Grammar and Written Proficiency
Influences on English
Mid Sweden University
Name: Karin Rönnholm
Mid Sweden University
Course: English B, Net Course
Tutor: Kristian Dyrvold
Historical Influences on English
It is a
common opinion, that if you want to understand why a language sounds the way it
does, you will have to study its history. When you look at the history of Britain, you
will find that it is a country with a turbulent past. Throughout the centuries,
different groups of people have been fighting for domination over the British Isles and this has left imprints on the English
language, both in the spoken and in the written. Other significant events
through history, such as certain innovations and explorations, have also helped
shaping English into the language it is today.
This essay will focus on
some of the major events in history that has come to influence the English
language and it will describe how these events have played an important role in
the development of the English vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
Old English Period
Prior to the
Old English Period, the British Isles had been
ruled by Celtic tribes for approximately 500 years when it was invaded by
Emperor Claudius in 43 A.D.
As a consequence, a large part of Britain
fell under the rule of the Roman Empire in the following centuries, only Scotland
remained unconquered and was ruled by Celtic Scots and non-Indo European Picts (Deutschmann, M. A
(very) Brief History of English. Härnösand: Department of Humanities, Mid Sweden University,
After the withdrawal of
the Roman legions in 410 A.D.
the remaining Celts were almost defenceless against the Scots and Picts who had
begun to advance southward. In order to hold their ground against the attackers
from the north, the Celts requested help from three Germanic tribes: the Jutes,
who originated from Denmark
and from the East Frisian Coast,
the Saxons and the Angles, who were Germanic tribes that originated from north-western
Once the Scots and the Picts had been defeated, these Germanic tribes settled
permanently in Britain and
pushed the Celts to Cornwall, Wales and Ireland (Ibid. p.6)
There is no written record
of the English language before 600
A.D. when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to
Christianity. The conversion took about a century to complete and one important
result of the change came to be the Anglo-Saxons adoption of the Roman alphabet.
The oldest manuscript found in Britain
dates back to 700 A.D.
and this is regarded as the beginning of the Old English Period (Ibid. p. 8)
During the Old English Period, England was split into seven
smaller kingdoms, known as the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. The kingdoms consisted of
Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, Mercia,
Northumbria and East Anglia. These
so called kingdoms were not organized as the word traditionally implies,
instead they were similar to tribal groups that resided in areas with boarders that
were quite vague (Hogg & Denison:2006:10).
languages spoken in these kingdoms had all different vocabularies,
pronunciation and grammars because of the fact that the people originated from different
tribes. This explains to some degree why there are many different dialects
spoken in modern England
(Deutschmann, M., p. 9).
was a highly synthetic language. That means that inflectional endings were used
to indicate the grammatical purpose of the words. Consequently, the word order
in Old English was fairly free, but this would come to change during the Middle
The nouns of
Old English had two numbers, four cases, three grammatical genders and
approximately ten different patterns of declensions. Adjectives and verbs also had
several inflectional endings to indicate their functions. (Deutschmann, M., p. 9-10).
There were not
a great number of loan words that entered the English vocabulary during the Old
English period if you compare it to the great influx of words that would come
to enter the language during later periods (Barber 2000:120). Old English was a
Germanic language and it had the capability of forming new words because of its
use of prefixes and suffixes, instead of borrowing ones from other languages.
Still, an amount of words entered Old English from other languages and several
of them derived from Latin.
Terms that were borrowed
from Latin first came into English during the period when Britain was a part of the Roman
Empire. Many of these words dealt with war and trade, but also expressions
in the areas of food and domestic life were borrowed. Examples from this period
of time are words such as battle, bargain, pillow and cheese. When England
adopted Christianity, a number of Latin words that dealt with religion and
learning entered the English language, such as angel, candle and priest (Deutschmann,
M., p. 11-12).
Not surprisingly, only an
insignificant number of Celtic expressions entered Old English, since it is not
common that a language spoken by a defeated group influence the language of
their conquerors. Still, there are traces of the Celtic language left in some
of the English place names, such as in Thames,
and York (Ibid. p. 11).
Influence on English
attacks on England
came to have an important impact on the English way of living and on their
language as well. The first attacks on England that was led by the people who
the Anglo-Saxons referred to as ‘Denes’, but were to be known as Vikings,
occurred about 800 A.D
(Barber 2000:128) There were only sporadic attacks from the beginning, but by
838 the attacks had become more frequent and thirty years later the Vikings were
in control of a large part of England. The communication between the native
people and the new settlers run fairly smooth as the language spoken by the new
occupants was not much different from the language of the Anglo-Saxons (Ibid. p
Viking’s conquer of England
ended at the resistance of Wessex
in 871. King Alfred and his followers forced the Vikings to surrender and
succeeded in establishing a truce with the Vikings by the treaty of Wedmore in
878. The most important feature of the treaty was that a southern boundary was
drawn and the area to the northeast became a Danish settlement known as the
Danelaw. (Deutschmann, M. p.12).
When the Vikings began to
settle in England
a number of Norse words entered the English vocabulary. Many of these words
dealt with law and administration, but also a significant number of everyday
words, such as sister, sky and window were borrowed into English. Furthermore, a number of grammatical
items were borrowed, for example pronouns such as their, them and they and the conjunctions though and until (Barber 2000:133). This shows that there must have been a
strong Norse impact on the English language, since it is rare that grammatical
items are borrowed from one language to another.
Middle English Period
Conquest at the battle of Hastings in 1066, when
William, duke of Normandy
defeated King Harald, came to have a significant affect on the English language.
There had however already been some influence of the French language on the language
spoken by the English Court
previous to the conquest (Barber 2000:134). The Normans
were people of Scandinavian origin who had occupied the northern parts of France for approximately 150 years prior to the
battle of Hastings.
They spoke a variety of French, called Norman-French, and had also adopted the
French culture. Because of the assistance of people from northern France and Germany,
William was able to assembly a massive army that killed King Harald and
successfully drove out the Vikings from England for the last time.
of the most important affect the Normans
had on the English language was the gradual loss of the unstressed vowels. Old
English, as we noticed earlier, was a synthetic language that was highly
dependent inflectional endings. When the inflectional endings were lost, word
order became important as well as the use of preposition. Consequently, the
English language changed from being a synthetic language to becoming an
analytic language. One interesting fact to point out is that it was during the
Middle English Period as the S-V-O word order was established as the normal
word order, as it still is today (Barber 2000:161).
As a result
of the Norman invasion in England,
French became the language spoken by the aristocracy and the court, while
English was still spoken by the lower classes. This led England to become a
bilingual country and we can find traces of this bilingualism today in modern
English, where there still are a number of words originating from French that have
similar meanings to words that originate from Old English. About 10.000 words had
entered the English language by the thirteenth century and 75 percent of these
words are still part of the English language today (Deutschmann,
M., p. 15).
the words that entered English during this period dealt with administration,
law, religion and the arts. Examples are government,
attorney, saviour and colour
The spelling was also affected by the Normans who followed the French
system when they spelled the English words. That meant that an Old English word
such as cwen became spelled as queen (Deutschmann,
M., p. 15).
of a Standard.
French was still spoken by the English court and literature was written in
French during the thirteenth century, the English language started to regain
its lost position. French had never been spoken by the majority of the people
and an event that came to spur the triumph for English was that King John lost Normandy to the French
crown in 1204. After that, the bond that tied the Norman nobility to their
former homeland diminished and they started to regard themselves as English and
in 1362 an Act was passed that made English the official language of the
law-courts instead of French (Barber 2000:141-142).
The standardization that
had begun to take place was based on the East Midland
dialect of Middle English, since it was in this part of the country that the
cultural, economic and administrative centre was located (2000:144).
Early Modern English Period
English had gained its position as the official language in England during the latter part of
the Middle Ages, Latin was still the language used at Universities and it would
take a long time before it was fully replaced by English. However, an
increasing number of works had begun to be written in English and during the
Reformation in the 16th century, the demand of English books became
even higher. When the translation of the Bible into English was completed, it
became an important factor that raised the status of the English language.
The Elizabethan era is
often regarded as the golden age in English history. During this period, that
came to coincide with the Renaissance, a number of important historical
landmarks were reached. English literature and poetry flourished and the works
of Shakespeare were performed on various Elizabethan theatres. The British
Empire grew as a result of the exploration and colonization and with that a
number of novelties were brought to England. Also several scientific
breakthroughs were also achieved, such as in the fields of astronomy and
navigation (wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabethan_era).
One of the
most important changes in the English language, that took place during the
fifteenth and sixteenth century, was a change in pronunciation known as the
Great Vowel Shift. The shift began in the early fifteenth century and continued
into the sixteenth century before completed. The reasons why the Great Vowel Shift
occurred is debated and there are some theories that claim that it has to do
with the great immigration to England and the social mobility that took place
in the aftermath of pandemic known as the Black Death. (wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_vowel_shift>).
Another contribution was the great political turmoil that took place during the
fifteenth century and that occurred simultaneously with the Great Vowel Shift.
The Great Vowel Shift led
to a change in the quality of all the long vowels. The vowels were raised,
except for the two highest long vowels that became diphthongized. Simpler put,
that means that a vowel that used to be pronounced in one place in the mouth
were shifted to a higher place in the mouth. (Menzer, M. <http://facweb.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs/what.htm>).
The spelling and the
pronunciation of modern English have sometimes been regarded as rather strange,
but this can be explained because of the fact that the Great Vowel Shift
occurred after the spelling standard had been established.
of the Printing Press
press was brought to England
by William Caxton in 1476 and this would come to have an essential impact on
factors such as the spelling and punctuation of the English language. The
printing press helped bringing standardization to English, but it should be
remembered that the standardization was not an instantaneous process. Some scholars also argue that the advent of
the printing press did not mark the beginning of the standardization of the
language, instead they claim that standardization had already begun long before
that. It is also necessary to observe, that the early English printers were not
interested in contributing to the orthography and punctuation standards. Matters
as these belonged to the field of the scribes and therefore printers chose
whatever spelling and punctuation that they preferred. Not surprisingly,
grammarians began to complain about the inconsistencies of printed English and
so a “printer’s grammar” was produced that included advice on spelling and
punctuation and this came to have an effect on the standardization of the
language (Dickens, E. http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361dickens.htm).
The printing houses during the
fifteenth and early sixteenth century were located in and around London and that led to the spread of “London English” and as
a result made the dialect that was spoken in London becoming the standard. The printing
press made the production of books less expensive and therefore it became
easier for ordinary people to get hold of literature. A positive result of this
was that literacy became more common among the English people (Deutschmann, M., p. 17).
Early Modern English Vocabulary
During the Elizabethan age, with its new discoveries and inventions, common
people became eager to read and learn, but they demanded books written in
English and not in Latin. Even though English had begun to triumph over Latin,
a vast amount of Latin and Greek words entered the English language, with its culmination
between 1580 and 1660. Some of the loan words, such as apparatus and focus were
remained in their Latin form and spelling, whereas other words were given an
English form, for example the removal of the inflection
words such as complex (Barber
the prestige that Latin still held, Latin terms were sometimes used to show
social superiority and education. Thus arose so called “inkhorn terms”,
complicated and snobbish terms often scorned by common people and ridiculed by
play writers, such as Shakespeare (Barber 2000:180)
A factor that came to enrich
the English language was the encounters with different cultures brought on by
the British colonisations. The words that entered English were often words for
objects that were new to the English people and that they lacked names for. (Deutschmann, M., p. 17). Examples of words that have
come into English through the expansion of the British
Empire are jungle, tea and typhoon.
summarize, we can see that there are several factors which can influence a
language. Important historical events such as wars, explorations and inventions
leave their mark on the way we speak. English is a language that may at first
glance seem confusing with its strange spelling and pronunciation, but when we
learn about its history most of the questions raised about its peculiarity will
be answered. The English language is, as we have seen, much a result of the
impact that different groups have had over The British Isles throughout the
centuries. Romans, Jutes, Saxons, Angles, Vikings and Normans have all contributed to the English
language spoken in our time. Scientific breakthroughs that facilitated journeys
to different parts of the world and inventions such as the printing press have
also played an important part in the evolution of the English language.
We can be certain that if
these historical events had not occurred, English would have evolved into a
very different language than it is today.
Charles: The English Language: A Historical
Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000
M. A (very) Brief History of English.
Härnösand: Department of Humanities, Mid Sweden University
Richard & Denison, David: A History
of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Elisabeth: English Language Change and
the Advent of Printing, [On Line] Accessed 07-05-11 Available from the
World Wide Web:
Melinda J: What is the Great Vowel Shift?,
[On Line] Accessed 07-05-25
from the World Wide Web:
The Free Encyclopedia 2007, Great Vowel
Shift, [On Line] Accessed 07-05-11
from the World Wide Web:
The Free Encyclopedia 2007, Elizabethan
Era, [On Line] Accessed 07-05-12
from the World Wide Web: