THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH

The story of English began a long time ago, in the 5th century AD. In the year 410 the Romans withdrew from Britannia, their northern-most province. In around 449. Germanic tribes, the Angles, Jutes and Saxons from what is now northern Germany and Denmark, crossed the North Sea and began to settle on the east cost. The Celtic Britons put up fierce resistance with leaders such as Artorius, the King Artur of the legends. It took over 150 years of fighting for the Anglo-Saxon invaders to take over most what is now England, pushing the Celts into the west and THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH north. The relations between the two peoples can’t have been good - there are only several Celtic words in English.

Then, in the year 597, St. Augustine was sent by the Pope to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. St. Augustine was successful, and he started by converting the king of Kent, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Christianity had a major cultural impact, not only bringing Latin words to the language, but also developing education and writing, with examples such as the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. The language of Beowulf is not at all like modern English. 85% of Anglo-Saxon THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH words have disappeared and the grammar was more like that of modern German than of modern English.

From 750 to about 1000 the Viking raids brought another period of disruption and war. Their raids were followed by invasion and the Danes took over northern and eastern England. The Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, led the resistance to the Danes and England eventually became united under an English king. Most of the time though, the Danes lived peacefully alongside the Anglo-Saxons. Their languages were similar and they could understand each other – but gradually the endings of Anglo THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH-Saxons started to disappear to make communication easier between the two peoples. Bit by bit, the process has led to modern English, in which we have no gender and very few endings.

The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England was just setting down when there was another invasion. In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and defeated the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, at the battle of Hastings. The official language of England soon became French, and for the next three of 400 years English was the language of the common people.

But somehow English survived and became more and more common THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH among the dominant classes. Because of this, by the end of the 14th century English was used at court and official documents were written in English. This is the first great period of English literature with writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer. Then, in 1476, Caxton brought the printing press from Belgium. Printing meant that a standard language started to emerge, based on the dialect spoken around London.

In the 16th century, the Renaissance with its revival of education and classical scholarship, brought literally thousands of Latin and Greek word into English – words like “expensive” from Latin or “chaos” from Greek. The THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH late 16th century also was a great period for literature with writers such as Shakespeare and the publication in 1611 of the Authorised Version of the Bible in English. The two and a half centuries between 1400 and 1650 also brought major changes in pronunciation. For example, old Anglo-Saxon vowels like the /u:/ in /hu:s/ changed to “haus”. Nobody knows why this change in vowel sounds happened but it had a major influence on English.

From the 17th century there were increasing attempts to standardize the Englisg language. English did not have an academy such as other languages like THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH French or Spanish and it was left to one man to write the definite dictionary. Samuel Johnson published the Dictionary of the English Language in 1753 and it included 43,000 words.

In the 19th century, English was influenced by many countries that were part of the growing British empire – with words such as ‘bungalow’ coming from India. In the last 100 years or so, a huge amount of new words have come into English from science and technology. Finally, in the last few years, through television and the cinema, American English has had a very important influence on British English. For example THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH, British people are starting to say the American ‘Hi!’ instead of the old British ‘Hello’.

English, as a living language, is changing all the time. Who knows what the future holds for it in the 21st century?


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