A brief history on the English Language

The history of the English Language began with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the three tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, had crossed the North Sea from what is now better known as Denmark and northern Germany. During those days, the people of Britain were speaking in a Celtic dialect but due to the invasion, most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north to what is now called Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

But where does “English” come from? Most people would think that it was derived from the name of the country “England”, when in fact the word “English” is a corruption of the word “Anglish” (the “Language of the Angles”, one of the three tribes that invaded Britain in the 5th Century.


Germanic invaders entered Britain on the east and south coasts in the 5th century | Photo credit: The English Club

Old English

Throughout the years as the number of Celtic speakers decreased, the three tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes began to conquer and started mixing their languages, as a result, the existence of Anglo-Saxon or also called Old English. The English that we use today is different in terms of sound and spelling which makes understanding Old English challenging and only a hand full of people can read this earliest form of English.

The opening words of Beowulf, beginning ‘Hwæt’ (‘Listen!’), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century | Photo credit: The British Library Board

The image above is believed to be one of the oldest known English poems that had managed to survive from this period.

Middle English

The English language underwent considerable modifications during the Middle English period. Middle English grammar and vocabulary changed as a result of the Norman Conquest and the conditions that followed, as well as the way the language began to evolve during the Old English period.

The Duke of Normandy (modern-day France) invaded and conquered England in 1066. The new invaders (known as Normans) brought a form of French with them, which became the language of the Royal Court, the ruling and business classes. For a while, there was a language division between the upper classes and lower classes, with the lower classes speaking English and the upper classes speaking French. English reclaimed its dominance in Britain in the 14th century, although with several French terms added. This language is known as Middle English, a language of the great poet Chaucer (1340-1400).

Middle English text example from the start of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales | Photo credit: The Open University

Although Middle English is much more familiar to modern eyes and ears compared to Old English it is still a challenge to grasp. Based on the image, we can notice that there is a significant linguistic gap between ourselves (Modern English) and those who wrote in it (Chaucer and his contemporaries).

Modern English

The transition from Middle English to Early Modern English stage began after the death of Chaucer at the close of the century (1400). Many scholars believe that the Early Modern English period began around 1500 and end in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy (as depicted in John Dryden’s poem Astraea Redux).

Photo credit: The History of English (History Early Modern)

Late Modern English

The most significant distinction between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. The Industrial Revolution, which demanded new terms for things and ideas that were previously non-existent, and the growth of the British Empire, during which time English acquired numerous foreign words ad made them its own, contributed to the accumulation of many additional words in Late Modern English.

English in the 21st century

When Britain became the colonial master, the spread of English accelerated. In the early 20th century, Britain had established imperial control over more than a quarter of the globe, spanning Asia to Africa. This resulted in the creation of dozens of regional variations and dialects of English, as well as the introduction of new words.

As the language grew in popularity, the bible of the language was published or also known as the Oxford dictionary. The goal was to standardize spelling and ensure that English speakers from all over the world could communicate with one another. The dictionary was first published in 1884 and is now in its 20th volume, including over 21,000 pages of definitions.

Today, English is considered the universal language for businesses, international communications, technology, trading, tourism and entertainment. While we’re on the subject of English, the most fascinating aspect of it is that it is constantly evolving. From the emergence of regional dialects and slang in countries as diverse as the United States, South Africa, and New Zealand, as well as cities as diverse as New York and Singapore, to the absorption of technical language into everyday English. For instance, people frequently use the term “selfie” to refer to taking a picture with the front camera.

*Cover photo credit: The Jakarta Post

Aireen Azam | Bachelor’s Degree in English Language (minor Public Relations), UTAR (Kampar)