Development of English

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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes who settled what is now England in the 5th to 8th centuries found a land (Roman Britain) inhabited by speakers of a primitive form of Welsh. It was these Angles, Saxons and Jutes who first spoke English.

  • An account of the first phase of the English language is given at Old English (History), and a description of the language is sketched at Old English (characteristics). The phase of Old English lasted roughly from the beginnings in the fifth century to the twelfth century. In this phase, English was a purely Germanic language.
    • A later wave of invaders, the Vikings, who spoke the North Germanic language of Old Norse, influenced the dialects of northern England, and contributed to the growth of the vocabulary of the young language.
  • The second phase of the history of English is Middle English. The impulse to this was the arrival of another set of invaders, the Normans (themselves the results of an invasion of France by Norsemen, or Vikings). The Norman Conquest (1066) heralded the arrival of a governing class in England whose language was a form of French. During the following two centuries, the language evolved from Old English to Middle English. See further Middle English (History) and Middle English (characteristics) for slightly more detail.
  • With the advent of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, the third - and so far, the last -phase of the history of our language Modern English may be said to have started. This is usually subdivided into three:
    • the language of Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) is labelled Early Modern English. This is a version of the language that can be read without immense difficulty by people who speak Present-Day English. The single biggest shift between Middle and Modern English was probably the Great English Vowel shift, which affected the sounds and the spelling of the language, and contributed to the loss of inflections in the modern as opposed to the older tongue.
    • After Shakespeare's time (say by 1700), the language lost most of the inflections now regarded as archaic, and is regarded as full-blown Modern English.
    • Present-day English is - as its name says - what we speak today; what you are reading and I am writing here. A moment's thought about all the varieties of English one may hear or read in a single day should reinforce the idea that nothing described on this page has any clear or distinct boundaries: language change is a continuous and continuing process.