Arts & Culture

The History of the English Language

Due to the influence of the British Empire and, more recently, the USA, the English language has become the de facto business and travel language of the world. While it may not be the most widely spoken native language, some estimates put the number of English language speakers at over 2 billion.

But where did English originate? And how did it evolve to become what it is today?

The answer to the first question may seem obvious. But early English was brought to the British Isles by tribes that came from what is now Germany. Piqued your interest yet? Read on to learn more.

Old English

The English language came about when several Germanic tribes invaded Britain in the 5th century, forcing the Celtic-speaking natives into what is now Ireland, Wales and Scotland. About 85% of the earliest form of English is no longer spoken. Still, its remaining elements form the basis of the English we speak today.

The tribes that settled in England likely crossed modern-day Belgium before crossing the channel to Kent, one of the UK’s most stunning counties. Take a tour of landmarks like Leeds Castle to see its beauty for yourself.

Middle English

From the 11th century onwards, the English language became increasingly complex, with significant changes made to grammar and syntax. It was around this time that French and Latin heavily influenced the language. It was also the time when the Chancery English standard was created.

If you spoke Late Middle English, you’d probably say ‘thi’ and ‘thou’ instead of ‘you’. And those words aren’t entirely lost. You can still hear them in dialects spoken in Yorkshire and Lancashire. If you’re visiting London and want to learn more about how the Normans significantly altered the English language, you should pay a visit to the British Library, which is the world’s largest library.

Modern English

Starting from the 15th century, just about all aspects of the English language evolved rapidly, including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. It was about this time that the English Renaissance began, which resulted in major societal and cultural shifts.

It’s also about the time that William Caxton introduced a printing press to England, which brought Early Modern English to the mainstream.

Towards the end of the 16th century, the world-famous playwright William Shakespeare started making his mark on the language. Like many other writers of his time, Shakespeare struggled to express his ideas and thoughts using the language in circulation. So, they introduced words and phrases from other languages to English, making it far richer.

During the 17th century, colonisation was well under way, and other forms of English, including American English, started taking shape. Then, the 18th century ushered in the Industrial Revolution, further expanding the language to account for new discoveries in science, technology and industry.

English Today

The English language, just like all other languages, continues to develop and evolve along with societal changes, an increasing number of speakers and foreign dialects, creoles and much more.

Admittedly, we’ve just given you a very brief history of the English language without going into the wars and struggles that also dramatically affected its evolution. If you want to dig deeper into its history, you should join a tour of the British Museum.