The Evolution of English Language Structure & Use

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

This lesson will trace the evolution of the English language from its origins to present day, focusing on the influences and changes in grammar and syntax.

Origins of the English Language

The English language has a long, complex history and has been influenced by many other different languages. English is essentially a ''patchwork'' language because of these influences--not just in vocabulary, but in grammar and syntax as well. English is a language in the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, but it has changed immensely from these Germanic roots. Notice the differences among the following line from the Lord's Prayer from different periods:

Old English: ''To cymeð þin ric''

Middle English: ''Thi Kingdom comme to''

Early Modern English: ''Thy kingdom come''

Late Modern English: ''May your kingdom come''

The first one is almost impossible to understand if you are an English speaker only, while the second makes a bit more sense. These differences are because of the influence of different languages on English; we will discuss each of these periods in turn.

The Indo-European Language Family Tree--notice English in the Germanic branch towards the bottom right
The Indo-European Language Family Tree

English began probably around the 5th or 6th century and was brought to the British Isles by people from Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. The English during this time is what we call Old English or Anglo-Saxon and has a very strong Germanic influence, though its structure did already vary slightly from the German, Dutch, and Danish languages from which it came. Only a couple centuries later, the language started changing even more because of the Scandinavian Vikings who were invading the British Isles. Even though their language was similar, they left behind some of their linguistics, particularly in grammar, which left its imprint on Old English. The word order from the example above shows how different the grammar was during this period: instead of the subject-verb-object structure or we are used to, the structure in Old English varied and, as seen above, uses a verb-subject order here.

Development of Middle English

Although English had been established for about 500 years, when the Normans, a Catholic French group, invaded the British Isles, it changed drastically. Until this point, English was primarily Germanic. However, the Normans not only brought their native French language, but also brought their religious Latin language--and considered these sophisticated while English was not.

To fit in with the ruling population, the Anglo-Saxons adopted a large amount of French and Latin vocabulary into their language, causing another change in the syntax, or sentence structure. This new formation was called Middle English which, while still quite different from what we use today, is easier to understand for 21st century English speakers. The structure here begins to shape into a subject-verb-object, such as in ''Thi Kingdom comme to.'' Even though the spelling is different and the preposition is at the end, most English speakers could actually make some sense out of this.

Modern English Forms

Eventually, perhaps because of the adoption of French and Latin into the language, English became the language of the nobles and the educated--it was no longer just for commoners. Around the 15th century, English took a huge step forward with the creation of the printing press, a manual machine which used inked stamps to print on paper or cloth. While English was spoken and handwritten before this, there was no way to ensure everyone was using the same words and syntax because of all the changes. However, the printing press gave the English language the opportunity of standardization, setting the letter sounds for the language and the syntax to a subject-verb-object order.

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