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History of the English Language Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2499 words Published: 1st Sep 2017

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What differs us humans from animals is the fact that humans have abilities to manipulate things that happen in daily life. Humans are able to think whether a certain action can cause good or harm to themselves or people around them. Another essential difference that distinguishes humans and animals is the language used in communication. It is language, other than anything else that differs humankinds from fellow earthlings. It is a fact that other animals do communicate with each other, in many various ways, for example, warning for enemies or danger, calling for mating, or other various screams of cries to deliver their anger, fear or pleasure (Barber, 1993). However, these various calls of communication for their species differ from the uniqueness of the human language. Barber also states that a human language is a highly elaborated signalling system, a social tool, which uses vocal sounds. Languages are used verbally and in writings. From the history, language is learned spoken first, while written language is secondary.

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According to Crystal (2016), a language dies when it is not spoken or used anymore. Holmes (1992) states that language dies when all of its speakers die. However, when the speakers of a language shifts to use another language, the phenomena is called ‘language shifts’. Every language changes, even though the levels of the changes vary from time to time, which is why it is somewhat hard to be read or understood the language that is from the early years. An example could be taken from Barber’s The English Language: A Historical Introduction (1993), “English people find it hard to comprehend an English document from the year 1300, where it is only possible for them to understand if they have some special training. Documents in 900 look like a foreign language text to them, as it looks like it has no connection to Standard English.”

There are three recognized periods in the development of the English language where the first period, dated from 450 to 1150 is known as Old English. According to Baugh and Cable (1993), this period is described as full inflections, where the endings of the noun, the adjective, and the verb are preserved more or less impaired. The next period starts from 1150 to 1500, is the Middle English period, or known as the period of levelled inflections, which started at the end of the Old English period, and the inflections during that period is said to be significantly levelled down. The last period, which is up until now is called as the Modern English period, which started since 1500. This period is also described as the period of loss inflections where the inflections in the language are completely vanished.

The Middle English period, as stated by Baugh and Cable, is the period of a great change, where the language changes that happened during the period are more extensive and fundamental in comparison to the changes in the language that took place in Old English and Modern English period. Every language changes from time to time, it is the matter of the amount of changes that occur in the language. The major causes of the language changes were obviously because of the track of time, and contact, even though the changes and processes in the Middle English period that associates with the language contact are various (Penhallurick, 2010).

The Norman invasion to England in 1066 is one of the main causes that brought changes in the language from Old English to Middle English as they brought French into the land. Their invasion to England naturally had a significant effect on England’s institutions and its languages. The language changes that were brought from the French during their arrival were already existed in the Old English. They were speaking in French but somehow influenced by the Germanic dialect. The dialect is called Norman French. According to (Virtual Medieval Church and Its Writings, 2003), this situation leads to the citizens speak the English language, whilst the Normans speak Norman French. In time, the two languages started to mix together which then brings the existence of the Middle English. Around ten thousand French words were brought into English by the thirteenth century. Most of these French loans still exist in the English language today.

According to (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016), Middle English, based on the external history, is “trapped at its beginning by the consequences of the settlements of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and its end by the arrival of the printing documents by William Caxton in 1476, in Britain and by the important social and cultural impacts of the English Reformation (from the 1530s onwards) and of the ideas of the continental Renaissance.” The change from Old English to Middle English seemed to look a bit rapid by the rising of new spelling inventions by the Normans. The language used during that time, which is the West Saxon, was no longer used, due to the social and political disruption by the Norman Conquest. The changes that they brought include changes in the spelling where they used the spellings that matched more to the way they pronounce it in their spoken dialect. In addition, the scribes occasionally changed the spelling of the words they were copying to their own dialectal pronunciation, when they see if any did not match theirs. The Normans disapprove the traditional English spelling, therefore they spelt the language as how they heard it, which is using the conventions of Norman French. Both Barber (1993) and Freeborn (1992) mentioned these facts in their books. Examples of the changes made by the Normans could be taken from (Virtual Medieval Church and Its Writings, 2003), “such as qu for cw (queen for cwen).The scribes also introduced gh (instead of h) in such words as night and enough, and ch (instead of c) in such words as church. Another change introduced was ou for u (as in house). Yet one more change was the use of c before e (instead of s) in such words as cercle (‘circle’) and cell.”

The loss of inflections in the Middle English period also include the reduced amount in nouns, pronouns and adjectives. The Peterborough Chronicle, a medieval text written at Peterborough Abbey during the Old English period, where the continuations of the chronicle then shows the Middle English characteristics in the script even though in some ways the characteristics of the Old English still continues.  Penhallurick (2010) mentions that the Normans are obviously the ones responsible for the mixings of French and Middle English, that they brought the scribes who are French-trained into England after their conquest. Three sources were affecting the changes in the Middle English and the changes can be seen from the Peterborough Chronicle where a significant number of new words are drawn upon the Norse, Latin and French. This shows that not only French caused the Middle English, but also the Norse and the Latins.

The Norsemen brought in their words into Middle English which include grammar words oc ‘but’, um ‘about, through’, and til ‘until, to’. These are the effects of the contact between the English and the Norsemen during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, which is also a significant change of characteristic of Middle English. Borrowing or loanwords are the terms used for this situation where words which originated from a certain language is brought into another language and is used in the language. During the settlement of the Vikings in England, many Old Norse words were brought into Old English. Examples from Penhallurick (2010), nouns such as birth, husband, leg, skirt and sky, and verbs like to call, die, give, nag, take, and thrust. As stated by Baugh and Cable (2002), 900 loanwords from the Scandinavian that are still survived and in use in the modern standard English these days, but many other words also still survived but instead in the dialects of the former Danelaw, words like beck ‘steam’, dag ‘to drizzle’, and laik ‘to play’. Sisam (1975) mentions that the Norse words must have come into English even before the Middle English period, because the settlements of the Vikings stopped after the Norman Conquest. Sisam also states that it is not always easy to differentiate the Norse and the Middle English as both of the languages have many similarities during the borrowing period, and also the Norse words are borrowed quite early to be affected by Middle English.

The language influence from the Latins started during the early days of English. When the Germanic tribe started English, they had already been in contact with the Romans in the continental Europe, which was when the Germanic tribes’ very beginning of their settlements in the British Isles. Many Latin words were borrowed into the tribe’s language during their settlement in the British Isles, where they borrowed from British’s Celtic speaking people, which they got from the Romans. Latin during that time was the language of the Christian church, which marked the England’s conversion to Christianity.  This correlates with Sisam’s (1975) statement where there were few direct borrowings from Latin and most of it are taken from the technical language of church. Penhallurick (2010) states that the practice of writing documents in Latin during that time was somewhat usual and was joined by many of the Norman scribes, which gave the borrowings from Latin a new motivation during the early Middle English period.

Not only Old Norse and Latin words that were noted in the continuations of the Peterborough chronicle, but also new loan words from French, although there were only small number of it in the continuation. As an example, from Penhallurick (2010), duc ‘duke, and pasches ‘pasch, easter’, including some loan words that were not only new additions to language but also eventually replaced present English words during that time, for example tresor ‘treasure’, and pais ‘peace. This language development, the emerge of the French loans can be best described as started from very few words to over 10000 French words were borrowed during the end of the Middle English period. The total number of words borrowed is extraordinary considering that the total amount of Old English words were only 24000 approximately. From the Peterborough Chronicle examples, the French loans can be divided into two general types, which is either the new words are just new members of the English language which has new concepts or definitions, or new words that have the same definitions to an existing word in the native language. The effects of this duplication could lead to either the loss of one of the words between the languages (usually the English word), or there could be the development in differentiation in meaning between the words. Penhallurick (2010) gives an example, ‘OE leod was pushed out altogether by French-derived people, whereas English might survives beside French-derived power, kingly beside royal, and wish beside desire. It is the royal family, never the kingly family and genies grant three wishes, rather than three desires.’ Sisam (1975) compares French with Norse, where he states that French language had little common with English, not like the Scandinavians, which brings to why the amount of French words used in the English texts is lesser in comparison to Old Norse and Latin, before the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

French continued to be the official language of England until the mid of fourteenth century, the years after, English became the language of instructions, and became the official language of legal records or events, where later at the end of fourteenth century, everyone spoke English. When the London dialect emerged, it became the standard spoken and written language. During the end of 1500, English language has reached the language that is similar to as what is used today, which shows that Modern English started being used around that time. The arrival of printing press set up, invented by William Caxton in 1476 marked the starting of the end of the Middle English (Freeborn, 1992). If the Norman Conquest marked the start of the changes in the Middle English, William Caxton did the same for the start of the Modern English. Caxton is recognized for the arrival of printing in England through his work and a standard for the English language. His contribution brings us to the early period of the Modern English (Weiner, 2013).


Barber, C., Beal, J. and Shaw, P. (2013). The English language. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baugh, A. and Cable, T. (2013). A history of the English language. 1st ed. London: Routledge.

Courseweb.stthomas.edu. (2003). The Making of Middle English. [online] Available at: http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/medieval/chaucer/middleenglish.htm [Accessed 12 Mar. 2017].

Crystal, D. (2016). English as a global language. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freeborn, D. (1992). From Old English to standard English. 1st ed. York: Freeborn.

Graddol, D., Leith, D. and Swann, J. (1996). English. 1st ed. Milton Keynes [England]: Open University.

Holmes, J. (2013). An introduction to sociolinguistics. 1st ed. Harlow: Pearson.

Oxford English Dictionary. (2016). Middle English-an overview – Oxford English Dictionary. [online] Available at: http://public.oed.com/aspects-of-english/english-in-time/middle-english-an-overview/ [Accessed 12 Mar. 2017].

Penhallurick, R. (2010). Studying the English language. 1st ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sisam, K. (1975). Fourteenth century verse and prose. Ed. by Kenneth Sisam. (Repr.). 1st ed. Oxford: Clarendon P XLVII.


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