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History of the English Language

History of the English Language

Table of contents
1 Old English
2 Period of French Domination
3 Middle and Modern English
4 Historic English text samples
5 See Also

Old English

The principal invading Germanic tribes were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Their Anglo-Saxon dialects developed into Old English. The most commonly used words today derive from those early Anglo-Saxon roots, but English vocabulary has also been greatly influenced over time. First, it was influenced by Scandinavian invaders who spoke Old Norse, which was probably mutually comprehensible with Old English. Later, the language was influenced, to an even greater extent, by the French-speaking Norman invaders. It has been aruged that the Danish contribution occurred as late as the early Middle Ages.

Period of French Domination

For over two hundred years, the Norman French rulers governed and ran the church, educational and court systems in French, and French was the language of the aristocracy, while English remained the language of the common people. However French words were inevitably absorbed into English, and as a result, English gradually changed from its roots to such an extent that Modern English speakers cannot understand Old English. It lost most of its word inflections and gained a great deal of French vocabulary. Interestingly, Old English would be understood fairly well by today's Icelandic-speaking folk.

Such was the influence of French that, had nature not intervened, English may not have survived as a separate language. However, in the 14th century the Black Death killed so many of those in positions of power that many English speakers from the working classes rose to fill such positions, so displacing many of the French speakers. In 1362, English replaced French as the language of commerce and the courts, and the Lord Chancellor even addressed Parliament in English. However it was not until the coronation of Henry IV in 1399 that an English monarch made an address in English, after 333 years of French being spoken by the monarchy.

Middle and Modern English

By about the time of the Renaissance, the language had evolved into what is known as Middle English, which Modern English speakers can understand with a little difficulty. From the late 1400s, the language changed further into what is described as Modern English. English has continued to assimilate foreign words, especially Latin and Greek, even to the present time. As a result of this history of assimilation, English today is commonly believed to have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. As there are many words from different languages the risk of mispronunciation is high.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary.

Historic English text samples

Old English

Beowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately 900 CE

HwŠt! We Gar-Dena    in geardagum,
■eodcyninga,    ■rym gefrunon,
hu ­a Š■elingas    ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing    scea■ena ■reatum,
monegum mŠg■um,    meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.    Sy­­an Šrest wear­
feasceaft funden,    he ■Šs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum,    weor­myndum ■ah,
o­■Št him Šghwylc    ■ara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade    hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan.    ■Št wŠs god cyning!

Middle English

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffry Chaucer, 14th century
Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne, And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open eye- (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages); Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Early modern English

Othello by William Shakespeare, 1603

   Iago: Though in the trade of Warre I haue slaine men,
         Yet do I hold it very stuffe o'th' conscience 
         To do no contriu'd Murder: I lacke Iniquitie 
         Sometime to do me seruice. Nine, or ten times
         I had thought t'haue yerk'd him here vnder the Ribbes.

Othello: 'Tis better as it is.

Modern English

From the
United States Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Thomas Jefferson
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

See Also