English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects and was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders (or settlers) from what is now called north west Germany and the Netherlands. It uses a vocabulary unlike other European languages of the same era. A large portion of the modern English vocabulary comes from the Anglo-Norman languages. English frequently makes use of loanwords originating from other languages.

Middle English differed from Old English because of two invasions, which occurred during the Middle Ages. The first invasion was by people who spoke North Germanic languages. They conquered and colonised parts of Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The second invasion was by the Normans of the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and eventually developed an English form of this, called Anglo-Norman. A new vocabulary introduced at this time heavily influenced many organizations, including the church, the court system and the government. European languages, including German, Dutch, Latin and Ancient Greek influenced the English vocabulary during the Renaissance.

Old English initially was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. The Late West Saxon dialect eventually became dominant. Written Old English of 1000 AD was similar to Old Frisian and, to a lesser extent, other Germanic languages such as Old Saxon, Old High German and Old Norse in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Written Old English is relatively unintelligible today, in contrast to written Modern English and written Middle English. Close contact with the Scandinavians resulted in much grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the English language, which had been based on Anglo-Frisian. These changes did not reach South West England until the Norman invasion in 1066. Old English developed into a full-fledged literary language, based on the most common manner of speaking in London during the 13th century.

English is divided into several historical forms. Each historical form of English had certain characteristics that distinguish it from the forms of English that came before and after it. The Old English period was from the mid-5th century to the mid-11th century, the Middle English period from the late 11th century to the late 15th century, the Early Modern English period from the late 15th century to the late 17th century, and the Modern English period from the late 17th century to the present.


The languages of Germanic peoples gave rise to the English language. The best known are the Angles, Saxons, Frisii, Jutes and possibly some people such as Franks, who traded, fought with and lived alongside the Latin-speaking peoples of the Roman Empire in the centuries-long process of the Germanic peoples' expansion into Western Europe during the Migration Period. Latin loan words such as wine, cup, and bishop entered the vocabulary of these Germanic peoples before their arrival in Britain and the subsequent formation of England.

Tacitus' Germania, written around 100 AD, is a primary source of information for the culture of the Germanic peoples in ancient times. Germanics were in contact with Roman civilization and its economy, including residing within the Roman borders in large numbers in the province of Germania and others and serving in the Roman military, while many more retained political independence outside of Roman territories. Germanic troops such as the Tungri, Batavi and Frisii served in Britannia under Roman command. Except for the Frisians, Germanic settlement in Britain, according to Bede, occurred largely after the arrival of mercenaries in the 5th century. Most Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived in Britain in the 6th century as Germanic pagans, independent of Roman control, again, according to Bede who wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 731 AD. Although Bede mentions invasion by Angles, Saxons and Jutes, the precise nature of the invasion is now disputed by some historians, and the exact contributions made by these groups to the early stages of the development of the English Language, are contested.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that around the year 449 Vortigern, King of the Britons, invited the "Angle kin" (Angles allegedly led by the Germanic brothers Hengist and Horsa) to help repel invading Picts. In return, the Anglo-Saxons received lands in the southeast of Britain. In response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles and Jutes). The Chronicle refers to waves of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms, known as the heptarchy. Modern scholars view Hengist and Horsa as euhemerised deities from Anglo-Saxon paganism, who ultimately stem from the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

However it is important to remember that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was not a contemporaneous record of these assumed folk-movements. It was first written around 850 AD, up to four hundred years after the events it is describing. Therefore, we cannot assume that the Chronicle is an accurate record for the fifth and sixth centuries, or that the events referred to actually took place.

Old English

After the Anglo-Saxon settlement, the Germanic language displaced the indigenous Brythonic languages and Latin in most of the areas of Britain that later became England. The original Celtic languages remained in parts of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (where Cornish was spoken into the 18th century), although large numbers of compound Celtic-Germanic placenames survive, hinting at early language mixing. Latin also remained in these areas as the language of the Celtic Church and of higher education for the nobility. Latin was later to be reintroduced to England by missionaries from both the Celtic and Roman churches, and it would, in time, have a major impact on English. What is now called Old English emerged over time out of the many dialects and languages of the colonising tribes. Even then, Old English continued to exhibit local variation, the remnants of which continue to be found in dialects of Modern English. The most famous surviving work from the Old English period is the epic poem Beowulf, composed by an unknown poet.

Old English varied widely from modern Standard English, and most native English speakers today find Old English unintelligible. Nevertheless, English remains a Germanic language, and approximately half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English. Many non-standard dialects such as Scottish English (with its heavy Scots influence) and Northumbrian English have retained features of Old English in vocabulary and pronunciation. Old English was spoken until some time in the 12th or 13th century.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Old English was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Old Norse, spoken by the Norsemen who invaded and settled mainly in the North East of England (see Jórvík and Danelaw). The Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians spoke related languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more divergent.

The Germanic language of the Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by extensive contact with Norse colonizers, resulting perhaps in cases of morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). The Vikings had a very significant effect on English culture and language by interacting with ordinary people, which was further encouraged by the Christianization of the Danes. Converting the Danes allowed intermarriage, further forcing the two groups to mingle and encouraging language cohabitation. While the heightened level of mingling indicates large amounts of lexical borrowing, it is difficult to define how and when those borrowings occurred. That being said, English borrowed approximately two thousand words from Old Norse, including anger, bag, both, hit, law, leg, same, skill, sky, take, window, and many others, possibly even including the pronoun they.

The introduction of Christianity from around 600 encouraged the addition of over 400 Latin loan words into Old English, such as priest, paper, and school, and fewer Greek loan words. The Old English period formally ended some time after the Norman conquest of 1066, when the language was influenced to an even greater extent by the Normans, who spoke a French dialect called Old Norman.

Middle English

For centuries following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and high-ranking nobles in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles spoke Anglo-Norman, a variety of Old Norman, originating from a northern langue d'oïl dialect. Merchants and lower-ranked nobles were often bilingual in Anglo-Norman and English, whilst English continued to be the language of the common people. Middle English was influenced by both Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French (see characteristics of the Anglo-Norman language).

The more idiomatic, concrete and descriptive a style of English is, the more it tends to be from Anglo-Saxon origins. The more intellectual and abstract English is, the more it tends to contain Latin and French influences.

Until the 14th century, Anglo-Norman and then French was the language of the courts and government, but for example the Pleading in English Act 1362 made English the only language in which court proceedings could be held, though the official record remained in Latin.

Even after the decline of Norman French, standard French retained the status of a formal or prestige languageâ€"as in most of Europe during the periodâ€"and had a significant influence on the vernacular English, which is visible in Modern English today (see English language word origins and List of English words of French origin). A tendency for French-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day. For example, most modern English speakers consider a "cordial reception" (from French) to be more formal than a "hearty welcome" (from Germanic). Another example is the unusual circumstance of the words for animals being separate from the words for their meat, e.g. beef and pork (from the French bÅ"uf and porc) are the products of "cows" and "pigs"â€"animals with Germanic names.

English was also influenced by the Celtic languages it was displacing, especially the Brittonic substrate, most notably with the introduction of the continuous aspect (to be doing or to have been doing), which is a feature found in many modern languages but developed earlier and more thoroughly in English.

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old Norman or Latin. A large number of Norman words were taken into Old English, with many doubling for Old English words. The Norman influence is the hallmark of the linguistic shifts in English over the period of time following the invasion, producing what is now referred to as Middle English.

English literature reappeared after 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, was the first English government document to be published in the English language after the Norman Conquest. In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English. By the end of the century, even the royal court had switched to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in limited circles somewhat longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

Geoffrey Chaucer is the most famous writer from the Middle English period, and The Canterbury Tales is his best-known work. Although the spelling of Chaucer's English varies from that of Modern English, his works can be read with minimal assistance.

The English language changed enormously during the Middle English period, both in grammar and in vocabulary. While Old English is a heavily inflected language (synthetic), an overall diminishing of grammatical endings occurred in Middle English (analytic). Grammar distinctions were lost as many noun and adjective endings were leveled to -e. The older plural noun marker -en largely gave way to -s, and grammatical gender was discarded. Approximately 10,000 French (and Norman) loan words entered Middle English, particularly terms associated with government, church, law, the military, fashion, and food.

English spelling was also influenced by Norman in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters þ (thorn) and ð (eth), which did not exist in Norman. These letters remain in the modern Icelandic alphabet, having been borrowed from Old English via Old West Norse.

Early Modern English

The English language underwent extensive sound changes during the 1400s, while its spelling conventions remained rather constant. Modern English is often dated from the Great Vowel Shift, which took place mainly during the 15th century. English was further transformed by the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardising effect of printing. Consequent to the push toward standardization, the language acquired self-conscious terms such as "accent" and "dialect". By the time of William Shakespeare (mid 16th - early 17th century), the language had become clearly recognisable as Modern English. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published, the Table Alphabeticall.

Increased literacy and travel have facilitated the adoption of many foreign words, especially borrowings from Latin and Greek since the Renaissance. (In the 17th century, Latin words were often used with the original inflections, but these eventually disappeared). As there are many words from different languages and English spelling is variable, the risk of mispronunciation is high, but remnants of the older forms remain in a few regional dialects, most notably in the West Country. During the period, loan words were borrowed from Italian, German, and Yiddish. British acceptance of and resistance to Americanisms began during this period.

Modern English

History of the English language

The Dictionary of the English Language was the first full featured English dictionary. Samuel Johnson published the authoritative work in 1755. To a high degree, the dictionary standardized both English spelling and word usage. Meanwhile, grammar texts by Lowth, Murray, Priestly, and others attempted to prescribe standard usage even further.

Early Modern English and Late Modern English vary essentially in vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from the Industrial Revolution and the technology that created a need for new words as well as international development of the language. The British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the Earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries. British English and American English, the two major varieties of the language, are spoken by 400 million persons. Received Pronunciation of British English is considered the traditional standard. The total number of English speakers worldwide may exceed one billion.

Phonological changes

History of the English language


Over the last 2,000 years or so, English has undergone extensive changes in its vowel system but many fewer changes to its consonants.

In the Old English period, a number of umlaut processes affected vowels in complex ways, and unstressed vowels were gradually eroded, eventually leading to a loss of grammatical case and grammatical gender in the Early Middle English period. The most important umlaut process was *i-mutation (c. 500 CE), which led to pervasive alternations of all sorts, many of which survive in the modern language: e.g. in noun paradigms (foot vs. feet, mouse vs. mice, brother vs. brethren); in verb paradigms (sold vs. sell); nominal derivatives from adjectives ("strong" vs. "strength", broad vs. breadth, foul vs. filth) and from other nouns (fox vs. "vixen"); verbal derivatives ("food" vs. "to feed"); and comparative adjectives ("old" vs. "elder"). Consonants were more stable, although velar consonants were significantly modified by palatalization, which produced alternations such as speak vs. speech, drink vs. drench, wake vs. watch, bake vs. batch.

The Middle English period saw further vowel changes. Most significant was the Great Vowel Shift (c. 1500 CE), which transformed the pronunciation of all long vowels. This occurred after the spelling system was fixed, and accounts for the drastic differences in pronunciation between "short" mat, met, bit, cot vs. "long" mate, mete/meet, bite, coot. Other changes that left echoes in the modern language were homorganic lengthening before ld, mb, nd, which accounts for the long vowels in child, mind, climb, etc.; pre-cluster shortening, which resulted in the vowel alternations in child vs. children, keep vs. kept, meet vs. met; and trisyllabic laxing, which is responsible for alternations such as grateful vs. gratitude, divine vs. divinity, sole vs. solitary.

Among the more significant recent changes to the language have been the development of rhotic and non-rhotic accents (i.e. "r-dropping"); the trap-bath split in many dialects of British English; and flapping of t and d between vowels in American English and Australian English.

Vowel changes

The following table shows the principal developments in the stressed vowels, from Old English through Modern English (where C indicates any consonant):

The following chart shows the primary developments of English vowels in the last 600 years in more detail, since Late Middle English of Chaucer's time. The Great Vowel Shift can be seen in the dramatic developments between c. 1400 and 1600 AD.

Neither of the above tables cover the history of Middle English diphthongs, the changes before /r/, or various special cases and exceptions. For details, see phonological history of English as well as the articles on Old English phonology and Middle English phonology.


The vowel changes over time can be seen in the following example words, showing the changes in their form over the last 2,000 years:

Grammatical changes

History of the English language

The English language once had an extensive declension system similar to Latin, modern German and Icelandic. Old English distinguished between the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases, and for strongly declined adjectives and some pronouns also a separate instrumental case (which otherwise and later completely coincided with the dative). In addition, the dual number was distinguished from the singular and plural. Declension was greatly simplified during the Middle English period, when the accusative and dative cases of the pronouns merged into a single oblique case that also replaced the genitive case after prepositions. Nouns in Modern English no longer decline for case, except for the genitive.

Evolution of English pronouns

Pronouns such as whom and him (contrasted with who and he)", are a conflation of the old accusative and dative cases, as well as of the genitive case after prepositions (while her also includes the genitive case). This conflated form is called the oblique case or the object (objective) case, because it is used for objects of verbs (direct, indirect, or oblique) as well as for objects of prepositions. (See object pronoun.) The information formerly conveyed by distinct case forms is now mostly provided by prepositions and word order. In Old English as well as modern German and Icelandic as further examples, these cases had distinct forms.

Although some grammarians continue to use the traditional terms "accusative" and "dative", these are functions rather than morphological cases in Modern English. That is, the form whom may play accusative or dative roles (as well as instrumental or prepositional roles), but it is a single morphological form, contrasting with nominative who and genitive whose. Many grammarians use the labels "subjective", "objective", and "possessive" for nominative, oblique, and genitive pronouns.

Modern English nouns exhibit only one inflection of the reference form: the possessive case, which some linguists argue is not a case at all, but a clitic (see the entry for genitive case for more information).

Interrogative pronouns

1 - In some dialects who is used where Formal English only allows whom, though variation among dialects must be taken into account.

2 - Usually replaced by of what (postpositioned).

First person personal pronouns

(Old English also had a separate dual, wit ("we two") etcetera; however, no later forms derive from it.)

Second person personal pronouns

Note that the ye/you distinction still existed, at least optionally, in Early Modern English: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" from the King James Bible.

Here the letter þ (interchangeable with ð in manuscripts) corresponds to th. For ȝ, see Yogh.

(Old English also had a separate dual, ȝit ("ye two") etcetera; however, no later forms derive from it.)

Third person personal pronouns

(The origin of the modern forms is generally thought to have been a borrowing from Old Norse forms þæir, þæim, þæira. The two different roots co-existed for some time, although currently the only common remnant is the shortened form 'em. Cf. also the demonstrative pronouns.)



Beowulf is an Old English epic poem in alliterative verse. It is dated to between the 8th and the early 11th centuries. These are the first 11 lines:

Which, as translated by Francis Barton Gummere, reads:

Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan

This is the beginning of The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, a prose text in Old English dated to the late 9th century. The full text can be found at Wikisource.

ÅŒhthere sÇ£de his hlāforde, ÆlfrÄ"de cyninge, ðæt hÄ" ealra Norðmonna norþmest bÅ«de. HÄ" cwæð þæt hÄ" bÅ«de on þǣm lande norþweardum wiþ þā WestsÇ£. HÄ" sÇ£de þÄ"ah þæt þæt land sÄ«e swīþe lang norþ þonan; ac hit is eal wÄ"ste, bÅ«ton on fÄ"awum stōwum styccemÇ£lum wÄ«ciað Finnas, on huntoðe on wintra, ond on sumera on fiscaþe be þǣre sÇ£. HÄ" sÇ£de þæt hÄ" æt sumum cirre wolde fandian hÅ« longe þæt land norþryhte lÇ£ge, oþþe hwæðer Ç£nig mon be norðan þǣm wÄ"stenne bÅ«de. Þā fōr hÄ" norþryhte be þǣm lande: lÄ"t him ealne weg þæt wÄ"ste land on ðæt stÄ"orbord, ond þā wÄ«dsÇ£ on ðæt bæcbord þrÄ«e dagas. Þā wæs hÄ" swā feor norþ swā þā hwælhuntan firrest faraþ. Þā fōr hÄ" þā giet norþryhte swā feor swā hÄ" meahte on þǣm ōþrum þrÄ«m dagum gesiglau. Þā bÄ"ag þæt land, þǣr Ä"astryhte, oþþe sÄ"o sÇ£ in on ðæt lond, hÄ" nysse hwæðer, bÅ«ton hÄ" wisse ðæt hÄ" ðǣr bād westanwindes ond hwōn norþan, ond siglde ðā Ä"ast be lande swā swā hÄ" meahte on fÄ"ower dagum gesiglan. Þā sceolde hÄ" ðǣr bÄ«dan ryhtnorþanwindes, for ðǣm þæt land bÄ"ag þǣr sūþryhte, oþþe sÄ"o sÇ£ in on ðæt land, hÄ" nysse hwæþer. Þā siglde hÄ" þonan sūðryhte be lande swā swā hÄ" meahte on fÄ«f dagum gesiglan. Ðā læg þǣr ān micel Ä"a Å«p on þæt land. Ðā cirdon hÄ«e Å«p in on ðā Ä"a for þǣm hÄ«e ne dorston forþ bÄ« þǣre Ä"a siglan for unfriþe; for þǣm ðæt land wæs eall gebÅ«n on ōþre healfe þǣre Ä"as. Ne mÄ"tte hÄ" Ç£r nān gebÅ«n land, siþþan hÄ" from his āgnum hām fōr; ac him wæs ealne weg wÄ"ste land on þæt stÄ"orbord, bÅ«tan fiscerum ond fugelerum ond huntum, ond þæt wÇ£ron eall Finnas; ond him wæs āwÄ«dsÇ£ on þæt bæcbord. Þā Boermas heafdon sīþe wel gebÅ«d hira land: ac hÄ«e ne dorston þǣr on cuman. Ac þāra Terfinna land wæs eal wÄ"ste, bÅ«ton ðǣr huntan gewÄ«codon, oþþe fisceras, oþþe fugeleras.

A translation:

Ohthere said to his lord, King Alfred, that he of all Norsemen lived north-most. He quoth that he lived in the land northward along the North Sea. He said though that the land was very long from there, but it is all wasteland, except that in a few places here and there Finns [i.e. Sami] encamp, hunting in winter and in summer fishing by the sea. He said that at some time he wanted to find out how long the land lay northward or whether any man lived north of the wasteland. Then he traveled north by the land. All the way he kept the waste land on his starboard and the wide sea on his port three days. Then he was as far north as whale hunters furthest travel. Then he traveled still north as far as he might sail in another three days. Then the land bowed east (or the sea into the land â€" he did not know which). But he knew that he waited there for west winds (and somewhat north), and sailed east by the land so as he might sail in four days. Then he had to wait for due-north winds, because the land bowed south (or the sea into the land â€" he did not know which). Then he sailed from there south by the land so as he might sail in five days. Then a large river lay there up into the land. Then they turned up into the river, because they dared not sail forth past the river for hostility, because the land was all settled on the other side of the river. He had not encountered earlier any settled land since he travelled from his own home, but all the way waste land was on his starboard (except fishers, fowlers and hunters, who were all Finns). And the wide sea was always on his port. The Bjarmians have cultivated their land very well, but they did not dare go in there. But the Terfinn’s land was all waste except where hunters encamped, or fishers or fowlers.

Ayenbite of Inwyt

From Ayenbite of Inwyt ("the prick of conscience"), a translation of an French confessional prose work into the Kentish dialect of Middle English, completed in 1340:

Canterbury Tales

The beginning of The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in poetry and prose written in the London dialect of Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century:

Paradise Lost

The beginning of Paradise Lost, an epic poem in unrhymed iambic pentameter written in Early Modern English by John Milton and first published in 1667:

Oliver Twist

A selection from the novel Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens in Modern English and published in 1838:

The evening arrived: the boys took their places; the master in his cook's uniform stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out, and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared, the boys whispered each other and winked at Oliver, while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger and reckless with misery. He rose from the table, and advancing, basin and spoon in hand, to the master, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerityâ€"

"Please, sir, I want some more."

The master was a fat, healthy man, but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder, and the boys with fear.

"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.

"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle, pinioned him in his arms, and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

See also

History of the English language
  • Phonological history of the English language
  • American and British English differences
  • English phonology
  • English studies
  • Inkhorn debate
  • Languages in the United Kingdom
  • Middle English creole hypothesis
  • Middle English declension
  • History of the Scots language
  • Changes to Old English vocabulary


  • List of dialects of the English language
  • List of Germanic and Latinate equivalents
  • Lists of English words of international origin


History of the English language


External links

  • The History of English Podcast
  • Penn Corpora of Historical English
  • Scandinavian loans in Old and Middle English, and their legacy in the dialects of England and modern standard English

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