Three main stages are usually recognized in the history of the development of the English language. Old English, known formerly as Anglo-Saxon, dates from AD 449 to 1066 or 1100. Middle English dates from 1066 or 1100 to 1450 or 1500. Modern English dates from about 1450 or 1500 and is subdivided into Early Modern English, from about 1500 to 1660, and Late Modern English, from about 1660 to the present time.
Old English Period
Old English, a variant of West Germanic, was spoken by certain Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) of the regions comprising present-day southern Denmark and northern Germany who invaded Britain in the 5th century AD; the Jutes were the first to arrive, in 449, according to tradition. Settling in Britain (the Jutes in Kent, southern Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight; the Saxons in the part of England south of the Thames; and the Angles in the rest of England as far north as the Firth of Forth), the invaders drove the indigenous Celtic-speaking peoples, notably the Britons, to the north and west. As time went on, Old English evolved further from the original Continental form, and regional dialects developed. The four major dialects recognized in Old English are Kentish, originally the dialect spoken by the Jutes; West Saxon, a branch of the dialect spoken by the Saxons; and Northumbrian and Mercian, subdivisions of the dialects spoken by the Angles. By the 9th century, partly through the influence of Alfred, king of the West Saxons and the first ruler of all England, West Saxon became prevalent in prose literature. The Latin works of St Augustine, St Gregory, and the Venerable Bede were translated, and the native poetry of Northumbria and Mercia were transcribed in the West Saxon dialect. A Mercian mixed dialect, however, was preserved for the greatest poetry, such as the anonymous 8th-century epic poem Beowulf and the contemporary elegiac poems.
Old English was an inflected language characterized by strong and weak verbs; a dual number for pronouns (for example, a form for “we two” as well as “we”), two different declensions of adjectives, four declensions of nouns, and grammatical distinctions of gender. These inflections meant that word order was much freer than in the language today. There were two tenses: present-future and past. Although rich in word-building possibilities, Old English was sparse in vocabulary. It borrowed few proper nouns from the language of the conquered Celts, primarily those such as Aberdeen (“mouth of the Dee”) and Inchcape (“island cape”) that describe geographical features. Scholars believe that ten common nouns in Old English are of Celtic origin; among these are bannock, cart, down, and mattock. Although other Celtic words not preserved in literature may have been in use during the Old English period, most Modern English words of Celtic origin, that is, those derived from Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Irish, are comparatively recent borrowings.
The number of Latin words, many of them derived from the Greek, that were introduced during the Old English period has been estimated at 140. Typical of these words are altar, mass, priest, psalm, temple, kitchen, palm, and pear. A few were probably introduced through the Celtic; others were brought to Britain by the Germanic invaders, who previously had come into contact with Roman culture. By far the largest number of Latin words was introduced as a result of the spread of Christianity. Such words included not only ecclesiastical terms but many others of less specialized significance.
About 40 Scandinavian (Old Norse) words were introduced into Old English by the Norsemen, or Vikings, who invaded Britain periodically from the late 8th century on. Introduced first were words pertaining to the sea and battle, but shortly after the initial invasions other words used in the Scandinavian social and administrative system—for example, the word law—entered the language, as well as the verb form are and such widely used words as take, cut, both, ill, and ugly.
Middle English Period
At the beginning of the Middle English period, which dates from the Norman Conquest of 1066, the language was still inflectional; at the end of the period the relationship between the elements of the sentence depended basically on word order. As early as 1200 the three or four grammatical case forms of nouns in the singular had been reduced to two, and to denote the plural the noun ending -es had been adopted.
The declension of the noun was simplified further by dropping the final n from five cases of the fourth, or weak, declension; by neutralizing all vowel endings to e (sounded like the a in Modern English sofa), and by extending the masculine, nominative, and accusative plural ending -as, later neutralized also to -es, to other declensions and other cases. Only one example of a weak plural ending, oxen, survives in Modern English; kine and brethren are later formations. Several representatives of the Old English modification of the root vowel in the plural, such as man, men, and foot, feet, also survive.
With the levelling of inflections, the distinctions of grammatical gender in English were replaced by those of natural gender. During this period the dual number fell into disuse, and the dative and accusative of pronouns were reduced to a common form. Furthermore, the Scandinavian they, them were substituted for the original hie, hem of the third person plural, and who, which, and that acquired their present relative functions. The conjugation of verbs was simplified by the omission of endings and by the use of a common form for the singular and plural of the past tense of strong verbs.
In the early period of Middle English, a number of utilitarian words, such as egg, sky, sister, window, and get, came into the language from Old Norse. The Normans brought other additions to the vocabulary. Before 1250 about 900 new words had appeared in English, mainly words, such as baron, noble, and feast, that the Anglo-Saxon lower classes required in their dealings with the Norman-French nobility. Eventually the Norman nobility and clergy, although they had learned English, introduced from the French words pertaining to the government, the church, the army, and the fashions of the court, in addition to others proper to the arts, scholarship, and medicine. Another effect of the Norman Conquest was the use of Carolingian script and a change in spelling. Norman scribes write Old English y as u and u as ou. Cw was changed to qu, hw to wh, and ht to ght.
Midland, the dialect of Middle English derived from the Mercian dialect of Old English, became important during the 14th century, when the counties in which it was spoken developed into centres of university, economic, and courtly life. East Midland, one of the subdivisions of Midland, had by that time become the speech of the entire metropolitan area of the capital, London, and probably had spread south of the Thames River into Kent and Surrey. The influence of East Midland was strengthened by its use in the government offices of London, by its literary dissemination in the works of the 14th-century poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, and ultimately by its adoption for printed works by William Caxton. These and other circumstances gradually contributed to the direct development of the East Midland dialect into the Modern English language.
During the period of this linguistic transformation the other Middle English dialects continued to exist, and dialects descending from them are still spoken in the 20th century. Lowland Scottish, for example, is a development of the Northern dialect.
The Great Vowel Shift
The transition from Middle English to Modern English was marked by a major change in the pronunciation of vowels during the 15th and 16th centuries. This change, termed the Great Vowel Shift by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, consisted of a shift in the articulation of vowels with respect to the positions assumed by the tongue and the lips. The Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of 18 of the 20 distinctive vowels and diphthongs of Middle English. Spelling, however, remained unchanged and was preserved from then on as a result of the advent of printing in England in about 1475, during the shift. (In general, Middle English orthography was much more phonetic than Modern English; all consonants, for example, were pronounced, whereas now letters such as the l preserved in walking are silent).
All long vowels, with the exception of /i:/ (pronounced in Middle English somewhat like ee in need) and /u:/ (pronounced in Middle English like oo in food), came to be pronounced with the jaw position one degree higher. Pronounced previously in the highest possible position, the/i:/ became diphthongized to “ah-ee”, and the/u:/ to “ee-oo”. The Great Vowel Shift, which is still in progress, caused the pronunciation in English of the letters a, e, i, o, and u to differ from that used in most other languages of Western Europe. The approximate date when words were borrowed from other languages can be ascertained by means of these and other sound changes. Thus it is known that the old French word dame was borrowed before the shift, since its vowel shifted with the Middle English /e:/ from a pronunciation like that of the vowel in calm to that of the vowel in name.
Modern English Period
In the early part of the Modern English period the vocabulary was enlarged by the widespread use of one part of speech for another and by increased borrowings from other languages. The revival of interest in Latin and Greek during the Renaissance brought new words into English from those languages. Other words were introduced by English travellers and merchants after their return from journeys on the Continent. From Italian came cameo, stanza, and violin; from Spanish and Portuguese, alligator, peccadillo, and sombrero. During its development, Modern English borrowed words from more than 50 different languages.
In the late 17th century and during the 18th century, certain important grammatical changes occurred. The formal rules of English grammar were established during that period. The pronoun its came into use, replacing the genitive form his, which was the only form used by the translators of the King James Bible (1611). The progressive tenses developed from the use of the participle as a noun preceded by the preposition on; the preposition gradually weakened to a and finally disappeared. Thereafter only the simple ing form of the verb remained in use. After the 18th century this process of development culminated in the creation of the progressive passive form, for example, “The job is being done”.
The most important development begun during this period and continued without interruption throughout the 19th and 20th centuries concerned vocabulary. As a result of colonial expansion, notably in North America but also in other areas of the world, many new words entered the English language. From the indigenous peoples of North America, the words raccoon and wigwam were borrowed; from Peru, llama and quinine; from the West Indies, barbecue and cannibal; from Africa, chimpanzee and zebra; from India, bandanna, curry, and punch; and from Australia, kangaroo and boomerang. In addition, thousands of scientific terms were developed to denote new concepts, discoveries, and inventions. Many of these terms, such as neutron, penicillin, and supersonic, were formed from Greek and Latin roots; others were borrowed from modern languages, as with blitzkrieg from German and sputnik from Russian.
In Great Britain at present the speech of educated persons is known as Received Pronunciation. A class dialect rather than a regional dialect, it is based on the type of speech cultivated at public schools and at such of the older universities as Oxford and Cambridge. Many English people who speak regional dialects in their childhood acquire Received Pronunciation while attending school and university. Its influence has become even stronger in recent years because of its use by such public media as the British Broadcasting Corporation.
RP is not intrinsically superior to other varieties of English, and is, itself, only one particular dialect. It has just achieved more extensive use than others.
Widely differing regional and local dialects are still employed in the various counties of Great Britain. Other important regional dialects have also developed; for example, the English language in Ireland has retained certain individual peculiarities of pronunciation, such as the pronunciation of lave for leave and fluther for flutter; certain syntactical peculiarities, such as the use of after following forms of the verb be; and certain differences in vocabulary, including the use of archaic words such as adown (for down) and Celtic borrowings such as banshee. The Lowland Scottish dialect, sometimes called Lallans, first made known throughout the English-speaking world by the songs of the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, contains differences in pronunciation also, such as neebour (“neighbour”) and guid (“good”), and words of Scandinavian origin peculiar to the dialect, such as braw and bairn. The English spoken in Australia, with its marked diphthongization of vowels, also makes use of special words, retained from English regional dialect usages, or taken over from indigenous Australian terms.
An important development of English outside Great Britain occurred with the colonization of North America. American English may be considered to include the English spoken in Canada, although the Canadian variety retains some features of British pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary. The most distinguishing differences between American English and British English are in pronunciation and vocabulary. There are slighter differences in spelling, pitch, and stress as well. Written American English also has a tendency to be more rigid in matters of grammar and syntax, but at the same time appears to be more tolerant of the use of neologisms. Despite these differences, it is often difficult to determine—apart from context—whether serious literary works have been written in Great Britain or the United States/Canada—or, for that matter, in Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa.
A simplified form of the English language based on 850 key words was developed in the late 1920s by the English psychologist Charles Kay Ogden and publicized by the English educator I. A. Richards. Known as Basic English, it was used mainly to teach English to non-English-speaking persons and promoted as an international language. The complexities of English spelling and grammar, however, were major hindrances to the adoption of Basic English as a second language.
The fundamental principle of Basic English was that any idea, however complex, may be reduced to simple units of thought and expressed clearly by a limited number of everyday words. The 850-word primary vocabulary was composed of 600 nouns (representing things or events), 150 adjectives (for qualities and properties), and 100 general “operational” words, mainly verbs and prepositions. Almost all the words were in common use in English-speaking countries; more than 60 per cent were one-syllable words. The abbreviated vocabulary was created in part by eliminating numerous synonyms and by extending the use of 18 “basic” verbs, such as make, get, do, have, and be. These verbs were generally combined with prepositions, such as up, among, under, in, and forward. For example, a Basic English student would use the expression “go up” instead of “ascend”.
English also enters into a number of simplified languages that arose among non-English-speaking peoples. Pidgin English, spoken in the Melanesian islands, New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, and Hawaii and on the Asian shores of the Pacific Ocean, developed as a means of communication between Chinese and English traders. The Chinese adopted many English words and a few indispensable non-English words and created a means of discourse, using a simple grammatical apparatus. Bкche-de-Mer, a pidgin spoken in the southern and western Pacific islands, is predominantly English in structure, although it includes many Polynesian words. Chinook Jargon, used as a lingua franca by the Native Americans, French, and English on the North American Pacific coast, contains English, French, and Native American words; its grammatical structure is based on that of the Chinook language. The use of pidgin is growing in Africa, notably in Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and East Africa.