The History of English

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English is undeniably one of the world’s predominant forms of communication. Its reach extends over as much as +2 billion people globally. The success of English is indeed fascinating. It’s the world’s true Lingua Franca, in other words, it is used widely by speakers of other languages to communicate amongst themselves. The role of English in facilitating intercultural communication is a recent development and in order to understand its phenomenal success it is interesting to look at how it came to be. How did the English language appear? Where did it all start and how did it become such a language powerhouse?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the English language really took off with the invasion of Britain during the 5th century. Three Germanic tribes, the Jutes, Saxons and Angles were seeking new lands to conquer, and crossed over from the North Sea. The locals spoke Celtic but with the arrival of the Germanic tribes they were pushed further west and north (towards what is now Ireland, Scotland and Wales). The next invaders were Norsemen, who contributed more words. Then for the next 6 centuries the language spoken was Old English.

In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England. The new conquerors (called the Normans) brought with them a kind of French, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling classes. For a period there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French. In the 14th century English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English.

The Early Modern English appeared around the 1400s.  The changes in the English language during this period occurred from the 15th to mid-17th Century, a change in pronunciation called the Great Vowel Shift but also a change in vocabulary and  grammar. It was also the start of the English Renaissance. 

From then on there were also some key factors that helped shaped the language we speak today: Shakespeare, the master coiner of new words, The King James’ bible, a translation that made the bible available to all English speakers, Colonisation who brought back new words and expressions to the English language and finally Globalisation who allowed English to travel far, wide and fast to become the global phenomenon that it is today. 

Check out this Open University video – a handy, and funny animation that tries to explain The History of English in 10 minutes:

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