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HISTORY OF ENGLISH The history of a language can be an internal history (of linguistic categories such as sounds, structure, and vocabulary) and an external history (of geographical and social spread, attitudes toward the language, study of its features, and attempts at its regulation). Such a dual approach is useful so long as it does not ignore changes that overlap these categories, as when ENGLISH borrowed heavily from FRENCH, in which attitudes (an external factor) influenced vocabulary (an internal feature.)


Almost all knowledge of English before c.600 is hypothetical, a reconstruction based on later documents in English and on earlier documents in related languages. Scholars agree, however, that the ultimate origins of English lie in INDO-EUROPEAN (IE), a postulated ancient language which may have been spoken in north-eastern Europe or near the Black Sea between c.3000 and c.2000 BC and can now only be reconstructed from its descendants. The incremental changes that produced the obviously related English daughter, GERMAN Tochter, Armenian dushtr, GREEK thugátēr, and SANSKRIT duhitár (etc.) from a common original are still at work; thus, the English spelling daughter masks a variety of pronunciations including DAWtuh and DAHdur, in which only the initial sound remains the same. IE ceased to exist sometime soon after 2000 BC, having diversified into a number of increasingly distinct offspring as a result of migration and natural linguistic changes. One of these offspring is known to scholars as Primitive Germanic, which like the original IE has left no written records. The Germanic-speaking peoples appear to have moved from the IE homeland to what is now Scandinavia and northern Germany, from which they later spread in several migrations, leaving a northern branch behind, creating a small eastern branch that included Gothic, and a much larger western branch, which was the source of German, DUTCH, and English, among others.

Old English

Several migrating tribes from northern Germany reached Britain in the early 5c speaking the mutually intelligible dialects which in their new home are now called OLD ENGLISH(OE) or ANGLO-SAXON. The first written form of the language was runic letters, replaced during the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons after 597 by the LATIN alphabet, which was adapted to serve OE, making use of some runic letters and some letter shapes used by Irish scribes. Although OE was used as a literary medium and was the language of the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE, it did not seriously rival Latin as an administrative or intellectual medium, and within a century of the Norman Conquest of 1066 it was dead. Like other early IE languages, it distinguished three grammatical persons, not only in the plural (as in modern English we, you, they) but in the singular (as in Early Modern English I, thou, she/he/it). It also distinguished three genders and five cases, categories that extended to the article, adjective, and noun. OE showed the effects of GRIMM'S LAW in its consonants, such as p > f, IE *peku property (as in Latin pecus) becoming OE feoh, and t > th, IE *trei three (as in Latin tri-) becoming OE þī.

Middle English

Many linguistic changes occurred in late OE, and in MIDDLE ENGLISH (ME) almost every feature of OE changed radically, so that though late ME such as CHAUCER's usage remains intelligible now 600 years later, little or nothing of OE could have been intelligible to Chaucer only 300 years after the Norman Conquest. In structure, the elaborate system of cases, genders, and numbers vanished from the adjective and article, dwindled in the noun, and remained only in the personal pronouns. The form of verbs was less changed, though increasing numbers of ‘strong’ verbs like MODERN ENGLISH drive (past tense drove) joined the larger group of ‘weak’ verbs, like climb (past tense climbed); Chaucer has the strong past clomb. The modals shall and will (and their past tenses should and would) developed a use, almost unknown in OE, as expressions of the future.

ME DIALECTS are more numerous than OE dialects, and unregulated spelling often reflects the variations: in the late 14c, church appears in the North of England and in Scotland as kirk(e) or kyrk(e), in the South-East as cherch(e) and chirch(e), in the South-West as church(e), and in the Midlands as a mixture of these forms plus chyrch(e). There were more works of LITERATURE, especially in the EAST MIDLAND DIALECT, first largely through translation from LATIN and FRENCH. A variety of ME flourished as almost a separate language (at least in political terms) in Scotland. Also known as Middle SCOTS, it was dominant over GAELIC at the court of the kings of Scots and had a literature that included both epic and lyric poetry. In addition, varieties of ME and NORMAN FRENCH were being spoken in Wales and Ireland.

The most striking internal development is vocabulary. Some personal pronouns changed, the feminine from OE to she, the plural from OE hīe to they, with eventually them and their. More far-reaching, however, were the borrowings, mostly from French, that transformed English from an almost wholly Germanic language to a language of mixed Germanic-Romance composition. See BISOCIATION.

Early Modern English

From the Renaissance onwards, as the structure of the STANDARD LANGUAGE stabilizes, comments about it become more frequent and external factors and influences become more marked and more important. In 1490, CAXTON observed the changes in English since he was born, and its variation in the several parts of England. He felt unsure about the correct literary mixture of old native words and their new borrowed and scholarly counterparts, and his spelling was inconsistent. His own introduction of PRINTING to England (1476), however, did much to spread the new features of English. Renaissance exploration added new words to the vocabulary. Hurricano appears in Shakespeare, but only in his last plays; the form shows that it came by way of Spanish, not directly from its West Indian origin, the Amerindian language Taino. Developments in the arts and sciences produced a huge influx of words, such as sonnet (from ITALIAN via French) and sextant (from NEO-LATIN). Exploration also enhanced the stature of English by establishing the language in new territories from Africa to the Americas. The Reformation provided a further impulse for TRANSLATION, not only in the sequence of English BIBLE translations from Tyndale (1526) to the Authorized Version (1611), but also in the translation of Greek and Roman classics.

With the accession of the Tudors to the English throne (1485), the increase of national pride promoted greater confidence in the VERNACULAR for original writing, often expressed with an exuberance of literary style, especially in the Elizabethan age. The range of the language was further enlarged when James VI King of Scots became James I of England in 1603. This event not only made possible the development of a standard language, especially in writing and print, throughout Britain and Ireland and later in North America and colonies elsewhere, but brought the King's English and the King's Scots together in one monarch. The outstanding symbol of this realignment into one variety of educated usage was the publication in 1611 of the Authorized Version of the Bible. The forms of Renaissance English show the effects of the GREAT VOWEL SHIFT, though it was still incomplete. The development of some features of structure, such as -s for -th (hears instead of heareth), led for a time to competition: SHAKESPEARE used both, while the King James Bible used only -th. The preface to JOHNSON's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776) scarcely used the -th form, and both reveal that most other main features of Modern English structure were in place wherever English was used by the late 18c. However, pronunciation continued to change and diversify in the speech of all social classes and regional groups: Pope rhymed tea with obey, Johnson could find no certain authority for the sound of sea, and break still remains one of the few words with the old pronunciation of -ea-. The increasing uniformity of spelling, however, has tended to mask this diversity. See EARLY MODERN ENGLISH.

(Late) Modern English

In the 18c, the diaspora of English gained momentum. Not only was the language used almost everywhere in Britain and Ireland, to the increasing detriment of the CELTIC LANGUAGES, but the Crown gained Canada and India in competition with the French and supplanted the Dutch in colonizing Australia. In Britain and Ireland there had always been many subjects of the Crown for whom English was not the first or preferred language. Now, as English spread across the globe, large numbers began to use it as a second or learned it as a foreign language. In turn, English gained new vocabulary from languages throughout the world: words like Nahuatl tomato, Eskimo kayak, Hindi chintz, now so thoroughly assimilated that they retain no echoes of their exotic origins. With increasing scope and variety came increasing attempts at regulation. In 1664, a committee of the recently formed ROYAL SOCIETY of London sought to propound a set of rules for English, and in 1712 SWIFT proposed an ACADEMY comparable to the Académie française, ‘for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever’. Neither attempt succeeded. The English of Swift's day lacked the kind of reference books from which he had learned his Latin: the few GRAMMARS were sketchy and the dictionaries listed only the ‘hard words’ created by Renaissance borrowing and invention. In 1721, Bailey's DICTIONARY made an attempt at comprehensiveness, and Johnson's dictionary in 1755 laid the foundation of modern LEXICOGRAPHY, though it recorded little but the literary vocabulary, and none from its own day. In 1762 appeared LOWTH's grammar, which set the tradition of concentration on ‘errors’ in usage, agreeing with Swift's opinions while finding fault with his grammar.

The growth of natural science after 1800 produced numberless new theories and products, along with knowledge of new substances, processes, and ailments, all nameless. Many received names composed by ANALOGY with their formulas (carbon monoxide); others were named for their discoverer (Hansen's Disease), by ACRONYM (AIDS), or by classical BORROWING (rabies, Latin for rage). The language of newer fields like computer science often gives technical meaning to familiar words: Apple Mac, dumb terminal, mouse. Among the new sciences was LINGUISTICS, the objective study of language. Emboldened by the achievements of philology in the first quarter of the 19c, scholars set aside such impressionistic views of language as Addison's that English was distinctively ‘modest, thoughtful and sincere’. They also gave up culturally biased attempts to link HEBREW to Latin and Greek, and took account in their studies of non-Western languages such as Sanskrit. The publication of The OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY under the leadership of J. A. H. MURRAY (1888–1933, with Supplements 1972–86, 2nd edition 1989) is a monument of late 19c linguistic science. See App. 1: CHRONOLOGY.


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