Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

English Language Roots

The history of English language is interestingly complex. English is classified as a Germanic language, meaning that it belongs to the Germanic language family. More specifically, English belongs to the West Germanic language family group, along with German and Dutch. The Germanic language family originally descended from the Indo-European language family which itself descends from Proto-Indo-European, the parent tongue of English as spoken by European nomads over 5,000 years ago.

Who Created the English Language?

The English language started with just a few groups of European settlers before being heavily influenced by other cultures and languages. The Celts were the first people to inhabit the British Isles around 1,000 B.C.E. However, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were the first known people to use the English language, settling in Britain between the years 400 and 500 C.E. Although each group of settlers spoke a different dialect, the speech of all three groups was collectively referred to as Englisc because of the Old English name for the Angles, which was Engle. The Old English term originated from the Latin and Common Germanic word for Angles, Angli.

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled in various regions of Britain between 400 and 500 C.E. and are considered to be the first people to have spoken the English language.

A map of Britain showing the locations of the settlements of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the year 600

How Was the English Language Created?

The English language was created through a process of including words, phrases, and other features of other languages like Latin and the Romance languages. Words that originated from one language but are used in a different language with little or no changes to their original form are called loanwords. Some examples of loanwords include baguette, ballet, café, and fiancé which originate from French; and alligator, alpaca, burrito, and coyote, which originate from Spanish.

Baguette is an example of a loanword taken from the French language and used in the English language.

A group of French baguettes standing upright in a wire basket with a sign that reads Baguette

How Long Has the English Language Been Around?

When was the English language created? The English language has been around since the Germanic tribes first invaded Britain during the 5th-century C.E.

When Did Old English Become a Language?

Old English was the very first documented version of the English language. It was used from the 7th-century C.E. until the 12th-century C.E.

English Language Timeline

The English language that is spoken today has progressed through several versions throughout history. The history of the English language began with Old English, the earliest known version of the English language, in the 7th-century C.E., then evolved into Middle English by the 12th-century C.E. Middle English is thought of as the transition period between Old English and Early Modern English. It was during this period that the author Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous work The Canterbury Tales.

Middle English was spoken until the 16th-century C.E. when Early Modern English began to be used. Early Modern English is the period during which playwright William Shakespeare wrote and produced all of his works. The language expanded into Late Modern English at the turn of the 19th-century, and this is the version of English spoken today. The evolution of the English language, including dates and examples of words in each version, is illustrated in the following table.

Version Dates of Use Examples of Words
Old English 650–1100 C.E. mycel, fyr, hus, hu, sunu, him, cwen, hwaet
Middle English 1100–1500 C.E. muchel, fuir, hous, how, sone, hym, queen, what
Early Modern English 1500–1800 C.E. much, fire, house, how, son, him, queen, what
Late Modern English 1800–present-day much, fire, house, how, son, him, queen, what

The Canterbury Tales, a classic text written by Geoffrey Chaucer, was originally written in Middle English

A portion of text written in Middle English titled Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales accompanied by an image of a person riding a horse and surrounded by a maroon background

Roman, Germanic, and Christian Influences

The English language results from a mixture of Roman, Germanic, and Christian influences. The Roman influence on the English language began when Julius Caesar led the Roman army into Britain around 55 B.C.E. Britain was not officially part of the Roman Empire until 43 C.E., an occupation that lasted until 410 C.E. During this period of occupation, the language of the Romans (Latin) inevitably penetrated the language of the Britains (English). After the Romans exited Britain, new groups of settlers arrived from the Germanic countries of Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. These settlers, known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, are said to have invented the English language. For this reason, English is classified as a Germanic language.

Christianity was introduced to Britain by the Romans from the start of their occupation of the island. By the time the Romans left Britain, the majority of those who lived on the island were Christians. One of the most notable ways that Christianity contributed to the English language was through the Latin alphabet. Because Latin was the official alphabet used by the Christian Church, it was the most logical choice for the alphabet of the written English language.

Viking and Norman Invasions

During the 9th-century, the era of Old English, the Vikings invaded Britain. The Vikings came from their homelands of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, bringing with them their language and their customs. Some of this language became incorporated into the English language at this time. Especially of note are the names for the days of the week that are used today in modern English: Tuesday derives from the name of the Norse god Tiw, Wednesday derives from the name of the Norse god Woden, and Thursday derives from the name of the Norse god Thor.

In the 11th-century, Duke William and an army of soldiers from Normandy, France invaded Britain and took control of the England region. The invasion and takeover of the French royalty in England caused the French language to infiltrate the language of the people of England, resulting in the introduction of French words like baguette, ballet, café, and fiancé into the English language. At this time, French was the language of the elite, while English was spoken by the lower classes.

The Black Death and Modern English

Despite the various foreign influences on the English language from the 9th- to 11th-centuries, English persisted as the predominant language of the people of England thanks in part to a devastating plague that swept through the country. From 1348 to 1353 C.E., the Black Death caused the deaths of roughly a quarter of England’s population, including both French noblemen and English commoners. The decrease in French noblemen meant a decrease in speakers of the French language in England. Additionally, English-speakers who were previously considered low- and middle-class citizens had an opportunity to fill higher positions in society and achieve greater social status as a result. With fewer speakers of French and more English-speakers in positions of nobility, English soon became the dominant language in the country.

The English language continued to transform over the next centuries with the help of key historical events like the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the American Revolution between the 14th- and 18th-centuries. These events caused English-speakers to come into contact with speakers of other languages, contributing more and more loanwords to the English language. England’s colonization of other countries caused the English language to travel to other parts of the world, while the invention of the printing press in 1436 C.E. made it possible for the English language to be reproduced and more widely distributed. Modern English continues to evolve even today, as changes in technology affect the way we read, write, and speak English.

The invention of the printing press in 1436 C.E. made it possible to reproduce and distribute the English language in large quantities around the world.

A black and white illustration of a wooden printing press

Lesson Summary

The English language originated in the region known today as Great Britain. The first known people to inhabit the British Isles were the Celts. However, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes are credited with being the first people to speak the English language around 650 C.E. English is classified as part of the Germanic language family. Although a Germanic language, English is written with the Latin alphabet because of the religious impact of Christianity in 5th-century England. Many other cultures and languages have influenced English throughout the language’s history. Loanwords, or, words taken from one language and used in another language, are abundant in English. Words like alligator, alpaca, burrito, and coyote are Spanish loanwords used in present-day English. Words like baguette, ballet, café, and fiancé are French loanwords used in present-day English.

The first known version of English is Old English, followed by Middle English in the 12th-century, Early Modern English in the 16th-century, and, eventually, Late Modern English, which is the version of English spoken today. Historical events have also impacted the evolution of the English language in its various forms. The arrival of the Romans and various Germanic groups, the introduction of Christianity to Britain, the invasions of the Vikings and the Normans, and the Black Plague all played a role in the history of English language. Modern English continues to evolve as technology transforms the way we read, write, and speak English.

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