English B-Internet  

                      Grammar and Written Proficiency









Historical Influences on English










Teacher: Kristian Dyrvold






















                                                                                                 Mid Sweden University







Name: Karin Rönnholm

Mid Sweden University

Course: English B, Net Course

Tutor: Kristian Dyrvold

Spring 2007


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


Brief History


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, p. 6).

         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 Germany. 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).

         The 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).


Linguistic Description


Old English 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 English Period.

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).


Old English Vocabulary


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, London and York (Ibid. p. 11).


The Viking Influence on English


The Vikings’ 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 130).

         The 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


Brief History


The Norman 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.


Grammatical Changes


Perhaps one 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).


Middle English Vocabulary


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).

         Many of the words that entered English during this period dealt with administration, law, religion and the arts. Examples are government, attorney, saviour and colour (Barber 2000:146).

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).


The Emerge of a Standard.


Although 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


Brief History


Even if 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. (Barber 2000:176)

         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).


The Great Vowel Shift


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.


The Advent of the Printing Press


The printing 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

“-us” in words such as complex (Barber 2000:179)

Because of 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.




To 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.






























Works Cited:


Barber, Charles: The English Language: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000


Deutschmann, M. A (very) Brief History of English. Härnösand: Department of Humanities, Mid Sweden University


Hogg, Richard & Denison, David: A History of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006


Dickens, Elisabeth: English Language Change and the Advent of Printing, [On Line] Accessed 07-05-11 Available from the World Wide Web:

< http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361dickens.htm>


Menzer, Melinda J: What is the Great Vowel Shift?, [On Line] Accessed 07-05-25

Available from the World Wide Web:



Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 2007, Great Vowel Shift, [On Line] Accessed 07-05-11

Available from the World Wide Web:



Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 2007, Elizabethan Era, [On Line] Accessed 07-05-12

Available from the World Wide Web:

< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabethan_era>