Brief History of English

Where did English come from? The Germanic language of the Angulseaxans (Anglo-Saxons), who began arriving in the British Isles in the middle of the 5th century AD, developed independently of the original continental Ealdseaxe (Old Saxons), becoming what is called both Anglo-Saxon and Old English. English developed from there, more or less as follows:


Anglo-Saxon/Old English


Middle English (Chaucer)


Early Modern (Shakespeare)


19th century (Industrial Revolution & Victorians)


Modern (Technology)

But who were these Saxons? Where did they and their language come from, and whom did they find when they arrived in the British Isles?

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The Venerable Bede, in his Historia Ecclesiastica (written in Latin 735-739 AD) says that there were four peoples (languages) on the island: Picts, Scots, Angles, and Britons. The Scots were Celts who had come from Ireland in the 5th century; the British were the Celts from Manchester; the Angles, a generic term of the time including Angles, Saxons and Jutes, were the Germanic peoples from the continent; and the Picts.

The Celts

The Celtic speaking tribes emerged in central Europe around 3000 years ago. They dominated southern Germany and the northern Alps in the 1st millennium BC, and emerged in southern Europe in the 5th century BC (Spain, Celtiberians). They’re the Gauls in Europe, and the biblical Galatians in Turkey, as well as in Switzerland/northern Italy (Lepontic) and Britain and Ireland.

The Celts were known to the Greeks as Keltoi (barbarians). The first historical account of the Celts by the Romans report how they came out of the Alps (400 BC) and displaced the Etruscans from the fertile Po valley, which eventually led to the decline of the Etruscans (800 BC - 100 AD).

The Celts appeared in Britain and Ireland around 2800 years ago, essentially bringing the iron-age to the British Isles. The Irish Celts spoke Goidelic, the language that became Irish (Gaeilge), Manx (Gailck), and Scottish Gaelic(Gàídhlig) (In the late 400s, Gaelic speakers from County Antrim, Ireland invaded the western district of Argyll, Scotland (then Pictland or Pictavia). They called their new kingdom Dalriada but they were known as 'scots', meaning raiders, by their enemies.)

Goidelic is also called q-Celtic because it retains the ‘kw’ sound of proto-Indo-European (below), which survives today in words such as mac (son, as in McDonald, son of Donald).

At a later time period, there were more migrations of Celts into England, occurring up until (and possibly even a little after) Julius Caesar’s expeditions in 55-54 BC. These Celts spoke Brythonic, which gave rise to Welsh (Cymraeg), Cornish, Cumbric (Cymric) and Breton (when Cornish folk migrated to Britanny in France in the 5th century AD partially because of the bothersome Irish Celts).

Brythonic is also called p-Celtic because the ‘kw’ sound had developed into a ‘p’ (or ‘b’). The Welsh for son is map or mab, the root word of Mabinogion (a well-known collection of ancient Welsh legends including some of King Arthur, although the actual meaning of Mabinogion is unclear, something like ‘tales of youth’, ‘youthful career’, ‘aspirant to bardic honor’).

Since Lepontic (northern Italy) is p-Celtic, as is thought Celtberian, Gaulish, and Galatian, does this mean that Irish (q-Celtic) is the most ancient of Celtic languages, since the p-Celtic diverged from its Indo-European roots?

The Britonnes, so called by the Romans, were one of the many tribes in Britain, and it is this that eventually gives rise to words like (ancient) Briton, British, Britain, and brythonic. Interestingly, the Greeks called the British Isles (300 BC) Pretaninkai nesoi, the p-Celtic stem pretan the same as the q-Celtic Crethan, the Irish name for the Picts.

Tribes typically refer to themselves as the one true people (‘the chosen race’, ‘all men’, ‘the real people’) who live in ‘the homeland’, but are called by their neighbours usually something disparaging, starting with foreigner, and it is these names that more often seem to get passed down, becoming that by which they are known today.
Viking vik /vik/ originally meant fjord or bay, but also has the connotation of landing place, settlement, camp. So vik-ings means people of this camp, or literally townspeople. In Old English, wic means village.
derogatory terms
Celt from the Greek keltoi meaning barbarian.
Welsh, Wales Saxon word wealas, meaning foreigner, for the displaced Celts who became the Welsh.
Cornwall (‘Cornish Welsh’) Cornish foreigners
Goidelic Welsh gwyddel, meaning savages, for the Irish who briefly colonised in the west. (Goidelic is the language family name, see above.)
Scots related to an Old Irish word for raider, making Scotland mean the ‘Land of the Raiders’.
Gauls Latin Gallatae = barbarians.
barbarian Greek for foreigner.
Hebrew derived from a Babylonian word meaning vagrant.
gaijin Japanese term for foreigner
gringo Mexican term for foreigner


The Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD and left during the 5th century, completing their withdrawal by 436 AD. They were essentially managers of the land, farmed by the Celts, in return for taxes and protection. (They allowed a small number of Saxons to settle in Britain in those centuries.) They had control of Britain as far as Hadrian’s Wall, north of which lived the insurmountable Picts!?!


Germanic tribes emerged from southern Scandinavia around 3000 years ago and spread into northern areas of Germany. In the ensuing centuries, they expanded, encountering the Celts (4th c. BC), and Romans (1st c. BC). The eastern tribes were the nomadic Goths, the northern groups are the various Scandinavians (which gave rise to the Scandinavian languages), and the western ones in northern Germany were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (amongst others). Their languages became German and Dutch, and English began with Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded and settled in Britain in the 5th century AD. (They were initially invited by Celtic King Vortigern to help him fight the Scots and the Picts?!?)

Some Ancient History (Indo-European)

         ,-(Phrygian)       ,--------------------------------|--Norwegian
         |                  |                                |--(Norn 18c)
         |-(Illyrian)       |                                |--Swedish
         |                  |                                `--Danish
         |-(Messapic)       |                                ,--(Burgundian)
         |                  |  ,-----------------------------|--(Vandal)
         |-(Thracean)       |  |                             `--(Gothic 16c)
         |                  |  |                             ,--Yiddish
         |-Balto-Slavic     |  |  ,-high------------------------German
         |          ,-North-´  |  |                          ,--Afrikaans
         |-Germanic-|-East-----´  |                       ,--|--Dutch
         |          |     ,-German--low--Old Saxon-------´   `--Flemish
         |-(Venetic)`West|-Old Frisian--------------------------Frisian
         |               |            ,-Northumbrian-N. dialect-lowland Scots
         |-Albanian      `-Old English|-Mercian-Midland dialect-Modern English
         |                            |-West Saxon--S. dialect-Dorsetshire dialect
  Indo   |-Armenian                   `-Kentish              ,--(Cornish 1777)
 European|                                                ,--|--Welsh
         |-(Anatolian 2000-1700 BC)                       |  |--(Cumbric)
         |                                                |  `--Breton
         |-(Tocharian)  ,-- Brythionic (p-Celtic)---------´  ,--(Manx 1974)
         |              |-- Goidelic (q-Celtic)--------------|--Irish Gaelic
         |-Celtic-------|--(Gaulish)                         `--Scottish Gaelic
         |              |--(Celtiberian)                ,-------Greek
         |              `--(Galatian 5c AD)             | ,-----Romany
         |-Greek(Mycenaen)-Classic Greek--Koine(common)-´ |  ,--Romanian
         |   (1400-800 BC) (800-400 BC)   (400 BC-500 AD) |  |--Italian
         |-Indo-Iranian-----------------------------------´  |--French
         | (10c BC Sanskrit)                                 |--Catalan
         `-Italic--(Latin 6c BC–recentish)-------------------|--Spanish

In the same way that Romance languages Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese are obviously related, Germanic languages Dutch and German are related, and the Celtic languages Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish are related, it was discovered that that these language groups are also related, though more distantly. All such related groups are part of the Indo-European language family. As Latin gave rise to the Romance languages, so a proto-Indo-European language is inferred, which gave rise to proto versions of each language group (such as Latin), which then gave rise to most of the languages found today in Europe, Persia, and northern India.

English is a branch of Indo-European, in the Germanic group. The chart shows the Indo-European language family tree, with Celtic and Germanic expanded more than the others. Extinct languages are in parenthesised, with prepended dates indicating when a language became unique, and appended dates the language’s demise, and a range showing both. Indo-European is one of a score of major language families, such as Austronesian, which includes all the southeast Asian languages, and Amerind which includes most of the native American languages. These language families, deduced linguistically, bear a striking correlation with the major ethnic groups, deduced genetically. One popular theory is that all these languages originated from one language, or at least there were a bunch of coexisting ones, but only one mongrel prevailed (in a similar way to people starting). But when was this, and who were these people?

When Did Language Start

It all started with a Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago (±0.14). After a split second of quark soup, we got radioactive subatomic particle soup which took hundreds of thousands of years of simmering for actual atoms to coalesce. After a few hundred million years, galaxies formed, which promptly started manufacturing stars, and the stars manufactured the chemicals we all know and love, and are made of. Our galaxy formed around that time, about 13 billion years ago, although taking a few billion years to assume its present spiral structure, but our sun formed much later, appearing about 5 billion years ago.

The rightmost scale of the accompanying graph is (almost) linear time. Nothing much was going on in the universe except star formation and aliens going about their usual day-to-day business. The earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago, and after almost another billion years, life finally formed (think wads of bacteria in shallow parts of oceans). After another couple of billion years rolled by, algae formed, and various inexplicable slimy things (Ediacara). Eventually, about half a billion years ago, life as we know it began to proliferate, with lush vegetation and all manner of creepy crawly thingies. Mammals actually appeared about the same time as dinosaurs, but kept well out of the way, until a big meteor nuked all the dinosaurs. The thus-liberated ratty creatures took a mere 5 million years to evolve into primates, but 8 to evolve into real rodents, and 10 for bats. And hominids finally made their appearance, along with grasses, 25 million years ago.

Humans escaped from chimpanzees about 5-7 million years ago, though in modern parlance, we speak of sharing a common ancestor at that time back in the plio-Pleistocene era. The earliest actual Australopithecus fossil dates back to about 5 million years ago, and the earliest Homo erectus fossils date back to perhaps almost 2 million years ago, and evidence of modern humans Homo sapiens date back no earlier than a mere 200,000 years.

Homo erectus (Peking Man, Java Man) survived until 50,000 years ago, and Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) survived until 30,000 years ago. But it was Homo sapiens (us) who survived solely, until mere moments ago.

Three precipitous things occurred with the advent of modern humans: an astonishingly rapid increase in intelligence or sophistication (your mileage may vary), and along with that, culture and language. The evidence for these comes also from three sources: anthropology, DNA testing, and linguistics. Most of the above comes from stones and bones. DNA testing of people of today has allowed scientists to create a family tree, then by measuring the variation, deduce when there was a common ancestor, and also the relationship between the various ethnic groups. For females, the DNA measured is in the mitochondria, small organelles that pass unchanged, apart from random mutations, from mother to daughter. For males, the DNA measured is on the Y chromosome. Mitochondrial Eve appears in Africa about 130,000 years ago, and Y-chromosome Adam about 59,000 years ago.

Similarly, the linguistic measurement traces the variation in related groups of languages back to a supposed common language, and this language with other such-derived languages back to another common language, all the way back to the original language. All three methods, of thus tracing the original humans and their ultimate dispersal around the planet, produce excellently consistent results, but with enough inconclusivity to keep the raging academic fires burning fiercely.

Migrations out of Africa began possibly as late as 50,000 years ago. Although Europe was thus populated about 40,000 years ago, the ice age squoze them out of the main part of Europe until around 16,000 years ago, when they were let back in. Farming was invented around 10,000 years ago the Middle East area, and these folks spread into Europe around 8000 years ago, where they would have encountered the original people (who did all those cool paintings in France), still hunting and gathering. God was invented by this time, just in time to create the creationists, about 6000 years ago on 23rd October 4004 BC. (This just in – British researchers have just determined that the funniest moment of the year, when people find jokes the funniest, is on 7th October at 6:03 in the evening.)

Some linguists have surmised that language began about 150,000 years ago, and that this language, termed proto-World, diverged as humans spread around the world. So, in this scenario, language appeared with modern humans kind of at around the same time that culture and sophistication suddenly flourished, and culture is seen as a measure of modern consciousness. So the big question is, did consciousness beget language, language beget consciousness, or did they both arise hand in hand?

Which would mean, by the way, that my earlier claim about rhyming slang is patently false, because, Mr Anderson, what good is rhyming if you are unable to speak?

So we’ve populated Europe and Asia with nattering humans, and history begins about 10,000 years ago when farming was invented in the middle east. These folks spread east and west, taking farming with them. In this way it entered Europe about 8000 years ago, and was apparently gradually adopted by the indigenous hunter-gathers in Britain 6000 years ago.

It was previously thought that the Kurgans were the progenitors of Indo-European. They were an agricultural and warlike people from south Russia, as far back as 7000 years ago, spreading to Danube area of Europe and beyond (3500 BC), and arriving in the Adriatic region before 2000 BC. However, the Indo-European proto-language is now thought to have emerged amongst a loose collection of clans in Anatolia (the eastern end of Turkey) 6000 years ago, and from there diffusing many directions, including around the Caspian and Black Seas and in to Europe. Over time it diverged to become most of the European languages of today, such as the Celtic, Italic, and Germanic languages.


Legend has it that Morgaine, King Arthur’s lover and petite half-sister, was part Pictish, which explained her mysterious ways, psychic abilities, and small dark complexion.

Little is known of the Picts whose language died out in the 10th century, almost without trace, as the people merged with the Scots. Bede says that they were originally Scythians (north of the Black Sea, or Scandanavians?) who sailed to Ireland, picked up wives, and continued to the then fertile shores of Scotland in some remote time.

In the early 1950s, F. T. Wainwright collected everything known about them in The Problem of the Picts. The only criticism was that the problem in the title was singular. Many historians said the Picts shouldn’t exist, but were thwarted by sparse but persistent evidence. A mystique continues, despite a recent survey, The Age of the Picts by W. A. Cummins, which provides all answers presently knowable.

Brief History of English

Old English 450-1100 (Germanic)

So the Saxons arrived in 449 AD. As it happens, they were invited to help the various and sundry British tribes defend themselves, now that the Romans were gone, against the ever pillaging Picts, who kept dashing over Hadrian’s wall and rushing back again with their loot and booty, occasionally assisted by the Scots from Ireland. Although, it took no time for the Saxons to side with the Picts, chase the British tribes off to the extremities, and use the land for themselves.

The Celts were eventually pushed back to Wales in the west, and Cornwall in the southwest. In the 5th centuary, some Irish invaded southwestern Scotland, and in the 6th century a large group from South Wales and Cornwall emigrated to Brittany in northern France, where they still speak Breton. This is the Britain as described by Bede.

Today, Scottish Gaelic is spoken in Scotland, Irish Gaelic is spoken in Ireland, and Welsh is spoken in Wales. Manx (Irish Gaelic influenced by Norse) was spoken in the Isle of Man until the middle part of this century (last native speaker was Ned Maddrell who died on 12th December 1974). Cornish was spoken in Cornwall until (inscription on gravestone): "Here lies interred Dorothy Pentreath who died in 1777 said to have been the last person who conversed in the Ancient Cornish the peculiar language of this county from the earliest records till it expired in the eighteenth century in this parish of Saint Paul".

As a result, Old English is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, with very few Celtic words adopted into the language (about a dozen p-Celtic and three or so q-Celtic words).

Old English also borrowed from church Latin (~450 words) and from Old Norse (~50 words). 7th century Christian missions to Britain brought learning and literacy, initially entirely in Latin, but an Old English written language did emerge in the northeast and in the West Saxon kingdom of Alfred the Great in the second half of the 9th century.

The first known written English sentence, "This she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman," is an Anglo-Saxon runic inscription on a gold medallion (about the size of a 50˘ piece) found in Suffolk, dated about AD 450-480.

By 750 AD Old English had evolved into a distinct language separate from the original speech of the Angles and Saxons. Of the 1000 most frequently used words today 83% are of Old English origin. Of our remaining vocabulary about 30% are Anglo-Saxon survivals. Tens of thousands of our current words are of French and Latin origin.

From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Vikings plundered lands adjacent to the Baltic and North Seas, including northeast England. The Danish King Cnut conquered Norway and England, usurping the English throne, in the early 11th century. Large numbers of Scandinavians settled in England throughout the Old English period, giving the language several thousand common words.

As well as most alphabetic characters we use today, Old English included ash æ /a/, thorn þ /th/, eth ð /dh/, and (Runic) wynn w /w/. The þ and ð are still present in Icelandic, and the æ in Danish and Norwegian.

Middle English: 1100-1500 (Germanic + Romance)

With his invading Normans in 1066, William the Conqueror established French domination. They were originally Danes (‘Northmen’) who had settled the northern coast of France (Normandy) in the 8th and 9th centuries.

All Old English nobility were wiped out. Norman French became the language of the aristocracy and the government (Normanized Latin was used in government, church and learning), and English remained the speech of the masses. So until about 1200 England was bilingual, when many French words were absorbed into English. (English: ox, sheep, swine, calf, and deer. French: beef, mutton, pork, veal, and venison.)

By the mid-1300s, English had reasserted itself, with a statute enacted in Parliament in 1362 that all lawsuits be conducted in English. French became a cultivated rather than a native language. The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) meant French was the language of the enemy. The Black Death (1349-50), which killed off 30% of the people, increased the economic importance of the labouring classes and with it the importance of their language (not to mention their immune systems).

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400): Chaucer’s English (the variety or dialect spoken in London) established itself as the standard. However, from 1250 to 1400, English adopted the greatest number of French words (40%), and of the nearly 10,000, 75% are still in use.

It also changed in fundamental ways, especially in pronunciation and grammar (becoming simpler), from highly inflected (Germanic) to very analytical (modern). Some dialects retain some of the early pronunciations for a few words (/doon/ for down in northern England and Scotland).

The Great Vowel Shift

Think of how we say our five vowels (ay, ee, ai, oh, (y)oo) and how we pronounce them phonetically (as in bad, bed, bid, bod, bud). This is an echo of the shift in pronunciation of vowels from (Old and) Middle English to more or less what we use now, and it occurred in various stages mainly during the 13th to the 17th centuries. Linguists refer to this change as The Great Vowel Shift. Spelling of (Old and) Middle English was very phonetic, and was effectively standardised with the advent of printing (William Caxton 1475). But after the shift, spelling was no longer consonant with pronunciation, a situation which continues, and exasperates English learners.

Most of the vowels (apparently, 18 out of 20) changed, some completely, and others just when in relation to certain consonants (/english/ → /inglish/). The long vowels changed from Middle English to modern, as follows:
vowel example

i: → a ɪ

tyme /teem(ə)/ → time

u: → ɑʊ

cou /koo/ → cow

e: → i:

/fet/ → feet

o: → u:

goos /gohs/ → goose

ɛ: → i:

deel, dele /del/ → deal

ɔ: → oʊ, əʊ

ston /storn/ → stone

a: → eɪ

/nam(ə)/ → name

The cardinal vowel chart (see cardinal system at the end of the pronunciation chapter) shows the same changes as the table, and indicates the approximate time when the changes took place. Notice that changes generally started at the top and moved down. Essentially, as changes were occurring, vowels had to remain distinct for clarity, which is why they had to make room for each successive change, and they had to be intelligible across two or three generations, which would modulate the process. In England but not America, noticeable short-vowel changes include the pronunciation of the first vowel in clerk, Derby, and Berkshire to rhyme with star. Some vowels didn’t change in all areas. For instance in northern Britain and Canada, the original oo [u] and oh [əʊ] vowel in words like house, down, and about are still pretty much unchanged. In England the or [ɔ] vowel can still be heard in older upper class accents in words like cloth, off, cross, and often.

Early Modern English: 1500-1700 (Elizabethan, Shakespeare, Renaissance)

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-1491) set up the first printing press in Westminster Abbey. By 1640, 20,000 titles had been printed (mostly in London) in English. This pushed English, written and spoken, towards a standard form. The Dictionary was produced, notably Samuel Johnson’s in 1755 (which he did on his own time!).

1650-1800: The Age of Reason (Augustan Age), characterized by a strong sense of order and value of standards and regulations. The language of this time is recognizable today. The ‘Great Vowel Shift’ occurred, along with spelling reform. A strong central government used English as the national language for all purposes, despite the revival of the classics.

Latin and Greek were the most important sources of new words, followed by French, Italian, and Spanish. Most Latin and Greek introductions were deliberate attempts by 16th and early 17th century writers to enrich the language, to elevate ‘low’ English. Words also came in from 50 other languages, largely due to the expansion of the British Empire.

19th Century English: 1700-1900 (No change – just expansions)

Grammar was standardised, continuing a standardising trend. The Industrial Revolution and the Victorian Age. Words began to come to England from the colonies, especially America. English dialect terms became Standard English.

American English

The first settled English colony was in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 – contemporaries of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and John Donne (1572-1631). By the 18th century, American was recognized as distinct from British English. The earliest sign is perhaps the absorption of Indian words, almost exclusively from the Algonquian speaking tribes. American also borrowed many words from Africans brought in with the slave trade, and European immigrants, but they tended to be regional: African in the South, French in Louisiana, Spanish in the Southwest, German in Pennsylvania, and Dutch in New York, with Spanish being the most pervasive. Yiddish has contributed differently to both American and British.

Many words and pronunciations died out in England but survive in American. Words adopted new meanings in the new world. Great changes were wrought in 20th century American, with global economic, political, and technological prominence.

The main differences between American and British are vocabulary and pronunciation. There are slighter differences in spelling, pitch and stress. This is borne out in this (not exhaustive) dictionary, where about 60% of the differences are nouns (vocabulary) and 20% are spelling differences. Interestingly, although American is more tolerant of neologisms, written American tends to be stricter in grammar and syntax.

Modern English: 1900-2000

Science and technology, the entertainment industry, the world wars, and the car, have all contributed to the English lexicon. Formations – self-explaining compounds, Greek and Latin compounds, borrowings from other languages, deliberate coinages, extending meaning of current words, slang, and acronyms – are used ever more frequently.

Last updated 1 January 1970 © Jeremy Smith 2024