The world had more than 1 billion people learning English in 2000, according to the British Council. There is little doubt that today the tongue can be considered the international language of choice, a requisite for business, culture and political exchanges across the globe. So where did it originate from? We investigate the extraordinary history and evolution of one of the world’s most widely-spoken languages.
It is said that the English language originated in 449 AD, with the arrival on the British Islands of Germanic tribes — the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes — from what is now Denmark and Germany. Prior to this arrival, the inhabitants of the British Isles are believed to have spoken ancient Celtic, a language whose contemporary variations still exist in places around Britain (Welsh being the most obvious example). After locals moved further north, Englisc, the language spoken by the Angle tribe, started to spread across the south of Britain. It is around this time, c. 700-1000 AD, that Old English’s most important epic was written: Beowulf. It is the longest poem in Old English, and famously narrates the story of the fights between Beowulf and the bloodthirsty monsters Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon.
The years 1150 to 1500 mark what is now known as the ‘Middle English’ period. In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded from Normandy and brought with him French words that — over time — blended with the existing Germanic language. Around 10,000 French words entered the English language throughout the centuries after the Norman invasion. Although Englisc had expanded in Britain, it was back then only spoken by the lower classes; as a result, a newer French-influenced version of the language took over as the language of the court, administration, and culture. Most notably, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and the first English cookery book — known as The Forme of Cury (The Form of the Cookery) — were both written in Middle English, between 1300 and 1400 AD. The language nonetheless was still at a primitive stage, to the point where a native speaker today would find it difficult to understand.
By around 1430, official documents once written in French started to appear in English. The English language was emerging around its London dialect, known as the Chancery Standard. It was by the mid-fifteenth century that the Chancery Standard started to be used for all official purposes — with the notable exception of the Church (which continued to use Latin). Through the help of such persons as William Caxton (who introduced the printing press to England in the 1470s) and Richard Pryson (the first English-language publisher in the country) the language fully standardised to the Chancery Standard towards the end of the 15th century. This uniform language came to be accepted throughout England, with the first translation of the bible appearing in 1535 and marking the beginning of Modern English.
Early Modern English formed during the late 15th century and continued through to the mid-to-late 17th century. As James I came to the throne in 1603 the English standard began to influence what was both spoken and written in the UK, including Middle Scots in Scotland. The texts made around this period are surprisingly understandable to readers today, although there are still stark differences with contemporary English. Early Modern English is also known as Shakespearean English, thanks to it being the tongue of the country’s most important writer. The 37 plays written by Shakespeare during this period had a great impact on the English language. While the Bard has been widely recognised as an iconic writer for his creativity, style and the complexity of his characters, he also created more than 1,500 words, many of which are common expressions still used today.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the British Empire started its process of expansion, reaching its height between the 18th and 20th centuries. By the 19th century, the British Empire was going through an era of significant change, which had a great impact on the language. The Industrial Revolution made the English vocabulary vaster, introducing words to describe new technologies. The steam engine and the consequent invention of new means of transportation, materials, and techniques, necessitated words and ideas that had never been used before. A larger vocabulary was introduced, rather than new grammar or spelling rules, allowing Late Modern English to differ only slightly from Early Modern English. Neologisms and words derived from ancient languages, such as Latin or Greek, were completing the new technological and scientific lexicon. Half of the Revolution’s research for new inventions between 1750 and 1900 was written in English, thanks in part to the contribution of another English speaking country, the USA. In the meantime, the British Empire’s immense size led to the meeting of English culture with those of its colonies, leading to the adoption of words and expressions from those countries.
Today, learning English has never been so easy, which is evident in English being the third most spoken language in the world. Considering that there are over 300 languages spoken in London alone, the creation of a new dialect — called Multicultural London English — is inevitable. Some consider it a new form of Cockney mainly spoken by the working class and young people. This dialect contains elements from a multitude of English forms, utilising new linguistic forms as well as styles of speaking, known as multiethnolects. With new words and abbreviations brought about by the internet and social media (such as ‘selfie’ and ‘LOL’) becoming commonplace in our language, it will be interesting to see what the English language will look like in years to come.
By Federica Signoriello, content updated by Grace Beard and Simon Leser.