History scholars would know of the far-reaching influence of the Romans across the world — Britain included.

Everywhere you look, even today, you can see the marks and stories of the Roman Empire, from architecture to place names.

Londinium was the Roman name for London.

Was there a Roman influence in the general spoken language or grammar?

Latin was the language used by the Romans at this time. There was no English language.

Five hundred years after the Romans arrived in what is now Great Britain — they all left. There was nobody remaining to ensure the continuation of the language or its grammar.

If not the Romans, then who? 

When did English as a language begin?

The background of English language is an interesting tale: let's find out more about the evolution of English, particularly the origins of English grammar.

Unlike architecture, English grammar and vocabulary did not come from the Romans.
The architecture was almost the only thing remaining of the Romans after they departed Britannia. (Source: Pixabay Credit: WilloqF)

After the Romans

Following the exit of the Romans, three tribes moved in to occupy Britannia — the Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons. The English language started as a melting pot from their three very similar languages.

However, English was not the first language to have a fully-formed grammatical structure. Several languages spoken in other areas, such as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, were prevalent well prior to the fifth century CE.

Linguists have developed a theory, from the study of written language records from Europe and India, that many languages originated from one source.

They refer to this as Proto-Indo European.

This theory includes the Germanic language of the Angles and Saxons.

There is much to be learned about the style and form of the English language.

More About the Evolution of English

Around two hundred years after the settlement of the Germanic tribes, the English language story began.

This coincided with England being established as an independent country.

As mentioned previously, the languages of the three tribes were similar — all being dialects of the West Germanic language.

Linguistic proof of this theory is highlighted by English words that utilise the silent 'k', including knot, knight and know.

Obviously, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes needed to communicate, thus commencing the evolution of English.

Their common tongue came to be called English — a derivation of Angle.

Shortly after, the island of Britannia starting being referred to as England.

As the West Germanic language was already grammatically well developed, these grammar rules were transferred into the newer English form — their second language.

Over time, Britain became a nation of native speakers of English, with its own distinctive vocabulary, phrases and idioms.

Casks and helmets were not the only things left by the Vikings in England.
Viking influences in the development of the English language were significant. (Source Pixabay Credit: Arthur_ASCII)

Further Impacts on English Grammar: Norse Language

From around 860 CE, the Vikings made Britain their home. With them came their language and their culture.

Norse language had a considerable influence on English, its grammar in particular. Some significant changes include:

  • Pronoun changes for third person pluralhi to they, hem to them, hir to their
  • Removal of gender inflectionhe sayeth became he says / she says
  • Forming questions necessitates reversal of subect-verb word order — 'I am going.' becomes 'Am I going?'

Verbs Both Irregular and Defective

In the process of the evolution of English grammar, some verbs became problematic. Many would not conjugate in the standard way, and some predicates wouldn't allow the application of verb tenses.

The term 'defective' is applied to most modal verbs (can, might) and some auxiliary verbs (was, will).

Some academics believe the categorisation of defective verbs should extend to include irregular verbs.

The Biggest English Grammar Changes Came With the Normans

Moving in from France, the Normans had to learn to speak English as a second language like the Vikings before them, however, they also effected the greatest influence on early English grammar.

  • Word order in sentence structure became essential for comprehension.
  • The previously gendered grammar system was refined to become more or less genderless.
  • Noun endings, with the exception of plural endings, were discarded.

It took about three hundred years, but eventually,  Norman French had melded with Norse English to become Old English.

English as we know it today had finally come into its own midway through the fourteenth century.

It may be classified as a Germanic language, but English is the least Germanic of them all.

What was Happening in Southern England?

Further developments in the evolution of English really took place in the South — the home of royalty and other people of high social standing.

Despite its previous stronghold, Latin (the language of the church) had fallen out of favour owing to the king's preference for Protestant religion over the Roman Church.

With its ongoing rise in popularity during the seventeenth century, English became the preferred language of science and people began to seek to develop their language skills to learn the English spoken by the upper classes.

Dictionaries and English language textbooks on formal grammar, reading and English vocabulary lists were produced as people sought to study English.

Before long, people throughout England were speaking English.

Find out how to use English Grammar clauses in our blog.

However, Elsewhere in the World...

England continued to focus on strengthening the language and entrenching Protestanism. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe continued to use Latin to teach and learn.

As with any language, Latin underwent changes to its grammar and vocabulary at this time, possibly incorporating its version of slang.

Despite the push for the development of ESL courses, many aspects of Latin have survived, including a host of idioms.

Carpe Diem!

It transpires that English grammar was discovered to have many similarities with the Latin system, with the exception of a few major differences.

Rules of Latin grammar make it impossible to:

  • use a preposition at the end of a sentence
  • apply double negatives
  • use double comparatives
  • split infinitives.

The advances in English grammar painted this developing language as a linguistic monstrosity as it did not follow the rules of Latin.

Indeed, the early students of the English language had difficulty comprehending a rule system that differed completely from their native tongue.

English became thought of as an inferior language. Throughout Europe, it was considered to be second best, not only to Latin but to other languages as well. In fact, as David Crystal pointed out, English needed improvement:

English was deemed not as good as French and Latin.

English writing proficiency was compared against competency in spoken English — so strong was the bias towards the inferior English grammar.

Students learning English as a Second Language struggled with writing a grammatically correct sentence, as English teachers who could give guidance in grammar and spelling were in short supply.

There were no written guides for grammar and spelling, so nothing, and nobody, to learn from.

In addition, there was no standard for English pronunciation, so when it came to testing a student's level of spoken English, the results were more subjective than objective.

Even as English lessons became increasingly acceptable, writing skills were still measured against the students' ability to speak.

Sadly, it appears nobody from that era could write a grammatically correct text. Shakespeare himself was discovered to have used grammar incorrectly in some of his works.

English grammar rules are in a constant state of change.
Even today, the evolution of English grammar and language continues. (Source: Pixabay Credit: Tumisu)

Modern-Day English Grammar

Language is a living thing. It must survive in men's minds and on their tongues if it is to survive at all. — Charlton Laird

In direct contrast to Frisian (the closest grammatical relative of English), throughout the centuries English has been exposed to a great many influences.

The English vocabulary is continually expanding with new words from other languages.

As if by tradition, speakers of English continue to modify known words in English and adopt new words from other languages to keep up with modern linguistic trends.

ESL students are preparing for IELTS or TOEFL exams by taking practice tests online, employing a tutor or engaging in self-directed study. Have a look at our blog on multiple meaning words in English.

For people who enjoy the simplicity of English sentence structures and the patterns in English verb tenses, the study of English grammar could lead to a career as an ESL or English teacher. Others may choose to specialise in business English if this is where their future is headed.

Linguists and writers will often look at the fundamentals of the language. They may ask how flexible the punctuation and grammar rules are, and whether they can be modified or even broken to suit different purposes.

The evolution of English language is constant — although changes are often so subtle they are easily missed.

Even now, as you are reading this and going about your grammar lessons, English grammar is changing. You are likely to be contributing to this.

Learning English with younger people, and practising your English speaking, will certainly help you with modern phrases.

If you learn English online, this will allow you to access the most current grammar knowledge and exercises.

Don't forget your listening skills. Keep your ear out for native English speakers who use different grammar structures. Find podcasts, like British Council and ABC English, to get the most recent news.

Enrol in the free English classes offered by many groups.

Do everything you can to improve your English.

As you enjoy the huge variety of English learning opportunities available for you, spend a moment to think about the first learners of English as a second language who, centuries ago, struggled with a shiny new language bereft of grammar rules and nobody to teach them.

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Kellie is an editor, a children's writer, blogger and a teacher. Any remaining time she has is spent on a dragon boat.