Skip to main content

English Language


ENGLISH LANGUAGE. The English language has its origins in about the fifth century a.d., when tribes from the continent, the Jutes, the Saxons, and then the larger tribe of Angles invaded the small island we now call England (from Angle-land). Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, is preserved in Beowulf (c. a.d. 800). Middle English developed following the Norman invasion of 1066, exemplified in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1400). Modern English, dating from the sixteenth century, is exemplified in the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). From the time the Pilgrims landed in America (1620), the language began to take its own course in this "New World." Expressions like "fixing to," which had never been used in England, were "cropping up" (an expression going back to Middle English) in the colonial press by 1716.

So the American Revolution (1775–1783) not only created a new nation but also divided the English language into what H. L. Mencken, author of the classic study The American Language; An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, called "two streams." These streams diverged to produce different words with the same denotation (the American "trunk" of a car is a "boot" in England), different pronunciations for the same words (the American sked-ju-el is the British shed-ju-el), and different spellings (theater vs. theatre, labor vs. labour).

By 1781, the word "Americanism" had been coined by John Witherspoon, a Scottish clergyman recruited to become president of Princeton University. These Americanisms, Witherspoon wrote, were not "worse in themselves, but merely …of American and not of English growth." The separation of the "two streams of English" was already noticeable. In his usual acerbic manner, Mencken applauded the American resistance to rules: "Standard [British] English must always strike an American as a bit stilted and precious" (p. 774).

Judgment by Language: The Shibboleth

Once there is any kind of "standard," people could begin passing judgment (that's spelled "judgement" in England) based on what was deemed "correct." One of the first recorded instances is the "shibboleth" test in the Old Testament. Hebrew, like all other languages, had many dialects, and the twelve tribes of Israel did not always pronounce words in the same way. Thus, when the Gileadites "seized the fords of the Jordan" (Judg. 12:5–6), it was not enough to merely ask those who wished to cross the river "Are you an Ephraimite?" They needed a test to distinguish the enemy. They used pronunciation, and those who said "sib-bo-leth" instead of "shib-bo-leth" were slain.

Americans are by and large more tolerant of language differences than the English. George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), the Englishman who wrote Pygmalion (on which the musical My Fair Lady was based), wrote, "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." Shaw was, like Mencken, a great debunker and exploder of pretension. "An honest and natural slum dialect," he wrote, "is more tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically un-taught person to imitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club" (Mencken, p. 775).

Dialects: The Branches of the Stream

Shaw's comment raises a point worth highlighting: we all speak a dialect. If English, in Mencken's phrase, divides into "two streams," British and American, there are within those streams many creeks and branches (two Americanisms according to Witherspoon). Both Cockney and "the Queen's English" are, after all, dialects of British English, although one carries more prestige.

Likewise, we have many dialects in the United States. Mark Twain, in his prefatory note to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tells us that there are at least seventeen distinguishable dialects in the novel. In the early twenty-first century we find many dialects of American English as we move from the New York Bronx to Charleston, or from the Midwestern plains to the San Fernando Valley (home of the "valley girls"), or from Chicago to New Orleans (is that pronounced with the stress on the first or the second syllable: ore-leans or ore-lens?) Is there such a thing today as a "standard" American language?

Guides to Correctness

Certainly there have been those willing to provide guidance to the public on "correct" usage of the language. America's most famous lexicographer, Noah Webster, published his "Blue-backed" American Speller soon after the Revolution, teaching not only spelling but also pronunciation, common sense, morals, and good citizenship. His first dictionary (1806) was one of several (the first in English being Samuel Johnson's in 1755), but when Webster died in 1843, the purchase of rights to his dictionary by Charles and George Merriam led to a new, one-volume edition that sold for six dollars in 1847. This edition became the standard. Except for the Bible, Webster's spelling book and dictionary were the best-selling publications in American history up to the mid-twentieth century.

Webster's spelling book (often marketed with the Bible) molded four generations of American schoolchildren, proclaiming what was "right" without apology. In contrast, The American Heritage Dictionary of the late twentieth century offers guidance based on a survey of its "Usage Panel," a group of respected writers and speakers who are asked what they find acceptable. In the third college edition (1997), the editors note drastic changes in the Panel's attitudes. More and more of the old shibboleths are widely accepted. For example, in 1969 most of the Usage Panel objected to using the words "contact" and "intrigue" as verbs, but by the 1993 survey, most had no problem with either (though "hopefully" and "disinterested" remained problematic for most). Language, if it is spoken, lives and changes (in contrast to a "dead language" such as Latin, which does not evolve because it is not spoken). As with a river, so with language: you never put your tongue to the same one twice.

Lexicographers now present their dictionaries as a description of how the language looks at a particular time rather than as a prescription of what is "correct." The constant evolution of language makes new editions necessary. Many people have come to use the word "disinterested" to mean "uninterested" instead of "without bias"; therefore, despite objections of purists, it does in fact mean that. "Corruption" or change?

Likewise with pronunciation. In the 1990s, the word "harass" came into frequent use in the news. Americans had traditionally put the stress on the second syllable: he-RASS. This pronunciation, according to The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (1999), "first occurred in American English and has gained wide acceptance over the last 50 years." But reporters on television during the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, in which he was accused of "sexual harassment" by Anita Hill, tended to prefer the pronunciation HAR-ess, "the older, more traditional pronunciation [which] is still preferred by those for whom British pronunciation is a guide." There are many influences on our shifting language habits.

Simplification Movement

Pragmatic Americans have often sought to simplify the language. The Simplified Spelling Board, created in 1906, sought to simplify the spelling of words like "though." "But tho their filosofy was that simpler is better, they cood not get thru to peepl as they wisht." The Chicago Tribune began to simplify spelling in their publication in 1935, but the American public would not send their brides down the "aile" nor transport their loved ones' caskets in a "herse," so the attempt was largely abandoned with a few exceptions, such as "tho," "thru," and "catalog." Spelling, after all, has often been used as a test of intelligence and education. It also reflects the history of the language. The word "knight" carries with it the echoes of Chaucer's Middle English pronunciation: ka-nick-te.

Another major impediment to spelling reform is the association of phonetic spelling with illiteracy: while the reformers may "ake" to "berry" those men and "wimmen" who "apose" them, those who write of the "kat's tung" open themselves to ridicule. Mencken declared, however, that "American spelling is plainly better than English spelling, and in the long run it seems sure to prevail" (p. 483).

Growing Vocabulary

One distinctive aspect of the English language is its tendency to absorb foreign words. English-speaking peoples

Table 1

Trends in New Word Formation, 1900–2000
Category producing
Decade the most new words Example
10swarflame-thrower (from the German Flammenwerfer)
20sclothesbathing beauty, threads (slang for clothes)
30swardecrypt, fifth column, flak
40swarground zero, radar
50smediateleconference, Xerox
60scomputerinterface, cursor
70scomputerhard disk, microprocessor
80smediacyberspace, dish (TV antenna), shock jock
90spoliticsGeneration X, off-message

(many of them explorers and adventurers) have adopted and adapted terms from many languages. Loanwords come from many foreign languages, sometimes directly, sometimes through other languages: dirge (Latin), history (Greek), whiskey (Celtic), fellow (Scandinavian), sergeant (French), chocolate (Spanish), umbrella (Italian), tattoo (German), sugar (Arabic), kowtow (Chinese), banana (African), moccasin (Native American).

Sometimes new words have to be created. In a survey of new words in the twentieth century, John Ayto found an interesting correlation between neologisms and the events and inventions of the times. Consider the list shown in Table 1.

Promoting and Resisting One "Standard"

One of the great forces for molding a common American English since the mid-twentieth century has been the media, especially television. During the first decades of television news coverage, reporters and anchors were expected to have or to adopt a Midwestern accent, the least distinctive and most generally understandable, the most "American" as it were. This tended to promote a common "American" accent. As the century grew to a close, however, ethnic groups grew in size and multiculturalism became a potent force in society. More dialects (and more ethnicity in general) began to show up on the screen. In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush emphasized his ability to speak Spanish.

This increasing power of groups who spoke English as a second language or not at all led to a widespread call for "English only" laws in the 1980s and 1990s, though the movement never achieved critical mass. On the other end of the political spectrum were those who argued that teachers should use the vernacular of the pupils in order to help them learn. Great arguments swirled around the terms "Ebonics" and "bilingual education."

The International Language

English has replaced French as the international language for many reasons: the political, military, and economic dominance of the United States since World War II (1939–1945), of course, but also the influence of American culture, especially movies, television, and rock music. We were well on our way to this position before Pearl Harbor drew us into war in 1941. Mencken attributes this partly to the "dispersion of the English-speaking peoples," but in typical Mencken style goes on to say that those peoples "have been, on the whole, poor linguists, and so they have dragged their language with them, and forced it upon the human race." Robert MacNeil, in the fascinating study of the English language for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), The Story of English (1986), observed that when landing in Rome, an Italian pilot flying an Italian airliner converses with the control tower in English.

The Digital Word

Just as the printing press, widely used throughout Europe by 1500, changed our use of words, leading to new written forms such as the novel and the newspaper, so the computer has created change. E-mail, chat rooms, and Web pages have made words on the screen almost as common as on the printed page. We already see changes taking place, as onscreen language becomes more informal (often creating new words, such as "online"). Words get shortened: electronic mail becomes e-mail, which in turn becomes email. Note, however, that this is not new. "Today" was spelled "to-day" in the early twentieth century.

We many need help "navigating the shifting verbal currents of the post-Gutenberg era," according to Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age (version 1.0, 1996, with 2.0 published in 1999). The online experience has spawned various means of conveying tone including acronyms (such as LOL for "laughing out loud" and IRL for "in real life" —as distinguished from the virtual world of cyberspace) and emoticons such as >: D for "demonic laughter" and >: P for "sticking tongue out at you." English continues to change with influences of all kinds.

Finding Guidance Amid the Flux

The two streams continue to evolve, of course, and the purists like William Safire and John Simon continue to preach against the "corruption" of the language. But like the river, the English language will flow whither it will. Two of the most respected guides in the midst of this flux are both in third editions.

The Elements of Style, praised as the best of its kind by professional writers for over four decades, is E. B. White's revision of his professor's book. William Strunk's "little book" (1918) so impressed White as a college freshman that decades later he revised Strunk's original (which can be found on the Internet) into this thin volume in praise of conciseness and precision in writing. It has never been out of print since 1959 when the first edition was published, is still in print and praised as the best of its kind by professional writers.

The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996) shows tolerance for expressions that Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933) would have never allowed in his first edition in 1926. The third edition, unlike the first two, lists as one of three meanings for "fix": the "American expression 'to be fixing to,' meaning 'to prepare to, intend, be on the point of.'" This guide, one of the most esteemed in print, labels it "informal" and notes that it is "hardly ever encountered outside the US." American English continues to evolve and standards continue to change.


Ayto, John. Twentieth-Century Words. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Burchfield, R. W., ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Widely respected guide to "correct" usage.

Hayakawa, S. I. Language in Thought and Action. 4thed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Classic work on semantics.

Hale, Constance, and Jessie Scanlon. Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. Wired magazine is an influential publication about computer technology.

Mencken, H. L. The American Language; An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. Raven I. McDavid, Jr., ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963. Classic readable and influential examination of the new stream.

McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Viking, 1986. This book is a companion to the excellent PBS television series available on videotape.

Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Pyles, Thomas, and John Algeo. The Origins and Development of the English Language. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Strunk, William Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1979.

William E.King

See alsoEducation, Bilingual ; Slang .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"English Language." Dictionary of American History. . 24 Apr. 2017 <>.

"English Language." Dictionary of American History. . (April 24, 2017).

"English Language." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from


ENGLISH IN ENGLAND Also ANGLO-ENGLISH, England English, ENGLISH ENGLISH. The English language as used in England. For many people in England and elsewhere, the terms Anglo-English, England English, and English English are tautologous and barbarous. It has seemed natural to them that, just as French is the language of France, so English is (and should be) the native language of the inhabitants of England. Other forms of the language have been used elsewhere, in some cases for many centuries, but they have been widely regarded in England as peripheral and in many cases deficient. In the late 20c, however, English in England is generally seen by scholars as one of many varieties that bear the name English, but because English English is, as it were, the parent stock it is often harder to discuss and describe than varieties that have added distinctive characteristics of their own. In the English of North America, parts of Africa, and South Asia, it is relatively easy to identify phonological, grammatical, and lexical features unique to certain varieties. It is less easy to say that a particular feature will be heard only or mainly in England.

A language without competition

Since the decline of French in the late Middle Ages, English in England has had no major competitor. English people have not shared the experience of the Celtic parts of Britain, where the presence of other vernaculars may affect the idiom even of those who do not speak them. Nor has there been resistance to the status of English, such as that which makes the Irish writer James Joyce's character Stephen Daedalus think after speaking to an Englishman, ‘My soul frets in the shadow of his language.’ The language has never been officially standardized, but a typically English nostalgia for the past is reflected in attempts to fix one period as definitive. In the 18c, the best English was widely supposed to have been used in the ‘Augustan’ reign of Queen Anne (1702–14). Writers and scholars like Swift and JOHNSON sought to fix it, but at the same time there was strong and successful resistance to suggestions for an Academy on the French model. There continues to be a feeling that a certain type of English is the best, phrases like the Queen's English, BBC ENGLISH, OXFORD ENGLISH suggesting that the ruling and cultural establishment has by right the correct usage.

Standard and accent

There is in England a degree of confusion between the terms STANDARD ENGLISH (SE) and RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION (RP). Although SE is generally defined by linguists and teachers in terms only of grammar and vocabulary, and RP only in terms of ACCENT, both are often used as virtual synonyms, and SE is often assumed to include (and require) RP. SE, however, can be and is spoken in many accents. RP emerged more slowly than SE; although regional accents were recognized and considered slightly comic or substandard as early as the 16c, generally dialect was not despised: Walter Raleigh spoke with a Devon accent and was an accomplished courtier and writer. It is not until the late 19c that the prestige of RP becomes apparent, with the desire to acquire it for the enhancement of status. SE is not a class usage, but RP is. Although it has considerable prestige value, RP is disliked and caricatured by many speakers with other accents. It is accepted without comment from a BBC newsreader, but is liable to arouse mirth or hostility when used by anyone suspected of shedding the local speech and ‘talking posh’.

The permutations of SE and RP are many. It is likely that an RP speaker will use SE in speech and writing. Most English people write SE, with occasional lapses in spelling and grammar. Many also speak SE, often with some mixture of regional words and idioms, ranging from an occasional item to full dialect. There has, however, been a steady decline in the degree of dialect differences from SE, accelerated over the last fifty years by media mainly purveying SE usage in RP voices. Dialect variation of lexis and syntax is less marked among younger people, but accents are still diverse. Some speakers in effect command two dialects, local for intimate uses and a version (among the many versions) of the national standard for more formal purposes. The increase of town populations has created marked differences between urban and rural dialects. In large conurbations, local forms which sometimes varied over even a small area have tended to lose their distinctiveness and merge into a more general and extensive type of speech. Pressures from the national educational system and the media have also acted to remove or reduce some of the more extreme variants. A large English town today will contain a variety of spoken English determined by social, educational, and generational factors, rather than the simpler division between educated speech and a fairly uniform local dialect which would until recently have been found in rural areas. The presence of immigrant groups has brought new forms of speech; the second generation usually acquires the local accent, but older speakers often keep distinctive features.

Defending the language

Strong feelings about the state of the language are made public in various ways. Among older middle-class users there is resistance to change and a freely expressed distrust of American and other influences. Resistance to an Academy has paradoxically resulted in unofficial watchdogs such as the Society for Pure English, founded in 1913, which carried on for many years a campaign against what it regarded as degenerate tendencies. Postwar exponents of ‘U and non-U’ (upper-class and non-upper-class usage) stigmatized certain words and idioms as ‘common’, and for a time in the 1950s the spotting of U and non-U terms was a kind of national game. The idea grew from an article by the linguist A. S. C. Ross, which suggested that the comparative levelling of outward signs of rank and wealth in post-war England had made linguistic usage a more important pointer. In 1979, taking a different tack, Plain English Campaign publicly destroyed government forms as the opening move in a crusade against officialese and obfuscation.


English in England appears to be losing many of its particularities. Traditionally, educated English people have separated shall for the first person and will for the second and third, and reversed them for special meaning or emphasis: I shall come tomorrow; you shall go to the Ball! The immediate ‘Have you (got) a pen?’ has been distinguished from the more habitual ‘Do you have a pen?’ Similarly, the present perfect tense has been used for past states within a continuing time period: ‘Have you seen him today?’ as against ‘Did you see him yesterday?’ Modal verbs such as would and might have been used to express hesitation or extra politeness. Would you care for some more tea?—If I might. These and other features are still found with older speakers but seem to be declining, perhaps through the influence of AmE. Because so much is shared with other parts of the UK, and because there has been so much AmE influence in recent decades, it is probably true to say that specifically English English is currently less distinctive within the British Isles than at any time in the past.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ENGLISH IN ENGLAND." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . 24 Apr. 2017 <>.

"ENGLISH IN ENGLAND." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . (April 24, 2017).

"ENGLISH IN ENGLAND." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from

English language

English language, member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). Spoken by about 470 million people throughout the world, English is the official language of about 45 nations. It is the mother tongue of about 60 million persons in the British Isles, from where it spread to many other parts of the world owing to British exploring, colonizing, and empire-building from the 17th through 19th cent. It is now also the first language of an additional 228 million people in the United States; 16.5 million in Canada; 17 million in Australia; 3 million in New Zealand and a number of Pacific islands; and approximately 15 million others in different parts of the Western Hemisphere, Africa, and Asia. As a result of such expansion, English is the most widely scattered of the great speech communities. It is also the most commonly used auxiliary language in the world. The United Nations uses English not only as one of its official languages but also as one of its two working languages.

There are many dialect areas; in England and S Scotland these are of long standing, and the variations are striking; the Scottish dialect especially has been cultivated literarily. There are newer dialect differences also, such as in the United States, including regional varieties such as Southern English, and cultural varieties, such as Black English. Standard forms of English differ also; thus, the standard British ( "the king's English" ) is dissimilar to the several standard varieties of American and to Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and Indian English.

History of English

Today's English is the continuation of the language of the 5th-century Germanic invaders of Britain. No records exist of preinvasion forms of the language. The language most closely related to English is the West Germanic language Frisian. The history of English is an aspect of the history of the English people and their development. Thus in the 9th cent. the standard English was the dialect of dominant Wessex (see Anglo-Saxon literature). The Norman Conquest (11th cent.) brought in foreign rulers, whose native language was Norman French; and English was eclipsed by French as the official language. When English became again (14th cent.) the language of the upper class, the capital was London, and the new standard (continued in Modern Standard English) was a London dialect.

It is convenient to divide English into periods—Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; to c.1150), Middle English (to c.1500; see Middle English literature), and Modern English; this division implies no discontinuity, for even the hegemony of French affected only a small percentage of the population. The English-speaking areas have expanded at all periods. Before the Normans the language was spoken in England and S Scotland, but not in Cornwall, Wales, or, at first, in Strathclyde. English has not completely ousted the Celtic languages from the British Isles, but it has spread vastly overseas.

A Changed and Changing Language

Like other languages, English has changed greatly, albeit imperceptibly, so that an English speaker of 1300 would not have understood the English of 500 nor the English of today. Changes of every sort have taken place concomitantly in the sounds (phonetics), in their distribution (phonemics), and in the grammar (morphology and syntax). The Changes in English Pronunciation table demonstrates how a few familiar words have altered over the span of a thousand years. The changes shown in the table are more radical than they appear, for Modern English ō and ā are diphthongs. The words stones and name exemplify the fate of unaccented vowels, which became ə, then ə disappeared. In Old English important inflectional contrasts depended upon the difference between unaccented vowels; so, as these vowels coalesced into ə and this disappeared, much of the case system disappeared too. In Modern English a different technique, word order (subject + predicate + object), is used to show what a case contrast once did, namely, which is the actor and which the goal of the action.

Although the pronunciation of English has changed greatly since the 15th cent., the spelling of English words has altered very little over the same period. As a result, English spelling is not a reliable guide to the pronunciation of the language.

The vocabulary of English has naturally expanded, but many common modern words are derived from the lexicon of the earliest English; e.g., bread,good, and shower. From words acquired with Latin Christianity come priest,bishop, and others; and from words adopted from Scandinavian settlers come root,egg,take,window, and many more. French words, such as castle, began to come into English shortly before the Norman Conquest. After the Conquest, Norman French became the language of the court and of official life, and it remained so until the end of the 14th cent.

During these 300 or more years English remained the language of the common people, but an increasingly large number of French words found their way into the language, so that when the 14th-century vernacular revival, dominated by Chaucer and Wyclif, restored English to its old place as the speech of all classes, the French element in the English vocabulary was very considerable. To this phase of French influence belong most legal terms (such as judge, jury, tort, and assault) and words denoting social ranks and institutions (such as duke, baron, peer, countess, and parliament), together with a great number of other words that cannot be classified readily—e.g., honor, courage, season, manner, study, feeble, and poor. Since nearly all of these French words are ultimately derived from Late Latin, they may be regarded as an indirect influence of the classical languages upon the English vocabulary.

The direct influence of the classical languages began with the Renaissance and has continued ever since; even today Latin and Greek roots are the chief source for English words in science and technology (e.g., conifer, cyclotron, intravenous, isotope, polymeric, and telephone). During the last 300 years the borrowing of words from foreign languages has continued unchecked, so that now most of the languages of the world are represented to some extent in the vocabulary. English vocabulary has also been greatly expanded by the blending of existing words (e.g., smog from smoke and fog) and by back-formations (e.g., burgle from burglar), whereby a segment of an existing word is treated as an affix and dropped, resulting in a new word, usually with a related meaning.


See H. L. Mencken, The American Language (rev. 4th ed. 1963); G. W. Turner, The English Language in Australia and New Zealand (1966); M. Pei, The Story of the English Language (new ed. 1968); P. Roberts, Modern Grammar (1968); M. M. Orkin, Speaking Canadian English (1971); T. Pyles and J. Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language (3d ed. 1982); W. F. Bolton, A Living Language (1982); B. Kachru, ed., The Other Tongue (1982); R. Hudson, Invitation to Linguistics (1984); J. Baugh, Black Street Speech (1985); J. Lynch, The English Language: A User's Guide (2008) and The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of Proper English, From Shakespeare to South Park (2009); D. Crystal, Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices (2011).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"English language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 24 Apr. 2017 <>.

"English language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (April 24, 2017).

"English language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from

English language

English language. This originated in the speech of small groups of Anglo-Saxon settlers in eastern Britain in the 5th and 6th cents. It is now not only the most widely spoken language in the world but also forms the basis for national and international communication between members of other speech communities.

The language of the Anglo-Saxon settlers and their pre-Norman successors is conventionally known as Old English. Closely related to Old Saxon and Old Frisian, it forms part of the Germanic grouping within the Indo-European language system. Little direct evidence of its nature survives from the 5th and 6th cents. but, as fuller records become available with the advent of Christian literacy, it emerges as a highly inflected language realized in four main dialectal varieties: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish. Though Latin was inevitably the main language of learned communication, education, and the church, Old English was used as early as King Ine (d. 726) as a language of law; King Alfred's educational reforms of the late 9th cent. built on this precocious official usage and massively expanded its employment in literary and educational texts. As a result, by the 10th cent., the vernacular had acquired a literary prestige attained nowhere else in contemporary Europe.

The Anglo-Saxon period saw two major cultural revolutions: the conversion and the Scandinavian settlement. Both affected the development of the language. The linguistic impact of Christianity is probably exaggerated by the ecclesiastical nature of our sources but there is no doubt that it involved both borrowing from Latin and, more importantly, exploitation of the resources of English through compounding of, and semantic extension to, existing vocabulary to express the concepts of the new religion. The Scandinavian languages of the Viking settlers penetrated much more deeply into English vocabulary, syntax, morphology, and phonology. The influence of this cognate Germanic language clearly operated at the everyday level of communication and even included the transfer of the ancestral forms of the pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’, and ‘their’—items of a type rarely borrowed from one language to another. More indirectly, the Scandinavian settlement seems to have accelerated the progressive loss of inflexional complexity in English, for it is in the Viking-settled areas that these tendencies are most evident, encouraged no doubt by a desire to remove barriers to inter-intelligibility between the two related languages of Old English and Old Norse.

Paradoxically the extent of Scandinavian influence is not fully apparent until the post-Conquest period. The reason for this is that a standard written language had emerged in the late Anglo-Saxon period which was based upon the dialect of the politically dominant kingdom of Wessex, where also was the heartland of the Benedictine reform movement. This conservative, southern-based language registered little of the more radical linguistic changes spreading southwards from the Anglo-Scandinavian north. Only with the Norman Conquest, when the introduction of Norman French scribes resulted in the disruption of West Saxon literary conventions, did these changes become apparent. Untrammelled by convention scribes began to write what they heard. As a result the ‘Early Middle English’ language of their manuscripts differs greatly from that of ‘Late Old English’ texts, yet all that had happened was that written forms had caught up with spoken developments—which had included simplification of many inflectional distinctions and the absorption of Scandinavian vocabulary.

Under pressure from Latin and French in the post-Conquest period, English lost literary prestige; the ‘Middle English’ stage of the language between the 12th and 14th cents. is thus a record of geographically limited dialects. By the 14th cent., however, English had risen once more in status though it was only in the late 14th and early 15th that a new standard written language emerged, based upon the language of the capital, London. This standard was later reinforced and spread by the introduction of printing. Linguistic variation in spelling and vocabulary, however, long persisted.

The 14th-cent. language of Chaucer in the south and the Gawain poet in the north bears the marks of strong French influence in vocabulary and syntax. Detailed analysis of this French impact shows that it did not follow immediately upon the Norman Conquest but effectively began in the 13th cent. under the combined effects of the loss of Normandy in 1204 with a consequent identification of an Anglo-Norman nobility with England, and the European cultural ascendancy of French literary forms.

The flood of new ideas associated with the Renaissance and with Elizabethan and later exploration exposed the English speech community to languages and experience from most of the inhabited world. Terms to express the new concepts of religion, scholarship, and science invaded the language, not least from Latin and Greek; such ‘inkhorn terms’ were the subject of anguished debate and comedy among contemporary polemicists and satirists. The lack of fixed forms in English, particularly in contrast to the apparent stability of Latin, was also increasingly a matter of concern for those anxious to establish the vernacular as a language of learned discourse. This concern led to the eighteenth-century preoccupation with regularizing, fixing, and recording language of which Johnson's Dictionary and the appearance of prescriptive grammar books represent two complementary facets.

By the 18th cent., however, English was no longer the language of a small part of Britain. In the preceding century settlers had taken it to North America and the West Indies; it was now to spread to Australasia, South Africa, and India. In all of these areas it developed its own forms which proceeded to interact with British English, the more so as communications became easier. The language in its various varieties has continued to evolve, with conservative and innovative forces continually at war within it. One extreme example can illustrate this conflict: alongside the host of new coinages, based on Latin and Greek roots, which have been adopted to express the technology and science of the 19th and 20th cents. there coexisted an extraordinarily archaic, yet highly influential, form of language in the world of religion where the Anglican church continued to use prayer books and bibles published in the period of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles II which themselves drew heavily upon the language of Tyndale (d. 1536), Cranmer (d. 1556), and Coverdale (d. 1569).

See also dialects.

Richard N. Bailey


Barber, C. , The English Language: A Historical Introduction (Cambridge, 1993);
Freeborn, D. , From Old English to Standard English (1992);
Leith, R. , A Social History of English (1983);
Strang, B. , A History of English (1970).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"English language." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 24 Apr. 2017 <>.

"English language." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (April 24, 2017).

"English language." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from


English Language belonging to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family. It may be said to have come into existence with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England in the 5th century ad. During more than 1500 years of development, it transformed from an inflected language with grammatical gender to a language with very few inflections and employing a sex-correlated gender system (he, she, and it). The inclusion of numerous foreign, technical and slang words massively expanded the vocabulary of English. It is the mother tongue of c.300 million people, and a second language for hundreds of millions more worldwide.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"English." World Encyclopedia. . 24 Apr. 2017 <>.

"English." World Encyclopedia. . (April 24, 2017).

"English." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from


140. English

See also 236. LANGUAGE .

1 . a word, idiom, or feature of the English language occurring in or borrowed by another language.
2 . U.S. a Briticism.
3 . any manner, idea, or custom typical of the English people. Also called Englishism .
an authority on the English language or English literature.
Briticism, Britishism
a word or phrase characteristic of speakers of English in Britain and not usually used by English speakers elsewhere.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"English." -Ologies and -Isms. . 24 Apr. 2017 <>.

"English." -Ologies and -Isms. . (April 24, 2017).

"English." -Ologies and -Isms. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from


Eng·lish / ˈing(g)lish/ • adj. of or relating to England or its people or language. • n. 1. the West Germanic language of England, now widely used in many varieties throughout the world. 2. [as pl. n.] (the English) the people of England. 3. spin given to a ball, esp. in pool or billiards. DERIVATIVES: Eng·lish·man n. Eng·lish·ness n.Eng·lish·wom·an n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"English." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 24 Apr. 2017 <>.

"English." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (April 24, 2017).

"English." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from