The English language is currently the most spoken language in the world with about 400 million people speaking it as their native language and about 200 million people speaking it as their second language. It is part of West Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages. The history and development of the English language can be divided into four different phases; Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Late Modern English.
Old English started with the invasion of three Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) into the British Isles who displaced the original inhabitants (Celtic-speaking tribes) from England into Wales and Scotland. The dialects of the three Germanic tribes gave rise to Old English (what linguistics refer to as Anglo-Saxon).
The arrival of Christian missionaries led by St. Augustine in 597 AD led to the addition of a whole slew of Latin words into the Old English. Most of the words introduced by missionaries were of the doctrine of Christianity for examples words such as evangelism, bishop, and Eucharist. These words were of Greek and Latin origins.
The invasion of the Vikings into Northern England at around 870 AD also contributed many Norse words into the Old English. The Vikings were Scandinavians and spoke a language which was similar to Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic languages. Examples of the words introduced by the Vikings include; husband, their, them, fat, wind).
Words from Old English forms about 50% of the words used in Modern English. However, English speakers find it very hard to understand Old English. In fact, it does not sound like Modern Day English. An example of a word that originated from Old English is; Weder to mean Weather in Modern Day English.
The transition from Old English to Middle English is traced back to a period of 1100-1500 AD. It started with the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, in 1066 AD. William destroyed the English royal family and its court. The Normans took over all the top positions that were owned by the English. Anglo-Norman (Old French) was made the royal language of the kingdom.
Although the majority spoke English, the Norman Kings created a ‘linguistic apartheid’ where the Old French was used as the royal language. Latin was mostly used by the middle class such as lawyers and merchants as written language. English was used by the lower class and was never used in any official documents. Despite the despise of English language by Norman kings, it still survived due to the following reasons;
- Immediately after the Norman Conquest the English and the Normans began to intermarry rapidly to an extent that one could not tell the difference between an English and a Norman. King Henry the first had an English wife and she taught him to speak English.
- English was well established and it was spoken by the majority hence it was hard to fade. What happened instead was that some Anglo-Norman words and Scandinavian were included into English.
- Since the majority of the English were from the lower class which provided labor to the kingdom, it was important to teach laboring classes in English compared to Anglo-Norman.
- The loss of the province of Normandy in France by King John made him take more interest in England. The nobles started using modified English. A move that led to the end of the linguistic division.
The end of Middle English was marked by the Great Vowel Shift towards the end of the 14th century. This was a strange dialectal phenomenon, in which pronunciation of vowels slid towards the backward and upward of the throat.
The most common way to explain this shift is through the letter y. in Anglo-Saxon it presented a sound which Anglo-Normans pronounced as u, a vowel. For example, Anglo-Saxon I became Middle English much which is now presented as much in modern English. The Great Vowel Shift was so rapid to an extent that children who were born at the end of the 14th century could not pronounce words as their parents did in 1450 AD.
Early Modern English
It is after the Great Vowel Shift that Modern English developed in 1500 AD. It can be described as the transition from Middle English. It was greatly characterized by the introduction of printing press Westminster by William Caxton in 1476 AD.
The introduction of the led formalization of English. It was adopted as the official writing language in London replacing Latin. The greatest achievement of the introduction of printing is that it led to the standardization of English language the sense that a common English was used by the people of England.
During this period the level of literacy among the English had greatly increased and there was an increase in foreign trade too which made the English interact with other people. These led to the assimilation of many foreign words into English vocabulary.
There was a period called the Renaissance in which English literature had blossomed all over and it was highly recognizable. It was during this time that poets like William Shakespeare published most of their works. It is during this time that the first version of King James Bible was published. After the English Civil War in the 17th century, port towns became more influential over the ancient county towns. This facilitated spread of-of English Literature over other continents of the world.
The Dictionary of The English Language was published in 1755. It was the first major step towards the modern day English.
Late Modern English
Basically, the main distinction between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is the evolution of vocabularies. This was spearheaded by Industrial Revolution in and technological inventions in the 18th century which lead to the creation of new vocabularies. During the late 18th century, Britain had acquired colonies all over the world. English was made the official language.
Most of the countries retained English as their official language. This was in order to avoid communication barrier within its citizens especially in countries where there are many indigenous languages. It was also important for trade, political and diplomatic relations with other English-speaking countries. Today English words and vocabularies change at the rapid rate compared to the Middle English and the Anglo-Saxon times. New vocabularies are created often to express new happenings or things or new developments in the society. They are mostly tuned and created in a way that suits the interest of the society in reference to the current situation and happenings in a way that creates public attention. With time this words are incorporated into the English dictionary and become part of the English vocabulary.
The main reasons leading to this rapid growth creation and invention of English words are the rapid discoveries in science and medicine, socioeconomic and political changes.
Technology has also greatly facilitated movement and interaction of people around the world leading to exchange of cultures and languages hence leading to the adoption of many foreign words into the English vocabulary, for instance, the word bona which means to skip school has been adopted in English to mean a method of kicking a soccer ball.
The popularity and increase in the use of slang by the youth today have led to the intense adoption of slang terms into the English dictionary mainly inform of abbreviations, for instance, the word babe is an abbreviation of the word baby.
Another trend in contemporary English is that there is a change of meaning in words whereby a word that meant something else in the 90’s has a different meaning in the current generation for instance long ago, the adjective naughty meant that you had naught or nothing but nowadays it means evil or immoral.
The English language is also changing through sentence format and structuring. Many years ago.it was normal to ask “do you have a moment?” when asking someone for his attention or time but nowadays, it is normal to say “can I have a minute or second?” and it is still acceptable as correct English.
This changes, mean that the society is changing and the English language is equally evolving.
Nowadays the English language is the dominant language in many countries and some other countries which did not use English as their official mode of communication have adopted it into their system, for instance, Middle East countries like the United Arab Emirates use English and Arabic as their official languages.
The English language has penetrated into almost all learning institutions from early childhood education to tertiary levels. In a nutshell, this means that the possibility of English language to become extinct is almost zero but rather it has the potential of becoming the common language of the world.
Lass, Roger. Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion. Cambridge [u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003. Print.
Top of Form
Tieken-Boon, van O. I. An Introduction to Late Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Internet resource.
Top of Form
Barber, Charles. Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2001. Print.
Top of Form
Burrow, J A, and Thorlac Turville-Petre. A Book of Middle English. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005. Internet resource.