Major Developments in the Evolution of Modern English

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

The English language as we speak it now has evolved and adapted with our changing world. This lesson will provide a brief history of the English language and the major events that affected its development.

The Beginnings of English

Language is a large part of our everyday lives and shapes our experience of the world. Historical events, in turn, shape the changes that occur in a language over time. This lesson will cover the major events in the development of the English language we know today.

English originally grew out of the displacement of the Celtic languages spoken by the early Britons prior to the 5th century A.D. Sometime in the middle of that century, Germanic tribes crossed the North Sea and invaded the island we now know as the United Kingdom. These tribes were the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles. Eventually, the Germanic languages of these three tribes evolved into what is known as Old English.

Old English Text
Beowulf

As you can see by the writing here, which is the first page of the epic poem ''Beowulf'', the language looked (and sounded) almost nothing like the English we speak today. Old English was spoken until around 1100 A.D.

Major Changes

What is known as the Norman Conquest occurred in 1066, a date that every student of English history should know. The Normans spoke an early version of the French language, and this became the language of the ruling and upper classes during what we think of as the Middle Ages. There was, therefore, a language division that separated the people of Britain, because the working people and the peasants still spoke English, which was considered inferior at the time. One positive language development that occurred during this time period was that many French words entered the lexicon of English, such as chivalry and croissant.

A Page from The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
Middle English

Near the end of the Middle English period in language, something occurred called The Great Vowel Shift. Although you can't see any difference in a written text, there was a rather sudden and decisive change in how vowels were pronounced.

The Printing Press

In 1476, William Caxton set up the first printing press in England. Two improvements resulted directly from the use of this machine. First, books could be produced at a faster rate and higher quantity, becoming more widely available to people who could in turn, begin to learn to read. The rate of literacy went up, and this led to a more knowledgeable and capable population.

Early Printing Press
Printing Press

The second benefit of the printing press was its contribution to the standardization of spelling in the English language. Of course, today's English speakers expect to see words spelled the same way in everything that they read. But, when books were copied by hand, individual copiers would use their own preferred spelling. This resulted in some confusion for the reader. The advent of Caxton's press led to a stricter standard for spelling and punctuation.

The Language of Shakespeare

William Shakespeare wrote plays and poems during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His widely-known work has been read and performed in the English-speaking world since that time. If you have read a Shakespeare play in school, you know that the language is much closer to contemporary speech than the earlier forms of Old English and Middle English. Though the phrasing and vocabulary sometimes give us pause, modern readers can understand and make sense of texts written in Early Modern English.

The English of Shakespeare
Early Modern English

Because London was the center of English culture and commerce, the dialect of English spoken in London became the standard for written texts.

Expansion

From the beginning of the 17th century, colonists began settling in America. Eventually, a uniquely American style of English evolved. Noah Webster published his dictionary in 1828, in an effort to standardize the American language. Of course, there are more similarities than differences in the various dialects of English. If you make a trip to modern day Britain, you will instantly recognize the differences, although you will easily be able to speak and be understood.

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