Periodization in the history of English

Events that shaped the history of English. Сharacteristic of the vocabulary of Old English. History of Middle English (1100-1500 years). Features of Modern English: Early Modern (1500-1800 years) and Late Modern (1800-present). English language in Canada.

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1. Events that shaped the history of English

2. Old English (450-1100 AD)

3. Middle English (1100-1500)

4. Modern English

4.1 Early Modern English (1500-1800)

4.2 Late Modern English (1800-Present)




English is a West Germanic language which is the dominant language in the United Kingdom, the United States, many Commonwealth nations including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other former British colonies. It is the second most spoken language in the world. It is estimated that there are 380 million native speakers and 300 million who use English as a second language and a further 100 million use it as a foreign language. It is the language of science, aviation, computing, diplomacy, and tourism. It is listed as the official or co-official language of over 45 countries and is spoken extensively in other countries where it has no official status. English plays a part in the cultural, political or economic life of the following countries.

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" and their language was called "Englisc" - from which the words "England" and "English" are derived.

1. Events that shaped the history of English

Philip Durkin, Principal Etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, chosen five events that shaped the English Language.

The Anglo-Saxon Settlement

It's never easy to pinpoint exactly when a specific language began, but in the case of English we can at least say that there is little sense in speaking of the English language as a separate entity before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Little is known of this period with any certainty, but we do know that Germanic invaders came and settled in Britain from the north-western coastline of continental Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders all spoke a language that was Germanic (related to what emerged as Dutch, Frisian, German and the Scandinavian languages, and to Gothic), but we'll probably never know how different their speech was from that of their continental neighbours. However it is fairly certain that many of the settlers would have spoken in exactly the same way as some of their north European neighbours, and that not all of the settlers would have spoken in the same way.

The reason that we know so little about the linguistic situation in this period is because we do not have much in the way of written records from any of the Germanic languages of north-western Europe until several centuries later. When Old English writings begin to appear in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries there is a good deal of regional variation, but not substantially more than that found in later periods. This was the language that Alfred the Great referred to as `English' in the ninth century.

The Celts were already resident in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but there are few obvious traces of their language in English today. Some scholars have suggested that the Celtic tongue might have had an underlying influence on the grammatical development of English, particularly in some parts of the country, but this is highly speculative. The number of loanwords known for certain to have entered Old English from this source is very small. Those that survive in modern English include brock (badger), and coomb a type of valley, alongside many place names [14].

The Scandinavian Settlements

The next invaders were the Norsemen. From the middle of the ninth century large numbers of Norse invaders settled in Britain, particularly in northern and eastern areas, and in the eleventh century the whole of England had a Danish king, Canute. The distinct North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had great influence on English, most obviously seen in the words that English has borrowed from this source. These include some very basic words such as take and even grammatical words such as they. The common Germanic base of the two languages meant that there were still many similarities between Old English and the language of the invaders. Some words, for example give, perhaps show a kind of hybridization with some spellings going back to Old English and others being Norse in origin. However, the resemblances between the two languages are so great that in many cases it is impossible to be sure of the exact ancestry of a particular word or spelling. However, much of the influence of Norse, including the vast majority of the loanwords, does not appear in written English until after the next great historical and cultural upheaval, the Norman Conquest.

1066 and after

The centuries after the Norman Conquest witnessed enormous changes in the English language. In the course of what is called the Middle English period, the fairly rich inflectional system of Old English broke down. It was replaced by what is broadly speaking, the same system English has today, which unlike Old English makes very little use of distinctive word endings in the grammar of the language. The vocabulary of English also changed enormously, with tremendous numbers of borrowings from French and Latin, in addition to the Scandinavian loanwords already mentioned, which were slowly starting to appear in the written language. Old English, like German today, showed a tendency to find native equivalents for foreign words and phrases (although both Old English and modern German show plenty of loanwords), whereas Middle English acquired the habit that modern English retains today of readily accommodating foreign words. Trilingualism in English, French, and Latin was common in the worlds of business and the professions, with words crossing over from one language to another with ease. You only have to flick through the etymologies of any English dictionary to get an impression of the huge number of words entering English from French and Latin during the later medieval period. This trend was set to continue into the early modern period with the explosion of interest in the writings of the ancient world.


The late medieval and early modern periods saw a fairly steady process of standardization in English south of the Scottish border. The written and spoken language of London continued to evolve and gradually began to have a greater influence in the country at large. For most of the Middle English period a dialect was simply what was spoken in a particular area, which would normally be more or less represented in writing - although where and from whom the writer had learnt how to write were also important. It was only when the broadly London standard began to dominate, especially through the new technology of printing, that the other regional varieties of the language began to be seen as different in kind. As the London standard became used more widely, especially in more formal contexts and particularly amongst the more elevated members of society, the other regional varieties came to be stigmatized, as lacking social prestige and indicating a lack of education [14].

In the same period a series of changes also occurred in English pronunciation (though not uniformly in all dialects), which go under the collective name of the Great Vowel Shift. These were purely linguistic `sound changes' which occur in every language in every period of history. The changes in pronunciation weren't the result of specific social or historical factors, but social and historical factors would have helped to spread the results of the changes. As a result the so-called `pure' vowel sounds which still characterize many continental languages were lost to English. The phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were also lost, which gave rise to many of the oddities of English pronunciation, and which now obscure the relationships between many English words and their foreign counterparts.

Colonization and Globalization

During the medieval and early modern periods the influence of English spread throughout the British Isles, and from the early seventeenth century onwards its influence began to be felt throughout the world. The complex processes of exploration, colonization and overseas trade that characterized Britain's external relations for several centuries led to significant change in English. Words were absorbed from all over the world, often via the languages of other trading and imperial nations such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. At the same time, new varieties of English emerged, each with their own nuances of vocabulary and grammar and their own distinct pronunciations. More recently still, English has become a lingua franca, a global language, regularly used and understood by many nations for whom English is not their first language. The eventual effects on the English language of both of these developments can only be guessed at today, but there can be little doubt that they will be as important as anything that has happened to English in the past sixteen hundred years [14].

2. 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 be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English. Old English was spoken until around 1100 [15].

The invaders dominated the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants, whose languages survived largely in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. The dialects spoken by the invaders formed what is now called Old English. Later, it was strongly influenced by the North Germanic language Norse, spoken by the Vikings who settled mainly in the north-east. The new and the earlier settlers spoke languages from different branches of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammars were more distant, including the prefixes, suffixes and inflections of many of their words. The Germanic language of these Old English inhabitants of Britain was influenced by the contact with Norse invaders, which may have been responsible for some of the morphological simplification of Old English, including loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). The most famous work from the Old English period is the epic poem "Beowulf", by an unknown poet.

The introduction of Christianity added the first wave of Latin and Greek words to the language.

It has been argued that the Danish contribution continued into the early Middle Ages.

The Old English period ended with the Norman conquest, when the language was influenced, to an even greater extent, by the Norman French-speaking Normans.

The use of Anglo-Saxon to describe a merging of Anglian and Saxon languages and cultures is a relatively modern development. According to Lois Fundis, (Stumpers-L, Fri, 14 Dec 2001) "The first citation for the second definition of 'Anglo-Saxon', referring to early English language or a certain dialect thereof, comes during the reign of Elizabeth I, from a historian named Camden, who seems to be the person most responsible for the term becoming well-known in modern times." [16]

The Vocabulary of Old English

1. General characteristics

The surviving vocabulary of Old English (OE) is relatively small. The Thesaurus of Old English (TOE), with which you will be working, contains almost 34,000 different word forms, whereas a modern desk dictionary might contain 80,000. Some of these words have more than one meaning, i.e. they are polysemous: TOE contains just over 50,000 meanings altogether. An example of multiple meaning or polysemy is OE ecg, pronounced in the same way as its Modern English (Mod. E.) descendant `edge'. In addition to meaning `edge', it also means `blade', the part of an object that has a sharp edge, and `sword', an object distinguished by having a sharp edge or blade. This is an example of metonymy, the identification of an object by one of its attributes, as when the Prime Minister is referred to as `No. 10'. `Edge' in Mod. E. also has a metaphorical sense, where an abstract idea is conveyed by referring to something concrete, as in `her voice had an edge to it'.

Much of the vocabulary of Mod. E. derives from OE. This applies particularly to our core vocabulary: common words in everyday use for fundamental concepts. Examples include the natural world (earth, sea, wind, fire, water; sun, moon, star); people (man, woman, child, father, mother, brother, daughter); the body (hand, arm, elbow, finger, foot, nose, mouth); and other basic concepts such as food, drink; heaven, hell; friend, neighbour; love, good, evil; hot, cold; after, over, under [5]. However, not all words which look alike necessarily refer to the same thing - such misleading words are often called false friends. An example pair is OE bзor / Mod. E. beer. Although both refer to alcoholic drinks, the nature of the drink is quite different.

The examples above are all typical of OE words in being one or two syllables in length. Where there are two syllables, the stress is on the first. Initial stress is a characteristic feature of the Germanic languages as a group and remains the most common type of word structure in Mod. E. We have also retained from OE many of the ways of making new words, but at the same time English has borrowed numerous words from other languages, notably French and Latin. Thousands of French words were brought into English after the Norman Conquest of 1066, which ended the rule of the Anglo-Saxon kings and introduced considerable social change. New words occur especially in fields where Norman influence was strongest, such as Law, Literature and Fashion. These loan words from other languages often exhibit different stress patterns from the basic Germanic vocabulary, as with anatomy and cagoule from French, armada and potato from Spanish, kamikaze from Japanese, anathema from Greek and flamingo from Portuguese.

2. Compounds

New words are often formed in Mod. E. by combining two existing words to form a compound, as in aircraft, hatchback, motorway and raincoat. Such words are more specific in their meanings than the words they combine. This practice is even more characteristic of OE, where a high proportion of the vocabulary, particularly the vocabulary of poetry, comprises compounds. For instance, OE s? `sea' combines with OE mann `man' to give a compound s?mann `sailor'. The same first element combines with OE dзor `animal' to give s?dзor `sea creature'. It also combines with OE rima `rim' to give s?rima `coast', and with OE faru `journey' to give s?faru `voyage'. You can often work out what a word means by breaking it down into its constituent parts.

2.1 Kennings

Sometimes a little more thought is required to understand a compound, as with s?mearh, a combination of s? with mearh `horse' (the ancestor of Mod. E. mare). Here the second element refers not to a living animal but to the horse as a mode of transport, so the compound as a whole translates as `ship'. Compounds like s?mearh which are to be understood metaphorically rather than literally are common in OE poetry, and are known as `kennings'. Other examples are nihthelm `darkness', a combination of niht `night' with helm `helmet'; bвnhыs `body', from bвn `bone' and hыs `house'; and swanrвd `sea', from swan `swan' and rвd `road'[5].

3. Prefixes and suffixes

As in Mod. E., new OE words could be formed from existing ones with the addition of prefixes or suffixes. Prefixes tend to affect meaning, for instance by reversing or intensifying the application of the original word (e.g. excusable, inexcusable; sound, unsound). Suffixes are used to change one type of word into another: for instance, to create a noun from a verb (e.g. sing, singer), or an adverb from an adjective (e.g. sad, sadly) [13].

Common OE prefixes include:

mis- defective (d?d `deed', misd?d `misdeed'; faran `to go', misfaran `to go astray')

ofer- excess (?t `eating', ofer?t `gluttony'; fyllan `to fill', oferfyllan `to fill to overflowing')

un- negative (cыю `known', uncыю `unknown'; riht `right', unriht `wrong')

However, prefixes sometimes have little if any effect. For instance, giefan and forgiefan both mean `to give'. Many verbs can occur with or without the prefix ge-; niman and geniman both mean `to take'. This is sometimes summarized in dictionaries and grammars of OE as (ge)niman, and the ge is ignored when the words are alphabetized.

Common suffixes, many of which are still used in Mod. E., help to identify types of word.

Common adjective suffixes include:

- ful (cearu `care, sorrow', cearful `sorrowful')

- ig (blфd `blood', blфdig `bloody')

- isc (cild `child', cildisc `childish')

- lзas (hlвford `lord', hlвfordlзas `lordless')

- lic (wundor `wonder, miracle', wundorlic `wonderful, miraculous')

Many adverbs end in:

- e (heard `hard, fierce', hearde `fiercely')

- lоce (hrїdlic `quick', hrїdlоce `quickly')

Abstract nouns often end in:

- dфm (wоs `wise', wоsdфm `wisdom')

- hвd (cild `child', cildhвd `childhood')

- nes (beorht `bright', beorhtnes `brightness')

- scipe (frзond `friend', frзondscipe `friendship') [1]

Other common Mod. E. suffixes, such as those in words like devotion, fortitude; generous, generosity; social, sociable, sociability, were adopted later from French or Latin.

4. Metathesis

The transposition of sounds within a word is known as `metathesis', and it affects a small but distinctive group of Mod. E. words derived from OE. Examples include beorht `bright', brid `young bird', gжrs `grass', юerscold `threshold', юrоtig `thirty', юurh `through' and wжps `wasp'.

5. Survival

Many of the surviving OE words occur very rarely, or only in specialised contexts. These are marked in TOE by four superscript flags, g, o, p, q.

- g indicates words which occur only as translations of foreign words, usually Latin. Such translations are sometimes written in a manuscript and sometimes occur in bilingual wordlists or glossaries.

- o indicates words which occur very rarely, often only once.

- p indicates words which occur only in poetry.

- q indicates words about whose very existence we are doubtful, perhaps because they occur in a manuscript which is difficult to read or has been altered in some way.

Searches can be made in TOE on the g, o and p flags. If a large number of words in a field have g or o flags, then either it is a field with a lot of specialized vocabulary or one that was not much written about. A lot of p flags, as in sections such as Warfare or Emotions, indicate that the subject commonly occurs in poetry. Poetry was an important literary form in Anglo-Saxon culture. Its structure was based on half lines linked by alliterating sounds, which is one reason why it was advantageous for poets to have groups of synonyms beginning with different letters [13].

history english language

3. 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 [15].

For the 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and the high nobility spoke only a variety of French called Anglo-Norman. English continued to be the language of the common people. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until AD 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old French or Latin. A large number of Norman words were assimilated into Old English, with some words doubling for Old English words (for instance, ox/beef, sheep/mutton). The Norman influence reinforced the continual evolution of the language over the following centuries, resulting in what is now referred to as Middle English. Among the changes was a broadening in the use of a unique aspect of English grammar, the "continuous" tenses, with the suffix "-ing". English spelling was also influenced by French in this period, with the /и/ and /р/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the letters ю and р, which did not exist in French. During the 15th century, Middle English was transformed by the Great Vowel Shift, the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration, and the standardising effect of printing. Modern English can be traced back to around the time of William Shakespeare [16]. The most well-known work from the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Various contemporary sources suggest that within fifty years most of the Normans outside the royal court had switched to English, with French remaining the prestige language largely out of social inertia. For example, Orderic Vitalis, a historian born in 1075 and the son of a Norman knight, said that he only learned French as a second language.

English literature starts to reappear circa AD 1200, when a changing political climate, and the decline in Anglo-Norman, made it more respectable. By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched back to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in specialised circles for a while longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

The vocabulary in the ME period shows great instability and constant and rapid changes. Many words became obsolete; a lot of them reflected the ever-changing life of the speakers and were under the influence of contacts with other nations.

1. Internal means of enriching vocabulary.

Internal sources of vocabulary growth became less important in ME. It might have been due to great expansion of foreign words (especially French). Beginning with the 15 century up the 17 c. the role of internal sources became more important though the stream of words from other languages continued.

As before, the word formation fell into two types: word derivation and word composition.

Word derivation

Under word derivation we mean affixation which could be of two types: suffixation and prefixation.

The majority of OE suffixes was still preserved in ME but they were becoming less productive.

The development of prefixes was uneven. In ME many of them fell into disuse ( such as a-, ?e-, tф ), in the 15th. And 16th c. the use of native prefixes grew again (such as negative mis-, un- : e.g. ME mislayen- NE mislay; especially with foreign stems e.g. NE misjudge, mispronounce). Some prefixes developed from OE adverbs and prepositions: - ыt >out NE outcome, outlook

- ofer>over overload, overlook

- under>under underfeed, undermine

Early NE prefixes could come from foreign sources, French Latin, Greek.

French words with re- came into E: ME redressen, reformen. Since the 16th c. re- was applied as a means of word derivation: regret, refill, readjust reopen, reattack.

Among other borrowed prefixes there were

- de-, dis-en/in (im-, il, ir,, non-) of the Franco-Roman origin: ME destructuctive, dischargen, discomforten, enablen,enclosen, NE enlist, enrich, inhuman, non-Germanic.

Among OE noun suffixes there were some new items, which had developed from root-morphemes: -dom, hвd (NE hood) scipe: churchdom.

4. Modern English

4.1 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 [15].

Hamlet's famous "To be, or not to be" lines, written in Early Modern English by Shakespeare.

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.

It is not surprising that one of the causes of the difficulties that many people have in reading, or seeing, the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The world has changed since the days оf Early Modern English - and new and reused words have arrived to talk about it. The New World itself (Columbus 'discovered' the Americas in 1492) stimulated new words, and introduced such names (from native American languages) along with the things they labelled, such as potato, tomato and tobacco. The 2nd edition (1989) of the OED contained over 291,500 entries (main entries: 231,100), and that number continues to rise in the 3rd edition: Crystal 2005 estimates, with many caveats, that "a total of at least a million [words in English] will seem rather small" (p. 455). He also says that "the English lexicon grew, during the the Early Modern English period, from 100,000 to 200,000 lexemes" (162), which in itself indicates the growth (doubling) in English words at the time. Beyond the sheer growth of English, some of our current difficulties with Shakespeare's vocabulary arise for understandable reasons: some are sketched here. (AWE cannot begin to give a comprehensive account.)

The technology of the time. Writers were familiar with horses, using words like 'jade', 'hackney' and 'roan Barbary' (names of horses) and items of horse equipment, like 'crupper' and 'caparisoned'. Early use of gunpowder (names of guns like 'bombard', 'demi-culverine' and 'saker') co-existed with the last use of personal armour ('greave', gauntlet' and 'beaver'), used to defend against hand-held weapons like 'falchion' and 'partisan'. At sea, the language of those who manned sailing ships ('mizzen', 'yare' and 'larboard') is lost to all but enthusiasts.

Related aspects of culture also are rarely known to us in the twenty-first century: armour, which hid the identity of its wearers, led to the development of heraldry, with its 'tinctures' (colours) and 'ordinaries' (standard conventional designs), like 'bendlets' and 'martlets'. In the theatres, 'the Heavens' was the name of the canopy over the open-air stage. A 'cockpit' (from 1568) was a place for fighting cocks (as a bearpit was for 'baiting' bears): in Henry V, Shakespeare explicitly links it to the part of a theatre which has been called 'the Pit' since 1649

Can this Cock-Pit hold

The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme

Within this Woodden O, the very Caskes

That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt? (I. Prol. 11, 1599) [16]

Some words are immediately comprehensible, though not immediately recognisable in the forms in which they were then used: we know 'Sir', but the form 'Sirrah' may give us pause; the verb 'will', in Shakespeare, is often closer to modern 'want' (the sub-title of Twelfth Night is What You Will, ~ 'whatever you like'). One term for horsemanship was the noun 'manage' (~ management).

Other words have changed their meanings more fundamentally. 'Fond' meant 'foolish', for example, and 'sophisticated' meant adulterated. In many dramatic texts, words were frequently contracted: the past tense -ed is often 'd. Naughty was a much stronger word then than now, meaning 'morally bad' or 'vicious', whereas currently now it is much more 'mischievous'. Nowadays, children are 'naughty'; then it was sinful adults. Changing structures of word formation also may help to disguise words: we still use 'abroad', and sailors still use 'aloft', but rarely 'afield' or 'abed'.

Fashions of the time were different. Who now cares for 'cross-gartering', or would wish "the tailor [to] make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal"? (And note the archaic 'very' as a superlative for a noun.) And, in foodstuffs, who would consider a "wither'd apple-john"?

4.2 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.

The dates may be rather arbitrary, but the main distinction between Early Modern and Late Modern English (or just Modern English as it is sometimes referred to) lies in its vocabulary - pronunciation, grammar and spelling remained largely unchanged. Late Modern English accumulated many more words as a result of two main historical factors: the Industrial Revolution, which necessitated new words for things and ideas that had not previously existed; and the rise of the British Empire, during which time English adopted many foreign words and made them its own. No single one of the socio-cultural developments of the 19th Century could have established English as a world language, but together they did just that.

Most of the innovations of the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th Century were of British origin, including the harnessing of steam to drive heavy machinery, the development of new materials, techniques and equipment in a range of manufacturing industries, and the emergence of new means of transportation (e.g. steamships, railways). At least half of the influential scientific and technological output between 1750 and 1900 was written in English. Another English speaking country, the USA, continued the English language dominance of new technology and innovation with inventions like electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the sewing machine, the computer, etc.

The industrial and scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution created a need for neologisms to describe the new creations and discoveries. To a large extent, this relied on the classical languages, Latin and Greek, in which scholars and scientists of the period were usually well versed. Although words like oxygen, protein, nuclear and vaccine did not exist in the classical languages, they could be (and were) created from Latin and Greek roots. Lens, refraction, electron, chromosome, chloroform, caffeine, centigrade, bacteria, chronometer and claustrophobia are just a few of the other science-based words that were created during this period of scientific innovation, along with a whole host of “-ologies” and “-onomies”, like biology, petrology, morphology, histology, palaeontology, ethnology, entomology, taxonomy, etc.

Many more new words were coined for the new products, machines and processes that were developed at this time (e.g. train, engine, reservoir, pulley, combustion, piston, hydraulic, condenser, electricity, telephone, telegraph, lithograph, camera, etc). In some cases, old words were given entirely new meanings and connotation (e.g. vacuum, cylinder, apparatus, pump, syphon, locomotive, factory, etc), and new words created by amalgamating and fusing existing English words into a descriptive combination were particularly popular (e.g. railway, horsepower, typewriter, cityscape, airplane, etc).

It was largely during the Late Modern period that the United States, newly independent from Britain as of 1783, established its pervasive influence on the world. The English colonization of North America had begun as early as 1600. Jamestown, Virginia was founded in 1607, and the Pilgrim Fathers settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. The first settlers were, then, contemporaries of Shakespeare (1564-1616), Bacon (1561-1626) and Donne (1572-1631), and would have spoken a similar dialect. The new land was described by one settler as “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men”, and half of the settlers were dead within weeks of their arrival, unaccustomed to the harsh winter. In fact, the colony would probably have gone the way of the earlier ill-fated Roanoke Island settlement attempt of 1584 were it not for the help of an American native called Squanto, who had learned English from English sailors.

Parts of the New World had already been long colonized by the French, Spanish and Dutch, but English settlers like the Pilgrim Fathers (and those who soon followed them) went there to stay, not just to search for riches or trading opportunities. They wanted to establish themselves permanently, to work the land, and to preserve their culture, religion and language, and this was a crucial factor in the survival and development of English in North America. The German “Iron Chancellor” Otto van Bismarck would later ruefully remark that “the most significant event of the 20th Century will be the fact that the North Americans speak English” [17].

Interestingly, some English pronunciations and usages “froze” when they arrived in America while they continued to evolve in Britain itself (sometimes referred to as “colonial lag”), so that, in some respects, American English is closer to the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Perhaps the best-known example is the American use of gotten which has long since faded from use in Britain (even though forgotten has survived). But the American use of words like fall for the British autumn, trash for rubbish, hog for pig, sick for ill, guess for think, and loan for lend are all examples of this kind of anachronistic British word usage. America kept several words (such as burly, greenhorn, talented and scant) that had been largely dropped in Britain (although some have since been recovered), and words like lumber and lot soon acquired their specific American meanings. Something approaching Shakespearean speech can sometimes be encountered in isolated valleys in the Appalachian or Ozarks, where words like afeard, yourn, sassy and consarn, and old pronunciations like “jine” for join, can still sometimes be heard.

The settlement of America served as the route of introduction for many Native American words into the English language. Most of the early settlers were austere Puritans and they were quite conservative in their adoption of native words, which were largely restricted to terms for native animals and foods (e.g. raccoon, opossum, moose, chipmunk, skunk, tomato, squash, hickory, etc). In many cases, the original indigenous words were very difficult to render in English, and have often been mangled almost beyond recognition (e.g. squash is from the native quonterquash or asquutasquash, depending on the region; racoon is from raugraughcun or rahaugcum; hickory is from pawcohiccora; etc). Some words needed to describe the Native American lifestyle were also accepted (e.g. canoe, squaw, papoose, wigwam, moccasin, tomahawk), although many other supposedly Native-derived words and phrases (such as brave, peace-pipe, pale-face, war-path, etc) were actually spurious and a product of the fertile imaginations of 19th Century American romantic novelists. New words were also needed for some geographical features which had no obvious English parallel in the limited experience of the settlers (e.g. foothill, notch, bluff, gap, divide, watershed, clearing, etc.).

Immigration into America was not limited to English speakers, though. In the second half of the 19th Century, in particular, over 30 million poured into the country from all parts of the world. At the peak of immigration, from 1901 to 1905, America absorbed a million Italians, a million Austro-Hungarians, half a million Russians and tens of thousands each from many other countries. Many nationalities established their own centres: the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Germans, as in Deutsch) tended to stay in their isolated communities, and developed a distinctive English with a strong German accent and an idiosyncratic syntax; many Germans also settled in Wisconsin and Indiana; Norwegians settled in Minnesota and the Dakotas; Swedes in Nebraska; etc.

Often foreigners were despised or laughed at, and the newcomers found it in their best interests to integrate well and to observe as much uniformity of speech and language as possible. This, as well as the improvements in transportation and communication, led to fewer, and less distinct, dialects than in the much smaller area of Britain, although there are some noticeable (and apparently quite arbitrary) regional differences, even within some states. A few isolated communities, like the so-called “Tidewater” communities around Chesapeake Bay in Virginia (who were mainly descended from settlers from Somerset and Gloucestershire in the West Country of England, unlike the Massachusetts settlers who were largely from the eastern counties of England), have managed to retain the distinctive burring West Country accent of their forebears. But, by the 19th Century, a standard variety of American English had developed in most of the country, based on the dialect of the Mid-Atlantic states with its characteristic flat “a” and strong final “r”. Today, Standard American English, also known as General American, is based on a generalized Midwestern accent, and is familiar to us from American films, radio and newscasters.

American language zealots like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster revelled in the prospect of a plain English, free of the regional dialects and class distinctions of Britain. Long before the Declaration of Independence, British visitors to America often remarked that the average American spoke much better English than the average Englishman. After the American War of Independence of 1775 - 1783, there was some discussion about whether English should remain the national language, but it was never really in any doubt, and was not even mentioned in the new Constitution (even today, the USA does not have an “official language”, as indeed neither does Australia or Britain itself).

The colonization of Canada proceeded quite separately from that of America. There had been British, French and Portuguese expeditions to the east coast of Canada even before the end of the 15th Century, but the first permanent European settlement was by France in 1608. British interests in Canada did not coalesce until the early 18th Century but, after the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Britain wrested control of most of eastern Canada from the French, and it became an important British colony. It was the War of 1812 against the Americans, as much as Confederation and independence from Britain in 1867, that definitively cemented the separate identity of English Canada.

English in Canada has also been influenced by successive waves of immigration, from the influx of Loyalists from the south fleeing the American Revolution, to the British and Irish who were encouraged to settle the land in the early 19th Century to the huge immigration from all over the world during the 20th Century. But, more than anything, the speech of the Loyalists arriving in southern Ontario from states like Pennsylvania and New York, formed the basis of Canadian speech and its accent (including the distinctive pronunciation of the “ou” in words like house and out, and the “i” in words like light). Modern Canadian English tends to show very little regional diversity in pronunciation, even compared to the United States, the Irish-tinged dialect of Newfoundland being far and away the most distinctive dialect.

Canadian English today contains elements of British English and American English in its vocabulary (it also uses a kind of hybrid of American and British spelling), as well several distinctive “Canadianisms” (like hoser, hydro, chesterfield, etc, and the ubiquitous eh? at the end of many sentences). Its vocabulary has been influenced by loanwords from the native peoples of the north (e.g. igloo, anorak, toboggan, canoe, kayak, parka, muskeg, caribou, moose, etc), as well as the French influence (e.g. serviette, tuque) from Lower Canada/Quebec [17].


In this research we endeavored to consider a long period of the English language history from its early stages to the period of standardization inclusive. Having analyzed this complex epoch we have come to the following conclusions.

The records of the Old English writing embraced a variety of matter, they were dated in different centuries, represent various local dialects, belong to diverse genres and were written in different scripts .The earliest form of writing in Old English period was known as runes and was presented as a special semantic code reflecting the beliefs, social hierarchy and the general world view of the people at that particular time. The literature of the Old English period is generally grouped in two main divisions, heroic and Christian. To the former are assigned those poems of which the subjects are drawn from English tradition and history or from the customs and conditions of English life; to the latter those which deal with Biblical matter, ecclesiastical traditions and religious subjects of definitely Christian origin.

The linguistic situation in the Middle English was complex. The Norman Conquest had a greater effect on the English language and on its vocabulary in particular than any other in the course of its history. Middle English dialects were partly matter of pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary and grammar. The regional Middle English dialects developed from respective Old English dialects and were preserved in the succeeding centuries, though in the Late Middle English the linguistic situation had changed.

A later and much larger group of diverse manuscripts include the work of Chaucer and Langland. These texts in their different ways represent London English of around 1400, but the amount of variation of their displays suggests that they cannot be called standard, in any strict sense. Not even Chaucer's writing traditionally thought to be a precursor of modern Standard English, exercised a specific influence on the form this standard took - nor it is likely that poetic usage would ever influence general usage in any real way. It can be hardly doubted though that Chaucer's literary standing had greatly added to the prestige associated with written language in the London dialect.

The influence of the first printers in spreading the written form of English was significant. The language they used was the London literary English established since the Age of Chaucer and slightly developed in accordance with the linguistic change that had taken place during the intervening hundred years.

With cheap printed books becoming available to a greater number of people the London form of speech was carried to other regions and was imitated in the written works produced all over England.

The changes of the Middle English period affected the language on its different levels including vocabulary, grammar, phonetic and spelling. As a result at the beginning of the period English is a language that must be learned as a foreign tongue, at the end it is Modern English.

The origins of the Standard English are an amalgamation of different historical, political, social, economic and geographical factors that took place within the span of nearly five centuries from Old English to the end of the Middle English period.

Thus, the English language changed from being a speech of a few tribes to becoming the major language on Earth and in that process it changed radically.


1. Бубенникова О. Актуальные проблемы исторической морфологии диалектов английского языка. М., 2000.

2. Будагов Р.А. История слов в истории общества. М., 2001.

3. Будагов Р.А. Литературные языки и языковые стили. М.: ВШ, 2001.

4. Звегинцев В.А. Внутренние законы развития языка. М., 2004.

5. Иванова И.П., Бердяева Т.И. Хрестоматия по истории английского языка. Л.: Просвещение, 2000.

6. Разинкина Н.М. Развитие языка английской научной литературы. М.: Наука, 2008.

7. Baugh, A. C. rev. Cable. 2002. History of the English Language, 5th edn. London: Routledge (and previous editions).

8. Baugh, A.C. A History of the English Language. London, 2008.

9. Cable, T. The Rise of Written Standard English. 2004.

10. Ch. Barber. Structure change in present-day. English. 2004.

11. Cheshire, J. English Around the World. Cambridge, 2001.

12. Sheard, J. A. 1954. The Words We Use. London: Deutsch.






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