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History of the English Language




English is a Germanic language of the Indo-European family and today is the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese. However, English is the most widespread language in the world and is on track to become the universal language. Here some of the reasons for this supremacy over other languages ​​like French, Spanish and Arabic:

    • This is the official or co-official language in over 45 countries.
    • Half of all business deals are conducted in English.
    • Two-thirds of the studies are written in English.
    • Over 70% of all emails are written in English and addressed.
    • It is the language par excellence of the science of our day computing.
    • The majority of international tourism, aviation and diplomacy are conducted in English.
    • In addition, English is present in the cultural, social, political and economic life of most countries in the world.


An interesting note is that more people live in China who speaks English than in the United States.

The English language spoken descended from Germanic tribes who migrated from what is now northern Germany (and part of Denmark) to the land that would become known as England. These tribes are traditionally identified with the names of Frisians, Britons, Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Their language is called Old Low German or Old Saxon.

This paper aims to present the origin of the Spanish language and its evolution today.


English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This broad family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches: Latin and the modern Romance languages (French etc.); the Germanic languages (English, German, Swedish etc.); the Indo-Iranian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit etc.); the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech etc.); the Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian; the Celtic languages (Welsh, Irish Gaelic etc.); Greek. The influence of the original Indo-European language can be seen today, even though no written record of it exists. The word for father, for example, is vater in German, pater in Latin, and pitr in Sanskrit. These words are all cognates, similar words in different languages that share the same root.

The origin of English is divided in several periods


Old English (449 – 1066 CE)

The Old English language (also called Anglo-Saxon) dates back to 449 CE. The Celts had been living in England when the Romans invaded. Although they invaded twice, they did not conquer the Celts until 43 CE and Latin never overtook the Celtic language. The Romans finally left England in 410 CE as the Roman Empire was collapsing, leaving the Celts defenseless. Then the Germanic tribes from the present-day area of Denmark arrived. The four main tribes were the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. These tribes set up seven kingdoms called the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy that included: Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Wessex, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia. Four dialects were spoken in these kingdoms: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. The Celts moved north to Scotland, west to Ireland and south to France, leaving the main area of Britain.

In 731 CE, Bede wrote the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in Latin. It detailed the sophisticated society of the Germanic tribes. They had destroyed the Roman civilization in England and built their own, while dominance shifted among the kingdoms beginning with Kent and Northumbria. They aligned with the Celtic clergy and converted to Christianity. Laws and contracts were written down for a sense of permanence and control. The Tribal Hidage, a list of subjects who owed tribute to the king, was written during the Mercian period of power. Alfred the Great was the king of Wessex from 871-899 while Wessex was the dominant kingdom. During his reign, he united the kingdoms together and commissioned the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, a historical record of important events in England that continued 200 years after his death. Alfred also settled a truce with the Vikings who repeatedly invaded the area. The Treaty of Wedmore was signed in 878 CE and this “Danelaw” gave the northeast half of England to the Danes for settlement. However, because the languages were so similar, the Danes quickly assimilated and intermarried into the English society.

Characteristics of the Old English language

The Germanic tribes were exposed to Latin before they invaded England, so the languages they spoke did have some Latin influence. After converting to Christianity, Latin had more influence, as evidenced in words pertaining to the church. Celtic did not have a large impact on English, as only a few place names are of Celtic origin, but Danish (Old Scandinavian) did contribute many vocabulary words. The syntax of Old English was much more flexible than modern English because of the declensions of the nouns. The case endings told the function of the word in the sentence, so word order was not very important. But as the stress began to move to the first syllable of words, the endings were not pronounced as clearly and began to diminish from the language. So in modern English, word order is very important because we no longer have declensions to show case distinctions. Instead we use prepositions.


Middle English (1066 – 1500 CE)

The period of Middle English begins with the Norman invasion of 1066 CE. King Edward the Confessor had died without heirs, and William, Duke of Normandy, believed that he would become the next king. However, upon learning that Harold was crowned king, William invaded England, killed Harold and crowned himself king during the famous Battle of Hastings. Yet William spoke only French. As a result, the upper class in England began to speak French while the lower classes spoke English.

But by 1250 CE, French began to lose its prestige. King John had lost Normandy to the French in 1204 CE, and after him, King Edward I spoke only English. At this time, many foreigners entered England which made the nobility feel more “English” and so encouraged more use of the English language. The upper class tried to learn English, but they did still use French words sometimes, which was considered somewhat snobbish. French still maintained its prestige elsewhere, and the upper class did not want to lose it completely. Nevertheless, the Hundred Year’s War (1337-1453 CE) intensified hatred of all things French. The Black Death also played a role in increasing English use with the emergence of the middle class. Several of the workers had been killed by the plague, which increased the status of the peasants, who only spoke English. By 1362 CE, the Statute of Pleading (although written in French) declared English as the official spoken language of the courts. By 1385 CE, English was the language of instruction in schools. 1350 to 1400 CE is known as the Period of Great Individual Writers (most famously, Chaucer).

Characteristics of Middle English

Verb infinitives dropped the -an ending, and used “to” before the verb to signify the infinitival form. The third person singular and plural was marked with -(e)th; but the singular also competed with -(e)s from the Northern dialect. More strong (irregular) verbs became weak (regular) as well.

Adjectives lost agreement with the noun, but the weak ending -e still remained. The comparative form became -er and the superlative became -est. Vowels tended to be long in the adjective form, but short in the comparative form (late – latter). The dual number disappeared in the pronouns, and the dative and accusative became the object forms of the pronouns. The third person plural pronouns replaced the old pronouns with th- words (they, them, their) borrowed from Scandinavian.

Syntax was stricter and more prepositions were used. New compound tenses were used, such as the perfect tenses, and there was more use of the progressive and passive voice. The use of double negation also increased as did impersonal constructions. The use of the verbs will and shall for the future tense were first used too. Formerly, will meant want and shall meant obliged to.

Early Modern English (1500 – 1650/1700 CE)

William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476 and the East Midland dialect became the literary standard of English. Ten thousand words were added to English as writers created new words by using Greek and Latin affixes. Some words, such as devulgate, attemptate and dispraise, are no longer used in English, but several words were also borrowed from other languages as well as from Chaucer’s works. In 1582, Richard Mulcaster proposed in his treatise “Elementaire” a compromise on spelling and by 1623, Henry Cockrum published his English dictionary.

Early Grammarians (18th Century)

A proposal for an Academy of the English Language was first brought forth by Jonathan Swift in 1712, but the Parliament voted against it. Nevertheless, several grammarians wrote dictionaries and grammar books in a prescriptive manner – telling people what to do or not to do with the language. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755 and Robert Lowth’s Introduction to English Grammar appeared in 1762. Early grammarians felt that language should be logical, therefore, the double negative was considered incorrect (two negatives equal one positive) and should not be used. They also didn’t like shortened or redundant words, borrowing words from other languages (except Latin and Greek), split infinitives, or prepositions at the end of the sentence.

A more scientifically minded attitude took hold by the 19th century when the Oxford English Dictionary was proposed in 1859. It was to be a factual account of every word in the English language since 1000 including its main form, pronunciation, spelling variations, part of speech, etymology, meanings in chronological order and illustrative quotations. The project was begun in 1879 under its first editor, James AH Murray. The first edition was published in 1928, with supplements in 1933 and 1972-6. The second edition was published in 1989 and it recognized American and Australian English, as the International Phonetic Alphabet for pronunciation.

Beginnings of Modern English

In England, several changes to English had occurred since 1700. These include a loss of the post-vocalic r (so that the r is only pronounced before a vowel and not after); an increase in the use of the progressive tenses; and a rise in class consciousness about speech (Received Pronunciation.) Since 1900, a very large amount of vocabulary words has been added to English in a relatively short period. The majority of these words are related to science and technology, and use Greek and Latin roots.

American English

Immigrants from Southeastern England began arriving on the North American continent in the early 1600’s. By the mid-1800’s, 3.5 million immigrants left the British Isles for the United States. The American English language is characterized by archaisms (words that changed meaning in Britain, but remained in the colonies) and innovations in vocabulary (borrowing from the French and Spanish who were also settling in North America). Noah Webster was the most vocal about the need for an American national identity with regards to the American English language. He wrote an American spelling book, The Blueback Speller, in 1788 and changed several spellings from British English (colour became color, theatre became theater, etc.) In 1828, he published his famous American Dictionary of the English Language.

Dialects in the United States resulted from different waves of immigration of English speakers, contact with other languages, and the slave trade, which had a profound impact on African American English. A dialectal study was done in 1920 and the findings are published in the Linguistics Atlas of the U.S. and Canada.


Today more than ever it is essential to learn the English language. Every day it’s used in almost all areas of human knowledge and development. Practically it may be said that this is the language of today. It is, in the era of globalization, the great international language, a “lingua franca” that has affected all non-English-speaking countries, including Spain, affecting more or less directly to the various fields and professions. Possession can no longer be treated as a luxury, but an obvious need. Moreover, even as he says who is not fluent in that language would be a distinct disadvantage: it would be as if dumb or illiterate means. And too many reasons to say so. Unquestionably, English has become the global language of communication par excellence, one of the most popular in the world. It is the official language, or has a special status in some 75 territories worldwide. English is the most important language in the world is called universal language that even I think it is more important to know English than Spanish and live in a country where Spanish is spoken only English is more important even big businesses are international in English regardless of the country of investors.

Teaching English anywhere in the world, today, is seen as a necessity and urgency. No matter what continent you are or how old you are, the fact is that it is essential for anyone having the respective knowledge of the English language. Moreover if you are a professional or you are looking for a job, is a reality that cannot pass as unnoticed. Do not spend more because there are many young people who now regret not having studied English since childhood or just did not care that the English course taken at the school.


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_____________. Origen e Historial del Idioma Inglés. Lima, Perú 2009. http://www.privateacher.edu.pe/Boletin.asp?ArticuloId=0501_HistoriaIngles

ALEXANDER, E. Historia del Idioma Inglés. 2011. http://www.slideshare.net/224alex/historia-del-idioma-ingls

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Citar este texto en formato APA: _______. (2018). WEBSCOLAR. History of the English Language. https://www.webscolar.com/history-of-the-english-language. Fecha de consulta: 25 de July de 2024.

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