UM Library Celebrates Language

The History of English

Did You Know?

To this day, one hundred of the most common words in English are of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Middle English Aesop

Middle English Aesop

Old English

The Germanic tribes who occupied England, Scotland, and Wales in the fifth century also brought what we call "Old English" to the island. The language (Englisc) and the country (Englaland) take their names from the Angles, one of several distinct invading groups (which also included the Saxons and the Jutes). English has always been a flexible and dynamic language.

The Anglo-Saxons borrowed fewer words than one might expect from the indigenous Celts, but English was significantly Latinized by the sixth century Roman Catholic mission, initially led by St. Augustine of Canterbury. This "Gregorian mission" successfully converted the influential King Aethelbert of Kent, which led to further mass conversions. 

Norse Invasions

Rosamond McKitterick, Atlas of the Medieval World (Oxford, Oxford UP, 2004).

Middle English

Another famous invasion — led by William the Conqueror of Normandy in the Eleventh Century — radically transformed the language spoken in the British Isles. The Norman occupation lasted approximately 200 years, during which time French and Latin served as the official (i.e., written) languages for legal, ecclesiastical, literary, and academic functions. Vernacular English continued to be the most commonly spoken language of the realm. Intermarriage between Normans and English also contributed to the survival of the English language.

In 1204, King John famously lost control of Anglo-Norman lands in France (and the allegiance of many Anglo-Norman nobles in the process). What we describe as Middle English retained much of its Old English heritage, but its vocabulary swelled to include borrow words from French and additional Latin. Middle English also dropped most of the "inflectional" endings common to Old English nouns and replaced them with prepositions. The Anglo-Norman period's trilingual condition also left its mark in the rich array of essentially interchangeable synonyms possessed by the English language. Describing a king as "kingly," for example, draws on the language's Anglo-Saxon roots. Using the word "royal" for the same purpose draws on French roots (roi being the French word for "king"), and using the word "regal" draws on the Latin "Rex."

Middle English varied significantly across regions and counties, but "London English" ultimately rose to particular prominence, largely due to the work of poet Geoffrey Chaucer and printer William Caxton. 

Historical Atlas of Britain

Historical Atlas of Britain

Modern English

Modern English is largely a product of the pan-European phenomenon commonly described as "the Renaissance." Religious conflicts, growing international influence, the rise of the printing press and scientific inquiry also accelerated social change in England (including language change) between the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Modern English saw the importation of even more Latin and Greek vocabulary as "Renaissance men" embellished their vernacular writings with the fruits of classical education.

However, the most significant differences between Middle and Modern English must be attributed to the "Great Vowel Shift" (a process whereby the standard pronunciation of long vowels became systematically altered). The reasons for this shift are complicated and no categorical explanation exists. In the wake of the Black Death, mass migration of northern English dialect speakers to southern England did create a melting pot of different accents.  Also, growing affluence in London further elevated the status of London pronunciation. These factors are certainly part of the explanation behind the change.

The King James Version of the Bible (1611) and the works of William Shakespeare (c. 1592-1613) remain among the most influential and popular expressions of Modern English. 

Map of the British Isles

British Isles compiled and drawn in the Branch of Research Analysis, OSS