Brief history of English and its influence

In continuing the discussion of English grammar and language, this post examines how and why the English Language became perhaps the most influential linguistic medium the work has ever known.

In addition to being the dominant language of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various island nations in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, it is also an official language of India, the Philippines, Singapore, and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa.

Moreover, English is the first choice of foreign language in most other countries of the world. Though some would argue that English is the universal language, not all agree; however, as defined by Britannica.com it is a certainly a lingua franca, a language used as a means of communication between populations speaking vernaculars that are not mutually intelligible (Britannica.com). In fact, English is the link language among tribes and groups in India and Africa.

Some more facts: English is taught in schools in almost every country, more than half the world’s newspapers are written in English, more than half the scientific and technical journals are in English, and it is the dominant language of the air waves. Furthermore, it is the language of air traffic control the world over. As Britannica.com asserts, “English has become so ubiquitous that all pilots, regardless of their native language, must be able to communicate in English.”

Why? How did this language which originated on that small island off the northwest coast of Europe become so influential?

One reason is the power and influence of governments with English as a primary language.

Britain, during its period of colonization and colonial rule, was particularly powerful.

There was a saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” In fact, the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe at its largest, including North America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, much of West and Southern Africa, South Asia, and parts of South-East Asia – hence, the locations English is used or studied.

The United States also gained power through colonization: it had, and still does have, various colonial territories in its possession. As the British Empire declined, the US became dominant through its economic, military, and technological prowess. In fact, according to John Algeo (The Origins And Development Of The English Language [183]), America’s technological, commercial, and cultural developments, like  films, television, popular music, the internet, and the web, have made American English “the most important and influential dialect” of English, regarded by some as a threat to British English. (Of course the American dialect that dominant is Standard English as discussed in a previous post, “Why Study Grammar?”)

A second reason is the plastic nature of the English language. Plastic is an adjective meaning flexible, creative: it molds, changes, and adapts.

In the “Parsing the English Sentence,” we already saw how English has a flexibility of function: how the word book can be used in 3 ways: as a verb (book a plane flight), as a noun (take a good book to the beach), and as an adjective (have book knowledge).

English is also very flexible to vocabulary. It is receptive to borrowings, absorbing words from other languages, as well as to creating new words, such as jargon and slang.

Because of this flexibility and openness of vocabulary, what Jerry Proctor calls a “monumental vocabulary,” “even with a slim grasp of grammar any foreigner can get ideas across if he tries hard enough, as witness this warning to motorists in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle with vigor.’”

The origins and development of English – an overview

The history of English is usually divided into three periods in the chart below, with a Pre-English period noted.

Periods of Development of the English Language

Pre-English           

500 BCE to 500 CE

Old English                     

500 to 1100 CE

Middle English               

1100 to 1500 CE

Modern English             

1500 CE to present

The History of English can be said to be defined by invasions.

In the Pre English period (500 BCE to 500 CE), the British Isles were occupied by Celtic tribes, when the Romans invaded England beginning in 43 BC. They did not mingle with the native Celts, but introduced improved agriculture, urban planning, industrial production, and architecture. With their final withdrawal (c. 410 CE), the Romans leave physical evidence of occupation (roads), but not traces of their native Latin, except in place names; for example, London (Londinium).

The Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) period (500 to 1100 CE) is also marked by an invasion: with the Romans gone, the island was vulnerable to the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons – Germanic tribes who crossed the North Sea from present day Denmark and northern Germany into the south and east, driving the Celts north and west. These tribes, whose language was Englisc and whose homeland was called Engla land, provided the foundation of the English language, and also its name and the name of the island. Old English was highly inflected, and to people today it seems more like German than English. However, despite some archaic characters (bolded), some resemblance can be seen as in the line from the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf: “Þæt wæs god cyning” which reads “That was a good king.” (We discussed some remaining inflections or word endings in “Parsing the English Sentence.”)

The Middle English period (1100 to 1500 CE) is said to begin with another invasion, in 1066 by William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France).  The Normans spoke a version of French, which became the language of the Royal Court and the upper classes, but the common people still spoke English. For a time, there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French. By the 14th century English became dominant, especially in London, but with many French words added. Chaucer (c.1340 -1400) is probably the most commonly known writer of this period, and though the grammar for expressing meaning uses more word order pattern than inflections, the pronunciation and spelling would stump readers today.

The Modern English period is said to span from 1500 to the present day. Because this period spans tremendous changes (Shakespeare to ska and rap), the differences in spelling, pronunciation, and vocabulary meanings are still quite significant so that to read the works of Shakespeare (546-1616) requires the aids of linguists and lexicons. However, this period saw the stabilization of phonology (speech sounds) and of spelling (with the invention of the printing press). The “invasion” of this period came from the new technology and inventions and explorations, which continue to this day to add vocabulary to the language. It is during these centuries that language societies and dictionaries and grammar books begin appearing in efforts to regularize the language. Here is where many of the rules or myths are developed, giving us lots of topics for this blog.

FYI: For a fun overview, I have my students view The Open University’s The History of English in Ten Minutes (beware of ads). A more comprehensive and interactive history is presented in the BBC’s British History Timeline. (Though archived, it is still viewable though it requires Flash Player version 7.)

For a short written history, see the English club page, which includes a map of the Germanic migration (invasion), the beginning of the Beowulf manuscript, and other printed examples middle (Chaucer) and early modern English (Shakespeare). Britannica.com has a very extensive article, including links to a video with pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time compared to contemporary pronunciation.

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