Origin and Development of English

20 min read

The English language which is considered to be one of the most prestigious languages in the world in the present day has a long history. The English that we use today is totally different from the English that people used some five hundred years ago. Over the course of time, the language has accommodated various words from other languages like Latin and French. To understand the status of English in the present scenario, we need to look at the growth of English over ages in history.

In earlier ages, there was a constant scenario of people in power expanding their territory in foreign lands by taking over new lands. This is necessary for us to understand because with annexation comes dominance and with dominance comes the imposition of the rulers’ language to the subjects. It was the language of the powerful that gained prominence. This language of the powerful rulers was used by the general people. In the Vedic time period, the Sanskrit language gained popularity because this was the language of the powerful. Similarly, during the Mughal rule, the Persian language gained prominence because this was the language of the people in power. Similar is the case with English. In England too, many rulers around Europe tried to capture the nation because of which many languages were used in the country from time to time.

It is interesting to note that England was a small island off the coast in Europe which originally had no name. People who lived on the island had no proper language. Originally the land was inhabited by two powerful indigenous tribes named- Celts and Gaels. They ruled the country for many centuries. These indigenous tribes together were known as the Britons. The name ‘Britain’ or ‘Great Britain’ descends from Briton. During that time, the language of Celts- Celtic and the language of Gaels- Gaelic were in circulation amongst the inhabitants of the nation. But since there was no concept of ‘nation’ and foreign invasions were rampant, England went into the hands of the Roman Empire somewhere around 54 BC under the rule of Julius Caesar. Eventually, the two tribes lost their prestige and there was eventually a decline of the Celtic and Gaelic language. The Celts and Gaels were pushed to Wales, Cornwall and Scotland and Romans occupied England. Latin-the language of Romans was imposed upon the inhabitants of England under the rule of Caesar. The Roman occupation in England continued for about four hundred years and many Latin words were introduced in the language. Some Latin words which are still in circulation amongst the English are- abdomen, cerebrum, color, corpus, formula, fungus, honor, interior, interrogate, labor, odor, omen and stimulus.

Moreover, the alphabet used in English is actually the Latin script that is used not only by the English speakers but also by the French and Germanic speakers. English did not have the written alphabet. It is the Roman script that is in circulation even in the present day. The Romans continued their rule in England for almost four centuries when the country was again invaded by foreign powers. Three Germanic tribes, coming from South-East of Russia, namely- the Angles, Saxons and Jutes dislodged the Romans in 450 AD. England thus went into the hands of the Germanic tribes by the 5th Century AD. They settled in large numbers in the country during the 5th and 6th centuries. The Germanic tribes brought in their own language- the dialects of Germany. And since the Germanic tribes gained power and supremacy over the people of England, once again a new language was imposed on the people. Once again, it becomes interesting to note that out of the three Germanic tribes, the Angles were the most powerful. It was their language, Englisc that gained widespread status during this time. From Englisc, the dialect of the Angles comes the word ‘England’. The Latin language however continued to be a part of England during this time period alongside the dialects of the Germanic tribes. This continued till the 9th and 10th centuries when England again went into the hands of the foreigners. By this time, the English language saw tremendous growth with influences from other languages such as- the existing language of the Celts and Gaels, the language of the Romans and the newly added language of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

The year 1066 is considered to be a landmark in the history of England-its people and language. During 1066, under the able leadership of William- Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror, England went into the hands of the Normans- people of France who annexed the country during the time and started their rule over the people of England. Once again, naturally, the Norman language (one dialect of French language) was imposed upon the English-speaking masses. This led to the influx of many French words in the existing vocabulary of English language. French words like-question, royal, sacred, flame, attire, mansion, mutton, close, reply, demand, chamber, desire and power entered the English language. With the coming of the French people in the scenario, the English language underwent tremendous change. The language was refined to a great extent. It was not only refinement but the language became formal and much standard compared to what it was in the earlier days.

It was only during the 16th century- the Age of Renaissance that the English language entered a phase of modernization. In 1476, with the establishment of the printing press in England by William Caxton, English became standardized because Caxton for the first time, started to print books in English at the end of the 15th Century and this contributed towards the development of a standard variety of the language with fixed spellings, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary. It was in 1755 that Dr. Samuel Johnson published the first dictionary of English language entitled A Dictionary of the English Language which further cemented the status of English.

The English language thus, is an amalgamation, a combination and an integration of various languages coming together, forming a unified whole. From the time of the Britons down to the present day, English has absorbed many words and phrases from various European languages which have contributed tremendously towards the growth of the language.


Author details:

Gaurab Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Duliajan College, Duliajan, Assam. His areas of interest are Modern Literature, Critical Theory, Language Studies and Health Humanities. Presently he is working on his M.Phil research on Modern Fiction, Psychoanalysis and Phenomenology.


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