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The roots of English


Lots of people have made successful academic careers out of the study of the history of English.  This brief guide is not in that league.

Here's a contents list if you are looking for something in particular.
Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will bring you back to this menu.

The language family Roman occupation Early English roots Old English
The big change in English Scandinavian influences Celtic influences The Norman Conquest
Middle English Dawn of Modern English Influences on Modern English Early Modern English
Grammaticalisation Summaries of developments Why did English change? Some consequences


Why is this important?

It isn't, of course, for day-to-day teaching but if you or your students are interested in the sources of the language you are teaching and they are learning, it is helpful to know where things come from.
For you, too, as a language professional, knowing something about the history and development of your subject is a helpful and, some find, interesting and revealing.
It will also help to explain some of the less obvious areas of the structure and lexis of the language and may even help learners to notice affinities between their first language(s) and English.


The language family

English is an Indo-European language.  This family of languages may have originated in the area of Asia just to the north and west of the Caspian Sea, between it and the Black Sea, although this is a debatable issue, in what is now south Kazakhstan.  Other theories place the origins of the Indo-European family over 6000 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean area once home to the Hittite civilization.  This is the so-called Anatolian hypothesis.
Modern genetic studies are beginning to indicate that the language family originated with the Yamnaya people who migrated out of the Asian steppes some 4500 years ago, carrying their language with them (along with the wheel and their domesticated horses).  Estimates by Reich (2018: 116) suggest that 90% of the erstwhile population of Britain, for example, was replaced by people of Yamnaya heritage.

There are around 400 languages in the group, spoken in total by over 3 billion people.  The source of all these languages is known as Proto-Indo-European or PIE.
Here's the map of the first presumed expansion of PIE from its homeland:

Source: Wikipedia

Indo-European languages include many now spoken in the south and east of that area, which include Farsi, Sanskrit (now extinct but influential), Hindi, Punjabi and many others, but we are concerned here with the development of English so we'll focus on the western groups of languages.
Here's the family tree, much simplified and with fewer examples of the languages than you will find in more academic texts.  Extinct languages are not included here.


We are talking here about very ancient relationships and languages grow, develop and change.  The origins of PIE are obscure but linguistic and genetic studies are beginning to converge on a date around 6000 years BCE (Before Common Era).  A lot can happen in 8000 years.

As you see, there are 5 main branches of western PIE and English belongs to one of them, the West Germanic group which includes Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans as well as Frisian (its closest relative).

Some analyses will differ in minor respects, for example, separating Greek and Albanian or sub-dividing Slavic languages differently as well as including Modern German as a West Germanic language, descending from the now extinct Old High German.  By that analysis, English and the other West Germanic languages descend from Low German.  Frisian itself, a language spoken today by around 500,000 people, is the closest relative to English and has two main branches: West Frisian, spoken in The Netherlands and East Frisian, spoken in parts of Germany and Denmark.  There is also Saterland Frisian, a remnant of a previously widely-spoken dialect.  The modern dialects of Frisian are not mutually comprehensible.  Old Frisian and Old English were so closely related that their speakers were almost certainly mutually comprehensible.  That is no longer the case for the modern forms of these languages.  None of this detail matters for what follows.
Another, more complex and inclusive, diagram is in the guide to types of languages, linked below in the list of related guides.

English grammar, syntax and the lexicon bear witness to its close affinity with other Germanic languages as can easily be seen from the very large numbers of closely similar structures and words in the languages.



The Roman occupation of a Celtic-speaking land

When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 CE, they encountered people who spoke a range of Celtic languages, as people did across huge swathes of Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic coast.  When the occupation ended in 410 CE, they left much the same people speaking much the same range of Celtic languages.  Only a handful of Latin lexemes survived the Anglo-Saxon invasion which followed and it is not always easy to discern whether the Latin words had already been borrowed into the languages spoken by the invaders.
It is noticeable, however, that although Latin, at least, Vulgar Latin, clearly forms the basis of modern-day French, Spanish and other Romance languages, it did not take root at all in Britain despite it being a lingua franca throughout the empire.  A very few military and ecclesiastical (the empire was Christianized during the occupation) words did manage to infiltrate the languages spoken after the end of the occupation (including some still present in place names, particularly -castle).
Overall, however, English would have to wait until much later for its enrichment by Latin borrowings.



Early English roots

The country that is now England was the northernmost province of the Roman Empire until around 410 CE (Common Era).  Shortly afterwards, migrations from the continent, not always peacefully intended or received, began:

from whose name the word for the language is derived, from Central Denmark who settled in Northern and Eastern England
from Northern Germany who settled in Southern and Eastern England
from Northern Denmark who settled in South-East England, mainly Kent and the Isle of Wight

Roughly, because the exact extent of the homelands and the role of the Frisians is not wholly clear, the invasions looked like this:

These migrants brought with them a set of closely related and highly inflected languages which formed the basis of Old English.  The first writing in a language identifiable as English dates from the seventh century.

By the ninth century, if not before, the original Britons, a Celtic-speaking people, had been pushed northwards and westwards and confined to what is now Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, the extreme south west of England and the island of Ireland.
A very few Celtic words were borrowed by the invading Anglo-Saxon speakers and even fewer have survived in Modern English.

The languages spoken at that time, under the umbrella term of English were related but not always mutually comprehensible.  Northumbrian, spoken in the North West of England and southern Scotland and related to the language spoken in East Anglia, Mercian, widely spoken from the Welsh border eastwards to the western fringe of East Anglia, West Saxon, the language of Wessex in the South and South West of England and Kentish, spoken in the South East of England, are all distinguishable.
It is only by the tenth century with the writings of a scholar-priest, Ælfric, that an identifiable early standard English emerges.  Even so, the majority of people travelled little and continued to speak local dialects of English.



Old English

Old English can be dated to around the 5th to the 11th centuries and is almost impossible to understand for modern English speakers without a good deal of study.

It was a synthetic, highly inflected language, or, as we saw above, a collection of related languages, in many ways similar to Modern German with case endings, complex verb declensions, a three-gender structure, article changes and so on.  The great adventure story of Beowulf (picture) was written in Old English sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries.
The language was written in both runes and, later, the Latin alphabet but some of the letters were different.  In particular, Old English used two characters Modern English does not have: thorn (Þ, þ) and eth (ð, Ð) which are both now rendered th.  A vowel, æ, known as ash, also existed (pronounced approximately as the 'a' in apple).  The upper-case version is Æ.
The modern letter g was written as ʒ and the modern w as the runic ƿ or wynn.
Other letters, such as 'j' are later, Middle English, introductions from French and q, x and z are almost absent.
The earlier runic script is assumed to be the so-called futhorc script named after the Old English pronunciation of the first six runes in the alphabet.  They were: ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚩ ᚱ ᚳ.
The Latin alphabet mostly replaced the uses of runic script after the conversion to Christianity starting around the end of the sixth century.

The pronunciation of Old English is, of course, somewhat speculative but it was certainly very different from what we hear today.
Here's an example of the written form, taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history probably compiled in the reign of Alfred the Great (849-899, reigned 871-899).

Original text Translation
Anno 449. Her Martianus and Valentinus onfengon rice, and ricsodon seofon winter. And on hiera dagum Hengest and Horsa, fram Wyrtgeorne gelaþode, Bretta cyninge, gesohton Bretene on þæm stede þe is genemned Ypwines-fleot, ærest Brettum to fultume, ac hie eft on hie fuhton. Anno 449. In this year Martianus and Valentinus succeeded to kingship, and ruled seven years. And in their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of Britons, came to Britain at the place which is called Ebbsfleet, first as a help to Britons, but they afterwards fought against them.

Source: https://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/stella/readings/OE/anglo_chron.htm

A noticeable characteristic of Old English which Modern English and other Germanic languages have retained is the knack of compounding to produce new meanings.  In Old English many of the compounds are poetic and evocative.  They include, for example:

Modern word Old English compound Literal translation
battle billġeslieht sword-slaughter
hell dēaþsele death-hall
war ecghete sword-hate
killer feorhbana life-bane
body feorhhūs life-house
sea hwælweġ whale-way

Many more words in Old English were formed by compounding than is the case in later forms of the language and many were poetic coinages used only once but immediately comprehensible to an audience primed to understand poetic compounds.
In later years, during the 18th and 19th centuries in particular, some romantics tried to revive Old English forms as replacements for what they saw as invading Latin-based terms but with little success. 


big cat

The really big change in English

The history of English, conventionally divided into three periods – Old, Middle and Early Modern – is one of the gradual loss of inflexion, gender and case and a slow transition to an uninflected and simplified structure.
In other words, the language has moved from being synthetic (i.e., having lots of endings and other affixes to signal case, number, person, gender, tense and so on like Modern German, Russian, Greek, French and Italian) to being analytic (i.e., having few such characteristics and preferring one morpheme to represent one idea).  Here is an example to make things clear(er):

In Modern German, the past form of go has the root ging (from the infinitive gehen).  The way to say you went is du gingst.  The -st ending on the verb shows:

  1. It is singular
  2. It is familiar rather than polite
  3. It is in the second person

The -st ending on a verb form will be familiar to anyone who has read the King James Bible or Shakespeare's plays because both use the ending to denote the second person singular familiar form of the verb.  Thou hast, of course, read Shakespeare, hast thou not?

Similar things to German happen in other synthetic languages, like this, e.g., for the past tense:

English Greek Croatian Czech Welsh Icelandic German Old English
I went πήγε [peeghe] otišao je šel aeth hann fór ich ginge ic gewát
you went πηγες [peeges] što je otišao jste šel aethoch þú fórst du gingst þu gewite
they went πήγαν [peeghan] otišli su šli aethant þeir fóru sie gingen hīe gewiton

In Modern English, by contrast to the other six language examples and Old English, the past form of go is went and it is unchanged for all numbers and persons: I went, you went, she went, he went, it went, we went, they went.  Here, the only change signalled by the form of the verb is tense.  Modern English is at the analytic end of the spectrum, therefore, but many other Indo-European languages along with Old English are clearly at the synthetic end.
If you are wondering why the past tense of go is so irregular, the answer is that the present form of the verb is derived from the Old English gan, which shares the root of the German gehen, the Dutch gaan, the Swedish and so on.  The past tense comes to us by a different root and is derived from the Old English verb wend (as in wend one's way).  The past of wend was went and that became the standard past-tense form of go with a new weak, or regular, past tense for wend of wended.

Modern English is not fully analytic because it still retains some inflexions such as the third-person -s ending for present-simple verb forms (she smokes) and the plural -s as well as some changes in pronouns (I, me, my, mine, he, him, his etc.).  We also denote past tenses with either the -ed / -d ending or by making changes to the vowels in verbs.  It is, however, much more analytic than most other Indo-European languages.
Some languages, such as Mandarin, are even more analytic and usually referred to as isolating languages.

Similar considerations apply to determiners, nouns and adjectives because in Old English there were a number of endings on articles, nouns and their associated adjectives to signal number, gender and case (often object or subject case but there are other possibilities).
In Old English, for example, the mistress of a household was expressed as hlǣfdīġe but if the word is used as the object of the verb rather than the subject, it changes its ending to hlǣfdīġan to reflect the changed grammatical status.  Like Modern German, Old English had four cases for nouns: nominative (the subject), accusative (the object), genitive (the possessive) and dative (denoting movement to and from, usually, as well as identifying the indirect rather than direct object).
Old English also had three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter and adjective endings as well as the form of articles reflected the gender of the noun.

In the end, what this change from an inflected to a more or less analytic language has done is to fix the word order in English as Subject–Verb–Object without which, we cannot understand the difference between:
    The dog chased the cat
    The cat chased the dog
The difference would have been clear to an Old English speaker, whatever the ordering of the words, because in the first case, the word for dog would have been docga and in the second case, as the object, it would have been docgan.


Pronouns in Old English: an example of loss of inflexion, gender and case

The most obvious effect of the loss of case and inflexion over the centuries is the pronoun system of Modern English compared to that of Old English.  If you are unsure about what cases are, here's a brief description for the purposes of understanding Old English (and Modern German, incidentally, along with a good number of other inflecting languages).
Nominative case = the subject of the verb (She went)
Accusative case = the direct object of the verb (She broke it)
Dative case = the indirect object or the complement of a preposition (She gave them a book, It is on the table)
Genitive case = the possessive (It's her book)
You will see from this table (which is not complete) that Old English had a separate way of signalling two people as distinct from singular and plural.  This dual person disappeared over the centuries and is only just discernible in Modern English in remnants such as the pronouns both, neither and either.
Here is what is meant:

First person
Case Singular Dual Plural Modern English
Nominative ic wit we I, we
Accusative mec or me uncit or unc usic or us me, us
Dative me unc us me, us
Genitive min uncer user or ure mine, ours
Second person
Case Singular Dual Plural Modern English
Nominative þu git ge you
Accusative þec or þe incit or inc eowic or eow you
Dative þe inc eow you
Genitive þin incer eower yours

Third person
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural Modern English
Nominative he heo or hie hit heo or hie he, she, it, they
Accusative hine heo or hie hit heo or hie him, her, it, them
Dative him hire him him or heom him, her, it, them
Genitive his hire his hira his, hers, its, theirs

Incidentally, a great puzzle for historical philologists is the emergence of the pronoun she for which a number of conflicting theories have been offered with none being universally accepted.

For more, see the guide to types of languages, linked below in the list of related guides.
There is also a guide to case linked from the list of related guides at the end.



Scandinavian influences

We noted above that by the ninth century, the original Britons had been pushed northwards and westwards to Scotland, Wales and the island of Ireland by Anglo-Saxon invaders.
However, the Anglo-Saxons did not have it all their own way, of course.  From the end of the eighth century and continuing for 200 years, raiders, then settlers from Scandinavia occupied virtually the whole of the east and north of England with the Saxon kingdoms confined to the south and west.  Northumberland in the north, which stretched into what is today Scotland, remained English.
The area under Norse control, known as The Danelaw comprised virtually the whole of England from the Scottish border to London to the east of a line drawn diagonally from Liverpool to London.
Very roughly the picture looked like this with the blue areas to the west and north remaining Celtic speaking:
Norse languages influenced the development of English within and beyond the confines of The Danelaw with hundreds of common words dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries being introduced into English.  They include, for example, anger, bend, cake, dirt, egg, fog, glove, haggle, ill, knife, loft, mistake, knot, outlaw, plough, raft, skill, Thursday, ugly and window.
It is also the case that the same people and their languages influenced Norman French, of which more later.

Place names derived from Norse languages are common in the north of England where names ending in -by, -thorpe and -thwaite occur very regularly.

It has also been suggested that the fact that English developed from a heavily inflected synthetic language to a much more analytical one is attributable, in part at least, to the influence of Old Norse.  In particular, apart from the kinds of borrowing listed above, structural words, such as pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and modal auxiliary verbs show a good deal of Scandinavian influence.  This has led some to assert that the structure of Old English became simplified because of the need to find a language mutually comprehensible to both the English and the Norse invaders, later settlers and traders.  On the other hand, because both Old Norse and Old English shared a common Germanic ancestry, many of these structural words were already very similar, often identical.
Additionally, and slightly more persuasively, Old Norse and Old English shared many items in their lexicons which differed only in the complex inflexions found in Old English.  The pressure, within The Danelaw at least, to simplify for the sake of easy communication must have been quite strong.



Celtic influences

Even today, Celtic influences on English have been underestimated or dismissed as sporadic and peripheral and there is no doubt that compared, say, to the influences of Norman French, considered next, the contribution of Celtic languages to Modern English is small, although it is not at all negligible.

Celtic languages were once dominant across most of Europe and the evidence of Celtic influences is most apparent in place names.  Most of France's main cities have names which derive from Celtic languages (Gaulish in most cases) and the same is true for a large number of place names in Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Spain and so on across all major and many minor European states.
Many place names in The British Isles can be traced to Celtic words for hills, rivers, woods and so on, among them Avon, Axminster, Brentford, Devon, Dover, Leatherhead and literally hundreds more.

When we get away from toponymy, the evidence is somewhat less obvious, a phenomenon which may, at least in part, be due to the disparagement with which many early scholars treated the notion of Celtic influences on Modern English.  In fact, there were two phases of influence:

  1. When invaders from Europe arrived in the 5th century and for some time later, many Celts were forced to emigrate to the western and northern fringes of Britain where the influence of Celtic languages is still strong: Welsh, Scots Gaelic and, to some extent, Cornish and Manx, for example.  The large numbers of place names which survive from those times are still evident but many words dating from this period have clear Celtic origins (from Irish, Welsh or Scots, mostly).  Among them are probably:
    ass beak ben bard cadge cog
    crag doe flannel slob trousers twig
  2. During the 16th to 19th centuries many Celtic speakers moved into cities in England, especially but not exclusively, to London.  Some of the words cited above may have first appeared at this time (written records are unreliable guides) but it has been argued that some peculiarities of English grammar certainly date from this time and that it is no coincidence that these peculiarities also appear in Celtic languages.
    Most other European languages make do with a single verb form to denote the simple and progressive aspects in English.  For example, I go and I am going both translate into French as je vais, into German as ich gehe, in Spanish as voy, in Estonian, ma lähen, in Danish, jeg går, in Romanian mă duc, in Italian vado, in Czech, jdu and so on across almost all European languages.  Some Slavic languages do distinguish between the two aspects but they are unlikely to be the source of much influence on the development of English.  Even Basque, a non-Indo-European language, makes no distinction (the two clauses both translate as banoa).
    However, Celtic languages all make a distinction between three aspects of the verb which may be translated as I go, I am going and I habitually go.  In Irish, for example, I go translates as téim but I am going as tá mé ag dul.  In Scots Gaelic we find:
        I go → téighim
        I am going →tá ag dul
        I (regularly) go → bím ag dul

    (Todd & Hancock 1986:105)
    According to many authorities, the progressive aspect was not commonly found in English until the early 17th century, and it follows, for some, that the innovation is influenced by Celtic languages.  Celtic languages may, in fact, not be the sole source of this innovation but they are almost certainly a reinforcing factor at the very least.



The Conquest

A date every British school child is familiar with, if they are familiar with any at all, is 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest of England.
Unusually for that period of history, the Battle of Hastings (Senlac Hill, to be precise) was decisive: the English King Harold Godwinson was killed and the Saxon aristocracy almost wiped out.

What followed was 300 years in which no ruler of England spoke English as a first language (or at all).  Although the Norman conquerors never represented more than around 3% of the population, they spoke French and that language, along with Latin, became the language of administration, religion, the court and the land-holding classes.  It was the language of power.  Naturally enough, anybody with ambitions to rise in the social hierarchy also needed to master French and so began a slow trickle-down of French into the native aristocracy.  Many of these people, the civil servants of the day, were bilingual in English and French.
Especially in areas (i.e., registers) in which the aristocracy were mostly concerned, French was hugely influential in terms of the vocabulary of English.  Predominately, the words introduced from French, around 10,000 of them, occur in the following areas (although almost no area was untouched):

In many cases, the original English words were also retained so, although we now commonly use the French-derived word archer, the English bowman is still extant.  By the same token, the names for the animals, which the peasantry raised, were retained and so we have the distinction in English between, for example, beef, from the French word [boeuf] for the meat, and cow, the English word for the animal from which it comes which is a cognate of the German Kuh and the Frisian ko.  To refer to food, the French word was used; for the animal whence it comes, the English word was retained.
For the majority of the population, who continued to speak English, exchanging an English lord for a French one probably had little impact.

Not all the language was affected and the great mass of the population continued to speak English so the essentials of the language remained unchanged or developed very slowly.  Words for kinship terms, father, mother, son, daughter etc., agricultural items, land, barn, field, hay etc., numerals and so on are still identifiably Anglo-Saxon in origin and most have cognate words in other Germanic languages which are instantly recognisable.  Basic verb forms and very common nouns, too, remained virtually unaffected.  For example, with modern French as a contrast:

English German Dutch Swedish Icelandic Frisian Old English French
land Land land landa land lân land terre
mother Mutter moeder mor móðir mem modor mère
five fünf vij fem fimm fiif fif cinq
milk Milch melk mjölk mjólk molke meolc lait
have haben hebben ha hafa hawwe habban avoir
see sehen zien se sjá sjen seon voir

Nevertheless, aside from many common and quite basic concepts, the vocabulary of Modern English contains only 15% of words cognate with or derived from Old English (Crystal, 1995:27).

However, although Norman French was hugely influential in terms of enriching the lexicon of English, the grammar and structure of the language was almost wholly unaffected.  What happened was that the basic structure of Old English was retained with a very large leavening of Norman French terms.  The technical term to describe this blending of languages is macaronic.

Later, long after the conquest, new influences from French, this time the French spoken in the Paris area rather than Normandy, begin to appear, especially during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.



Middle English

Middle English describes the language spoken from the 11th to the end of the 15th centuries.  It is at this time that the language, or, rather, languages, began to take on some of the characteristics of Modern English with the loss of cases, inflexions and genders.  It is also the time when the influence of Norman French is strikingly clear.  This is the language of Chaucer (picture, 1343-1400).  Here are two examples with a translation:

Original text Translation
From Epitaph of John the smyth, died 1371
yis graue lẏs John ye smẏth god yif his soule hewn grit under this grave lies John the smith, God give his soul heavenly peace
From Mankind, a medieval play written around 1470
MERCY. The very fownder and begynner of owr fyrst creacyon
Amonge ws synfull wrechys he oweth to be magnyfyde,
þat for owr dysobedyenc he hade non indygnacyon
To sende hys own son to be torn and crucyfyede.
Owr obsequyouse seruyce to hym xulde be aplyede,
Where he was lorde of all ...
The founder and beginner of our first creation among us sinful wretches he deserves to be magnified that for our disobedience he had no indignation to send his own son to be torn and crucified.  Our obsequious service should to him be applied, where he was lord of all ...

For more, with a translation of examples from Chaucer go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Chaucer

Dialects of English in the time of Chaucer
oe map

It is still true at this time that there was no standard English language.  Chaucer, for example, spoke a dialect common in the central East Midlands.

That dialect, because it encompassed Oxford, Cambridge and London (shown as the grey triangle) and was also centred in the rich farmlands of the east of England and East Anglia with its thriving sheep and wool industries, was the most powerful and prestigious at the time.

The map on the left shows the rough borders but there were not, at this time, any sharp divisions between one form of English and another so the borders you see here are simply indicative.

Major accent variation in Britain today

Even today, these areas of The British Isles exhibit differences of accent and dialect that are immediately noticeable and identifiable to most people who live in Britain.
East Midlands is still recognisable as a single dialect area (although the eastern third is now separate and forms its own East Anglian dialect area).

Southern has shrunk somewhat because the South West forms a recognisable area but Southern now includes Kentish.

The West Midlands accent retains its shape as does Wales and the Scottish varieties are separated roughly into Lowland Scots and Highland Scots.

This map is a very rough-and-ready guide and there are large differences within accent areas instantly recognised by those who live there.  This is especially true of areas that contain major cities which tend to have their own accents and dialects.  Manchester, Liverpool, London and Glasgow are good examples.

It is, however, striking that for nearly 800 years, the original Middle English varieties have survived in the form of recognisably different accents and dialects in Britain.

As we saw above, Modern English inflects for tense (regularly with a -d or -ed suffix) and shows the third person singular in the present (only) with -s or -es.
Although the language was beginning to lose some of the synthetic elements of earlier forms, it is still the case that verb endings varied to show number more clearly than they do in Modern English.  So, for example, the plural form of the verb make was maken and the singular form of the verb do, now does, was doth.  Nouns, however, had almost completely lost the endings for case that Old English inherited from the Anglo-Saxon languages.

At the same time as English began to take on some characteristics which may be described as modern, its use became much more widespread as the use of French, especially during and after the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), declined.  Even among the nobility, the decline in the use of French is apparent: Richard I (1189-1199) spoke no English but his successor, John (1199-1216), almost certainly did and his loss of the Norman possessions of the English aristocracy hastened the Anglicizing process.  By the middle of the 14th century, English was established as the language of the governing elite.

English continued to accept loan words and the process begins to accelerate around the end of the Middle English period.

It should also be remembered that this period was one of very limited literacy; most of what was written at the time was intended to be read aloud to those who could not read.  Latin was still the language in which laws and charters were written but they were often translated to be read aloud to those whom they would most closely concern.

An important event which occurred during this period, in 1476, was the introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton who opened his first workshop in Westminster.  Others followed and it is from this period that we can trace the slow and patchy development of a standardised English spelling (and many of its notorious irregularities).


Ye Olde Letter

The Old (or should that be Olde?) English letter, thorn, pronounced as the modern th continued in use in Middle English but its representation changed from the original Þ and þ to something very similar to y.  In some styles, the use of y to represent thorn continued into the 19th century but by that time, people had forgotten its original pronunciation and, seeing the word as ye, naturally pronounced it as /jiː/ not /ði:/ and thus was born the mock ancient usage seen on tea shops, pubs and other establishments throughout Britain and even in the USA and other English-speaking nations.
It is, in fact, a simple error and the definite article has never been pronounced that way.  So, next time you take tea and Ye Olde English Tea Shoppe, pronounce it as The Old English Tea Shop and be true to the language's history.



Early Modern English

Early Modern English is the language of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and covers the period from the late 15th to the end of the 17th centuries.  It was during this period that many of the modern uses of modal auxiliary verbs and such constructions as the passive became fixed.  It was also during this time that the language became greatly simplified and the distinctions between plural and singular pronouns (thou vs. you) began to be lost, although that distinction is maintained to this day in some dialects.
During this period, too, the first version of what has come to be called the King James Version of the bible was completed (in 1611).  Here is a comparison of the same texts from the bible in its new translation, completed in 2014, and one of Shakespeare's original texts with a Modern English translation:

King James Bible (1611) Modern English Bible
From John, Chapter 10, Verse 10
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. The thief does not come, except to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
Shakespeare's original text A Modern English translation
From Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5 (probably first performed in 1606)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  The days creep slowly along until the end of time.  And every day that’s already happened has taken fools that much closer to their deaths.  Out, out, brief candle.  Life is nothing more than an illusion.  It’s like a poor actor who struts and worries for his hour on the stage and then is never heard from again.  Life is a story told by an idiot, full of noise and emotional disturbance but devoid of meaning.

You can probably see why many people profoundly dislike the modern versions.

Neither the language of Shakespeare nor that of the King James Bible should be considered as old in the sense that Old English is old.
Both are, in fact, perfectly easily comprehensible to modern readers armed with a little understanding of some lexical changes and a bit of imagination.  Here's an example of what is meant

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
(Brutus to Cassius: William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene III, first performed 1599)

There is a reversal of the subject and verb in line 5 (are we instead of we are), but the piece is entirely transparent to a modern reader (even though the term ventures in this sense is unfamiliar).


The lexicon

Many writers in English, not least Shakespeare, deliberately introduced foreign words because they felt the need or in an effort to appear erudite and learned.  Some have stuck but many have not.
This phenomenon is closely associated with the Renaissance period in Europe during which science, commerce and the arts expanded dramatically.  Estimates of the number of new words entering English during the Renaissance vary but a figure of at least 10,000 new words is generally agreed with some claiming three times as many.  Shakespeare and his contemporaries were daring and innovative in this regard, introducing words such as agile, allurement, antipathy, catastrophe, critical, demonstrate, dire, discountenance, emphasis, emulate, expostulation, extract, hereditary, horrid, impertinent, meditate, modest and thousands more.
Many of the words introduced from Latin had very short life spans in English and vanished almost as soon as they appeared.  Examples of words which have disappeared include deblaterate (babble), latrate (bark), devulgate (set forth), adminiculation (aid) and consumulate (bury).
An interesting importation at this time is the word egregious, an adjective imported in the 1530s.  It comes from a Latin phrase ex grege which means separated from or rising above the flock and originally meant distinguished or excellent.
However, by the late 16th century the word came to mean its opposite in the modern sense of notably bad, even evil.
This was, it has been speculated, because the word was used ironically so frequently that people came to believe it meant the opposite of what was intended.  It is a neat example of how language changes over time (and not much time in this case) and of how etymology is not a good guide to meaning.
A modern example is the word salubrious (meaning healthy or favourable) which is commonly heard in an ironic sense to imply the opposite (run down and unhealthy).  It may be the case that the word will come to mean its opposite in time.

Many words which were reasonably common in Shakespeare's time have vanished from the language or been repurposed with a different meaning in Modern English.  This is a process which has not stopped of course and many words common only a few decades ago are rarely heard.
Here are some examples of repurposed words (conversions between word classes are quite common):

Word Originally Now   Word Originally Now
abroad out of the house overseas halt lame stop
advertisement note to readers promotional device host army large number
assay attempt measurement of purity invest surround commit resources
audition the power of hearing try-out learn teach acquire knowledge
bedlam an asylum confusion let hinder allow
bijoux jewellery small and attractive magnify glorify make larger
cadet younger son trainee officer maid girl female servant
clerk scholar office worker meat food animal flesh as food
commend entrust praise or recommend meet suitable encounter
condition social position state nice meticulous pleasant
degrade reduce in rank damage or make unusable noise make public sound
demoralize corrupt dishearten pest plague irritation
drought thirst period without rain portion dowry part
fare travel (farewell) succeed profess teach claim
gallant dashing man courteous quick alive fast
gentle noble soft rude ignorant impolite

Many of these words retained their original Early Modern English meanings well into the 19th century.


The grammar

Grammar, too, changed quite dramatically during the transition from Early Modern to Modern English.  Some examples here are enough:

Old English inflexions for case had already been lost by this period but inflexion for number is another matter.  During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there is a slow transition from Old English plural forms, often involving changes to central vowels or the addition of the -en suffix to the noun, in favour of the now almost ubiquitous -s or -es endings.  There are still some surviving examples as in, e.g., mice, feet, brethren, children, oxen and so on but we have now lost plurals such as eyen (eyes) and shooen (shoes) which were both used by Shakespeare and other writers.
This period sees the regularisation of the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives so we no longer use, for example, the most unkindest, valiantest and so on and now reserve the periphrastic forms for longer adjectives and the inflexions for shorter ones.  It was only much later that scholars decreed the combination of the -est ending and the word most to be substandard.
The period sees the demise of the distinction in Old English between ye and thou (the former plural, the latter singular) and the introduction and persistence of the pronoun you for all forms of address, losing the distinction still apparent in many European languages between a polite and familiar form (du vs. Sie, tu vs. vous etc.).
This period also sees the formulation of the gender neutral its possessive determiner whereas previous usage reserved he and she for nouns as in, for example, the sun starts to spread his warmth or the moon shines her beams.  The use of it's instead of its, now considered a mark of illiteracy, was common until the beginning of the nineteenth century, incidentally.
The use of they, them and their to denote singular people unmarked for sex has seen something of a renaissance itself recently but it has a long history and the forms were in regular use in Early Modern English.
relative pronouns
Between Chaucer and Shakespeare, i.e., roughly the transition from Middle to Early Modern English, the use of relative pronouns became more or less standardised.
In Chaucer's time, a compound relativiser, who that, the who, the which etc. was quite common and that became the pronoun of choice.  By Shakespeare's time, as we saw above in:
    There is a tide in the affairs of men,
    Which, taken on the flood, leads on to fortune

the interrogative pronouns, who, whom, whose, which, had taken on the role of relative pronouns but that was still common.
We find both in use in Shakespeare:
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
(from Macbeth)
  • Before this period and during it, the periphrastic use of the operator do to form simple-tense questions was rare so we have a slow change from forms such as
        Take you the time?
    to the more modern
        Do you take the time?
    Similarly, the previous use of the negative as in, e.g.,
        I know not
    changed to the modern use of
        I don't know
    The older forms persist in Modern English with modal and other auxiliary verbs:
        Must you?
        I would not
  • The third-person singular ending in Modern English is -s or -es but this form was only common in northern English dialects with the familiar -eth ending being dominant in the south.  With the transition from Early Modern to Modern English the -s endings came to predominate.  Shakespeare, writing in the middle of this period, used both endings interchangeably.
  • Old English distinguished, as does Modern German, between strong and weak verbs and the irregular verbs on classroom charts list the surviving older forms.  During this period, however, many verbs which were strong became weakened so the past tense of help changed from holp to what we now consider the regular form helped, for example.  The reverse is also the case with some verbs using weak forms during this period of transition (blowed, growed, shined etc.) interchangeably with the strong forms (blew, grew, shone etc.) on which modern usage eventually settled, although shined is still used when the verb refers to polishing.
  • A fourth notable change is the introduction of the modern progressive forms of verbs.  Before this period, the simple form was frequently used for ongoing or progressive actions and events so, in Shakespeare one finds:
        What do you read?
    rather than
        What are you reading?
    By the end of this period the progressive forms were well established including the use of progressive non-finite participles in, e.g.,
        Having done the work, he left
    There is some evidence based on comparative language studies that this innovation came about through the influence of Celtic language structures (see above).
  • It was in the transition to Early Modern English, too, that the use of the present perfect tense became somewhat regularised, although this was a gradual process, not completed until much later.
The use of prepositions changed quite dramatically during this period with, for example, wonder of changing to wonder at, done of you changing to done by you and provide of changing to provide with.  There are hundreds of other examples and many older uses such as bored of survive in dialect or casual speech.  Change was slow in this area and well into the 19th century forms such good in you instead of good of you were common.

Pronunciation: the Great Vowel Shift

We cannot leave Middle and Early Modern English without considering The Great Vowel Shift.
First investigated by Otto Jesperson (1860-1943) who coined the term and identified very considerable changes to the pronunciation of vowels in particular but also some consonants (which are variable included in the general term), The Great Vowel Shift began approximately in 1400 and was complete by 1700 with most changes occurring in the first two centuries of that period.
The reasons for the changes are still contested and theories include population movements, the influence of French pronunciation or conversely, the rejection of French pronunciations and more.
Whatever the cause, the shift resulted, probably by around the mid-1600s in what we now hear as the modern pronunciation of the long vowels.
Incompletely, the changes can be shown like this, with the vowels in the first column showing how they were in Chaucer's time and the next column showing how they were by the late 17th century.

The sound became so, for example, the pronunciation of ...
/iː/ /aɪ/ pike was /piːk/ (rhyming with leak) and became /paɪk/
/eː/ /iː/ meet was /meːt/ (rhyming with let but with a longer vowel) and became /miːt/
/aː/ /eɪ/ hate was /ha:t/ (rhyming with heart) and became /heit/
/uː/ /aʊ/ mouse was /mu:s/ (rhyming with loose) and became /maʊs/
/oː/ /uː/ loot was /loːt/ (rhyming with cot but with a longer vowel) and became /luːt/
/ɔː/ /oʊ/ coat was /kɔːt/ (rhyming with court) and became /koʊt/

It should be remembered that this is a schematic view and changes did not affect all dialects equally or proceed smoothly from south to north as some analyses seem to suggest.  For example, the first sound in that list moved from /iː/ to /ei/ to /ɛi/ before reaching its modern quality of /aɪ/ much later.  Other sounds showed similar changes through intermediate forms.
To this day there are distinct differences in the pronunciation of vowels in particular which are identifiers of English speakers' origins in Britain.

It is not a coincidence that many of the irregularities of English spelling stem from the fact that it was during the most active period of vowel shifting that printing first became established in Britain (Caxton in 1476 is usually given as the first example).
It is perhaps unfortunate that the events coincided and, had either the sound shift occurred earlier or printing been introduced later, English spelling might have been much more consistent with English phonology.



The dawn of Modern English

It has been said that Modern English arrives with the invention of the novel as literature.  An early exponent of the novel was Daniel Defoe (?1660 - 1731), whose father, incidentally but revealingly, had Frenchified his name from the original Foe to the more sophisticated Defoe.  His most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, was published in 1719 and is as readable today as it was then.
An attempt to appeal to national prejudices by asserting the purity of English, as common then as now, was cuttingly satirised by Defoe in his only famous poem, The True-born Englishman, published in 1701.  The following year, Defoe was imprisoned for six months for writing a satirical prose pamphlet about dissenters.
It goes like this and is a decent summary of the roots of the language Defoe spoke:

The Romans first with Julius Caesar came,
Including all the Nations of that Name,
Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards; and by computation,
Auxiliaries or Slaves of ev'ry Nation.
With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
In search of plunder, not in search of Fame.
Scots, Picts, and Irish from th' Hibernian Shore:
And conqu'ring William brought the Normans o'er.
    All these their Barb'rous Offspring left behind,
The Dregs of Armies, they of all mankind:
Blended with Britons who before were here,
Of whom the Welsh ha' blest the Character.
    From this Amphibious Ill-born Mob began
The vain ill-natur'd thing, an Englishman.
The Customs, Surnames, Languages, and Manners
Of all those Nations are their own Explainers:
Whose Relics are so lasting and so strong,
They hs' left a Shibboleth upon our Tongue;
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.

As one can see from the poem, spelling, abbreviations and capitalisation are somewhat erratic even at this time.
From the 18th century onwards, the language becomes recognisably modern and it was during this period that the first attempts at standardisation were made with a good deal of argument about what should be 'correct' and what should be considered 'wrong'.  Baugh and Cable (2002:241) describe the attempts to codify the language as the desire:

(1) to reduce the language to rule and set up a standard of correct usage; (2) to refine it—that is, to remove supposed defects and introduce certain improvements; and (3) to fix it permanently in the desired form.

The spirit of the times flowed with such endeavours with the rise of what was called 'polite literature'.  The word polite here has nothing to do with politics or courtesy; it is derived from the Latin verb meaning polish or smooth down.  Although earnest efforts to establish a kind of Academy to regulate and define the uses of English failed (albeit narrowly) many self-styled authorities arose to condemn, for example, the use of had rather (seen as a corruption of would rather).  Other forms which became fixed at this time are (op cit.: 263):

  1. the preference for different from (rather than different than or to, the former standard AmE usage and the latter still common on both sides of the Atlantic)
  2. the proscription of *between you and I (as an illiterate use of a nominative pronoun after a preposition), preferring between you and me
  3. the differentiation of between and among (the former to refer only to two entities and the latter to more than two)
  4. the use of the comparative rather than the superlative where only two things are involved (the larger, not largest, of two)
  5. the feeling that ungradable adjectives such as perfect, chief, round, should not be compared (more perfect etc.)
  6. the proscription of the use of you was as a singular (although Webster approved it) and the adoption of were as the only correct form, singular or plural
  7. that the case of the pronoun after than is determined by the construction supplied or understood, e.g.:
        He is older than she [not her]
        He likes you better than me [not I])
  8. the condemnation of the double negative

There were also those who asserted that any attempt to set down hard rules for English use was doomed to failure.  Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) noted (op cit.: 267:

In modern and living languages, it is absurd to pretend to set up the compositions of any person or persons whatsoever as the standard of writing, or their conversation as the invariable rule of speaking.  With respect to custom, laws, and every thing that is changeable, the body of a people, who, in this respect, cannot but be free, will certainly assert their liberty, in making what innovations they judge to be expedient and useful.  The general prevailing custom, whatever it happen to be, can be the only standard for the time that it prevails.

The collection of writings from which that citation is taken is referenced in the bibliography at the end and is preceded by over 100 pages devoted to The Rudiments of English Grammar, much of which, despite some obscure terms, is still valid and an honest attempt to provide descriptive rather than prescriptive data.

However, it is certainly true that the rules above and many more persist to this day and are reasserted in grammars and handbooks of use (and written into computer grammar-checking programs).  That they are simply the reflection of the views of a few influential people and not based on what people actually said and wrote is often not mentioned.


The dividing lines

It is reasonably straightforward to draw a neat line between Old English and Middle English because we have major events such as the Norman Conquest and the subsequent effects on the lexicon to use as landmarks.  We can also date the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English but with considerably more difficulty to around 1500 because we have the advent of the printing press and the rise of English rather than French as the official medium of communication as convenient landmarks.  Old English, too, can be reasonably dated as anything English before 1150.
This is not the case with the transition from Early Modern to Modern English because the lines are blurred.

There are four possible transition dates:

  1. Around 1600
    This coincides with the completion of most of the Great Vowel Shift although the pronunciation of the language was still anything but standard and the shift was not completely worked through until two hundred years later.
    It is a date, however, to which a major linguistic development can be ascribed.
  2. Around 1650
    This dates the transition to the Civil War, the Republic and the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660.  At this time, the lexicon of the language was enhanced by more borrowings from French because it was in France that the Charles and his considerable retinue had lived until his restoration.
    There is more social and political support for this date than any hard language facts.
  3. Around 1700
    This dates the transition to the time at which efforts were in train to standardise the forms of the language and impose some order on its grammar and orthography in particular.  It was, however, over 200 years later than the introduction of printing to England and some would argue that the damage was by now irreparable.
    The date falls conveniently in the middle of the lives of Daniel Defoe (?1660-1731) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).  The former's Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 and the latter's Gulliver's Travels in 1726.
    No Academy was in fact established and no great change in the language can be ascribed to this date so it has more cultural and literary support than linguistic underpinning.
  4. Around 1750
    Samuel Johnson's dictionary was first published in 1755 and this is often proposed as a turning point in the development of the standardised language.  Following the dictionary, there was an upsurge in the number of grammars being published which attempted, with varying degrees of success, to set out (prescribe, in fact) the standard forms of the language.
    However, many of the grammars produced at this time had almost no effect on the language in use and even Johnson's dictionary was not in wide use outside of the literate classes.
    The date is symbolic more than based on historical developments in the language.  The period from around 1760 onwards with the development of steam driven machinery and new iron-making techniques is also an important cultural and economic turning point but not one which had as yet much influence on the language.

Each of these dates has its supporters and detractors but none, unfortunately, coincides with a discernibly sudden or fundamental shift in the way the language was formed, spoken or written.
In other words, dating the transition to anything between 1600 and 1750 is a defensible position to hold.



Influences on Modern English

As Defoe pointed out, throughout its history, even from the earliest times of Old English, the language has been subject to influences from, especially, Latin, through the influence of Christianity and the role of Latin as the scientific, diplomatic and religious lingua franca, Norman French, through the imposition of a French-speaking aristocracy after the conquest in 1066, Parisian French and Latin, during the Renaissance, more French following the Restoration in 1660, Greek, through the influence of science and religion, and much later other languages indigenous to the British colonies.  At various times in history, other languages contributed, notably Dutch for maritime matters, German for military ones and Italian for musical terms.

The outcome is a language essentially Germanic in structure but with a huge range of lexical influences.
Roughly, for the lexicon, the picture is:


If you are wondering about the 10% derived from 'Other' sources, we must include some Celtic words (and structural elements) set out above as well as:

Nearly half
are taken from proper names (technically called eponyms).
  • Trade names such as hoover, escalator, aspirin, lanolin, heroin, sellotape
  • People's names such as the verbs lynch and boycott and the nouns cardigan, quisling, wellington and biro
  • Places such as jodhpurs, bedlam, bourbon, marathon and paisley
The rest
consist of loan words from a variety of languages with which English and its speakers have come into contact.
  • From the Indian sub-continent such as: bungalow [from Gujarati], veranda [from Hindi], blighty [from Urdu] and many more
  • From North American languages: moccasin and tomahawk [both from Powhatan] etc.
  • From Australian languages: kangaroo [from Guugu Yimidhirr], boomerang [from an extinct language of New South Wales]
  • From the erstwhile colonies of other European powers, often via Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch: chocolate [from Nahuatl (Aztecan)], banana [from a West African language, possibly Wolof], chimpanzee [from a Bantu language of Angola], gingham [from Malay], boondocks and yo-yo [both from Indonesian] etc.
  • From other languages in certain areas of academia, especially the humanities, or imported along with cultural phenomena or by immigrant communities (Jewish, South Asian, Chinese and Caribbean in particular):
        angst, blitz, delicatessen, kindergarten, waltz, rucksack
        glitch, chutzpah, kosher
        intelligentsia, mammoth, glasnost
        coup d'état, chalet, ballet, rendezvous
        latte, espresso, paparazzi, soprano
        robot, howitzer, pistol, dollar
        siesta, guerrilla, macho
        karaoke, tsunami, origami
        gung ho, chow, ketchup, tycoon, typhoon
    (Chinese languages)
        buffalo, flamingo
        apartheid, boss, buoy (Dutch or Afrikaans)
    This could be a very long list indeed and, in the way of things, many erstwhile loan words such as boss, ketchup, glitch, dollar and so on are no longer recognised as such.
    Pronunciation is rarely retained from the language whence the words come although the non-pronunciation of final consonants in French is usually retained as is the pronunciation of th in Afrikaans and German as /t/.
    Spelling, too, is often Anglicised, even when the word is taken from a language with a similar alphabet.  Accent marks and other diacritics in the original language are often lost when the word is Anglicised but some such as the marks on café, cliché, vis-à-vis, tête-à-tête are retained (often inconsistently).  Accents from other languages such as German and Turkish are almost always lost.
    (For more, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_English_words_by_country_or_language_of_origin)



Grammaticalisation over time

We saw above that there has been a general tendency in English towards the simplification of many grammatical categories which were once important, especially the loss of inflexions on adjectives, verbs, and case endings on a range of items.
A phenomenon not confined to any particular period in the development of English is one which has been documented in a range of languages.  It is usually referred to as grammaticalisation but it may be called grammartisation or grammatication, too.
Briefly, it describes a process in which a lexical word, which carries meaning and may stand alone, is converted into a function word which operates at the level of grammar.

Lexical words are generally understood to be nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs so, for example:

etc. can all stand alone and still carry significance for speakers of the language.
Function words, on the other hand are generally understood to be determiners, pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions so, for example:

etc. are all meaningless without co-text to appreciate what they are doing in terms of grammar.

There is a trend, in English and many other languages, for the meaning of some lexical words to be bleached out so that the original meaning is lost and only the grammatical function remains.  Some examples will suffice to see the process in action:

In Modern English, the word has two functions:
as an adverb intensifier used to emphasise a statement such as in:
    It was indeed difficult to understand
    He was indeed a man of some intelligence
as a conjunct adverbial to introduce an additional and unexpected issue such as in:
    Her ideas interested the management.  Indeed, they were implemented quite quickly
    She expected it to be hard work and indeed it took a lot longer than two hours
In earlier times, however, the word was lexical rather than grammatical and appeared as a prepositional phrase, in dede, which meant in fact or in action (cognate with the Modern English deed from the Old English dæd, an action or event).  Over time, the meaning has been bleached from the word and all that remains is a function word.  The change took place during the 16th century.
derives from the Old English verb wyllan, meaning wish, want or desire and can still be used that way in, for example:
    He willed his entire fortune to his cousin
    Take as long as you will
In Modern English, however, the verb has be delexicalised (or grammaticalised) and now functions as a future tense marker or a marker of prospective aspect, in other words.  In this sense, it parallels the use of have to mark a perfect aspect.  The verb has taken on the role of a primary rather than modal auxiliary verb, as in:
    I'll be 35 years old tomorrow
or, retaining its original meaning, as an expression of willingness (not a future marker) as in:
    I'll cook supper if you like
The two modern meanings of the verb, one to refer to volition, the other to futurity, cause significant difficulties for learners (and, alas, some teachers and materials writers).
The verb would in Modern English, derived from the past tense of wyllan, wolde, has undergone a similar process being confined now to a modal auxiliary verb which, standing alone, has no obvious meaning.  The verb still, however, demonstrates the same twofold meaning as will so we get:
    He knew he would be late (future in the past)
    He would do it if you asked (willingness)
Until comparatively recently, this verb simply meant allow and is still used that way in, for example:
    Let me go
    Allow me to go
However, modern usage has delexicalised the verb and it is now used as a marginal modal auxiliary verb in, e.g.:
    Let's go out
    Why don't we go out?
The change in use can be discerned in the difference between:
    Let us go
    Allow us to go
    Let's go
    I suggest we go
The conjunction let alone, meaning not to mention is not attested until the early 19th century and is another example of the grammaticalisation of the verb.
Is generally seen as the singular form of the determiner these and is used to distinguish between, e.g.:
    I'd like that hat and those gloves
However, the word has been grammaticalised in Modern English and now functions as a relative pronoun in, e.g.:
    The books that I gave her
where it is unmarked for plural or singular.
is, in many cases, a verb form from the verb go and it carries its usual meaning in, e.g.:
    She is going to the shops
which can mean
    She is currently on her way to the shops
In Modern English, on the other hand, the verb has been grammaticalised and now functions as an auxiliary verb denoting currently planned actions as in, e.g.:
    I'm going to talk to the boss tomorrow
and, in fact, the verb can also refer to a present intention for the future in
    She's going to the shops (later)
because of the avoidance of the clumsy going to go formulation.
The two uses of going can be distinguished because the function word use to signal a prospective event may be pronounced weakly (often spelled as gonna).  For example,
    I'm going to go
may be transcribed
but the lexical form is not weakened, retaining the full pronunciation so, e.g.:
    It's going to London
is transcribed as
is still used in its original meaning of possess as in, e.g.:
    She has a nice house in London
but the verb has also been grammaticalised:
to form a perfect tense as in:
    We have been to New York
to express obligation as in:
    I have (got) to go now
The verb have to to mean must is only attested from the late 16th century and the use with the meaningless got is not current until three centuries later.
is used in modern English as part of the infinitive of a verb but its origin lies in its use as the conjunction in order to.  In Old English, the infinitive had a special form, ending in -an or -ian but as this was lost, the need was obviously felt for a way to identify the infinitive and the word to was co-opted to fill it.  It is now conventionally appended to almost all infinitive forms.
In its grammatical function, the word is bleached of any meaning but it still functions prepositionally in, e.g.:
    I conformed to the rules
    She reacted well to the suggestion

in which cases, we cannot follow to with the bare infinitive of any verb.


Summary of developments

Here is a summary timeline with some major events and publications.  The determining dates between the forms of English are approximate and authorities differ.  This is especially the case for the transition from Early Modern to Modern English which can be dated to anything from 1600 to 1750 depending whether one takes a linguistic, historical, cultural or economic view of the important events.
The blurring at the edges of each phase in the second diagram is intended.
The Great Vowel Shift, too, in the second diagram takes more room than it should because it was functionally complete by around 1600.  However, it was another 200 years before all its consequences worked through into something like a settled (if regionally and socially variable) pronunciation of the language.


If you prefer a slightly messy diagram:

time line

The language bars at the top show when the times of greatest influence began but not their relative impact.  That they continue to the right is indicative of their continued influence.
Norman French and Anglo-Saxon, respectively concerning the lexicon and the grammar of English, were far more influential than, e.g., Old Norse.  The influence of Greek and Latin rose rapidly during The Renaissance but the languages continue to be important in many scientific and technical writings.
The influence of the so-called Empire languages is confined to the lexicon.
American English is not shown separately as an influence but has been a powerful one since around 1940 on the lexicon, grammar and some extent the pronunciation of the language.  Other influences such as Australian, Irish and other varieties are also not shown.

We can, naturally, strip out the influences and simply look at how the modern forms of English are descended from the group of languages which were spoken by the Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and Angles when they invaded.  There is some controversy concerning whether there ever was a language one could call Proto-West Germanic or whether the languages spoken by these various peoples were already quite distinct.  Fortunately, for a history of English, we do not need to decide so we'll just put the languages at the top of the diagram but know that we are probably talking about a range of languages which were only very partially mutually comprehensible.
Much of this will be slightly speculative but the main outlines are clear.  It looks something like this:




Why did English evolve and change?

All of the foregoing is directed to explaining how English has changed and developed over the course of its history.  But it actually begs a rather important question:

Why did English change?

There is no doubt that the language has evolved from an early highly inflected synthetic language to its modern form which is far more analytic, carries very few inflexions and is simpler in terms of having neither a clear case structure signalled by the forms of words nor, as other closely related languages have, a sophisticated system for expressing social relationships.
To put our question another way, why is it that the language changed at all?  After all, Old English served for many hundreds of years as a perfectly acceptable means of communication and, with a few tweaks to the lexicon, there seems no overt reason why it shouldn't have continued as the language of the people who lived in the area.
However, it has evolved and the evolution of anything and everything occurs in accordance with three quite simple pre-conditions:

  1. There must be variation in the entity in question
    In this case, we are talking about the English language rather than considering an organism.
  2. The variations must cause differential rates of reproduction, survival and extinction
    In other words, changes can persist, because they are reproduced from generation to generation or they can be discarded as unhelpful or even damaging.
  3. The variation must be hereditable
    In this case, not genetically, because nobody inherits a language that way.  A language (rather than the ability to learn and use language) is socially, not biologically transmitted.  Language is in the memes, not the genes, in other words.

It is not difficult to see how these three criteria are met in the case of this language (or any other):

  1. Variation
    From the outset, English was a set of closely related languages which varied in many respects.  Although it is credible to suggest that Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians may well have been able to understand each other reasonably well, it is equally clear that the languages they spoke were very different in a number of respects.  It is difficult, at this remove, to itemise the differences with any great certainty but significant differences certainly were apparent to the speakers of those languages.
    The selection of one variation over another can happen in two ways:
    1. synchronic variation
      Regional variations abound in all large and some small languages so, in Britain for example, depending on the level of detail investigated many hundreds of local varieties are discernible.  From time to time, certain regions may become more powerful or highly regarded than others and the variety spoken in that region often becomes a new standard to which speakers of other varieties may aspire or simulate.
      At least five grossly different variation of English are discernible from the earliest beginnings of the language and their influence is still identifiable in modern English regional variations.
      We saw, for example, that the form of English spoken in the triangle formed by the positions of London, Oxford and Cambridge became, in Chaucer's time, a dominant, high status variety simply because the triangle contained both great economic power and also intellectual authority.
      Synchronic variation can also be caused by geographical separation both in the natural world where it leads to the rise of new species but also in language and we have evidence of that in the differences which have arisen and continue to arise between English spoken in Britain, in the Indian subcontinent and in North America and elsewhere.  There are also, of course, powerful centralising pressures of mass media and international communication which often  act to level out differences.
    2. diachronic variation
      All languages we know, vary over time and changes are discernible in single generations.  English spoken 1000 years ago would be barely comprehensible to someone living today and the process shows little sign of stopping.
      The nation that is now Britain was highly stratified and the status and roles of individuals varied over time depending on who held the most power and when they rose to prominence.
      After the Norman Conquest, for example, the dominant aristocratic class was French speaking and, inevitably, any social advancement above a certain lowly level depended on the ability to speak and understand the French of the ruling class.  At the same time, however, native English speakers needed to be controlled and suborned and for that to happen easily, the rulers needed some form of English-language skill.
      Nevertheless, for 300 years all the monarchs spoke no English.  In influx, therefore, of French words was assured because they had the greatest utility for the greatest number of power holders.
      Other diachronic influences can also be perceived: changes in religion, changes in national interests, changes in regional power and so on which all pushed the language and its speakers in the direction of conformity with social norms and power.
  2. Differential rates of survival and reproduction
    Some variations in the way English was spoken had higher status and were preferentially selected by speakers as their dialect or language of choice.  Some were rejected.  This resulted in a differential with some varieties succeeding and going on to reproduce and vary down the generations and some being discarded and going extinct.
    In English, the once almost obligatory use of shall instead of will for first-person subjects is fast dying out and the use of Have you as the question form is going the same way as Have you got or Do you have become more frequent.  The word incredibly, once confined to mean not believably has quite rapidly come to mean very and one almost never encounters people describing something as awfully interesting or terribly nice as was once, not so very long ago, common.
    The list of quite recent changes in English could be made very much longer but it not always recognised that the process has been occurring throughout the history of the language.
    English coexisted for much of its history alongside Norse and Celtic languages in particular but it was almost always the dominant means of communication.  There is some speculation, however, that the influence of another powerful set of languages spoken in the parts of the country ruled by Norse speakers was a powerful driving factor in reducing the complexities of the inflexional system of Old English.  In other words, a simpler system had obvious benefits for the language's speakers and these were preferentially selected and reproduced rapidly.
  3. Inheritability
    Languages are not inherited biologically but they are certainly inherited culturally.  A baby taken from one culture and raised in another will speak the language of the culture in which it has been raised, not where it was born.  That language changes as it passes down the generations of speakers is not in doubt and beneficial changes will be passed on while neutral or detrimental innovations (or those perceived as such by large sections of the speech community) may flourish for a time and then die out.
    The spread of mass education (a quite recent phenomenon) has added to the momentum because mass education implies adherence to mass standards.
    At one time, of course, it mattered very little whether someone from Northumberland would be understood by someone from Kent because they were very unlikely to meet unless they belonged to the ruling elite.
    For the elite, of course, a single language variety was essential if their relationships and power were to be maintained and that elite made sure that its forms of choice and lexicon were handed down through the generations.
    Mass communication, too, tended to enhance the heritability of only certain forms of language.  The printing press and, therefore, mass production of written texts began to be in common use around the time of Shakespeare and coincided (some say unfortunately) with the great vowel shift which was also underway and driven by other social factors.  Variations were passed on and discarded almost randomly because they were often in the control of printers themselves who were variably educated.  By the 18th century, powerful centralising and standardising forces can be perceived with, for example, attempts to standardise the grammar and the spelling system as well as the meaning of words.

The three conditions for evolution to occur are still extant, of course, so there is no reason to suppose that English spoken, say, in 2600 with be anything like the English in which this guide is written.
If history is our guide, that language will be as different from this as Chaucer's English is from the English spoken today.



Some consequences

  1. One interesting outcome of the influences of other languages is the existence in English, almost uniquely, of three-level synonym structures.  So we have, for example
        rise – mount – ascend
        ask – question – interrogate
        goodness – virtue – probity
        fire – flame – conflagration
        fetch – retrieve – recover
        forgiveness – mercy – clemency
        hatred – enmity – animosity
        love – adore – venerate
    and many more where the first word is derived from Old English, the second from Old French and the third from Latin.
    These are not exact synonyms because they differ in style, in nuance and, sometimes, in their associated grammar (fetch and retrieve are, for example always transitive but recover can be intransitive or transitive).
  2. Another outcome is the distinction between multi-word verbs and their Latin or French equivalents in English so we get, for example
        put off
    vs. postpone
        look into
    vs. investigate
        call off
    vs. cancel
    and literally hundreds of others.
    Again, these are not perfect synonyms because the associated grammar and style is variable.
  3. A third issue is the sheer richness of the lexicon in English which often exhibits subtle but distinct differences between, e.g.,
    (Old English folc) and people (Old French peupel)
    (origin obscure) and swine (Old English swin)
    (Old English growan) and expand (Old French espandre)
    (Old English freodom) and liberty (Old French liberté)
    and thousands of other near or partial synonyms distinguished by style, register, connotation, dialect and collocational characteristics.
    A subset of these near synonyms is exemplified by verbs which exist in intransitive and transitive pairs such as:
        rise (from Old English) vs. raise (from Old Norse)
        lie vs. lay (both from Old English)
        sit vs. seat (the latter verb appears much later but both are derived from Old English)
  4. Two related phenomena are homonymy (the fact that some words look and sound the same but are not related in sense or origin) and polysemy (words which are used in distinct but related senses and are related in origin).
    Homonymy occurs frequently when two words which now look the same are derived from different sources.
    For example, left (the opposite of right) derives from the Old English lyft which meant weak (as in the weaker hand) but the past tense of leave, left, derives from the Old English verb læfan which originally meant allow to remain and only assumed its sense of depart in the thirteenth century.  The words look the same but are unconnected in derivation and meaning.
    Polysemous words are related but, over time, some of their senses have diverged.  For example, as we have seen leave to mean depart and leave to mean allow to remain are both used as in:
        She left without paying
        I left the book on the table
    The first use is intransitive only and the second always transitive.
    The word set is notorious in having a large range of meanings:
        I set a test
        The glue set
        I set the alarm clock
        She set the dog on him
        They set the vase on the mantelpiece

    In fact, all these uses of the verb set are derivable from the Old English settan (a transitive verb meaning to put in some place or fix).  The fact that some of the meanings have diverged to the point at which there is little obvious connection inclines some to classify the uses as examples of homonymy rather than polysemy.  Opinions vary.
  5. A fifth outcome is that learners from certain language backgrounds will be able to access and retain some areas of the English lexicon better than others.  Those from Romance language backgrounds will be able to understand and recall words derived from Latin and French and those from Germanic language backgrounds will find the same with the approximately a quarter of the words in English traceable to Anglo-Saxon.
    Some of the older connections may not at first seem obvious.  For example, the Modern German verb reisen (travel) shares a root with the English word rise and originally meant to get up to start a journey.  Words also change their meanings in other subtler ways.  For example, the English word stove originally meant a warm room for relaxing in and that sense is retained in other Germanic languages (with spelling variations) but only reduced its sense to mean a heating or cooking device in the mid-seventeenth century in English.
    By the same token, some words derived from Latin, Norman or later French have had time to vary their meanings or to acquire new ones which did not occur in the original.  So, for example, the Modern English realise and the Modern French réaliser both clearly derive from the same source but the sense of gain a sudden understanding in, for example:
        I slowly realised the truth
    which the English verb carries is absent in French.  French uses prendre conscience to express this meaning, not the verb réaliser.
    In French the verb only shares the English sense of make real as in, for example:
        They realised their dream
    The meanings are connected because the verb originally was used in the sense of make real in the mind in the mid-eighteenth century in English and only slowly changed its sense to gain an understanding.
    The existence of so-called false friends between English and other European languages can usually be explained by these gradual shifts in meaning over the years since the words entered the language.
    The longer the separation, the more the meaning is likely to have diverged so, for example, words from Greek may appear related (and they often are) to Modern English words but the senses have diverged until they seem no longer connected in meaning.  For example, the Greek word for civil (in the sense of to do with citizens) is πολιτικός (poleetikos) which is the source of the English political (to do with government).
    See the guide to cognates and false friends on this site, linked below in the list of related guides.
  6. Finally, learners from Germanic language backgrounds will find many of the grammatical and structural phenomena in English relatively easy to understand and form because parallel structures exist in their languages.

Issues 5. and 6., above, will only, of course, apply to learners whose languages are western Indo-European.  Others will have no such easy access to the grammar or the lexicon of Modern English.  There are obvious consequences arising from that, too.


Related guides
types of languages for a general guide to how languages may be classified and described
language evolution a guide not to how a language has developed but to some theories of how the ability to use language evolved in humans
case for more about categories such as nominative, accusative, dative and genitive
polysemy and homonymy for more on these related phenomena
synonymy for more on the nature of synonyms and their uses in the classroom
cognates and false friends for a guide to the differences
spelling in English to see how the roots and history of the language have affected its orthography

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