A Brief History of English, with Chronology
by Suzanne Kemmer © 2001-2005

The language we call English was first brought to the north sea coasts of England in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., by seafaring people from Denmark and the northwestern coasts of present-day Germany and the Netherlands. These immigrants spoke a cluster of related dialects falling within the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Their language began to develop its own distinctive features in isolation from the continental Germanic languages, and by 600 A.D. had developed into what we call Old English or Anglo-Saxon, covering the territory of most of modern England.

New waves of Germanic invaders and settlers came from Norway and Denmark starting in the late 8th century. The more violent of these were known as Vikings, sea-faring plunderers who retained their ancient pagan gods and attacked settlements and churches for gold and silver. They spoke a northern Germanic dialect similar to, yet different in grammar from Anglo-Saxon. In the 11th century, the attacks became organized, state-sponsored military invasions and England was even ruled for a time by the kings of Denmark and Norway. The Scandinavian influence on the language was strongest in the north and lasted for a full 600 years, although English seems to have been adopted by the settlers fairly early on.

The Norman Invasion and Conquest of 1066 was a cataclysmic event that brought new rulers and new cultural, social and linguistic influences to the British Isles. The Norman French ruling minority dominated the church, government, legal, and educational systems for three centuries. The Norman establishment used French and Latin, leaving English as the language of the illiterate and powerless majority. During this period English adopted thousands of words from Norman French and from Latin, and its grammar changed rather radically. By the end of that time, however, the aristocracy had adopted English as their language and the use and importance of French gradually faded. The period from the Conquest to the reemergence of English as a full-fledged literary language is called Middle English. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English in the late 1300s.

William Caxton set up the first printing press in Britain at the end of the 15th century. The arrival of printing marks the point at which the language began to take the first steps toward standardization and its eventual role as a national language. The period from 1500 to about 1650 is called Early Modern English, a period during which notable sound changes, syntactic changes and lexical enrichment took place. The Great English Vowel Shift, which systematically shifted the phonetic values of all the long vowels in English, occurred during this period. Word order became more fixed in a subject-verb-object pattern, and English developed a complex auxiliary verb system. A rush of new vocabulary from the classical languages, the modern European languages, and more distant trading partners such as the countries of Asian minor and the Middle East entered the language as the renaissance influences of culture and trade and the emerging scientific community of Europe took root in England.

Shakespeare wrote prolifically during the late 1500s and early 1600s and, like Chaucer, took the language into new and creative literary territory. His influence on English drama and poetry continued to grow after his death in 1616 and he has never been surpassed as the best known and most read poet/playwright of modern English.

The King James Bible was published in 1611, the culmination of at least a century of efforts to bring a Bible written in the native language of the people into the Church establishment and into people's homes. Among the common people, whose contact with literature often did not go far past the Bible, the language of the scriptures as presented in this version commissioned by King James I was deeply influential, due in part to its religious significance, but also to its literary quality. Its simple style and use of native vocabulary had a surpassing beauty that still resonates today.

By the 1700s almost all of the modern syntactic patterns of English were in place and the language is easily readable by modern speakers. Colonization of new territories by the newly united Kingdom of Great Britain spread English to the far corners of the globe and brought cargoes of still more loanwords from those far-flung places. At this point English began to develop its major world dialectal varieties, some of which would develop into national standards for newly independent colonies. By the 21st century, as the language of international business, science, and popular culture, English has become the most important language on the planet.

Pre-English Period (before 600 AD) [Top]

ca. 3000 B.C.
(or 6000 B.C?)
Proto-Indo-European spoken in Baltic area.
(or Anatolia?)
ca. 1000 B.C. After many migrations, the various branches of Indo-European have become distinct. Celtic becomes most widespread branch of I.E. in Europe; Celtic peoples inhabit what is now Spain, France, Germany and England.
55 B.C. Beginning of Roman raids on British Isles.
43 A.D. Roman occupation of Britain. Roman colony of "Britannia" established. Eventually, many Celtic Britons become Romanized. (Others continually rebel).
200 B.C.-200 A.D. Germanic peoples move down from Scandinavia and spread over Central Europe in successive waves. Supplant Celts. Come into contact (at times antagonistic, at times commercial) with northward-expanding empire of Romans.
Early 5th century. Roman Empire collapses. Romans pull out of Britain and other colonies, attempting to shore up defense on the home front; but it's useless. Rome sacked by Goths.

Germanic tribes on the continent continue migrations west and south; consolidate into ever larger units. Those taking over in Rome call themselves "Roman emperors", even though the imperial administration had relocated to Byzantium in the 300s. The new Germanic rulers soon adopt the Christianity of the late Roman state, and begin what later evolves into the not-very-Roman "Holy Roman Empire".

ca. 410 A.D. First Germanic tribes arrive in England.
410-600 Settlement of most of Britain by Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, some Frisians) speaking West Germanic dialects descended from Proto-Germanic. These dialects are distantly related to Latin, but also have a sprinkling of Latin borrowings due to earlier cultural contact with the Romans on the continent.

Celtic peoples, most of whom are Christianized due to the late Roman adoption of Christianity, are pushed increasingly (despite occasional violent uprisings) into the marginal areas of Britain: Ireland, Scotland, Wales. Anglo-Saxons, originally sea-farers, settle down as farmers, exploiting rich English farmland.

By 600 A.D., the Germanic speech of England comprises dialects of a language distinct from the continental Germanic languages.

Old English Period (ca. 600-1100) [Top]

600-800 Rise of three great kingdoms politically unifying large areas: Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex. Supremacy passes from one kingdom to another in that order.
ca. 600 Christianity introduced among Anglo-Saxons by St. Augustine, missionary from Rome. At the same time, Irish missionaries bring the Celtic form of Christianity to mainland Britain from the northwest.
793 First serious Viking incursions. Lindisfarne monastery sacked.
800 Charlemagne, king of the Franks, crowned Holy Roman Emperor; height of Frankish power in Europe. Wessex kings aspire to similar glory; want to unite all England, and if possible the rest of mainland Britain, under one crown (theirs).
840s-870s Viking incursions grow worse and worse. Large organized groups set up permanent encampments on English soil. Slay kings of Northumbria and East Anglia, subjugate king of Mercia. Storm York (Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic) and set up a Viking kingdom (Jorvik). Wessex stands alone as the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain.
871 Vikings move against Wessex. In six pitched battles, the English hold their own, but fail to repel attackers decisively. In the last battle, the English king is mortally wounded. His young brother, Alfred, who had distinguished himself during the battles, is crowned king.
871-876 Alfred builds a navy. The kings of Denmark and Norway have come to view England as ripe for the plucking and begin to prepare an attack.
876 Three Danish kings attack Wessex. Alfred prevails, only to be attacked again a few months later. His cause looks hopeless.
878 Decisive battle at Edington; Alfred and a large contingent of desperate Anglo-Saxons make a last stand (they know what awaits them if they fail). Alfred leads the Anglo-Saxons to decisive victory; blockades a large Viking camp nearby, starving them into submission; and exacts homage from the kings of Denmark and an oath that the Danes will leave Wessex forever.

Under Alfred's terms of victory, England is partitioned into a part governed by the Anglo-Saxons (under the house of Wessex) and a part governed by the Scandinavians (some of whom become underlords of Alfred), divided by Watling Street. 15 years of peace follow; Alfred reigns over peaceful and prosperous kingdom. First called "Alfred the Great".

925 Athelstan crowned king. Height of Anglo-Saxon power. Athelstan reconquers York from the Vikings, and even conquers Scotland and Wales, heretofore ruled by Celts. Continues Alfred's mission of making improvemen ts in government, education, defense, and other social institutions.
10th century Danes and English continue to mix peacefully, and ultimately become indistinguishable. Many Scandinavian loanwords enter the language; English even borrows pronouns like them, their they.
978 Aethelred "the Unready" becomes king at 11 years of age.
991 Aethelred has proved to be a weak king, who does not repel minor Viking attacks. Vikings experiment with a major incursion at Maldon in Essex. After losing battle, Aethelred bribes them to depart with 10,000 pounds of silver. Mistake. Sveinn, king of Denmark, takes note.
994-1014 After 20 years of continuous battles and bribings, and incompetent and cowardly military leadership and governance, the English capitulate to king Sveinn of Denmark (later also of Norway). Aethelred flees to Normandy, across the channel.
1014 Sveinn's young son Cnut (or Canute) crowned king of England. Cnut decides to follow in Alfred's footsteps, aiming for a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. Encourages Anglo-Saxon culture and literature. Even marries Aethelred's widow Emma, brought over from Normandy.

After Cnut's death his sons bicker over the kingdom. When they die without issue, the kingdom passes back to the house of Wessex, to young Edward, son of Aethelred and Emma, who had been raised in exile in Normandy. Edward is a pious, monkish man called "The Confessor".

Edward has strong partiality for his birthplace, Normandy, a duchy populated by the descendents of Romanized Vikings. Especially fond of young Duke William of Normandy. Edward is dominated by his Anglo-Saxon earls, especially powerful earl Godwin. Godwin's son, Harold Godwinson, becomes de facto ruler as Edward takes less and less interest in governing.

1066 January. Edward dies childless, apparently recommending Harold Godwinson as successor. Harold duly chosen by Wessex earls, as nearest of kin to the crown is only an infant. Mercian and Northumbrian earls are hesitant to go along with choice of Harold.

William of Normandy claims that Harold once promised to support HIM as successor to Edward. Harold denies it. William prepares to mount an invasion. Ready by summer, but the winds are unfavorable for sailing.

September. Harald Hardradi of Norway decides this is a good time to attack England. Harold Godwinson rushes north and crushes Hardradi's army at Stamford Bridge. The winds change, and William puts to sea. Harold rushes back down to the south coast to try to repel William's attack. Mercians and Northumbrians are supposed to march down to help him, but never do. They don't realize what's in store for them.

October. Harold is defeated and killed at the battle of Hastings.

December. William of Normandy crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.

Middle English Period (ca. 1100-1500) [Top]

1066-1075 William crushes uprisings of Anglo-Saxon earls and peasants with a brutal hand; in Mercia and Northumberland, uses (literal) scorched earth policy, decimating population and laying waste the countryside. Anglo-Saxon earls and freemen deprived of property; many enslaved. William distributes property and titles to Normans (and some English) who supported him. Many of the English hereditary titles of nobility date from this period.

English becomes the language of the lower classes (peasants and slaves). Norman French becomes the language of the court and propertied classes. The legal system is redrawn along Norman lines and conducted in French. Churches, monasteries gradually filled with French-speaking functionaries, who use French for record-keeping. After a while, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is no longer kept up. Authors write literature in French, not English. For all practical purposes English is no longer a written language.

Bilingualism gradually becomes more common, especially among those who deal with both upper and lower classes. Growth of London as a commercial center draws many from the countryside who can fill this socially intermediate role.

1204 The English kings lose the duchy of Normandy to French kings. England is now the only home of the Norman English.
1205 First book in English appears since the conquest.
1258 First royal proclamation issued in English since the conquest.
ca. 1300 Increasing feeling on the part of even noblemen that they are English, not French. Nobility begin to educate their children in English. French is taught to children as a foreign language rather than used as a medium of instruction.
1337 Start of the Hundred Years' War between England and France.
1362 English becomes official language of the law courts. More and more authors are writing in English.
ca. 1380 Chaucer writes the Canterbury tales in Middle English. the language shows French influence in thousands of French borrowings. The London dialect, for the first time, begins to be recognized as the "Standard", or variety of English taken as the norm, for all England. Other dialects are relegated to a less prestigious position, even those that earlier served as standards (e.g. the Wessex dialect of southwest England).
1474 William Caxton brings a printing press to England from Germany. Publishes the first printed book in England. Beginning of the long process of standardization of spelling.

Modern English Period (ca. 1500-present) [Top]

1500-1650 Early Modern English develops. The Great Vowel Shift gradually takes place. There is a large influx of Latin and Greek borrowings and neologisms.
1552 Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, publishes the Book of Common Prayer, a translation of the church's liturgy into English.
1611 King James Bible published, which has influenced English writing down to the present day.
1616 Shakespeare dies. Recognized even then as a genius of the English language. Wove native and borrowed words together in amazing and pleasing combinations.
1700s Classical period of English literature. The fashion for borrowing Latin and Greek words, and coining new words with Latin and Greek morphemes, rages unabated. Elaborate syntax matches elaborate vocabulary (e.g. writings of Samuel Johnson).

The rise of English purists, e.g. Jonathan Swift, who decried the 'degeneration' of English and sought to 'purify' it and fix it forever in unchanging form.

17th-19th centuries British imperialism. Borrowings from languages around the world.

Development of American English. By 19th century, a standard variety of American English develops, based on the dialect of the Mid-Atlantic states.

Establishment of English in Australia, South Africa, and India, among other British colonial outposts.

19th century Recognition (and acceptance) by linguistic scholars of the ever-changing nature of language. Discovery of the Indo-European language family. Late in century: Recognition that all languages are fundamentally the same in nature; no "primitive" or "advanced" languages.
19th-20th centuries Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Development of technical vocabularies. Within a few centuries, English has gone from an island tongue to a world language, following the fortunes of those who speak it.
20th century Communications revolution. Spread of a few languages at the expense of many. Languages of the world begin to die out on a large scale as mastery of certain world languages becomes necessary for survival. Classification and description of non-Indo-European languages by linguists continues, in many cases in a race against the clock.
1945-present American political, economic, military supremacy. Borrowing patterns continue. English has greater impact than ever on other languages, even those with more native speakers. Becomes most widely studied second language, and a scientific lingua franca.

By the 1990s, preferences begin to shift in many places from British to American English as the selected standard for second language acquisition. The twin influences of British and American broadcasting media make the language accessible to more and more people. Hollywood and the pop music industry help make English an irresistible medium for the transmission of popular culture. Even long-established European cultures begin to feel linguistically and culturally threatened, as English comes into use in more and more spheres and large numbers of English borrowings enter their languages.

New waves of immigrants to the U.S. Linguistic diversity increases where the newcomers settle, but immigrants repeat the pattern of earlier settlers and lose their language within a generation or two. The culture at large remains resolutely monolingual (despite the fears of cultural purists). But as ever, the language continues to absorb loanwords, continually enriched by the many tongues of the newcomers to these shores.