The History of English (Summary)

So I’ve had a request for a summary of the history of english.  I’m doing this without referencing my notes, so it may require future editing.  I’m trying to be as brief as possible but it’s kind of long.


Proto-Indo European language speakers move from Caspian sea slowly migrating northwestwardly (as well as other directions).  Over time this group splits into a number of other groups creating a number of language families and distinct populations:  The Hellnics, The Latinates, The Germanics, The Celts, and a number of others and their subgroups.

England (Not yet called England):

England was populated for a long time, but its original speakers are little known of.  The Celts moved in and spoke various dialects of Celtic (primarily Brythonic in England).   In 55 BC England was invaded by Romans (Julius Caesar in particular).  Eventually Romans set up an occupational force and established infrastructure in England.  Around 400-450 AD the Romans left England to go back to defend Rome from various invaders.  The Romans had been defending England from the Picts and the Scots (two other Celtic tribes).  So the inhabitants needed someone to protect them, they hired Angle, Saxon, and Jute mercenaries.  Essentially all of these groups decided to just move their entire populations (or most of them) to England (the land was nicer).  Other than some placenames Brythonic Celtic was essentially wiped out being replaced by the Anglo, Saxon, and Jute Germanic languages.

Charlemagne and the Vikings:

England by about 600 AD is a center of learning and education because they’re largely peaceful while the rest of Europe is a mess of violence, so they once again settle down into a peaceful way of life, relatively unprotected.  Charlemagne has been spending time campaigning around Europe conquering everyone.  He eventually beats the Frisians who were a major trading people in the North Atlantic Ocean.  The Scandanavians who are no longer getting trade goods through the Frisians go out and plunder them from weak places like England.  Charlemagne eventually starts trying to conquer Denmark.  The Danes get tough and push him back.  Once they no longer have to deal with Charlemagne their leaders send their warriors out away from home so they don’t cause trouble domestically.  One of the places they go is to England.  Scandanavian (Viking) settlers/invaders come into England and take over the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, stopping around the border to Wessex.  So during this time there is a split between the old Anglo/Saxon/Jute kingdoms and the Scandanavian Kingdoms that comes to be known as the Danelaw.   The language contact that insued was kind of strange because the Scandanavian languages were very similar to the Germanic languages of the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes.  So there’s a challenging issue in determining word origin between the two sets of languages.  Eventually the contact essentially resulted in a major loss of old inflection systems, producing a much more standardized, mutually intelligible hybrid language.

Soap Opera of Europe and the Normans

So by this time there’s a huge soap opera going on between who should be ruling England.  There’s a big deal with the elected high king and a council of old celtic elders called the wysenmagot or something to that effect.  It’s a very interesting story but it doesn’t really matter that much, the end result is that the Normans (who are French speakers of scandanavian descent) conquer England and take over rulership, and institute French as the language of prestige and learning for the next 200 years.  William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 AD.  So between 1066 and 1266 English and French spend a lot of time merging.  The English input was what is often referred to as Old English and the result was what is now referred to as Middle English (the language of Chaucer and eventually Shakespeare).

Stupid Prince John

King John (the annoying prince in Robin Hood) was a horrible leader, and basically caused the 100 years war, eventually leading to the disestablishment of French in England and the revival of the English language in primary use by nobles and middle-class.

The Plague/The Printing Press

The plague led to a huge increase in the middle class (it’s somewhat complicated as to why but has to do with an upward class-vacuum and a population deficit) this increased use of English as well into the upper/middle classes.  The printing press once it made it to England also standardized the London Dialect of English as the primary one for education and literature (this has a long story involving the war of roses).

That’s about all I know right now, and I shortened it as much as I could without leaving out anything important.


About evilestmark

Writer, Yogi, English, and Japanese teacher living in rural Japan.
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5 Responses to The History of English (Summary)

  1. sethjohnson says:

    I thought Shakespeare wrote in Modern English; it’s just that the Elizabethen era dialect is really different from what we use today.

  2. sethjohnson says:

    Also, does this mean it should be really easy for me to learn French, relative to other languages?

  3. evilestmark says:

    Yeah I think Shakespeare may have written in Modern English… but I don’t remember when the line is drawn. And yes, you should be able to learn french relatively easily. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be easy.

  4. Actually English Language becomes a communcations language over the world

  5. siddhi adhikari says:

    I agree and fully agree a common language as a bridge for all the humans in this earth by the experience, practice and uses over times and times has not left alternative to english – siddhi

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