A Brief History of the English Language

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

Some bad news for English learners: the English language is changing as I write.

Every year thousands of new words enter English, either imported from the different countries across the globe, invented to respond to developments in technology and culture (selfie, anyone?) or made up as slang by yoofs and others. And as the language expands and morphs to envelop these new words, it develops and changes.

Now, this might seem enough to put you off learning English entirely, but it’s a fact of existence in most large languages. Specialists in linguistics (the study of languages, their component parts and the way they work) have even created models to describe the ‘life cycles’ of languages old and new – from the single words that mark their births, at the places where different people meet to work, trade or do battle, to the twilight days in which they’re dwindling and little-spoken, often preserved primarily for their sentimental or cultural importance. Latin, once spoken widely throughout Europe and North Africa, began its slow decline with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. – but lived a strange sort of afterlife as the official language of Church, state and mind-numbing grammar school exercises in numerous countries until well after the Renaissance.

Wales and Ireland, meanwhile, are currently fighting uphill battles to resuscitate and revive their native languages – battles which seem to mainly to involve compulsory lessons in saying ‘I like horse-riding’ for pained fourteen-year-old children (rydw i’n hoffi merlota, in case you’re wondering) and the world’s easiest GCSE exam (take it from someone who managed to get a ‘C’ using almost exclusively the phrase above). English, like many of the world’s larger languages, is lent a special richness by the fact that it’s both very old, and very much alive. The language of Hollywood, Shakespeare and Manchester United (as well as shadier and more unpleasant things like the old British Empire), English usage continues to grow worldwide, and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s perhaps somewhat ironic, then, considering its dominance, that the richness of English is in large part a direct result of the number of powerful influences upon it – or, in other words, peoples who invaded and conquered the country in the past. As they installed the language of their home country or tribe as that of government, trade and religion, each of England’s conquerors left a distinct and lasting mark on what would eventually become the English vernacular. Many of these marks are still perceptible today in the language’s huge and varied vocabulary, and the statuses of different words.

The building blocks (or, a whirlwind history of the British Isles in Ancient and Medieval times)

‘If wee present a mingle-mangle’, declared John Lyly in the preface to his play Midas, (1591) ‘our fault is to be excused, because the whole worlde is become an Hodge-podge’. Though the ‘mingle-mangle’ to which Lyly refers in this context is his play’s unseemly mixing of elements from different literary genres, he could just as well have been describing the contemporary state of the English language, at that time in one of its most exciting periods of expansion and innovation, and made up of pieces and patches from various ancient and medieval languages – reflecting and incorporating the ‘hodge-podge’ of the world. The earliest inhabitants of the British Isles to have left a mark on the English Language were the Celts. Arriving in Britain around 500BC, and the dominant people until the Romans arrived in the first century AD, the Celts have in fact left us very few words – though many English place names have Celtic origins, like London, Dover and Kent, and the rivers Thames & Wye. In 43 BC, a sturdier and more lasting influence upon the language would arrive in the form of the Roman general Aulus Plautius, who fought off savage native tribes to establish himself as the first Roman governor in Britain, and began a period of Roman rule of the British Isles which would last four hundred years. Significantly, though English hasn’t kept many of the words from this era (only around 200 Latin words entered the language at this time, most of them nouns coined by tradesmen and soldiers, like win– wine, candel– candle and belt– belt), Plautius and his men laid the groundwork for the tidal wave of Latin words that would come to saturate the language with the arrival of Christianity in the sixth century.

But first – the Anglo-Saxons. From around 449AD, Germanic tribes called the Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to arrive in Britain. Their dialects formed the basis of what is now known as Old English – a West Germanic language with verb conjugations and noun declensions like Latin, that is pretty much incomprehensible today. About 400 texts, literary and otherwise, survive from this era, allowing us to reconstruct Old English grammar and vocabulary. Remarkably, considering how distant was the past in which it originated, a third of the Anglo Saxon vocabulary remains in modern English. Many of our most everyday, basic words can be traced back to the language, including earth, night, body, ache, awake, house, food, sing and sleep. And in fact, even the name England derives from the Anglo Saxons, in a funny way – by the seventh century, Latin speakers across Europe were referring to the country as Anglia, or the land of the Angles. This is the root of the modern word for England. While Anglo-Saxon words form the basic building blocks and many of the everyday terms in our vocabulary, Latinate words offer similes that tend to be perceived as more sophisticated. Germanic ‘troth’ sounds old-fashioned and blunt compared to the Latinate ‘loyalty’. Germanic ‘set’ or ‘lot’ are almost slangy, compared to the formality of the Latinate ‘series’, ‘sequence’ or ‘order’. You probably wouldn’t ‘ask’, ‘beg’ or ‘seek’ in a formal letter, but rather ‘inquire’ or ‘request’. And a doctor would probably choose the Latinate ‘abdomen’ over the Germanic ‘belly’ or ‘womb’. Most of our modern swear-words are Anglo-Saxon ones – think of their characteristic sharp, guttural sounds.

This hierarchy of words began to emerge because, at the end of the sixth century, Christian missionaries, led by St. Augustine, arrived in England and began to move through the land, converting the Anglo-Saxons from their Pagan beliefs to Catholic Christianity. Latin was the language of the Church throughout Europe, and in England it became the language not just of religion, but also high culture, literacy and government. Poor old Old English, with its unfashionable Anglo-Saxon roots, was eventually relegated to the language of the peasants and the uneducated – and as we have seen, the influence of this dichotomy is still visible in the English language today. But this is not the end of the story of the English language. The Vikings invaded in 789 AD, and controlled most of Eastern England for the next hundred years, before the legendary King Alfred forced them back into the North East. They remained in power in a tiny part of the country for another decade or so, and brought nearly 2000 words into the English vocabulary. Modern words derived from their language, Old Norse, include ado, anger, berserk, billow, blunder, cake, and fog, to name but a few!

Finally, there was the Norman conquest of 1066, and the consequent infusion of thousands of French words into the English language. Latin was relegated to the language of the church and scholars, while French became that of royalty, aristocrats and officials – many of whom had little or no English at all. Until the Hundred Years War beginning in 1337 and lasting until the 1450s, there was something of a three-tiered system, with French being the most prestigious and important language, Latin that of academia and religion, and the majority of the country’s population speaking what had by now developed into Middle English. Modern words like crown, army, poet, romance, beauty, chess, peasant, traitor, government, castle and gown all have their roots in French. The status and prestige of the vernacular – what would eventually become the English language – only began to increase in the wake of the Hundred Years War and the defeat of the House of Valois, when French began to seem like the language of the enemy. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were established, fostering literacy and learning – and through scholarship and religion, many thousands more Latin words came into the language. So there we have it. The English that we speak today is a patchwork language not just because of the hundreds of words like technophobe, keyboard or omnishambles that have flooded into it in the last half-century or so, but in its very foundations – a mix of Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Medieval French. And with the arrival of the Renaissance in England, things only became more complex!

The English Renaissance and the invention of the printing press

Two millennia of invasion and conquest had established an English that was quite a lot like the language we speak today – we’ve maintained its grammatical and syntactical structure, with a few tiny adaptations, and kept most of its vocabulary, even if old forms like thee or thou have slipped out of usage. Overlooking the fact that most early modern handwriting looked like the stumblings of an intoxicated spider, it’s actually pretty easy to read and understand the English of the Sixteenth Century – it’s Sidney’s English, Marlowe’s English, Shakespeare’s English (though of course, as is still the case today, there were palpable differences in language and pronunciation across different parts of the country). The English Renaissance meant the infusion and creation of thousands of new words. The Renaissance, meaning ‘rebirth’ in French, entailed the rediscovery of the canons of classical literature throughout Europe, and the invigoration of contemporary learning across all the fields of study by what was found in the classical texts. Early modern scholars and writers studied the poetry, drama, art, philosophy and science of the Ancients rigorously, and attempted to imitate and recreate what was perceived as a lost golden age of learning, obscured by a murky Dark Ages of peasants and monks, in which human knowledge had stagnated. The study of the works of classical literature was accompanied by wonderful discoveries and innovations in the fields of science, art and exploration. Scientists discovered that the world was round and orbited the sun, that blood circulated around the body, and how to make gunpowder. Explorers and traders travelled to the New World. Michelangelo sculpted his David. Thousands more words entered the language with these discoveries and voyages- be they words like skeleton, utopian, explain or enthusiasm, from Latin; carnival or violin, from Italian; coffee or yoghurt, from Turkish, or tomato and tobacco, from Spanish.

Perhaps most important of all for our purposes, William Caxton in 1476 introduced the printing press to England, meaning that works of literature could be printed in great numbers , rather than copied out by hand as had previously been the cast. Caxton printed a great variety of texts: mythical stories, poems, grammar books, sermons and phrasebooks. In the next 150 years, around 20,000 new books were printed- and as a consequence, books became cheaper to buy and reading became more popular. Literacy rates rose. What’s more, the spellings and forms of grammar that printers used helped to establish and spread a standard language across the country. Spellings at this time were incredibly varied (the playwright Christopher Marlowe is known to spelled his own name Marlo, Marloe, Marlow, Marley and Marlin) – so it’s quite remarkable that what may have been no more than the whims of the printers, or whether they happened to have an extra ‘e’ key within easy reach on that day, worked to begin to fix the forms we use today.


One of the reasons most often cited for the near-deification of William Shakespeare in England (aside from the fact that the Bard still makes us loads of money in tourism, that is), is the playwright’s near-boundless verbal invention. A very generous study (which included words that Shakespeare merely prefixed, joined to other words or added new endings to) recently calculated that Shakespeare invented almost 20,000 words, many of which entered and remain in the popular vernacular, like sea-change, moonbeam, or remorseless. Though of course Shakey’s contribution to English was relatively tiny compared to some of the other influences mentioned here, anyone who could come up with such gems as premeditated,  puking, swagger, submerge, majestic, epileptic, deadening and dawn in my opinion deserves a place in any discussion of the history and development of the language.


From around the beginning of the seventeenth century, scholars became anxious about what they perceived as the chaos of English, which allowed huge variation in spelling and grammatical forms. The first dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall, was published in 1604, and listed and defined just 3000 words. Cawdrey’s dictionary is full of interest, but an influential and authoritative dictionary was not to emerge for another 150 years, until Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). It took Johnson 9 years to prepare, and constituted a spectacular scholarly achievement as well as a milestone in the development of the English language. The dictionary was meticulous, painstaking and complete, but Johnson’s personality and views everywhere emanate from his definitions. Among his best jokes are: Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman. So, there ends my whirlwind tour of the history of the English language. Got any good etymological or linguistic facts of your own?