Development of English

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It is worth noticing that even at the very beginning of English as a separate language there was no one simple standard. The Jutes undoubtedly thought that the Angles “talked funny”, and vice versa. Efforts have been made for centuries to develop a set of standard practices, and there is much to be said in their favor; but they have never been quite successful, and they never will be. There is just no way to make millions of people talk exactly alike.

These early English settles do not seem to have made much of an effort to understand the language of the Britons who lived in England ( then called Britain ) before they came. The Britons also spoke an Indo-European language, but it belonged to the Celtic rather than the Germanic branch, and was by now completely unrecognizable to the newcomers. The English added only a handful of Celtic words to their language – not nearly as many as the Americans later picked up from the Indians.

We can only guess about how the language would have developed if the descendants of these three tribes had been left to themselves. The fact is that two great invasions and a missionary movement changed the language enormously. The total result of these and other influences was that the English vocabulary became the largest and most complex in the world, and the grammar changed its emphasis from inflections ( changes in the forms of words ) to word order.

Here are some English place names which came from the Anglo-Saxon language;

Southampton, Brighton, Preston, Northampton ( “ton” meant “a place surrounded by a hedge” );

Salisbury, Canterbury, Edinburgh ( “burgh”, “bury” meant “to hide” );

Nottingham, Birmingham, Cheltenham ( “ham” meant “home” );

Sheffield, Chesterfield, Mansfield ( “field” meant “open country” ).


Some three hundred years after the West Germanic tribes had settled in England, there was another wave of invasions, this time by Scandinavians. In the history books these people are usually referred to as “Danes”, but there were Swedes and Norwegians among them, and their speech was probably no more uniform than that of the first wave. The dialects they spoke belonged to the northern rather than the Western division of Germanic. They differed rather more from the dialects of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes than these differed from each other – roughly, about as much as Spanish differs from Italian. In spite of Different habits of pronunciation, most of the root words were enough alike to be recognizable. The difficulty caused by Differences in Inflection was partly solved by dropping some of the inflections altogether and being broad-minded about the others. Spelling was not much of a problem, because most people could not read nor write, and those who could, spelled as they pleased. There were no dictionaries to prove them wrong.

Although these Danes moved in on the English, and for a time dominated them politically, their conquest was nothing like as thorough as that of the English over the Britons. After the early fighting the two peoples settled down together without much attention to their separate origins, and the languages mingled. On the whole, English rather than Danish characteristics won out; But many of the words were so much alike that it is impossible to say whether we owe our present forms to English or Danish origins, and occasionally the Danish forms drove out the English ones. Sometimes both forms remained, usually with a somewhat different meaning. Thus we have shirt and skirt, both of which originally meant a long, smock-like garment, although the English form has come to mean the upper part, and the Danish form the lower. Old English rear and Danish raise are another pair – sometimes interchangeable, sometimes not.

Here you can see Scandinavian words which came into the English language:

happy, low, ugly, ill, loose;

to take, to die, to call;

sister, husband, sky, fellow, law, window, leg, wing, harbour.


In 1066 the Normans conquered England. They, like the Danes, had originally come from Scandinavia. But they had settled in northern France, and for some undiscoverable reason had given up their own language and learned to speak a dialect of French. For several centuries Normans, and other Frenchmen that they invited in later, held most of the important positions in England, and it seemed quite possible that French would become the standard language of the country. But the bulk of population were still English, and they were stubborner than their rulers. Most of them never learned French, and eventually – though only after several centuries – all the nobles and officials were using English.

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