The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500)
Early-Modern English (1500-1800)
Late-Modern English (1800-Present)
Indo-European and Germanic Influences
English is a member of the Indo-European family of
languages. This broad family includes most of the European languages spoken
today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches:
Latin and the
modern Romance languages;
The Germanic languages;
The Indo-Iranian languages, including Hindi and
The Slavic languages;
The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian (but
The Celtic languages; and
The influence of the original Indo-European language,
designated proto-Indo-European, can be seen today, even though no written
record of it exists. The word for father, for example, is vater in German,
pater in Latin, and pitr in Sanskrit. These words are all cognates, similar
words in different languages that share the same root.
Of these branches of the Indo-European family, two
are, for our purposes of studying the development of English, of paramount
importance, the Germanic and the Romance (called that because the Romance
languages derive from Latin, the language of ancient Rome, not because of any
bodice-ripping literary genre). English is in the Germanic group of languages.
This group began as a common language in the Elbe river region about 3,000
years ago. Around the second century BC, this Common Germanic language split into
three distinct sub-groups:
East Germanic was spoken by peoples who migrated back
to southeastern Europe. No East Germanic language is spoken today, and the only
written East Germanic language that survives is Gothic. North Germanic evolved
into the modern Scandinavian languages of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and
Icelandic (but not Finnish, which is related to Estonian and is not an
Indo-European language). West Germanic is the ancestor of modern German, Dutch,
Flemish, Frisian, and English.
Old English (500-1100 AD)
West Germanic invaders from Jutland and southern
Denmark: the Angles (whose name is the source of the words England and
English), Saxons, and Jutes, began populating the British Isles in the fifth
and sixth centuries AD. They spoke a mutually intelligible language, similar to
modern Frisian--the language of northeastern region of the Netherlands--that is
called Old English. Four major dialects of Old English emerged, Northumbrian in
the north of England, Mercian in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and
west, and Kentish in the Southeast.
These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking
inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and
Ireland, leaving behind a few Celtic words. These Celtic languages survive today
in Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland and in Welsh. Cornish,
unfortunately, is now a dead language. (The last native Cornish speaker, Dolly
Pentreath, died in 1777 in
the town of Mousehole, Cornwall.) Also influencing English at this time were
the Vikings. Norse invasions, beginning around 850, brought many North Germanic
words into the language, particularly in the north of England. Some examples
are dream, which had meant 'joy' until the Vikings imparted its current meaning
on it from the Scandinavian cognate draumr, and skirt, which continues to live
alongside its native English cognate shirt.
The majority of words in modern English come from
foreign, not Old English roots. In fact, only about one sixth of the known Old
English words have descendants surviving today. But this is deceptive; Old
English is much more important than these statistics would indicate. About half
of the most commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Words
like be, water, and strong, for example, derive from Old English roots.
Old English, whose best known surviving example is the
poem Beowulf, lasted until about 1100. This last date is rather arbitrary, but
most scholars choose it because it is shortly after the most important event in
the development of the English language, the Norman Conquest.
The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500)
William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded
and conquered England and the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD. (The Bayeux Tapestry,
details of which form the navigation buttons on this site, is perhaps the most
famous graphical depiction of the Norman Conquest.) The new overlords spoke a
dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman. The Normans were also of Germanic
stock ("Norman" comes from "Norseman") and Anglo-Norman was
a French dialect that had considerable Germanic influences in addition to the
basic Latin roots.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, Latin had been only a
minor influence on the English language, mainly through vestiges of the Roman
occupation and from the conversion of Britain to Christianity in the seventh
century (ecclesiastical terms such as priest, vicar, and mass came into the
language this way), but now there was a wholesale infusion of Romance
The influence of the Normans can be illustrated by
looking at two words, beef and cow. Beef, commonly eaten by the aristocracy,
derives from the Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the
cattle, retained the Germanic cow. Many legal terms, such as indict, jury, and
verdict have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. This split,
where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and words
frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can be seen
in many instances.
Sometimes French words replaced Old English words;
crime replaced firen and uncle replaced eam. Other times, French and Old
English components combined to form a new word, as the French gentle and the
Germanic man formed gentleman. Other times, two different words with roughly
the same meaning survive into modern English. Thus we have the Germanic doom
and the French judgment, or wish and desire.
It is useful to compare various versions of a familiar
text to see the differences between Old, Middle, and Modern English.
In 1204 AD, King John lost the province of Normandy to
the King of France. This began a process where the Norman nobles of England
became increasingly estranged from their French cousins. England became the
chief concern of the nobility, rather than their estates in France, and
consequently the nobility adopted a modified English as their native tongue.
About 150 years later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed about one third of the English
population. The laboring and merchant classes grew in economic and social
importance, and along with them English increased in importance compared to
This mixture of the two languages came to be known as
Middle English. The most famous example of Middle English is Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales. Unlike Old English, Middle English can be read, albeit with
difficulty, by modern English-speaking people.
By 1362, the linguistic division between the nobility
and the commoners was largely over. In that year, the Statute of Pleading was
adopted, which made English the language of the courts and it began to be used
The Middle English period came to a close around 1500
AD with the rise of Modern English.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
The next wave of innovation in English came with the
Renaissance. The revival of classical scholarship brought many classical Latin
and Greek words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and many
bemoaned the adoption of these "inkhorn" terms, but many survive to
this day. Shakespeare's character Holofernes in Loves Labor Lost is a satire of
an overenthusiastic schoolmaster who is too fond of Latinisms.
Many students having difficulty understanding
Shakespeare would be surprised to learn that he wrote in modern English. But,
as can be seen in the earlier example of the Lord's Prayer, Elizabethan English
has much more in common with our language today than it does with the language
of Chaucer. Many familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by
Shakespeare, some 2,000 words and countless catch-phrases are his. Newcomers to
Shakespeare are often shocked at the number of cliches contained in his plays,
until they realize that he coined them and they became cliches afterwards. "One
fell swoop," "vanish into thin air," and "flesh and
blood" are all Shakespeare's. Words he bequeathed to the language include
"critical," "leapfrog," "majestic,"
"dwindle," and "pedant."
Two other major factors influenced the language and
served to separate Middle and Modern English. The first was the Great Vowel
Shift. This was a change in pronunciation that began around 1400. While modern
English speakers can read Chaucer with some difficulty, Chaucer's pronunciation
would have been completely unintelligible to the modern ear. Shakespeare, on
the other hand, would be accented, but understandable. Long vowel sounds began
to be made higher in the mouth and the letter "e" at the end of words
became silent. Chaucer's Lyf (pronounced "leef") became the modern
life. In Middle English name was pronounced "nam-a," five was
pronounced "feef," and down was pronounced "doon." In
linguistic terms, the shift was rather sudden, the major changes occurring
within a century. The shift is still not over, however, vowel sounds are still
shortening although the change has become considerably more gradual.
The last major factor in the development of Modern
English was the advent of the printing press. William Caxton brought the
printing press to England in 1476. Books became cheaper and as a result,
literacy became more common. Publishing for the masses became a profitable
enterprise, and works in English, as opposed to Latin, became more common.
Finally, the printing press brought standardization to English. The dialect of London,
where most publishing houses were located, became the standard. Spelling and
grammar became fixed, and the first English dictionary was published in 1604.
Late-Modern English (1800-Present)
The principal distinction between early- and
late-modern English is vocabulary. Pronunciation, grammar, and spelling are
largely the same, but Late-Modern English has many more words. These words are
the result of two historical factors. The first is the Industrial Revolution
and the rise of the technological society. This necessitated new words for
things and ideas that had not previously existed. The second was the British
Empire. At its height, Britain ruled one quarter of the earth's surface, and
English adopted many foreign words and made them its own.
The industrial and scientific revolutions created a
need for neologisms to describe the new creations and discoveries. For this,
English relied heavily on Latin and Greek. Words like oxygen, protein, nuclear,
and vaccine did not exist in the classical languages, but they were created
from Latin and Greek roots. Such neologisms were not exclusively created from
classical roots though, English roots were used for such terms as horsepower,
airplane, and typewriter.
This burst of neologisms continues today, perhaps most
visible in the field of electronics and computers. Byte, cyber-, bios,
hard-drive, and microchip are good examples.
Also, the rise of the British Empire and the growth of
global trade served not only to introduce English to the world, but to introduce
words into English. Hindi, and the other languages of the Indian subcontinent,
provided many words, such as pundit, shampoo, pajamas, and juggernaut.
Virtually every language on Earth has contributed to the development of
English, from Finnish (sauna) and Japanese (tycoon) to the vast contributions
of French and Latin.
The British Empire was a maritime empire, and the
influence of nautical terms on the English language has been great. Words and
phrases like three sheets to the wind and scuttlebutt have their origins
Finally, the 20th century saw two world wars, and the
military influence on the language during the latter half of this century has
been great. Before the Great War, military service for English-speaking persons
was rare; both Britain and the United States maintained small, volunteer
militaries. Military slang existed, but with the exception of nautical terms,
rarely influenced standard English. During the mid-20th century, however,
virtually all British and American men served in the military. Military slang
entered the language like never before. Blockbuster, nose dive, camouflage,
radar, roadblock, spearhead, and landing strip are all military terms that made
their way into standard English.
beginning around 1600 AD was the English colonization of North America and the
subsequent creation of a distinct American dialect. Some pronunciations and
usages "froze" when they reached the American shore. In certain respects, American English is closer to the
English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some
"Americanisms" that the British decry are actually originally British
expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost at home (e.g., fall
as a synonym for autumn, trash for rubbish, frame-up which was reintroduced to
Britain through Hollywood gangster movies, and loan as a verb instead of lend).
The American dialect also served as the route of
introduction for many native American words into the English language. Most
often, these were place names like Mississippi, Roanoke, and Iowa.
Indian-sounding names like Idaho were sometimes created that had no
native-American roots. But, names for other things besides places were also
common. Raccoon, tomato, canoe, barbecue, savanna, and hickory have native
American roots, although in many cases the original Indian words were mangled
almost beyond recognition.
Spanish has also been great influence on American
English. Armadillo, mustang, canyon, ranch, stampede, and vigilante are all examples
of Spanish words that made their way into English through the settlement of the
To a lesser extent French, mainly via Louisiana, and
West African, through the importation of slaves, words have influenced American
English. Armoire, bayou, and jambalaya came into the language via New Orleans.
Goober, gumbo, and tote are West African borrowings first used in America by
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