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Track the Evolution of the English Language from Old English to Modern English

By Jon, published on 10/05/2019 We Love Prof - AU > Academia > School English > The History of English Language

The history of the English language dates back as far as 430 AD, when a mix of groups or tribes resided in Britain and each spoke different variations of a Germanic language. As the residents gradually colonised the country, the various kingdoms were, in turn, dominated by the Anglo Saxons.

The language which emerged as a result of this domination became known as Englisc, now commonly referred to as ‘Old English’. Though it is hard to put an exact date on the birth of the English language, it appears that the first distinguishing features of English started off among four dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish.

While around 85% of Old English allegedly died out over time, some common words in the English dictionary are directly linked to this dialect. Below is a brief timeline displaying some of the momentous milestones in the evolution of the English language.

English Language Origin: The Early 1000s

Although much of the above is speculation led by historians, there are some things that we can be sure of. For example, the first recorded conversation in English – a dialogue between a teacher and pupil who were discussing learning Latin – was written by the Oxfordshire-based abbot of Eynsham somewhere around 1010. The purpose of the text was for it to be a teaching aid for students in monastic establishments.

Shortly after, in or around 1020, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was produced, with the aim of listing historical events in date order from past to present. With many stories about the Danish and Norwegian Vikings within it, the national chronicle revealed many of the words from their Old Norse language that we still use today; like ‘take’, ‘dirt’ and ‘they’. Names with ‘Thorpe’ in them are also said to derive from this era, so think about the history behind its name the next time you visit Thorpe Park!

The twelfth century marked an important shift in the Old English language that many were so used to. During the 1100s, a collection of existing sermons were translated from Latin to English, with  a more modern pattern and rhythm. Linguists refer to this transition as Middle English because the way in which the language appears to have moved on signals that Old English was (or had already) been phased out and replaced at this stage.

Throughout the 1300s, we see a range of new pieces of writing emerging, like a medieval encyclopaedia and the first culinary manuscript, whereas the 1400s brings us the infamous Chaucer who played a very important role in the shaping of English Literature.

Chaucer, thanks to his contribution to literature in England, was an influential character for the many writers who followed him. His legacy was said to be that he created a worthy literary standard of English.

How do your writing skills compare to Chaucer’s? Find out how to write the perfect essay or  teach yourself how to become a better writer with our informative blogs.

Middle English: The Mid/Late-1000s

It was in the early 1500s when we saw the first bible printed in English, by William Tyndale. With translations into English having previously been forbidden, Tyndale felt it was time that locals were able to read or hear words from the bible that they could actually understand.

The bible was first translated into English during the middle of the 1000s. It has been forbidden for the bible to be translated into English. Photo via VisualHunt.com

Quite surprisingly, some of his phrases are still used in the English language today; with the inclusion of ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘the apple of his eye’, ‘signs of the times’ and not forgetting ‘broken-hearted’.

The 1600s were, as we now know, a big milestone once again for English Literature thanks to the publication of Shakespeare’s plays (though some, like Richard III, were made public towards the end of the previous century). 1601 saw Hamlet written and released into the public. A tale about revenge that is based heavily on suspense, Hamlet was one of the first-known texts to really explore the human mind and contemplate our existence. One of the story’s most famous lines is ‘To be or not to be’.

With many more plays that followed, Shakespeare was writing during a time when the English culture was developing rapidly and many new scientific discoveries were being made. In addition, many scholars were placing emphasis on languages.

Shakespeare, who had a very strong word bank, was one of the oldest authors to use as many words and phrases as he did which are still in existence today. His expressions and the way he conveyed emotions were somewhat contemporary when you consider how much of the text we can relate to in this day and age.

You might express yourself in sonnets with this complete writing guide!

The 1700s welcomed well-known author Horace Walpole and poet William Blake, meanwhile the early 1800s introduced William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning and Emily Bronte, among many others. Some might say that this was a pivotal century concerning literature.

Many will be familiar with authors like Bronte, who wrote 'Wuthering Heights', along with fellow writers from that period. Emily Bronte, author of ‘Wuthering Heights’, was writing in the 1700s. Photo credit: angelocesare via Visual hunt

It was also the first time that a collection of nursery rhymes were written down, although telling folk stories to children was already an established tradition by this point. Interestingly, some of the rhymes have been adapted over the years, including ‘Polly Put The Kettle On’ which has had a couple of lines changed and a verse omitted completely.

Modern English Language

The 1900s were once again a time of profound change and acceleration when it came to society. The nation was faced with urbanisation, industrialisation, and many new scientific discoveries. The main changes for language, however, were the revolution in printing technology and the increased focus on literacy levels within education.

Around this time, Englishmen and women also recognised the need to record different dialects of the English language before they died out. As well as recording words on paper, it was during this era that the phonograph was invented and voices were subsequently recorded speaking the language – a great way of preserving history.

Yet, this was the century when the British empire was at its height, covering twenty per cent of the world’s land and comprising of 400 million people. As such, the English language began to evolve with new words being introduced from North America and India, as well as brand new terminology coming from the scientific world.

Linguists believe that very little changed between English of the 1800s and that of the twentieth century, however those who lived through the times in between might argue that this is not the case.

What most people do agree on, however, is that science has played a very influential role on the development of our language throughout the times, and is, therefore, a key factor in the numerous changes which occur (even now), including of course digitalisation.

More recently, researchers at Harvard University and Google found that the English language was expanding by 8,500 words a year in this new millennium and has, as such, doubled in size in the last century. In an article featured in the Telegraph, Editor Richard Alleyne writes that: “the rate of increase over the years is shown by the fact the language has grown by more than 70 per cent since 1950, according to the study. The previous half century it only grew by a tenth. But nearly half of the new words are not included in any dictionary and are dubbed lexical “dark matter”. They are either slang or invented jargon.”

Writers With The Most Influence On Our Language Evolution

The truth is that language cannot evolve without some kind of influencing factor. While technology and science have clearly supported the growth of our language in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, prior to that it would have been writers influencing our nation.

Before the days of celebrities, writers had a very important role in society as they provided both an escape from real life with their romantic stories but they also taught people about the world (of course, people wouldn’t have had such a broad view of the world without information which we now take for granted, such as the wide reach of the Internet).

People would, therefore, hold on to their every word, literally. So if a prominent writer was writing about a new, unheard word in their work, then people would stop and listen and add this to their own vocabulary.

Now, let’s take a look at the most influential writers in our past.

William Shakespeare [1564-1616]

William Shakespeare is, without doubt, the most famous and most studied of all English writers. Surely everyone, even children as young as primary school age, can admit to having read one of his works. Proof that he has been such an influence on our nation is that so many of his works have been turned into theatre shows and major Hollywood Films, sometimes more than once over.

Shakespeare was the first example of a celebrity way back when. What his work managed to do was capture a very specific moment in history – he wrote about culture, economy, love, betrayal, family, politics, and much more, all of which are still relatable today in many ways.

Shakespeare’s language has seeped into our everyday speech. For instance, he coined the phrase ‘green-eyed monster’ to describe envy, and ‘to be or not to be’ is, of course, one of his famous lines).

John Milton [1608-1674]

John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written around 40 years after the death of William Shakespeare, is undoubtedly one of English literature’s greatest achievements. The first verse alone is a perfect example of how he has contributed to the advancement in the English language.

“OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. “

He uses everything in his literary toolbox to tell the story: syntax, rhythm, imagery, sound, and adjectives, all of which set the scene and set an expectation for the rest of the text. Milton doesn’t write lines of poetry: he grows the story out of words and the reader doesn’t feel like they are reading words on a page, rather they feel transported to the story which is unfolding.

William Blake [1757-1827]

Born in London, Blake was believed to be the only true poet to respond to Milton’s grand work above – and some may say he did better with his vivid, energised writing. So full of life were his thoughts, Blake would often illustrate and engrave his poems as well. And this, funnily enough, is his great contribution to the English language: he was one of the first people to aim to make language visible and alive through his use of words and imagery.

It was also he who introduced ‘free verse’, i.e. verse with no strict rhyme or meter.

Samuel Beckett [1906-1989]

Samuel Beckett tackled some serious subject matter (including death, decay, waiting, despair and so on) with great humour and delicate angles arranged in clever prose. His works may be short, but they incredibly moving and very poetic.

The Ongoing Popularity Of Spoken English Worldwide

Shakespeare hasn’t only had success in his home country of England, almost every country across the world will have come into contact with his works. What’s more, many of these will have studied the texts in their original intended language, showing that the words are too powerful in their natural form to be translated or retold.

People often talk about English as a global language, or ‘lingua franca’.

With more than 350 million people around the world speaking English as a first language and more than 430 million speaking it as a second language, there are English speakers in most countries around the world.

People often call English the international language of business and most multinational companies require a certain degree of English proficiency from potential employees which is why more and people are learning English.

Furthermore, much of the technical terminology is based on English words, and if you want to learn about the latest developments and discoveries from around the world, you’ll read about them in journals and research reports published in English, no matter whether the scientists who wrote them are from China or Norway.

English also opens doors in the academic world. Western universities are attracting more and more visiting scholars, students and professors from all around the world, and their common working language is English.

Journalists and writers around the world are finding a good command of English to be an increasingly useful skill. Even if you’re writing your articles and doing interviews in your own language, with good English you can get background material from international wire services and papers and magazines from around the world.

Good English skills mean that you are not reliant on translators and can work faster and more accurately with English information sources.

The Future Of English Language

As we have mentioned, a number of external factors can influence and change language even if they appear only to be a trend.

When the a Internet was invented, no one could have imagined just how much it took off.

This early stage of digitalisation brought about a range of new terms and trends, particularly electronic mail or ‘email’ and instant messaging, also known as ‘IM’. These new, fast ways of communicating suddenly made a need for shortened language apparent and a number of abbreviations emerged as a result.

Over time, we have become accustomed to these forms of Internet-language, often incorporating them into everyday speech. ‘LOL’, for example, which stands for ‘laughing out loud’, is a term that we actually now use in a sentence to describe an emotion despite its purpose of describing a physical action.

Do you think spelling skills in the UK have fallen over time? Find out what the 21st century has in store for our spelling.

This century has seen a bug shift towards Internet-based language. LOL and other abbreviations have crept their way into the English language. Photo credit: sermoa via Visualhunt

Similarly, you do not have to go far to hear people saying ‘OMG’ or ‘DM me your details’. Twenty years ago, DMs were best known as a make of fashionable footwear!

In light of today’s abbreviated language, is spelling correctly still a vital skill?

With 400 million people speaking English as their native language and a further 700 million or more speaking it as their second language, there are consequently many different forms of the language around the world today. In fact, British English is now a minority which is unprecedented in the history of this language!

If language is a reflection of culture, then our younger generations being brought up on technology have the potential to influence English beyond recognition.

With so many people already adapting their own versions of English across the globe, a very large proportion of the planet must already be speaking the same, if not a similar, language. Could we therefore be looking at a transition to one universal language in future? If so, could the increasingly popular emojis or emoticons become embedded in our everyday language?

Why not find an English tutor London here?

Nevertheless, there is value to be had in daily writing exercises!

As with any language (if they can collectively be called a language), emojis are somewhat open to interpretation. How much so is unclear, however, with many factors yet to be considered or researched fully like religious and cultural differences which could cause one person to take offence by a picture that another might see as completely innocent.

The British Council confirms that language is always adapted with society and culture at the forefront so will it ever be possible for English, or any other language for that matter, to become universal?

As we have seen, no one can predict where language will go next but we can expect stages of development to accelerate much quicker than ever before thanks to the equally fast-moving worlds of science and technology which have such a strong influence over our society and culture.

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