An artistic tree diagram where Indo-European languages branch out more and more into different languages

The Timeline and Development of the English Language

Overview of the English Language

An artistic tree diagram where Indo-European languages branch out more and more into different languages
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Language tree diagram

Investigating the history of the English language requires going back all the way to the 5th century. Though it is a global language, English breaks many of its own rules and is notorious for complex spelling. Linguists often judge English as a strange language, due to its unusually large number of vowels and phonemes. It also borrows many loan words, explained by its origins. Compared to other languages, the grammar is very unique. Using history, it is time to unravel the mystery of how English came to be. 

The Indo-European language family includes the English language. Along with Europe, languages from Iran, the subcontinent of India, and parts of Asia are included. Most languages trace back to the Proto-Indo-European language root. Then, it splits off into the Indo-Aryan and European branches. English is a part of this process, which is why it holds references to other languages. 

Old English

Beowulf is standing over a creature holding its head up to look at it
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In the 5th century, the Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes conquered England. They migrated from Denmark, northern Germany, and the Netherlands. Their invasion displaced the existing Celtic languages. As a result, the Celtics moved to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. However, the Celtic impact on English endures through city names, such as London, Dover, York, etc. The Anglo-Frisian languages of the Germanic invaders coalesced to become Old English. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Vikings from the regions of Scandinavia had their own impact on the English language. Old Norse changed grammar and introduced new words. Because Old Norse and Old English shared similarities, it was popular for people to be bilingual. Within Old English, people spoke Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon dialects. West Saxon was a major influence on Old English. Mercian influenced Middle and Modern English. 

Anglo Saxon tribes did not practice Christianity and were mostly pagans. Therefore, they did not inaugurate a written language. Most written records of Old English were manuscripts because priests would write religious texts. Historians could only draw from religious Latin sources to extract any examples of Old English. Only 4 manuscripts contained the entirety of Old English poetry. The inconvenience of copying numerous pages contributed to the lack of manuscripts. In addition, it was rare to find a manuscript with secular content.  


Beowulf remains a huge remnant of the Old English language. This epic poem and legend shines as the most important paradigm of literature from the Old English period. It holds significant historical and literary merit and is one of the first pieces taught in English classes. Beowulf is the starting point of literature from which everything else follows. Discourse around Beowulf still fuels discussions today, showing its value to history and the world. 

Middle English

A colorful painting of the characters from Canterbury Tales riding on horses on the pilgrimage
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Canterbury Tales

From around 1100 to 1450, Old English began its shift into Modern English through the Middle English phase. In 1066, the Normans invaded England, marked by William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. The new authority recreated society and government in the French image. Old Norman developed into Anglo-Norman once reaching England. Subsequently, Anglo-Norman, or Anglo-Norman French took over Old English. Many French loan words entered the English lexicon.  

Connections to French

Society at this time reserved French for the upper class and English for the lower class. For example, modest trades such as baker, miller, and shoemaker are in English, whereas skilled trades such as mason, painter, tailor, and merchant come from French. Animals in the field carried on with their English names like sheep, cow, ox, calf, but cooked meat was in French, like beef, mutton, pork, and bacon. In government and court contexts, people spoke Anglo Norman and French, again elevating them above English. These small linguistic differences widen the gaps between classes even more. 

The Rise of English

Throughout the 14th century, the English language finally surged into widespread acceptability. The first legal document in English was published in 1258, and later on King Edward the 3rd gave the first Parliament speech in English in 1362. He installed English as the official language of England. Courts eventually started to use English, and authors exercised the freedom to write in either English, French, and Latin. In 1385, teachers conducted school in English rather than Latin. King Henry the 4th was the first king to speak English since the 5th century, showing how far English has come. 

The Canterbury Tales

In the 1380’s, Geoffrey Chaucer transformed the use of the English language in print. He was the first author to gain fame and publish in English. The Canterbury Tales were revolutionary and are now taught as one of the first masterpieces of English literature. Chaucer demonstrated that works published in English could be successful despite its status. Poets and authors aimed to publish in French and Latin instead, since they were languages for scholars, religious officials, and the elite. To signify how prevalent French was, about 25% of the language in Canterbury Tales has origins in French. However, Chaucer implemented mainly English vocabulary and even revived Old English vocabulary that had gone extinct. 

Despite how radical publishing in English was, his artistic choice proved advantageous, as his writing reached a broad audience. The Canterbury Tales was especially unique for Chaucer’s execution of different dialects corresponding to the character’s background. Due to the rapid transmutation in the English language, by the 15th century Chaucer’s language became harder to read. 

The Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift developed in a long process during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, but largely in the 15th. This phase runs parallel to the Renaissance and Baroque periods, as well as the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Over time, people altered the way they pronounce long vowels and certain consonants. Since spelling did not adapt to new pronunciation, you will find that spelling does not necessarily go hand in hand with pronunciation in the English language. Scholars tend to differ on what exactly spawned the Great Vowel Shift. The most popular theory is that after the bubonic plague, the mass migrations caused the original London population to attempt to draw lines between their own speech and the speech of transplants. 

The vowels in Middle English sounded more like Italian and German, but transformed to a diphthong pronunciation. A diphthong is the merging of two vowels where the tongue moves as one pronounces the word. It sounds as if one vowel is flowing into another. An example of Middle English pronunciation is how the word “bite” actually sounds like “beet”, and “boot” sounds like “boat”. The pronunciation changed as vowels merged together repeatedly. This is why some words sound identical but have different spellings and meanings. 

Early Modern English

A close up of an open book about The Plays of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare book

The arrival of Modern English began around 1450 or the 15th century. People would perceive the language in Shakespeare’s plays or the Bible as “older” English, or Early Modern English. It is additionally called Elizabethan English because of Queen Elizabeth’s reign at the time. This phase of English is incredibly relevant because most fluent speakers today can read Shakespeare or the Bible and grasp its meaning. In comparison to the English language of the 14th century, the average reader could find Shakespeare legible and find Chaucer challenging to read. 

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare especially modified and enhanced the English language through standardizing grammar and spelling. He invented 1700 words that we still use in modern day. He pulled inspiration from other languages and reworked nouns, adjectives, and verbs to take the place of each other. Sometimes he mingled words together, tacked on suffixes or prefixes, or conjured up new words altogether. He coined countless everyday phrases, such as breaking the ice, devil incarnate, and full circle. For example, he produced the word “radiance” from the Latin word “radiantem”, and converted the noun “majesty” to the adjective “majestic”.  

The First Dictionary

Samuel Johnson published the first dictionary of the English language in 1755. He noticed that elite Spanish and French academies were instituting linguistic studies and linguistic reforms, and decided England could not fall behind. Johnson collected subscriptions and gained 6 assistants to help him compile a record of 40,000 words. He was concerned with “fixing” or unifying the English language, because of the irregular changes in pronunciation and the absence of strict spelling. He did recognize that his goal to create an eternal standard was impossible; you cannot stop a language from morphing over time. Still, his invention of the English dictionary provided a sense of cohesion for the English language. 

Modern English

A diagram showing British words versus English words for the same objects
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British/English words

Late Modern English spans from around the 1800s to the present day. As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, people needed to create new words for machines and technology that had not existed before. Some words include piston, electricity, camera, and telephone. Most of these advancements originated in England and were recorded in English. The United States followed suit and continued to use the English language for their products. Wealthy English people performed science in English, so they borrowed from medieval Latin, which was the language of scholarship. Latin had previously borrowed from Greek and Arabic, again connecting more languages to English. Their scientific vocabulary expanded to include words like oxygen, protein, nuclear, chromosome, refraction, as well as biology, archaeology, and paleontology. 

American English

In the “New World” and in the colonial period, English colonists intended to build a long-lasting society in what is now America. Their motivation to nurture future generations and create an individual culture cemented the English language in the New World. Some pronunciations and words in English did not change when they came to America. Counterintuitively, American English is now more related to Elizabethan English than modern British English. A few “old-fashioned” words that have gone out of style in England are “talented”, “gotten”, and “trash”. 

American English has facilitated their own “sound” and vocabulary compared to British English. Thomas Jefferson described it as an “American dialect”, though that is not the contemporary definition of dialect. As settlers moved westward, they encountered different animals and plants, thus deriving new words to name them. People took advantage of the novelty to imagine more idiosyncratic and wacky words, such as “shenanigans”, “discombobulated”, and “skedaddle”. Americans coined phrases like “poker face”, “a chip on your shoulder”, and “kick the bucket”. These deviations from traditional language took on a socially acceptable quality. 

English Language Reform

Both in England and America, high-profile figures demanded reforms to the English language specific to their country. Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Noah Webster were the strongest forces behind the spelling reform in America. In contrast, English reform had less momentum, though Alfred Lord Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Darwin headed the effort. Thomas Jefferson seemed to believe that American English would eventually lose all similarities to British English. People based these hypotheses on the already separating pronunciations. They were wrong; instead, American and British English renewed their connections to each other. 

American Spelling

Noah Webster wrote the first standard for spelling in The American Spelling Book in 1788. The spellings he documented were already popular in America, but he moreover reinvented spelling. During the time, people were already changing theatre to theater and centre to center. He took the liberty of dropping letters that currently differentiate American English from British English. Colour became color, jeweller was jeweler, masque was mask, and aluminium became aluminum. On the other hand, his proposals for spellings such as soop for soup, medicin for medicine, croud for crowd, and others faded into obscurity. Those that aligned with Webster’s American ideas versus those that leaned more British began a so-called “Dictionary War”.  When Webster and the Merriam Brothers joined together, the Merriams were responsible for erasing those revised spellings. The resulting Merriam-Webster dictionary, published in 1847, was widely approved and still circulates society now.  

Outside Influences on American English

The effects of Spanish and French on the English language took hold too. In the West, Spanish influenced English with words like ranch, rodeo, stampede, vigilante, tornado, etc. The French language in Louisiana had a hand in words such as depot, cache, gopher, cent, etc. Illinois, Detroit, and Des Moines all have roots in French. Furthermore, a large part of American vocabulary transferred to England. Hundreds of words like blizzard, graveyard, cocktail, skyscraper, publicity, etc circulate England though being conceived in America. Despite this, British people often deride English words, even if it is technically closer to older English. Americanized versions of words have now replaced British spellings. Airplane is now used instead of aeroplane, reflection over reflexion, horror for horrour, etc. The British still have their distinctive section of lexicon: lift for elevator, biscuit for cookie, chips for fries, etc. 

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

A world map of all the countries that speak English
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Map of English Speakers

In the modern day, the English language has diverged into many varieties, such as Australian English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English, and others. Each variety, accent, and dialect of English has their own quirks and specific sound. Due to colonization and the overall spread of English, the English speaking population has proliferated all over the world. It is riveting to think that one language has been inspired by various cultures, peoples, and languages over the course of history. Due to its influences, the English language seems to truly be a worldwide language.


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