English – A Brief Look at the History of the English Language

English is the third most commonly spoken language in the world today with upwards of 360 million first language speakers, a further 375 million for whom English is a second language and many non-native speakers worldwide.  It is the language of international business now, but how did the English language develop?


Early inhabitants of Great Britain spoke a form of Celtic, but with the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55 BCE came the introduction of Latin.  As trade routes were established with Rome, many Latin words were adopted into the language.  The subsequent Roman invasion in 43 CE under Emperor Claudius left its stamp clearly on the language and landscape of Britain and you can see evidence of this in the names of our towns: place names ending in “chester” are thought to derive from the Roman castra and indicate the site of a Roman fort.

Old English

Old EnglishAfter the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 CE, the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain.  These Germanic peoples established their own small, rural communities and integrated bit by bit with the local population across much of England and South East Scotland over the next four centuries.  The emerging language of Old English was highly complex and fully inflected with a five-case system similar to that of modern German.  The word English itself derives from the word Angle / Anglisc / Englisc and, although you would have difficulty recognising the spoken language of the time where every one of our modern “silent” letters would have been pronounced, you would probably be able to pick out some familiar words, such as woman, man and drink. (Pictured: first page of the Old English poem, Beowulf, dated from between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Click to enlarge).

Viking influence

The next significant contribution to Old English came with the dramatic invasion of the Vikings in 793.  They landed on the island of Lindisfarne, off the North East coast of England, where they destroyed the famous monastery, butchering the monks and leaving a trail of blood and destruction.  Despite such a bloodthirsty start, the Vikings weren’t all bad and were as much tradesmen as warriors, so over the next few centuries Old English expanded as it adopted Norse words you would easily recognise today: husband (from the Nordic “hus”- house + “bondi” – owner or head of the household), law and wrong.  Interestingly, the Geordie dialect of the region retains much of the pronunciation of these old Nordic words.

Middle English

William the Conqueror The last successful invasion of Britain came in 1066 with the arrival of William the Conqueror (pictured) and the Normans.  Perhaps frustrated by the complexities of the language, the Normans brought not only a whole new vocabulary, but over time eroded the grammar of Old English into a simpler form.  So, from the 12th to the 15th Century we used Middle English, which was more aligned with the language you might recognise today.  French (with its heavy Latin influence) became the language of Government and Court and a sort of dual “old and new” language system arose.  You can see this clearly in the vocabulary we use today for animals and food; we retain the Anglo Saxon cow, sheep and pig, but we eat French boeuf or beef, mouton or mutton, and porc or pork.

Modern English

The advent of the printing press in Britain in the 1470s signalled a shift into modern English as spelling began to settle (although you may be forgiven for thinking we have more work to do here!) and the grammar acquired some of the familiar characteristics we recognise today.

The British, of course, didn’t just wait at home to be invaded, they went out and did fair bit of their own.  Whether or not these were trading partnerships or more aggressive invasions (The East India Trading Company in the 17th and 18th Centuries and the rise of the British Empire lasting well into the 20th Century), the languages and visitors they brought home enriched the English language further.  Now we can add many more words to our list, try these: cushy (comfortable / easy – derived from Hindi); typhoon (Urdu) marmalade (Portuguese); banana (West African, possibly Wolof); and admiral (Arabic).

However, the story of English doesn’t end there and the modern language continues to develop as more and more people use it in their businesses and throughout their daily lives, bringing the influences of their own cultures and vocabulary.  Try to think of more words to add to the list – perhaps words from your own language, which are similar to or are used in English – any links you can make with languages you already know will help you to develop your English skills.

Alastair Kane

Alastair is a freelance writer and has written this article for Communicaid a provider of business English courses. Visit www.communicaid.com for more information.

One thought on “English – A Brief Look at the History of the English Language

  1. “The next significant contribution to Old English came with the dramatic invasion of the Vikings in 793.” Ahem. What about the Irish influence on Old English? After all, it was from Irish missionaries that the Old English alphabet was constructed. I refer you to “The Irish Role in the Origins of the Old English Alphabet: a Re-assessment” in “Anglo-Saxon/Irish relations before the Vikings: Proceedings of the British Academy 157” (2009). And please don’t fall for Dan Snow’s cop-out by terming us as ‘Celts’ (uggh!). Gaelic will do nicely for the era concerned, or just Irish, if you please.

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