History of English

When did the English language, as we know it, come about?

The answer depends on whether you mean any English-rooted language–like the heavily germanic olde english which could almost be an entirely different language–or the ‘modern’ english that we speak today. Right between the two was middle english, which was born between 1100-1400 AD and consisted of olde english with increasingly strong influences from the French and Latin languages.
Try here for a pretty good synopsis.


In particular, I am interested in English that would be understandable to someone with no knowledge of any other languages, other then Modern English.

I would highly recommend Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way by Bill Bryson. Although it may not go into great detail, it covers a wide range of topics. It’s also very amusing–it’s one of those books that causes the other bus riders to give you odd looks, because you’re chuckling aloud.

There’s no such a thing as the “origin” of any natural human language (except for something like Esperanto that was actually made up by someone at some particular time). Any language spoken today has a history that goes back to the beginning of language. You can trace back its ancestry step by step as it splits from other languages. There’s no real dividing line where a new language arises. How could there be? Any language as it’s spoken this year is almost identical with the way it was spoken last year. You could chose some arbitrary amount of difference and say that today’s English began in year X because further back than that the English spoken then was greater than the arbitrary amount of difference, but that would only be true because you picked that amount of difference to be your dividing line. That would thus be an arbitrary distinction.

In short, there’s no real answer to your question.

Can you read Chaucer in the original with fairly good comprehension? Then we could say circa 1390 as a rough date to answer your question “English that would be understandable to someone with no knowledge of any other languages, other then Modern English.” But you have to understand, the reason Chaucer’s Middle English is so easy for us moderns is that he wrote in the London dialect, which became the basis of standard Modern English — the direct ancestor of the language we use now. If you looked at, say, Northumbrian or Mercian Middle English, you’d have a rougher time of it.

But that’s just reading comprehension. Since the pronunciation has changed drastically over the last 500 years, if you heard Chaucer’s English in the original pronunciation, it might baffle your ears. Then you would have to move up to the beginning of Early Modern English, say Caxton’s time, around 1450.

The first time a language that could be identified as “English” came about was when the Angles & Saxons first settled in Britain in the 5th century. They spoke Low West Germanic dialects (“Ingvaeonian”) from the North Sea coastal area. The same dialects left behind on the Continent eventually became Frisian. This does not mean English speakers can understand Frisian! They developed quite differently over 1500 years. It is possible, however, by carefully choosing words, to construct sentences that are practically the same in English and Frisian. I heard that to ask the time in Friesland, you can say in English “How late is it?” and be understood.

One of my teachers in high school answered the question posed in the OP with “Yesterday.” That was for classes in the morning. In the afternoon, he answered, “This morning.”

Yep. He was a strange 'un. But a great, and fun, teacher.

Oops. Forgot to tell y’all what subject that teacher taught: English.

The first King of England who is said to have spoken English as his principal language is Henry IV, who came to power just a while after the previously-mentioned Canterbury Tales were written by Chaucer. But this English was quite different in vocabulary, spelling, and use from the English of Caxton, less than a century later, and that English was in turn quite different from the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Shakespeare is difficult for some (especially younger) readers of today’s English to comprehend easily. The KJV Bible can be a bit murky in parts as well, which has resulted in modern versions/retranslations.

As Jomo says, Chaucer’s pronounciation is peculiar compared to later or now. It takes special training to learn to read (aloud) Chaucer as it was originally meant to be heard. Much less so for the works of the later 1400’s. Still, the spelling was more or less random. I think in one part of a book Caxton printed “Girl” is spelled “Gherle”.

The “English” of the Anglo-Saxons is essentially incomprehensible to modern English speakers unless they have a good knowledge of German, and it is difficult even then. Take Seamus Heaney’s (wrong spelling for the last name? sorry) recent translation/edition of Beowulf, and try to read the left hand pages (in the original language). Pretty tough. Have a German-speaker give it a shot. Still difficult. I’d therefopre have to disagree with Jomo in the contention that Anglo-Saxon was “English”.

Just as a side note, my understanding is that the Danish spoken by Canute and the “English” spoken in the 11th century were still more or less mutually intelligible ( not discounting the numerous Danisgh and Norwegian settlements in the north and midlands in prior centuries ). Which seems to argue for the Norman Conquest being a pretty seminal impact in shifting England’s orientation from northern Europe to western Europe.

How similar, I wonder was the Scandinavian German of the time to German of the Holy Roman Empire? Answers, anybody :)?

  • Tamerlane

About 18 months ago this news story was reported. It doesn’t say when modern English developed but does indentify where and how.

JCHeckler, Old English was no less English for being Old.

For that matter, it was a “heck” of a lot more English than today. Old English had few loanwords from foreign languages, unlike Modern English which is loaded with them.

Old English is real English.

Actually, Old English was a lot more like Old Norse than like German. When Beowulf was first rediscovered a couple centuries ago, it was assumed to be another Icelandic saga. The English grammar underwent a pretty thorough reorganization in the years between 1066 and around 1600 (Shakespeare’s time) and has not changed much since. It started out as a highly inflected language and ended up with very little inflection (mainly adding s in the plural, genetive and the third singular present verb and either adding a dental (d, t or ed) for the past of the verb or changing the vowel and maybe adding something to make the past. There is also a subjunctive–nearly gone in England, but still in use in north america–gotten mainly by not adding an s is the third singular present. Also between 1066 and Shakespeare’s day about the current words used in English were added mainly from French. Shakespeare himself is responsible for the first appearance in print of several thousand words, I read recently. So, although the pronuncation would probably have sounded strange, I think you could quite reasonably date from 1600 the first English that you could hear without great difficulty. Comprehensible written language arguably goes back to Chaucer, but I don’t think you would understand the spoken langauge.

That’s right, Hari Seldon, except that English belongs to the West Germanic branch, while Old Norse is Northern Germanic. The later stages of Old English certainly did pick up plenty of Norse influence, thanks to the Danelaw. But the language closest of all to Old English was Old Frisian, which is West Germanic. The other West Germanic languages are German and Dutch. Old German had a fuller inflectional system too, like Gothic, Old English, and Old Norse. Of all surviving Germanic languages, modern German still retains more inflections that the others have lost, except perhaps for Icelandic and Faeroese, which have kept some Old Norse inflections.

Once you go beyond Germanic, the branch of Indo-European that is most similar to the Germanic languages is Slavic (but they’re not especially close). Compare Russian khleb ‘bread’ with English loaf < OE hlaf. The OE h developed from a “kh” sound that has remained in Russian. Or compare Russian liubov’ with German Liebe, English love.

Hmmm…So by that measure then the English of the 11th century was much closer to the various Norse tongues than it was in, say, the 7th? Very interesting.

Still, I’ve seen references to various “Norse” rulers even in the early, supposed ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms. For example, Redwald of Anglia ( if my memory is correct ), who was probably the one buried at Sutton Hoo, appears to have been the scion of a Swedish dynasty. Was the linguistic differentiation of North vs. West German significant at that point? Was it only later that they became fairly separate languages and English just retained some similarities due to repeated Norse colonizations in the 8th-11th centuries?

Or is my info just wrong :)?

  • Tamerlane

Hwæt we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
ƒeod-cyninga ƒrym gefrunon,
hu tha æƒelinga ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing sceaƒena ƒreatum,
monegum mægƒum meodo-setla ofteah;
egsode Eorle, sythan æerst wearth
feasceaft funden; he ľs frofre gebad:
weox under wolcnum, weor-myndum ƒah,
othƒæt him æghwylc ƒara ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-rade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan: ƒæt wæs god cyning!

NP: My Babelfish has taken a nap. Could you possibly translate that Old English for the class?

Derleth – it’s the opening to Beowulf, available in many good sources both offline and on.

And no less comprehensible than half of what I hear on the radio.

Tamerlane, I was thinking of Old Norse influence upon Old English mainly from the 9th century onwards, specifically the Danelaw when Danes settled to live in England as residents rather than raiders. This coincides with King Alfred the Great, who worked out this accommodation and also sponsored the development of Old English as a polished literary language. (Alfred’s court used the Wessex dialect, which is not the direct ancestor of Modern English, so it isn’t so similar to the language we know.)

IIRC, the Danelaw period onward to the 11th century was when large numbers of Norse loanwords began entering English. Like sky, skirt, skull, wagon, she, they, them. This was when speakers of Old Norse and Old English were interacting peacefully. The earlier period you referred to was when the Norsemen were raiding England. As the English were cowering in their hidey holes hoping the Norsemen wouldn’t slay them, I doubt that much significant linguistic interaction could have taken place.

The differentiation of Northern Germanic from Western Germanic is thought to have occurred earlier in the Christian era, in the low figures A.D., before the Angles and Saxons invaded England.

The effect of the Norse speakers in the Danelaw on English was to cause the loss of most of the inflected endings on words. The root words were similar enough to allow some mutual comprehension (just because they were both Germanic languages; if the Danes had been trying to talk with Dutch or Germans, the situation would have been similar), but the inflections were different. So the English speakers and Norse speakers accommodated each other by dropping the inflections.

When this sort of contact vernacular develops between two linguistic communities, linguists call it a “pidgin.” When a pidgin becomes the native language of a population, it’s called a “creole.” Thus the attractive theory that English itself is a creolized language.

Northern Piper, cool quote, except that Thorn is supposed to look like this: þ . Try ALT 0254.