The English language is a vast flea market of words, handed down, borrowed or created over more than 2000 years. And it is still expanding, changing and trading. Our language is not purely English at all - it is a ragbag of diverse words that have come to our island from all around the world. Words enter the language in all sorts of ways: with invaders, migrants, tradesmen; in stories, artworks, technologies and scientific concepts; with those who hold power, and those who try to overthrow the powerful.
View the chart below to get an overview of some of the many chapters in the history of the English language.
inhabitants of these islands
The Celts are the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles to leave a mark on our language.
In fact, very few Celtic words have lived on in the English language. But many of our place names have Celtic origins, such as London, Dover and Kent, & the rivers Thames & Wye.
Romans invade and rule British Isles for over 400 years
|Only around 200 Latin loanwords are inherited from the Romans - although by the 6th century the Church will have brought many more.|
Many of the words passed on from this era are those coined by Roman merchants and soldiers. These include win (wine), candel (candle), belt (belt) and weall (wall).
Anglo Saxons 449AD
Germanic tribes - Angles, Saxons and Jutes - begin to arrive
Anglo Saxon dialects form the basis of the language we now call Old English. About 400 Anglo Saxon texts survive from this era, including many beautiful poems - these tell tales of wild battles and heroic journeys.
Approximately one third of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary survives into modern English, including many of our most basic, everyday words: earth, house, food, sing, night and sleep. By the 7th century Latin speakers refer to this country as Anglia - the land of the Angles - a name that will later develop into England.
St Augustine 597 AD
Christian missionaries arrive from the Continent
|Christian missionaries, led by St. Augustine, move through the land, converting the Anglo-Saxons from their Pagan beliefs to a Catholic Christian faith. Throughout Europe, the language of the Church is Latin, and the missionaries inject hundreds of new Latin words into the English language. English is spoken differently in different counties, but four main dialects exist and resemble the English we know today. These dialects are Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish.|
Many of the new words derived from Latin refer to religion, such as altar, mass, school, and monk, but others are more domestic and mundane such as fork, spade, spider, tower, and rose.
The year 789 sees the first Danish invasion of Britain
|For a hundred years the Vikings control most of Eastern England, before being pushed back into the North East of the country by King Alfred the Great. They remain in power in the North East until the late 900s, in an area then known as Danelaw. During this time King Alfred uses the English language to develop a sense of national identity amongst the English.|
These raiders and settlers bring almost 2000 new words into the English vocabulary. Words derived from Norse include anger, awkward, cake, die, egg, freckle, muggy, reindeer, silver, skirt and smile. Many Northern English dialect words still bear traces of Scandinavian languages, as do many place names such as Whitby and Grimsby.
The Normans invade
|The Normans transform England, both culturally and linguistically. For over 300 years French is the language spoken by the most powerful people - royalty, aristocrats and high-powered officials - some of whom can't speak English at all. French is used in political documents, in administration, and in literature. Latin is still the language of the church and of scholars, but most of the general population speak English in their everday lives.|
Thousands of French words become embedded in the English vocabulary, most of which are words of power, such as crown, castle, court, parliament, army, mansion, gown, beauty, banquet, art, poet, romance, chess, colour, duke, servant, peasant, traitor and governor.
100 Years War 1337-1450s
100 Years War fought between England and France
|Following the 100 Years War, many people regard French as the language of the enemy. The status of English rises. The universities of Oxford & Cambridge are established. Literacy increases but books are still copied by hand and are therefore extremely expensive.|
Many thousands of Latin words come into the language, most of which are connected to religion, medicine, law or literature. These words include scripture, collect, immortal, history, library, solar, recipe and genius.
A time of great cultural and intellectual development
|In 1476, Caxton introduces the printing press to England. He prints all kinds of texts: mythic tales, popular stories, poems, phrasebooks, devotional pieces & grammars. In the following 150 years around 20,000 books are printed. Books become cheaper and are therefore increasingly popular. Literacy rates rise. Printers have to make a choice about which words, grammar and spellings to use. The choices they make help to set and spread a standard language. They base their decisions on the dialects of the South East - the most socially and economically influencial region. But these rules are not set in stone, and people continue to speak in different accents and dialects, and to write with different spellings. Over the next 200 years wonderful discoveries and innovations are made in the fields of art, theatre and science. There is a fresh interest amongst scholars in classical languages, while intrepid explorers and opportunistic traders travel to the New World.|
With these fresh findings come new words from across the globe, including atmosphere, explain, enthusiasm, skeleton and utopian (from Latin); bizarre, chocolate, explore, moustache and vogue (from French); carnival, macaroni and violin (from Italian) harem, jar, magazine and sherbet from Arabic); and coffee, yoghurt and kiosk (from Turkish); tomato, potato and tobacco (from Spanish)
An age of dictionaries, grammars and rules and regulations
|Human knowledge continues to stretch into new areas, with discoveries in the fields of medicine, astrology, botany & engineering. Many scholars believe that the English language is chaotic, and in desperate need of some firm rules. Books teaching 'correct' grammar, pronunciation & spelling are increasingly popular. Samuel Johnson publishes his famous dictionary in 1755.|
Words hated by Johnson, and omited from his dictionary, include bang, budge, fuss, gambler, shabby, and touchy.
Industrial Revolution 1760-1800s
Transformation of the western world
|In an age of inventions and contraptions, of science & industry, of expanding cities & smog-gurgling factories the language must swell to accommodate new ideas.|
Newly coined words include biology, taxonomy, caffeine, cityscape, centigrade, watt, bacterium, chromosome and claustrophobia. In the world of burgeoning capitalism, money can suddenly slump, inflate, boom and cause depressions. Victorian writers pen over 60,000 novels.
1900s - Present Day
English of today
|A century of world wars, technological transformation, and globalisation. The language continues to grow, expanding to incorporate new jargons, slangs, technologies, toys, foods and gadgets.|
It is in this century that we get doodlebugs, gasmasks, gobstoppers, mini skirts and mods and rockers; we enjoy dim sum, cappuccino, chicken tikka masala and pizzerias; we talk of chavs, mingers and weirdos; and we are addicted to tellies, websites, cybercafes and compact discs.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal
Words in Time by Geoffrey Hughes