The English language can be traced back to 430AD, when an amalgamation of groups in modern-day Britain each spoke unique versions of Germanic. As the tribes spread throughout the country, the many kingdoms came to be ruled by the Anglo Saxons.
As the groups intermingled, their initial dialects (Nothumbrian, Merican, West Saxon and Kentish) mixed, and out of them emerged the first known version of English: Englisc, or Old English.
Because language is ever-shifting, it’s impossible for historians to pin down an exact date of the birth of what we recognise as Old English, but it’s likely to have been in the early 1000s.
Read on for a timeline that tracks the evolution of English, some of the biggest milestones and changes, as well as predictions of the future of the language.
The Origins: Early 1000s
The first ever recorded conversation was written by the abbot of Eynsham close to 1010. The dialogue took place between a pupil and his teacher, who were talking about learning Latin. This text was recorded with the intention of it being used as a teaching aid for students in monastic establishments. Even today, dialogues are often used for study purposes, particularly in areas like law – where old court transcripts are used as reference for current cases.
Around a decade later, in 1020, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was produced. It intended to list historical events in chronological order, and detailed many of the exploits of Danish and Norwegian Vikings.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle detailed many words from their Old Norse language – many of which are still in use today.
Here are a few of their words that we still use in the English language today:
In the twelfth century, the English language underwent a monumental shift. Historians and linguists have tracked the change to one important event: During the 1100s, a collection of Latin sermons were translated to English. This marked a new pattern and rhythm for the language – it was a change so abrupt, we haven’t seen anything like it in the 21st century.
In fact, it was such an important time in the history of the English language that linguists began to refer to this version of English as Middle English, signalling the dawn of a new age. If you’ve ever read the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, you’ll know that Middle English is vastly different to what we recognise as English today, illustrating just how fluid language is.
Here are a few words from Middle English and their Modern English translations. Can you spot any that still retain their original meaning?
- Axe: Ask
- Ay: Always
- Cake: Loaf of bread
- Clerk: Scholar
- Coy: Quiet
- Ech: Echo
- Quelle: Kill
- Tweye: Two
- Ynogh: Enough.
Middle English continued to be the dominant form of the language until the late 1400s or early 1500s. During the time of its dominance, a large variety of written texts emerges, including medieval encyclopaedias, culinary transcripts and of course, the work of Geoffrey Chaucer – who is still considered one of the most important English writers in history.
Middle English: The mid-late 1000s
Early in the 15th century, William Caxton, an English writer and printer, introduced the first printing press to England and printed over 100 books in English -- successfully bringing about a standardisation of the English language. Shortly after, William Tyndale, believing that locals should be able to understand the Bible, printed the very first English version – expanding the reach of the language and furthering the homogenisation of regional dialects.
Here are some of the phrases found in the first translation of the Bible that are still commonly used in English today:
- Eat, drink, be merry
- The apple of his eye
- Sign of the times
The 1600s were arguably the most important century for the English language. It coincided with the age of the Renaissance, and the world was going through a holistic awakening: New scientific discoveries were being made, Greek and Roman thought was revived through architecture , new artistic techniques were being developed, and the English language was rapidly developing.
It was within this context that William Shakespeare’s plays were published. A famous playwright in his time, Shakespeare had such an impressive word bank that some scholars and historians have theorised that Shakespeare was not a single person, but a group of people writing under one pseudonym.
This has never been proven and he is commonly accepted to be a single individual – but the theories stand testament to the magnitude of his vocabulary and body of work.
In fact, many of the words we still use today were created by Shakespeare. Here are some of the most common ones:
Shakespeare also created or gave new meaning to over 300 words beginning with the prefix ‘un’, including ‘uncomfortable’, ‘undress’, ‘unreal’ and ‘unaware’.
The emotion conveyed in his plays is often considered contemporary when we consider how relevant the recurring themes in his work still are: ambition, corruption, guilt, power, appearance and reality, and love.
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In the 1700s, writers such as Horace Walpole and William Blake rose to prominence, while the 1800s introduced writers that include William Wordsworth, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Emily Bronte.
Many of these writers embodied the Literary Realism trend that began in France – depicting everyday or banal experiences, rather than those that were highly stylised or romanticised.
Conversely, this was also the period where the first collection of nursery rhymes were written down. The very first anthology of rhymes was called Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book and included some of the most endearing rhymes in the English-speaking world, including ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, ‘Hickory Dickory Dock,’ and ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’
The 1900s were a time of rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, new means of transport, printing and connecting with one another – along with a new focus on education and literacy levels.
At this time, the British Empire was at its height and the English language began to introduce new words, particularly those from North America and India. Here are some examples of these words:
- Chocolate – A word taken from Indigenous Mesoamericans, originally chikolatl
- Hammock – Unclear origins, but likely from Indigenous people in the Carribean, then entered the English language via the Spanish, who still call it a hamaca
- Bungalow – From the Hindi word bangla, meaning a type of cottage built for early European settlers in Bengal
- Bangle – From the Hindi word bangri.
Linguists and historians agree that little has changed in the English language since the 1900s, but the advent of the Internet and social media has had a massive impact on how people use text, and whether they use words at all.
The Social Media Age
Despite the fact that the English language hasn’t changed much since the dawn of the 20th century, it has certainly grown. Scholars from Harvard University and researchers from Google have estimated that the language is expanding by around 8 500 words per year – doubling the scope of the language over the last century.
Most of these words exist in a grey area known as ‘lexical dark matter’, meaning that they are either slang or invented jargon, although a number of slang words have been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary over the past few years:
- Hangry (‘Hungry’ and ‘angry’)
- Bougie (A shortened term for ‘bourgeoise’)
- Guac (A shortened term for ‘guacamole’)
- TL;DR (An abbreviation for ‘too long; didn’t read’).
Social media has also seen users revert to using ‘emojis’ – something some researchers have equated to hieroglyphics.
According to Jonathan Jones, writing for The Guardians, emojis are a huge step back for humanity. He writes,
“The simplest and most common-sense historical and anthropological evidence tells us that Emoji is not “progress” by any definition. It is plainly a step back.”
While most people use slang and emojis, if you’re using them to cover up an inability to express yourself through writing or you’re insecure about your spelling ability, why not look into getting an English language tutor?
Influential Writers from Each Period
The 21st Century: Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur is a Canadian-Indian poet who is at the forefront of the Instapoetry trend – a genre of easily digestible, micro-poety made popular on the photo-sharing platform, Instagram.
While her work is popular among Millenials and Gen Z (she has over 3 million Instagram followers and has sold 2.5 million copies of her debut book), critics have denounced her poetry for lacking depth and structure.
The Type of Lover I Need
by Rupi Kaur:
I need someone
Who knows the struggle
As well as I do
Willing to hold my feet in their lap
On days it is too difficult to stand
The type of person who gives
Exactly what I need
Before I even know I need it
The type of lover who hears me
Even when I do not speak
Cause my struggle is felt in their struggle
That is the type of understanding I need
The 21st Century: Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is an English novelist whose debut novel, White Teeth, was released to critical acclaim in 2000. She has since written five more novels, a play, and a number of short stories, essays and non-fiction pieces.
An excerpt from White Teeth:
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signalling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year's resolution.
The 20st Century: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scott Fitzgerald was an American writer whose body of work includes bestselling novels and short stories like The Great Gatsby, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tender is the Night.
While Fitzgerald achieved fame and success during his lifetime, it was only after his death that his works were critically acclaimed.
Excerpt from The Great Gatsby:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
He didn't say any more but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.
The 20st Century: Sylvia Plath
Slyvia Plath was an American poet and novelist who is credited with popularising the genre of confessional poetry. Her semi-autobiographical only novel, The Bell Jar, has been translated into nearly a dozen languages.
by Sylvia Plath:
Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our traveled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.
The 19th Century: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English writer, critic and poet. Along with his friend and acclaimed poet, William Wordsworth, he was a founder of the Romantic Movement – a movement that emphasised emotion and nature in an attempt to escape industrialisation and urban life.
Answer to a Child’s Question
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Do you ask what the birds say? The Sparrow, the Dove,
The Linnet and Thrush say, "I love and I love!"
In the winter they're silent—the wind is so strong;
What it says, I don't know, but it sings a loud song.
But green leaves, and blossoms, and sunny warm weather,
And singing, and loving—all come back together.
But the Lark is so brimful of gladness and love,
The green fields below him, the blue sky above,
That he sings, and he sings; and for ever sings he—
"I love my Love, and my Love loves me!"
18th Century: Phyllis Wheatley
Phyllis Wheatley was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry. Sold into slavery at a young age, the Wheatley family saw her bourgeoning talent and encouraged her to read and write poetry.
An Hymn to the Evening
by Phyllis Wheatley:
SOON as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.
17th Century: John Milton
John Milton was an English poet who is best known for the epic, Paradise Lost. The poem achieved critical acclaim during his lifetime, and he was revered by some of history’s most influential poets, including William Wordsworth and William Blake.
An excerpt from Paradise Lost
by John Milton:
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
16th Century: William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, who created a large body of work that is still adapted to this day, including in films such as 10 Things I Hate About You, Romeo and Juliet, and She’s the Man.
by William Shakespeare:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
15th Century: Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and writer. He is one of the most influential writers in English history, with his poem The Canterbury Tales still regularly studied by linguists and historians.
Excerpt from The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer:
Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
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