History of the English Language

English speakers and learners know that the language is a complicated one. Silent letters, synonyms, and words spelled the same but pronounced differently (heteronyms) are all frustrating parts of learning the English language. How did it become so complex?

English language learners may benefit from learning about the evolution of English. An understanding of why English shares so many words with other languages may be helpful while learning vocabulary. Knowing the roots of the language may also be useful for understanding word origins and language rules. Additionally, knowing some history of English can expose learners to historical and cultural works, such as Shakespeare or Chaucer.

The video below is a great overview of the history of English.

English’s evolution is tied to conquering. It began with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century CE. The invaders’ Germanic languages clashed with the Celtic languages native to Britain. English language evolution is generally separated into three eras:

  • Old English – This was the language as it existed before about 1100 CE. Old English was actually a group of regional dialects. Modern English speakers would likely not understand Old English at all. Approximately half of modern English words originate in Old English.
  • Middle English – With the 1066 conquering of England by the Normans came French language influences. French was spoken by the upper classes while English continued to be used by the peasantry. This Middle English was used from about 1100-1500 CE. English slowly dominated French, but many French words were adopted.
  • Modern English – This category is broken into Early Modern and Late Modern. Early Modern English dated from about 1500-1800 CE. This was when a major change in pronunciation happened called the Great Vowel Shift. Vowels evolved from long sounds to short ones. Late Modern English dates from 1800 to present. The biggest difference from Early Modern is the increase in vocabulary with the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire. With England colonizing other lands, the spread of English worldwide began.

“The English language is like a stew made from every ingredient in the pantry. But don’t be too irritated with English. The same thing that makes English so frustrating with regards to spelling and pronunciation is what makes it so rich in other ways.” – Next Step English

English is a true hodgepodge of other languages. Learning the history of the language helps us understand the origin of some of the oddities of English. Check out the resources below to learn more about the history of English and how to teach it.


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