History of the English Language

Outline: History of the English Language 

Old English (Anglo-Saxon: Germanic) c. 5th century AD – 11th century
Norman invasion (1066)
Middle English 11th century – c. 1475
Great Vowel Shift
Modern English c. 1475 – present


Celtic Germanic Roman/Latin
Celtic speakers
(Indo-Europeans) migrate to England
Julius Caesar enters Britain
Romans rule Britain as a province (AD 54-410)
(Relatively few Latin words borrowed into English from this time period survived to the present)
Angles, Saxons, and Jutes push Celts to the fringes (Ireland, Scotland, Wales)
(Relatively little Celtic influence on English)
(5th –6th centuries AD)
AnglesSaxons, and Jutes (West Germanic branch of Indo-European) move to England and become dominant.
(Runic alphabetic writing system)
(Old English)
(Post-Classical Latin; vulgar Latin)
Christian missionaries bring the Latin alphabet, and Latin literary culture to the islands (beginning AD 597)

(Norse) Viking invasions

Norman invasion (William the Conquerer: 1066)
Middle English
Great  Vowel Shift

Medieval Latin 

Modern English

(Renaissance Latin)
Neo-Classical Latin


Old English (Anglo-Saxon) 5th century-11th century AD (c. 1050)

A.  Pronunciation: simpler and more consistent (letters pronounced the same way, no silent letters, etc.)
B.  Grammar
1.  Nouns: 3 genders
up to 5 cases with different endings for singular and plural
2.  Adjectives and Pronouns: 3 genders and 5 cases
up to 11 different forms for a word
3.  Verbs: different endings and/or changes relating to singular/plural, tense, mood, and person.
C.  Authors: Caedmon, Bede, Alcuin of York (called by Charlemagne to his capital; such scholars brought literary culture back to Europe as part of the
Carolingian Renaissance that was a light in the middle of  the “Dark Ages”)

Viking (Norse/Danish/North Germanic cousins of Anglo-SaxonsInvasions

A.  8th to 9th century England: many Old Norse words borrowed into English as well as some grammatical influence (e.g. theythem, and their).
B.  Vikings also settled in northern France, which thus was called Normandy (from Norseman).  These Vikings basically gave up their own language and adopted French.
C.  1066: William the Conqueror of Normandy invades England and defeats Anglo-Saxon King Harold in the Battle of Hastings. For the next 300 years, no king
of England spoke English as his first language.
Middle English 11/12th century (c. 1050) -15th century (c. 1475)

A.  English underwent many changes from c. 1100-1150.  Not having had an official standard set by the elite (who spoke French), the English language increased in
variety (dialects) and became more simplified grammatically.
B.  Anglo-Norman French dialect influence on English: c. 10,000 words borrowed into English
            C.  Grammar:
1.  Disappearance of gender (except a few pronoun forms)
2.  Decline in number of inflected endings on nouns, verbs, and adjectives (e.g. adjectives had gone from 11 forms in OE to 2 or sometimes 1).
3.  Change from case-based to word order based syntax (c. 1300-1400).
D. Authors and works: Chaucer (1340-1400); Wycliffe Bible (1st English translation: 14th century)
E. Pronunciation: major changes and dialectal differences
1.  Final e’s and initial k’s (knee, knife) were still pronounced
2.  The Great Vowel Shift: 15th century

Old and Middle English

(.e.g. fāma)

(e.g. fēmina)

(e.g. amīcus)




Modern English

(e.g. car, father)

(e.g. tray)

(e.g. feet)

(e.g. bit)



Modern English 15-16th century (c. 1475) – present

A.  Rise in use of vernacular English and translations from Latin to English (largest number of borrowings of words directly from Latin to English: 16th-17th centuries)
B.  Development of printed texts
Caxton’s first book printed in English (1475)
Standardization of spelling (at a time when pronunciation was not standardized)
C.  Authors and works: Shakespeare (1564-1616)
King James Bible (1611)