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Track the Evolution of the English Language from Old English to Modern English

From Laura, published on 22/08/2017 Blog > Academia > School English > The History of English Language

The history of the English language dates back as far as 430 AD, when a mix of groups or tribes resided in Britain and each spoke different variations of a Germanic language. As the residents gradually colonised the country, the various kingdoms were, in turn, dominated by the Anglo Saxons.

The language which emerged as a result of this domination became known as Englisc, now commonly referred to as ‘Old English’. Though it is hard to put an exact date on the birth of the English language, it appears that the first distinguishing features of English started off among four dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish.

While around 85% of Old English allegedly died out over time, some common words in the English dictionary are directly linked to this dialect. Below is a brief timeline displaying some of the momentous milestones in the evolution of the English language.

English Language Origin: The Early 1000s

Although much of the above is speculation led by historians, there are some things that we can be sure of. For example, the first recorded conversation in English – a dialogue between a teacher and pupil who were discussing learning Latin – was written by the Oxfordshire-based abbot of Eynsham somewhere around 1010. The purpose of the text was for it to be a teaching aid for students in monastic establishments.

Shortly after, in or around 1020, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was produced, with the aim of listing historical events in date order from past to present. With many stories about the Danish and Norwegian Vikings within it, the national chronicle revealed many of the words from their Old Norse language that we still use today; like ‘take’, ‘dirt’ and ‘they’. Names with ‘Thorpe’ in them are also said to derive from this era, so think about the history behind its name the next time you visit Thorpe Park!

The twelfth century marked an important shift in the Old English language that many were so used to. During the 1100s, a collection of existing sermons were translated from Latin to English, with  a more modern pattern and rhythm. Linguists refer to this transition as Middle English because the way in which the language appears to have moved on signals that Old English was (or had already) been phased out and replaced at this stage.

Throughout the 1300s, we see a range of new pieces of writing emerging, like a medieval encyclopaedia and the first culinary manuscript, whereas the 1400s brings us the infamous Chaucer who played a very important role in the shaping of English Literature.

Chaucer, thanks to his contribution to literature in England, was an influential character for the many writers who followed him. His legacy was said to be that he created a worthy literary standard of English.

How do your writing skills compare to Chaucer’s? Find out how to write the perfect essay or  teach yourself how to become a better writer with our informative blogs.

Middle English: The Mid/Late-1000s

It was in the early 1500s when we saw the first bible printed in English, by William Tyndale. With translations into English having previously been forbidden, Tyndale felt it was time that locals were able to read or hear words from the bible that they could actually understand.

The bible was first translated into English during the middle of the 1000s. It has been forbidden for the bible to be translated into English. Photo via VisualHunt.com

Quite surprisingly, some of his phrases are still used in the English language today; with the inclusion of ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘the apple of his eye’, ‘signs of the times’ and not forgetting ‘broken-hearted’.

The 1600s were, as we now know, a big milestone once again for English Literature thanks to the publication of Shakespeare’s plays (though some, like Richard III, were made public towards the end of the previous century). 1601 saw Hamlet written and released into the public. A tale about revenge that is based heavily on suspense, Hamlet was one of the first-known texts to really explore the human mind and contemplate our existence. One of the story’s most famous lines is ‘To be or not to be’.

With many more plays that followed, Shakespeare was writing during a time when the English culture was developing rapidly and many new scientific discoveries were being made. In addition, many scholars were placing emphasis on languages.

Shakespeare, who had a very strong word bank, was one of the oldest authors to use as many words and phrases as he did which are still in existence today. His expressions and the way he conveyed emotions were somewhat contemporary when you consider how much of the text we can relate to in this day and age.

You might express yourself in sonnets with this complete writing guide!

The 1700s welcomed well-known author Horace Walpole and poet William Blake, meanwhile the early 1800s introduced William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning and Emily Bronte, among many others. Some might say that this was a pivotal century concerning literature.

Many will be familiar with authors like Bronte, who wrote 'Wuthering Heights', along with fellow writers from that period. Emily Bronte, author of ‘Wuthering Heights’, was writing in the 1700s. Photo credit: angelocesare via Visual hunt

It was also the first time that a collection of nursery rhymes were written down, although telling folk stories to children was already an established tradition by this point. Interestingly, some of the rhymes have been adapted over the years, including ‘Polly Put The Kettle On’ which has had a couple of lines changed and a verse omitted completely.

Modern English Language

The 1900s were once again a time of profound change and acceleration when it came to society. The nation was faced with urbanisation, industrialisation, and many new scientific discoveries. The main changes for language, however, were the revolution in printing technology and the increased focus on literacy levels within education.

Around this time, Englishmen and women also recognised the need to record different dialects of the English language before they died out. As well as recording words on paper, it was during this era that the phonograph was invented and voices were subsequently recorded speaking the language – a great way of preserving history.

Yet, this was the century when the British empire was at its height, covering twenty per cent of the world’s land and comprising of 400 million people. As such, the English language began to evolve with new words being introduced from North America and India, as well as brand new terminology coming from the scientific world.

Linguists believe that very little changed between English of the 1800s and that of the twentieth century, however those who lived through the times inbetween might argue that this is not the case.

What most people do agree on, however, is that science has played a very influential role on the development of our language throughout the times, and is therefore a key factor in the numerous changes which occur (even now), including of course digitalisation.

The Future Of English Language

As we have mentioned, a number of external factors can influence and change language even if they appear only to be a trend.

When the a Internet was invented, no one could have imagined just how much it took off.

This early stage of digitalisation brought about a range of new terms and trends, particularly electronic mail or ‘email’ and instant messaging, also known as ‘IM’. These new, fast ways of communicating suddenly made a need for shortened language apparent and a number of abbreviations emerged as a result.

Over time, we have become accustomed to these forms of Internet-language, often incorporating them into everyday speech. ‘LOL’, for example, which stands for ‘laughing out loud’, is a term that we actually now use in a sentence to describe an emotion despite its purpose of describing a physical action.

Do you think spelling skills in the UK have fallen over time? Find out what the 21st century has in store for our spelling.

This century has seen a bug shift towards Internet-based language. LOL and other abbreviations have crept their way into the English language. Photo credit: sermoa via Visualhunt

Similarly, you do not have to go far to hear people saying ‘OMG’ or ‘DM me your details’. Twenty years ago, DMs were best known as a make of fashionable footwear!

In light of today’s abbreviated language, is spelling correctly still a vital skill?

With 400 million people speaking English as their native language and a further 700 million or more speaking it as their second language, there are consequently many different forms of the language around the world today. In fact, British English is now a minority which is unprecedented in the history of this language!

If language is a reflection of culture, then our younger generations being brought up on technology have the potential to influence English beyond recognition.

With so many people already adapting their own versions of English across the globe, a very large proportion of the planet must already be speaking the same, if not a similar, language. Could we therefore be looking at a transition to one universal language in future? If so, could the increasingly popular emojis or emoticons become embedded in our everyday language?

Nevertheless, there is value to be had in daily writing exercises!

As with any language (if they can collectively be called a language), emojis are somewhat open to interpretation. How much so is unclear, however, with many factors yet to be considered or researched fully like religious and cultural differences which could cause one person to take offence by a picture that another might see as completely innocent.

The British Council confirms that language is always adapted with society and culture at the forefront so will it ever be possible for English, or any other language for that matter, to become universal?

As we have seen, no one can predict where language will go next but we can expect stages of development to accelerate much quicker than ever before thanks to the equally fast-moving worlds of science and technology which have such a strong influence over our society and culture.

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