silly and pretentious dictums rested upon no logic or reason and ignored centuries of real-world use in England and her colonies by both ordinary people and the great English writers of the time.

The Creation of Words

We’ve explored the historical forces that shaped the overall structure of the English language. But in our effort to understand how English became the language we speak and write today, we need to delve deeper and understand the processes by which individual words themselves are formed. There are six primary ways words have entered the English language.

  1. Words are born through accident. Many English words are the product of simple mispronunciation, misspelling, mishearing, or misuse. For instance, sweetheart was once sweetard, but evolved into its present form through persistent misuse. In other cases, words are created through backfilling from plural to singular. For example, the word pease was once the singular form of pea. The word pea didn’t exist, but people mistakenly thought that pease was plural, so pea was created to correct this supposed error.
  1. Words are adopted from other languages, as we saw with loanwords from Old Norse and Norman French. English has proven to be a remarkably welcome home for “refugee” words. Even in Shakespeare’s time, English had already borrowed words from over 50 languages, a remarkable feat considering the difficulties of travel and communication in the pre-modern era. Indeed, loan words and phrases from other languages live on in English long after they have gone extinct in their native tongues (like nome de plume or double entendres, both of which no longer exist in their original French). Some words like breeze (derived from the Spanish briza) have become so thoroughly anglicized that we forget they are actually derived from foreign sources. 
  1. Words are invented from nothing, with no known explanation as to their origin. We’ve already seen how Shakespeare single-handedly introduced hundreds of words into the language. Even as ubiquitous a word as dog only began to appear in the late Middle Ages; before this, the word for this animal was hound. Other times, new words come into existence as a by-product of new technologies—in our time, the internet has spawned its own mini-language.
  1. Existing words shift their meaning over time, even if they retain their spelling and pronunciation. Some words have undergone remarkable changes in definition over the centuries, even coming to mean the exact opposite of what they originally did. This latter phenomenon is called catachresis. Since Chaucer’s time, the word nice has meant everything from foolish to strange to wanton to lascivious. Only in the mid-18th century did it acquire something akin to its present meaning. The word has changed so much that it is sometimes impossible for historians and linguists to divine its precise meaning in antiquated texts.
  1. Existing words are altered or modified. The rich tapestry of prefixes and suffixes in English gives it a flexibility that makes it easy to modify words into different parts of speech or give them a different tense. An adjective like diverse can easily become a verb like diversify or a noun like diversification. But this leads to the same double-edged sword we’ve seen with English before—its flexibility simultaneously makes it adaptable to non-native speakers, while populating it with a maddening array of exceptions to the rules and irregular forms. For instance, there are eight separate prefixes just to express negation alone (such as non-, ir-, and in-), but not all words that begin this way are negatives, as anyone familiar with the shared and highly confusing meanings of flammable and inflammable can attest. 
The Evolution of the English Language: A Brief History

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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