[Update] History of English | old english – Pickpeup

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History of English

This page is a short history of the origins and development of the English language

The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders – mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from “Englaland” [sic] and their language was called “Englisc” – from which the words “England” and “English” are derived.

Germanic invaders entered Britain on the east and south coasts in the 5th century

Old English (450-1100 AD)

The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what we now call Old English. Old English did not sound or look like English today. Native English speakers now would have great difficulty understanding Old English. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words , and , for example, derive from Old English. Old English was spoken until around 1100.

Part of , a poem written in Old English (public domain)

Middle English (1100-1500)

In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England. The new conquerors (called the Normans) brought with them a kind of French, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business classes. For a period there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French. In the 14th century English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English. It was the language of the great poet Chaucer (c1340-1400), but it would still be difficult for native English speakers to understand today.

An example of Middle English by Chaucer (public domain)

Modern English

Early Modern English (1500-1800)

Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British had contact with many peoples from around the world.

This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

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Lines from Hamlet, written in Early Modern English by Shakespeare (public domain)

Late Modern English (1800-Present)

The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth’s surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

Varieties of English

From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. Some English pronunciations and words “froze” when they reached America. In some ways, American English is more like the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some expressions that the British call “Americanisms” are in fact original British expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost for a time in Britain (for example for rubbish, as a verb instead of lend, and for autumn; another example, , was re-imported into Britain through Hollywood gangster movies). Spanish also had an influence on American English (and subsequently British English), with words like , , and being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana) and West African words (through the slave trade) also influenced American English (and so, to an extent, British English).

Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the USA’s dominance of cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology (including the Internet). But there are many other varieties of English around the world, including for example Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.

The Germanic Family of Languages

English is a member of the Germanic family of languages. Germanic is a branch of the Indo-European language family.

A brief chronology of English

55 BC
Roman invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar

AD 43
Roman invasion and occupation. Beginning of Roman rule of Britain

Roman withdrawal from Britain complete

Settlement of Britain by Germanic invaders begins

Earliest known Old English inscriptions

William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invades and conquers England

Earliest surviving manuscripts in Middle English

English replaces Latin as the language of instruction in most schools

English replaces French as the language of law. English is used in Parliament for the first time

Chaucer starts writing

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The Great Vowel Shift begins

William Caxton establishes the first English printing press

Shakespeare is born

, the first English dictionary, is published

The first permanent English settlement in the New World (Jamestown) is established

Shakespeare dies

Shakespeare’s First Folio is published

The first daily English-language newspaper, , is published in London

Samuel Johnson publishes his English dictionary

Thomas Jefferson writes the American Declaration of Independence

Britain abandons its colonies in what is later to become the USA

Webster publishes his American English dictionary

The British Broadcasting Corporation is founded

The is published

Contributor: Josef Essberger

Updated 2019

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Opening Lines of Beowulf In Old English

Hillsdale College Professor of English Justin A. Jackson reads the opening lines of \”Beowulf\” in its original Old English.
Watch Professor David M. Whalen on the liberal arts at Hillsdale College: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PtQMUTcn0k
Hillsdale College website: http://www.hillsdale.edu/

Opening Lines of Beowulf In Old English

How Far Back in Time Could an English Speaker Go and Still Communicate Effectively?

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In this video:
Contrary to what many a Grammar Nazi the world over would have you believe, language is constantly evolving, occasionally extremely rapidly, and there is nothing wrong with that, despite such individuals lamenting that fact pretty much as long as we have documented reference of people discussing language.
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How Far Back in Time Could an English Speaker Go and Still Communicate Effectively?

Old English Grammar Byte 1: Cases and gender

Learn about Old English cases and gender in this video.
Writing and on camera: Thijs Porck, Leiden University, The Netherlands
Camera and animations: Thomas J. Vorisek
© Thijs Porck and Dutch AngloSaxonist Blog (http://www.dutchanglosaxonist.com), 2017
I use Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet; the latest and best version is available here: http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/resources/magic_letter.pdf . In the video, I use the first edition of the Magic Sheet, available here: https://www.docdroid.net/WHqH3PG/peterbakeroemagicsheet1stedn.pdf

Old English Grammar Byte 1: Cases and gender

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like – and how we know

Botched rhymes, buried puns and a staged accent that sounds more Victorian than Elizabethan. No more! Use linguistic sleuthing to dig up the surprisingly different sound of the bard’s Early Modern English.
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~ Briefly, and without spoilers ~
I’m embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I ever really got into Shakespeare. There’s a personal story here, which I’ll quickly share in the video.
The idea of reconstructing his pronunciation intrigued me. As I started making trips to the library and downloading old grammars, I just found the questions piling on. I did find some answers for you.
It starts with his odd spelling well, the spelling he inherited. Chaucer’s medieval spelling was followed by modern sound changes, including the start of the Great Vowel Shift. The introduction of Caxton’s printing press and the spelling debates put Early Modern English in a state of flux by Shakespeare’s time. They also left our first trail of evidence.
Other evidence comes from rhythm, rhymes and more reluctantly puns. Many of these don’t work the same way anymore, from the rhymes like \”sea\” and \”prey\” to the rhythm of \”housewifery\”.
Modern dialects add another layer of evidence, at times preserving features that standard English accents, notably RP, have lost.
The sound of his language is also shaped by his grammar. His use of \”thou\” and his thirdperson \”th\” vs \”s\” verb endings always stand out to English speakers. Finally, though datacrunchers challenge his legendary status as king of all the words, we consider how innovative he was in the way he used words.
We end with a note on linguist David Crystal’s Original Pronunciation (\”OP\”) experiment at the reconstructed Globe Theatre, and some thoughts on what studying Shakespeare’s sounds as a different pronunciation system says about him and about us.

~ Credits ~
Narration, art and animation by Josh from NativLang. Some of the music, too.
Sources for claims and for imgs, sfx, fonts and music:

What Shakespeare's English Sounded Like - and how we know

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