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A Short History of the English Language
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Extract from 'Beowulf' (c. 900)
Hwæt! Wé Gár-dena in géar-dagum
þéod-cyninga þrym gefrúnon,
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum,
monegum mægþum, meodo-setla oftéah;
egsode Eorle, syððan ærest wearð
féasceaft funden, hé þæs frófre gebád:
wéox under wolcnum, weorð-myndum þáh,
oðþæt him æghwylc þára ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-ráde hÿran scolde,
gomban gyldan: þæt wæs gód cyning!

Old English originally developed from the Frisian dialects of northwestern Germany and Holland. The various tribes - Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and Franks - which made up the population of England after the Roman occupation, had already incorporated some Latin vocabulary from the Romans, which had become mixed into their largely Germanic base languages.

With the introduction of Christianity, more Latin and some Greek words began to be grafted onto the Anglo-Saxon base. Waves of conquest and colonization by the Vikings of Scandinavia in the 8th and 9th Centuries led to a strong Norse influence, especially in northern England, and this is clear in early writings such as ‘Beowulf’, which dates from the 8th Century.

Of the four distinct dialects which evolved in England - West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian - West Saxon gradually began to dominate by about the 10th Century, although native Celtic languages remained strong in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, and Norse in the northeast. So, even as early as the 10th Century, English was already a polyglot of conflicting vocabularies, pronunciations and grammars, with extensive borrowings from a whole host of languages.

Extract from Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' (c. 1400)
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.

In the 11th Century, after years of invasion by the Danes, the Normans of northern France invaded and settled England, and French (and the Anglo-Norman dialect it developed into) became the language of the court, the nobility and of commerce, and over time some of it also filtered down into the language of the common people. By Chaucer’s time (14th Century), Middle English had subsumed this Romance influence into a single complex language.

Modern English is usually dated from the so-called ‘Great Vowel Shift’ in the 14th and 15th Centuries. The growth of printing and the increasing standardizing influence of London during this period also helped to standardize the language to some extent, although the flourishing Renaissance in Europe meant that English also continued to adopt still more Latin, Greek and other European words.

By the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, when Shakespeare was writing, the language was already quite recognizably modern, with a huge vocabulary (some of which Shakespeare himself contributed). The ‘King James Bible’ of 1611 was also an importamnt landmark. In 1755, Samuel Johnson published his definitive and highly influential ‘Dictionary of the English Language’, the first significant attempt to do so.

Extract from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' (c. 1600)
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep:
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub.

Even then, though, English continued to develop as it absorbed and assimilated influences from its rapidly expanding empire in North America, Asia and Africa, and then later industrialization and technology had its repercussions on the language, which still continues today.

American English developed along a very slightly different track after British colonies were established in the 17th Century. Some Elizabethan word usages were frozen when they arrived in America, but after the American Revolution of 1776 there was a more nationalistic movement to reform the language, spearheaded by Noah Webster who produced his definitive ‘American Dictionary of the English Language’ in 1828. This is when many of the regional orthographic differences which are the subject of this website first appeared.

English has proved itself one of the most resilient and flexible of languages and is now arguably the lingua franca of the world, especially with the advent of computers and the Internet (over 80% of the Internet is in English). It is the second or third most common first language (after Mandarin Chinese and possibly Spanish or Hindi) and far and away the official language of the largest number of countries. But it is estimated that at least one in four people in the world today (1.5 billion) can speak English to some level of competence, more than any other single language.

It is also one of the richest languages in the world in terms of vocabulary, due in part to the piecemeal and eclectic nature of its development. The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary lists 600,000 words, but it is estimated (despite the impossibility of a definitive statistic) that there are almost a million words in total - more than any other language - even if the average English speaker only has a vocabulary of 10,000-20,000 words and only 1,500-2000 of these are used in normal everyday circumstances.

That same unsystematic and heterogeneous ancestry has led to English being one of the most difficult languages to learn. Its grammar is nowhere near as complex as Hungarian or many other languages, and there is not the problem of voice inflections found in Chinese and Japanese, for example. But there are so few rules and so many exceptions that English spelling is an illogical mystery for many foreign learners. A commonly quoted example is the invented word “ghoti” which can be pronounced “fish” (if the “gh” is pronounced as in “laugh”, the “o” as in “women” and the “ti” as in “nation”).