A Brief History of the English Language

Douglas F. Hasty, M.L.S.


This history is for educational purposes only. I am not a linguist or syntax specialist. I have received hundreds of email requests which seem to have originated from an email chain letter, or some other type of Internet hoax. I am unable to provide answers to trivia-based questions, such as "What are the three words in English that end in g-r-y?" and "How many words are there in the English Language?". I do not know the answers to these questions. At first, I suggested possible sources of answers, but it became clear very quickly that these questions -- well intended, no doubt -- are part of an Internet cycle. I now no longer answer these questions, and delete them immediately. I apologize for this course of action, but the number of trivia questions received was becoming an overwhelming responsibility. Therefore, I suggest contacting the local public library's reference desk. Local public libraries will have the answers. Please consult with them. Thank you.

For additional interest or etymological research, consult the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Old English, until 1066

Immigrants from Denmark and NW Germany arrived in Britain in the 5th and 6th Centuries A.D., speaking in related dialects belonging to the Germanic and Teutonic branches of the Indo-European language family. Today, English is most closely related to Flemish, Dutch, and German, and is somewhat related to Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. Icelandic, unchanged for 1,000 years, is very close to Old English. Viking invasions, begun in the 8th Century, gave English a Norwegian and Danish influence which lasted until the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Old English Words

The Angles came from an angle-shaped land area in contemporary Germany. Their name "Angli" from the Latin and commonly-spoken, pre-5th Century German mutated into the Old English "Engle". Later, "Engle" changed to "Angel-cyn" meaning "Angle-race" by A.D. 1000, changing to "Engla-land". Some Old English words which have survived intact include: feet, geese, teeth, men, women, lice, and mice. The modern word "like" can be a noun, adjective, verb, and preposition. In Old English, though, the word was different for each type: gelica as a noun, geic as an adjective, lician as a verb, and gelice as a preposition.

Middle English, from 1066 until the 15th Century

The Norman Invasion and Conquest of Britain in 1066 and the resulting French Court of William the Conqueror gave the Norwegian-Dutch influenced English a Norman-Parisian-French effect. From 1066 until about 1400, Latin, French, and English were spoken. English almost disappeared entirely into obscurity during this period by the French and Latin dominated court and government. However, in 1362, the Parliament opened with English as the language of choice, and the language was saved from extinction. Present-day English is approximately 50% Germanic (English and Scandinavian) and 50% Romance (French and Latin).

Middle English Words

Many new words added to Middle English during this period came from Norman French, Parisian French, and Scandinavian. Norman French words imported into Middle English include: catch, wage, warden, reward, and warrant. Parisian French gave Middle English: chase, guarantee, regard, guardian, and gage. Scandinavian gave to Middle English the important word of law. English nobility had titles which were derived from both Middle English and French. French provided: prince, duke, peer, marquis, viscount, and baron. Middle English independently developed king, queen, lord, lady, and earl. Governmental administrative divisions from French include county, city, village, justice, palace, mansion, and residence. Middle English words include town, home, house, and hall.

Early Modern English, from the 15th Century to the 17th Century

During this period, English became more organized and began to resemble the modern version of English. Although the word order and sentence construction was still slightly different, Early Modern English was at least recognizable to the Early Modern English speaker. For example, the Old English "To us pleases sailing" became "We like sailing." Classical elements, from Greek and Latin, profoundly influenced work creation and origin. From Greek, Early Modern English received grammar, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Also, the "tele-" prefix meaning "far" later used to develop telephone and television was taken.

Modern English, from the 17th Century to Modern Times

Modern English developed through the efforts of literary and political writings, where literacy was uniformly found. Modern English was heavily influenced by classical usage, the emergence of the university-educated class, Shakespeare, the common language found in the East Midlands section of present-day England, and an organized effort to document and standardize English. Current inflections have remained almost unchanged for 400 years, but sounds of vowels and consonants have changed greatly. As a result, spelling has also changed considerably. For example, from Early English to Modern English, lyf became life, deel became deal, hoom became home, mone became moon, and hous became house.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Modern English

Modern English is composed of several languages, with grammar rules, spelling, and word usage both complimenting and competing for clarity. The disadvantages of Modern English include: an alphabet which is unable to adequately represent all needed sounds without using repeated or combined letters, a limit of 23 letters of the 26 in the alphabet which can effectively express twice the number of sounds actually needed, and a system of spelling which is not based upon pronunciation but foreign language word origin and countless changes throughout history. The advantages of Modern English include: single consonants which are clearly understood and usually represent the same sounds in the same positions, the lack of accent marks found in other languages which permits quicker writing, and the present spelling displays European language origins and connections which allows European language speakers to become immediately aware of thousands of words.

Modern English Words

British English, known as Standard English or Oxford English, underwent changes as the colonization of North American and the creation of the United States occurred. British English words changed into American English words, such as centre to center, metre to meter, theatre to theater, favour to favor, honour to honor, labour to labor, neighbour to neighbor, cheque to check, connexion to connection, gaol to jail, the storey of a house to story, and tyre for tire. Since 1900, words with consistent spelling but different meanings from British English to American English include: to let for to rent, dual carriageway for divided highway, lift for elevator, amber for yellow, to ring for to telephone, zebra crossing for pedestrian crossing, and pavement for sidewalk.

American English, from the 18th Century until Modern Times

Until the 18th Century, British and American English were remarkably similar with almost no variance. Immigration to America by other English peoples changed the language by 1700. Noah Webster, author of the first authoritative American English dictionary, created many changes. The "-re" endings became "-er" and the "-our" endings became "-or". Spelling by pronunciation and personal choice from Webster were influences.

Cough, Sought, Thorough, Thought, and Through

Why do these "ough" words have the same central spelling but are so different? This is a characteristic of English, which imported similarly spelled or defined words from different languages over the past 1,000 years.

    From the Middle High German kuchen meaning to breathe heavily, to the French-Old English cohhian, to the Middle English coughen is derived the current word cough.


    From the Greek hegeisthai meaning to lead, to the Latin sagire meaning to perceive keenly, to the Old High German suohhen meaning to seek, to the French-Old English secan, to the Middle English sekken, is derived the past tense sought of the present tense of the verb to seek.


    From the French-Old English thurh and thuruh to the Middle English thorow is derived the current word thorough.


    From the Old English thencan, which is related to the French-Old English word hoht, which remained the same in Middle English, is derived the current word thought.


    From the Sanskrit word tarati, meaning he crossed over, came the Latin word, trans meaning across or beyond. Beginning with Old High German durh, to the French-Old English thurh, to the Middle English thurh, thruh, or through, is derived the current word through.

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5 July 2001