Evolution of the English Language: How Did We Arrive at the Way We Speak and Write Today?

A language spoken by 1.35 billion of the world’s 7.8 billion inhabitants wasn’t always the way it is today. Yes, we are talking about the English language. In fact, among those who speak English, less than half (360 million) speak it as their first language and the rest aren’t even native English speakers. How did English become one of the most predominant forms of communication across the world? Let’s have a look at the evolution of the English language.

Old English – Where did it all begin?

English language really came to prominence when Britain was invaded by the Germanic Tribes including the Anglo, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians in the 5th Century. At the time, they all spoke the same West Germanic language but with different dialects. This intermingling created a new Germanic tongue referred to as the “Anglo Saxon” and often called “Old English”.

However, it was between the 8th to 10th Century that Vikings began to arrive and settle and speaking another version of the Germanic language. It is now referred to as “Old Norse”. This mixing of English and Viking contributed as the second step as the basis for different English dialects today.

In the late 10th and early 11th Century, with the invasion by the Normans, the language started to transition from “Old English” to “Early Middle English”.

Early Middle English – The advent of grammar

This phase of the English language was associated with the evolution of grammar and with a special focus on Syntax. Basically, Syntax refers to the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. In this period, the language also largely did away with “case endings”. Case endings are “a suffix on an inflected noun, pronoun, or adjective that indicates its grammatical function.” Resultantly, the language started become for sophisticated and complex. In the late 14th Century, the language evolved further and what we now call “Late Middle English”.

Late Middle English – The phase of new dialects

In this period, a new dialect, now known as the East-Midlands, began to evolve in the London area. In this period, Geoffrey Chaucer, as a renowned English poet played a huge rule in beginning the process of mainstreaming English. As a result, English was “approved” alongside French and Latin.

In the mid-14th Century, the “Chancery English” standard was brought about by the clerks working for the Chancery in London. These clerks were fluent in French and Latin, both the languages were extremely important and used by royalty, the church, etc. The clerks brought some changes to the way some words were pronounced in English such as swich became such. Their enormous influence over the language became the foundation for Early Modern English

Early Modern English – The start of the English Renaissance

This period of the English language is marked by various significant landmarks in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. However, one of the important milestones in this period was the start of the English Renaissance. It is said to celebrate the height of glory during the Elizabethan Age. Moreover, with the invention of the printing press allowed Early Modern English to become mainstream.

In fact, by the end of the 16th Century, the complete Catholic Bible was translated and played an important role in the evolution of the English language. However, in the 16th and 17th Century, the world saw the writings of William Shakespeare. As a period when the language was undergoing changes, Shakespeare’s writings became an important step in concretizing these changes.

Around the same period, the establishment of the first colony in the early 17th Century in Virginia, United States also saw the dawn of American English with English colonizers adopting indigenous words, and adding them to the English language. The resultant migration between 17th to 19th Century brought to life the very many dialects of the English language.

Late Modern English – Rise of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution

The colonization across the world and the Industrial Revolution saw the expansion of the English language. New discoveries in science and other developments brought the need to invent words in English to describe them. The scientists and other scholars often made words using Greek and Latin roots.

As a result of the colonization, various countries were introduced to English as a language especially Africa and Asia. However, the reverse is also true because even the English language included a lot of words that originated in different colonies. For example, words like shampoo, candy, cot originated in India.

English in the 21st Century – The present

Today, it will be nearly impossible to find any immediate similarities between Old English and Modern English. However, the language as we know today is a result of years and years of evolution. The rules of the English language are clearly defined, it is spoken across the world, and has become a global language.