History of the English language

The British Empire 1920

How English became so diverse and so widely spoken.

The history of English can be divided into four main periods of time:

Olde English – 450 to 1100 AD

Before 450 AD the language of Great Britain was Celtic. In the 5th century after the end of Roman rule, Britain was invaded by three Germanic tribes from Europe; the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, who came across the North Sea from northern Germany and the Netherlands (as they are now known) and who brought their own speech with them.

During this invasion, the Celts were pushed back into the West Country, Wales and Scotland and Celtic is still widely spoken in those parts to this day.

The main language spoken in the Netherlands and in Lower Saxony (Germany) at that time was known as Frisian. This, together with the language of the Angles, became known as Anglo-Saxon or Olde English.

Middle English – 1100 to 1500

After the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, French became the main language of the Royal court in London. During this time, so much French was added to Anglo-Saxon, that by the end of the Middle Ages the language no longer resembled its original form. Speakers of today’s English would find it extremely difficult to understand both Olde English and Middle English.

Early Modern English – 1500 to 1800

With the coming of the Renaissance, English began incorporating words from more languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek. This had the effect of changing the dialect and the pronunciation yet again.

It was also around this time that printing was invented and the general public began learning how to read. As the majority of the printing was done in London, the rest of the country adopted the idiom of that city which brought us to Early Modern English.

Present Day English – 1800 to now…

The main difference between Early Modern English and Present Day English is vocabulary. Owing to the British Empire having covered almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area, English again absorbed words from other languages. Hence the many different varieties of English spoken around the world.

Although the language taught today is basically the same everywhere, there still exist some slang words in each English-speaking country that are native to the original language of that country.

Besides Great Britain and Ireland, the main English-speaking countries of the world are: U.S.A, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and the Caribbean. Wikipedia has a list of countries where English is an official language.

According to research by the British Council…

  • English has official or special status in at least seventy-five countries, with a total population of over two billion.
  • English is spoken as a native language by around 375 million and as a second language by another 375 million speakers in the world.
  • Speakers of English as a second language will soon outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Around 750 million people are believed to speak English.
  • One out of four of the world’s population speak English to some level of competence and demand from the other three-quarters is increasing.




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