ARTS1691 - Chronological History of the English Language


All we know of the pre-celts is that everybody hated them and nobody understood them. From this we assume that they weren't indo-european.

Celts - 1st Century CBE

The Celts moved East to West across the land, and had many different tribes. The two main branches are:

  • Continental
    • Gaulish (like in Asterix the Gaul)
  • Insular (island)
    • Goidelic (Scots Gaelic, Irish) - also called the Q-Celts because their word for son is mac
    • Brythonic (Cymric) (Wales, Brittany) - also called the P-Celts because their word for son is up

Celtic Effect on Old English

The Celts had essentially no effect on the Old English language. There were a few cases of word borrowing, but not many.

This is a big question, as everywhere else the Germanics went they lost their language to the native countries they invaded.

Possible causes are:

  • There were more Germanics than expected or less Celts (however archaeology says this wasn't the case)
  • The plague that came over possibly destroyed more Celts than Germanics, as the Germanic groups were smaller, more isolated and spread out - making them harder to be eradicated. In contrast the Celts had big towns in set locations.

Romans In Britain - 43 BCE to 410 CE

The Romans invaded for copper mining and expanding the empire. They got on well with the Cymric Celts, and helped them with their trouble against the Northern Goidelic Celts.

When the Romans withdrew the Germanic Tribes invaded (supposedly the Cymric King asked them to help him fight the marauding Northern Celts, but given there was a Roman Position "Warden of the Saxon Shore" it seems unlikely that he'd ally with them).

Roman Effect on Old English

The Roman effect on language was mainly topological in the form of place names

Germanic Tribes

Our main source of information about the Germanic Tribes (the visigoths, ostrogoths) is the Roman historian, Tacitus, Germania CE 98. However it should be taken with a grain of salt given he described anyone red-haired and hard-drinking people as Germans.

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded after the Romans. At this point the dialects were still mutually intelligible.

The Angles went to Northumbridge, the Saxons to Wessex and the Jutes (from Denmark) went to Kent and died out.

Germanic Effect on Old English (they are the language)

The word "English" came from the word "Angles" as it changed over time. We now call the Germanic Tribes who invaded the Anglo-Saxons and the language they spoke and developed Old English.

We date them from 449CE, but they wrote nothing down til about 800CE

Continental Romans & Latin Language

The Germanic tribes had already had significant contact with Latin on the continent prior to coming to England. We know this because shortly after they came to England their was a phoneme change in things like foot to feet, which didn't exist in the Latin words already there before them.

Continental Period's Effect on Old English

Words borrowed were from particular categories:

  • Food (e.g. wine, butter)
  • Measuring Types (e.g. inch, centimetre)
  • Buildings (e.g. street,)

Essentially luxury items.


The Christians had to convert many words from Biblical writings or Latin. However reflecting the dislike of 'borrowing' from particular languages, they instead calqued many words from Christian terms.

Christian Effect on Old English

They calqued many words for scientific, cultural or religious terms.


The Vikings came across from Norway after being pushed out of Siberia. They annihilated Northumbria.

King Alfred of Wessex established the 879CE Treaty of Wedmore. It essentially allocated a section of England known as the Danelaw to the Vikings, and as long as the tax (Danegeld) was paid to them they would stay there (for the most part).

Alfred was educated and progressive, and set up as court scriptorium for rewriting old texts which the Vikings had destroyed.

Viking Effect on Old English

Scandinavian sounds were introduced: [k], [g]

e.g. sky, skull, take
e.g. egg, leg


In particular surnames ending with "-son"


Pronouns such as "they", "their", "them" were added (to oppose "he", "hie", "hem", etc)


Lots of doublets were introduced, expanding synonyms and vocabulary.
Die vs Starve (General vs specialisation)
Skirt vs Shirt (Tunic split in two)
Dike vs Ditch (man made/natural - different types of specificity)
Kirk/Church (different dialects)

Coming of the Normans

When Ælphread the Unready (the Ill-Advised) refused to pay the Danegeld in 994CE the Kings of Norway and Denmark invaded and kicked Ælphred to Normandy (where his wife was from).

At this point (1013 CE) the King of Denmark (Svein) is now King of England and Denmark. He is succeeded to both by his son Cnut.

Ælphred's wife Emma was the Aunt of William the Conqueror. Emma's son (Edward the Confessor) promised his throne to three different people (including William the Conqueror), prompting the Battle of Hastings.

Norman Effect on Old English

The Norman barons built castles, and spoke French and Latin.
Due to the lack of writing caused by the Battle of Hastings they completely revolutionised the writing style of Old English; all nobility spoke French or Latin.

This however did not create a bilingual effect in the citizens, possibly due to the class rift between the lower English-speaking class and the upper French-speaking class.

Middle English - 1066CE to 1440CE

Loss of inflection, so greater dependence on syntax of the language.

Due to the French class division England developed a very register-sensitive language; all the formal words are Latinate, the fancy words French and the lower-class words Anglo-Saxon.

This created a language with many synonyms


Derivational suffixes now borrowed from Latin as well as French and attached
to both Germanic and French roots
-able -ible -ent -al -ous -ive

Early Modern English - 1450

1450 is when the first printing press was set up, and is defined as the start of Present Day English. Chaucher died in 1400 (some of his words became more popular than the Latin ones) and Shakespeare was born in 1564).

Late Modern English - 1750 to Present Day

Population Expansion and Globalisation led to a few big changes:

  • Great Vowel Shift
  • Expansion of vocabulary (borrowing from ~150 languages)
  • Development of even greater register variance

Insecurity with language vs class status led to many elocution lessons.

Present Day English

Very great register variance, between texting, emails, formal letters, different spoken styles, the anglo/french/latin variants, dialects (regional and social) and much more.

Fully globalised, bigger differences between rural/city than between countries.