Time and Space

The Origins of English

To study the history of English is to study its present and future. Understanding how language changes over time is one of the main outcomes of this section, and investigating the history of English could help you to understand the scope and depth of language change.

The history of English begins with the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, three Germanic tribes, in England. As the Celtic tribes were pushed towards Wales, Scotland and Ireland, an ‘anglisc’ language took hold that was to form the roots of future English. This period is known as Old English, and if you have ever tried to read Beowolf in its original form, you will know that it is completely unrecognizable to a modern English speaker. This period lasted from c.450BC – 1100AD, and included invasions from Norse vikings who added their own flavour to the hybrid English language. 

The Norman conquest of England in 1066 brought with it the influence of French on the language. It was common after this period for upper class households to use French while English was spoken in lower class households. By the end of this period (called Middle English and ranging from 1066 – 1500) English had regained dominance, but it was forever marked by borrowings from the French language. 

After Queen Elizabeth started her reign (1558) until approximately 1800, English experienced a period of growth, expansion and standardization. As the Renaissance was a time for pushing back the limits of knowledge, expanding the arts and exploring the world, of course the language expanded to keep pace with new thoughts, ideas and concepts. Yet at the same time as language was experiencing this expansion, the invention of the printing press created a push for increased standardization of spelling and sentence structures. The language through this time is known as Early Modern English.

The Late Modern period (that we are still in today) is marked by further changes brought about by industry and with the growth of technology and the shrinking of the globe through travel. Now digital technology, trade, political upheaval: all of these forces affect the language called English that you speak today. Have a read of some of the following articles and websites that zoom in on aspects of the history that we have just whizzed through in summary:

Class Activity: Etymology

The study of the history of words is called etymology (not to be confused with the study of insects which is called entomology). Browse through a dictionary, looking specifically for the origin of words. How many different historical origins can you find for common English words? Make a list of interesting items that you find. Can you discover 10 or more distinct sources for the modern English language? Compare your list with others in your class. You might like to make a display of your findings.

Learner Portfolio

Create an illustrated timeline of the History of English, including key dates, most important influences and events. Add an image of your finished product to your Learner Portfolio.

Categories:Time and Space

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