Development of English

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It was not, however the English of the days before the conquest. A good many French words had gotten into the language; and most of the inflections that had survived the Danish pressure had dropped out, with a standard word-order making up for their loss. We need not go into the argument about whether the new word-order had to develop because the ending dropped out, or the ending disappeared because the new word-order made them unnecessary. The two changes took place together, and by the time of Chaucer ( died 1400 ) the language had become enough like modern English to be recognizable. The pronunciation was quite different and the spelling was still catch-as-catch-can; but a modern student can get at least a general idea of Chaucer’s meaning without special training, while he can no more read Old English than he can German or Latin, unless he has made a special study of it. Compare the two following passages:

Hwaet! We gardena in geardagum What that Aprille with his shoures soote

Theodcyningas thrym gefrunon The droghte of March hath perced to the root

In the first two lines From Beowulf ( about 700 A.D. ), only we and in are readily recognizable; while in the first two from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, only soote ( sweet ) offers much of a problem.

From Chaucer’s time to our own the language has developed with no outside pressure comparable to that of the Danish and Norman invasions. Still more endings have Disappeared, and there have been other changes; but the greatest development has been in the vocabulary. A considerable number of Chaucer’s words have dropped out of use, and a much greater number of new words have been added. Some of these new words have been made by compounding or otherwise modifying old ones, but most of them have been borrowed from other languages, particularly Latin.


Even before they came to England our ancestors had picked up a few Latin words; and they learned others from the Christian missionaries who began to convert them in the sixth century. These early borrowings were taken directly into the spoken language, and most of them have now changed so that their latin origins are not easy to recognize. Street ( “via strata” ), wine, bishop, priest and church ( the last three originally borrowed from Greek by the Romans ) are examples. Another example is the word “castra” ( “a military camp” ) which can be found in the names like Lancaster, Winchester, Leicester, Chester, etc.

After the Norman Conquest borrowings from Latin were enormously increased. French itself is directly descended from Latin, and we cannot always tell whether an English word came directly from Latin or through French. Suspicion, for instance, could have come into English by either route. But we do Know that many words must have come straight from Latin, either because they don’t occur in French or because their French forms are different. Scholars often could not find an English word for an idea they wished to express; and even if they could, they might think that a Latin word was more exact or more impressive.

English has also borrowed words from many languages, particularly Greek, and is continuing to do so at present; but ever since the late Middle English period it has been a matter of helping ourselves, rather than yielding to pressure.


The changes that took place in the language throughout the Old and Middle English periods were a natural development, unguided by any theory. Men talked more or less as their neighbors did, and anybody who wrote tried to indicate the sound of his speech on paper. There were still no dictionaries, no grammars, and no printed books of any kind. As far as we know, very few people thought about the language at all; and most of those who did think about it seem to have considered it a crude and rather hopeless affair, unworthy of serious study. There were exceptions, of course, but they did not have much influence. Local differences were so great that a man trained in northern England would have serious difficulty reading a manuscript written in the southern part. However, the dialect of London had a certain prestige throughout the country; and although this dialect itself was by no means uniform, and changed with shifts in city population, it gradually came to be accepted as the standard. By the latter half of the fifteenth century it was quite generally used in writing throughout the country except in the extreme north. The introduction of printing in 1476, with London as the publishing center, greatly strengthened the influence of the London dialect. Strong local differences in spoken English remain to this day, especially among the less educated classes. But throughout the modern period written ( or at least published ) English has been surprisingly uniform.

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