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Learn English: English Grammar Evolution over the Centuries

By Sophia, published on 24/08/2017 Blog > Languages > ESOL (English) > Learning English: How English Grammar has Changed

Anyone who is knowledgeable of the history of Britain is aware that the Romans had great influence on settling and regimenting the island.

From Hadrian’s Wall to the city of Bath, The Roman Empire’s influence is relevant, even today.

The name of our capital city, London is derived from its Roman name: Londinium.

What About Language?

At that time, the English language did not exist. Romans spoke Latin.

When they decamped en masse – after occupying the land for nearly five hundred years, they did not leave behind  any teachers to continue instructing their language’s grammar and form.

Who came after the Romans?

And when did English become a language?

This is the story of the English language: how it came to be and from where its grammar originated.

The Romans had no impact on Brittany's language or culture The Romans left little behind, other than architecture Source: Pixabay Credit: WilloqF

The Angles, Jutes and Saxons

The Angles, Jutes and Saxons were the initiators of the English language, which was cobbled together from their own closely related tongues.

More on that in a moment…

Prior even to the fifth century C.E., when those three tribes independently came and occupied Britannia – as Great Britain was then called, several languages around the world already have fully formed grammars.

Sanskrit, Greek and Latin were the most widely spoken languages of the time.

These languages themselves originated from a single form of speech called Proto-Indo European.

That is a name belatedly assigned to a presumed language, of which there is no written record.

Linguists agree with the theory that most European and Indian languages originated from a single source.

That includes the Germanic language that the Angles and Saxons spoke.

Find out more about English language style and form in our dedicated blog.

How English Came to Be

The story of English (and England) starts about two hundred years after our Germanic forefathers settled in.

The development of the English language coincides with the establishment of England as an independent country.

The Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes all spoke a similar language – relatively close versions of West Germanic.

Proof of our language’s roots is found in words that start with a silent k, such as: knee, knife, knack, and knot.

Their individual dialects evolved in response to the need for communication amongst the various tribes.

Soon, the word English – derived from the name Angle, came to represent their common vernacular.

Not long after, the island they occupied became known as England.

The West Germanic language already had a complete grammar system.

As the tribal languages melded into what is now known as Old English, grammar rules transferred from their native language to their second language.

Britain soon became an island of English speakers, spouting unique phrases and new vocabulary.

The Vikings profoundly changed the English language The Vikings left far more than just a few casks in England Source Pixabay Credit: Arthur_ASCII

Viking Influence on English Grammar

Just after the eleventh century, the Vikings settled in Britain. They brought with them their culture and their language.

The influence of the Norse tongue changed the English language in profound ways, especially the grammar.

  • Gender inflection disappeared
    • from he sayeth to our modern verb endings: he says, she says
  • The subject-verb word order reversal to form questions
    • I am and Am I? – the structure we use today.
  • Third person plural pronouns
    • Changed from hi, hem, hir in Old English to they, them, their

Irregular and Defective Verbs

During the course of English grammar evolution, some verbs could not follow standard conjugation, nor could every verb tense be applied to certain predicates.

Modals and some auxiliary verbs were considered defective.

That designation persists, even in today’s English. According to some language professors, it should be extended to include irregular verbs.

Welcome, the Normans!

The Vikings had barely settled in to England, intermarrying and learning to speak English as a second language, when the Normans arrived.

These French invaders brought about the greatest changes to early English grammar

  • Grammatical Gender was replaced by Logic Gender
    • the system wherein nouns are assigned a gender changed to the largely genderless language system of today
  • Noun endings were dropped, except for plurals
  • Word order became paramount!

Within three hundred years, Norman French blended with Norse English, A.K.A Old English.

Halfway through the fourteenth century, English was the language we know it as today.

Today’s English is the least Germanic of the Germanic languages.

Westminster English: The Prestige Dialect

The hub of English language evolution was, of course, in Southern England, where royalty and people of class resided.

Westminster English gained popularity by royal decree because the king had broken away from the Roman Church.

Driven by the monarch’s preference for the Protestant religion, Latin – the language of church, quickly fell out of favor.

English speaking popularity being on the rise during the seventeenth century, English became the language of science, the language skills to develop.

Around that time, dictionaries and English text books – books of formal grammar and to learn how to read, helped people to study English.

Soon, people all over England started speaking English!

Learn about English Grammar Clauses in our dedicated blog.

While the English were Becoming Fluent in Their Language…

While England went about establishing its language and cultivating Protestant beliefs, the rest of Europe’s academics continued to teach, and students to learn, in Latin.

Changes were made to Latin grammar and vocabulary during that time, perhaps to incorporate what we might refer to as slang words and phrases.

Certainly, the Latin idiom survived the global focus on the developing ESOL courses: Carpe Diem, anyone?

Books printed in England revealed English grammar to be similar to Latin’s language system but for a few glaring exceptions.

In Latin,

  • It was not possible to end a sentence with a preposition
  • Double negatives were not used
  • Double comparatives were impossible
  • Infinitives could not be split

These grammatical advances in English, that could not correlate to Latin’s rules, served to prove the world’s developing language as a linguistic aberration.

Those early Esl students could not make sense of a system of rules that varied so wildly from their native language.

A sense that English was inferior resonated throughout Europe. It was thought that the English language was second best, and not just to Latin.

English was deemed not as good as French and Latin. It needed to be improved. – David Crystal

As a result of this bias towards this so-called inferior grammar, proficiency in written English was measured against a student’s competency in spoken English.

For the lack of an English teacher, people taking ESOL courses from itinerant tutors might learn spelling and speaking skills, but writing grammatically correct sentences posed a challenge.

Grammar and spelling were in a state of flux at the time, with few to no written guides to learn from.

Students may well have excelled in spoken English, but there was no universal standard of English pronunciation. The need to improve speaking skills was arbitrarily prescribed.

As time went on, English learning became more accepted; still writing skills continued to be measured against students’ ability to speak the language.

It is an unhappy fact that not a single writer from that era could compose grammatically correct text. Even Shakespeare was found to have broken some grammar rules some of his works!

Right now, English grammar rules are eroding Even now, English grammar is evolving. Source: Pixabay Credit: Tumisu

English Grammar Today

Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. – Gilbert Highet

Unlike the English language’s closest grammatical cousin, Frisian, English has enjoyed great exposure throughout the centuries.

That means that other languages are constantly contributing new words to the English vocabulary.

English speakers the world over are modifying existing English words to keep up with the most current linguistic trends. Check out our blog on words with multiple meanings in English.

All over the world, Esol students are taking practice quizzes in preparation for IELTS or TOEFL.

Some people study English grammar – admiring the relative simplicity of sentence structures and English verb tenses, with the intent of becoming an Esl teacher or specialising in business English.

Others studying English look at our language’s underpinning: how firm are these grammar rules? Can some of them be modified to suit the times, or – better yet: broken outright?

Our language is constantly evolving, so subtly the changes are sometimes not noticed.

English grammar is right now undergoing changes that you, who are learning English, are helping to bring about.

If you learn English with a younger crowd, learners who might feel less obligated to keep the language pure, you will certainly brush up against tricky, trendy phrases.

If you learn English online, you will participate in the most up-to-date grammar exercises.

Keep your listening skills sharp for the native English speaker who uses the latest grammar modifications.

Or, you could tune in to the British Council’s podcasts to learn the latest updates.

You could even take free English classes through them!

As you improve your English, spare a thought to those who, so long ago, struggled to learn English – a brand new language with essentially no set grammar rules and no English lessons online to guide them.

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