We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

Discuss with examples how the English Language has changed over time

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

Benjamin Martin stipulates that no language can ever be permanently the same, but will always be in a variable and fluctuating state. Every existing language undergoes change with time. To the advantage of human beings, these changes occur gradually. Had this not been the case, people would be faced with the task of relearning their native language almost every twenty years. As a result of these changes occurring moderately and gradually, it change is hardly noticeable. Several English language changes are revealed in written records. A wealth of knowledge about of the history of English is available, because it has been written for approximately one thousand years. Changes in a language are the changes in the grammars of those who speak the language.

These are disseminated when new generations of children learn the language by acquiring the grammar that has been altered. Observations of the past one thousand years of the English language, reveal changes in the phonological, morphological, syntactic, as well as semantic and lexical components of the grammar. No level of the English language has remained unchanged during the course of history. If English speakers today were to hear the English spoken three hundred years ago, it would sound like a completely foreign language.

Three main stages are usually recognized in the history of the development of the English language. Old English, formerly known as Anglo-Saxon, dates from the period 449 to 1066. Middle English dates from 1066 or 1100 to 1500. Modern English dates from about 1500, and is subdivided into Early Modern English, from the period 1500 to 1660, and Late Modern English, from 1660 to the present time. The fist period of the English Language, Old English, is the ancestor of the Modern English spoken today – although it is somewhat different in appearance and sound. Old English, a variant of West Germanic, was spoken by certain Germanic people, (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes), in the regions presently comprising of southern Denmark and northern Germany. Old English was an inflected language characterized by strong and weak verbs, a dual number for pronouns, for example, a form for “we two” as well as a form for “we”. It had two different declensions of adjectives, four declensions of nouns, and grammatical distinctions of gender.

Although rich in word-building possibilities, Old English was limited in vocabulary. It borrowed few proper nouns from the language of the conquered Celts. About half of the most commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Words such as “be”, “water”, and “strong”, for example, derive from Old English roots. Old English’s best known surviving example, is the poem Beowulf written in about the year 1100. A line from Beowulf reads: “Hæfde se góda Géata léoda cempan gecorone þára þe hé cénoste findan mihtefíf-týna sum.” In Late Modern English this would be translated as, “The mighty man, had carefully chosen, from the tribes of the Geats, champions, battlers, the best he could find.”

At the beginning of the Middle English period, which dates from the Norman Conquest of 1066, the language was still inflectional; at the end of the period the relationship between the elements of the sentence depended basically on word order. However, as early as 1200, the three or four grammatical case forms of nouns in the singular had been reduced to two, and to denote the plural, the noun ending -” es” had been adopted. The declensions of the noun were further simplified by dropping the final n from five cases. Also, by neutralizing all vowel endings to “e”, which sounded like the “a” in Modern English “sofa”, and by extending the masculine, nominative, and accusative plural ending “as”, which were later neutralized also to ” es”. Only one example of a weak plural ending, oxen, survives in Modern English; “brethren” is a later formation. Several representatives of the Old English modification of the root vowel in the plural, such as “man”, ” men” and “foot”, ” feet”, survived also.

With the leveling of inflections, the distinctions of grammatical gender in English were replaced by those of natural gender. During this period the dual number fell into disuse, and the dative (the case that marked the indirect object) and accusative of pronouns were reduced to a common form. Furthermore, the Scandinavian words they and them were substituted for the original “hie” and “hem” of the third person plural. “Who”, ” which” and “that” also acquired their present relative functions. The conjugation of verbs was simplified by the omission of endings and by the use of a common form for the singular and plural of the past tense of strong verbs.

In the early period of Middle English, a number of practical words, such as ”egg”, ” sky”, “sister”, ” window” and “get”, came into the language from Old Norse. The Normans brought other additions to the vocabulary. Before 1250 about nine hundred new words had appeared in English. For the most part, they were words such as “baron”, ” noble”, and “feast”, which the Anglo-Saxon lower classes required in their dealings with the Norman-French nobility. Other circumstances, gradually contributed to the direct development of the Modern English language from Middle English. These are the Norman nobility and clergy, who, although they had learned English, introduced from the French, words pertaining to the government, the church, the army, and the manner of the court, in addition to others relating to the arts, scholarship, and medicine.

The most famous example of Middle English is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unlike Old English, modern English-speaking people can read Middle English, although with some amount of difficulty. A line from Canterbury Tales reads, “And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste, so hadde I spoken with hem everichon.” This line in late Modern English translates as “And shortly before the sunset I had spoken with everyone.” By 1362, the linguistic division between the nobility and the commoners was largely over. In that year, the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts and it began to be used in Parliament. The Middle English period came to a close at about 1500, with the rise of Modern English. The transition from Old English to Middle English, therefore, showed a vast change in the morphology of the English language.

The next wave of innovation in English came with the Renaissance. The revival of classical literature, art, and architecture, brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and many complained about the adoption of these terms, but many of them survive to this day. Numerous familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by Shakespeare; approximately two thousand words and countless catch phrases belong to him. In Shakespeare’s novel Hamlet, a line of the famous soliloquy reads, “To die, to sleep – no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Although this is Modern English, it is Early Modern English and in Late Modern English would be translated as, “Dying is no worse than sleeping, which ends the distress that comes with being human; it would be a good end”. English travelers and merchants also introduced other words after their return from journeys on the Continent. From Italian, came “cameo”, ” stanza”, and “violin”. From Spanish and Portuguese, came “alligator”, ” peccadillo”, and “sombrero”. During its development, Modern English borrowed words from more than fifty different languages.

The transition from Middle English to Modern English was also marked by a major change in the pronunciation of vowels during the 15th and 16th centuries. This change, termed the Great Vowel Shift by the Danish linguist, Otto Jespersen, consisted of a shift in the articulation of vowels with respect to the positions assumed by the tongue and the lips. The Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of eighteen of the twenty distinctive vowels and diphthongs of Middle English. In general, Middle English orthography was much more phonetic than Modern English; all consonants, for example, were pronounced, whereas presently letters such as the “l” preserved in “walking” are silent.

All long vowels, with the exception of /ī/, pronounced in Middle English, somewhat like ‘ee” in “need”, and /ū/, pronounced in Middle English like oo in food, came to be pronounced with the jaw position one degree higher. Pronounced previously in the highest possible position, the /ī/ became diphthongized to “ah-ee,” and the /ū/ to “ee-oo.” The Great Vowel Shift, which is still in progress, caused the pronunciation in English of the letters “a, e, i, o, and u” to differ from that used in most other languages of Western Europe. The approximate date when words were borrowed from other languages can be ascertained by means of these and other sound changes. Thus it is known that the old French word “dame” was borrowed before the shift, in view of the fact that its vowel shifted with the Middle English /ā/ from a pronunciation like that of the vowel in “calm” to that of the vowel in “name”.

From the foregoing observations, whereas Middle English speakers could read Chaucer with some difficulty, Chaucer’s pronunciation would have been completely unintelligible to the Modern English speaker’s ear. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would be accented, but comprehensible. In Middle English for example, “name” was pronounced “nam-a”, ” five” was pronounced “feef,” and “down” was pronounced “doon”. In linguistic terms, the shift was rather sudden, with the major changes occurring within a century. The shift is still not complete. Vowel sounds are still being shortened, although the change has become considerably more gradual. Modern English, like all languages, is still changing. Another change occurred when the “th” of some verb forms became “s”. “Loveth” became “loves” and “hath” became “has”- just to name a few. Auxiliary verbs also changed, that is, “he is risen” became “he has risen”.

In addition, in the Early Modern English period, which was from 1500 to 1800, the vocabulary was enlarged by the widespread use of one part of speech for another and by increased borrowings from other languages. In the late 17th century and during the 18th century, certain important grammatical changes occurred. The formal rules of English grammar were established during that period. The pronoun “its” came into use, replacing the genitive form “his”, which was the only form used by the translators of the King James Bible (1611). The progressive tenses developed from the use of the participle as a noun preceded by the preposition “on”; the preposition gradually weakened to “a” and finally disappeared. Subsequently, only the simple “ing” form of the verb remained in use. After the 18th century this process of development culminated in the creation of the progressive passive form, for example, “The job is being done.”

Vocabulary was the most important development, which begun during this period, and continued without interruption, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result of colonial expansion, notably in North America, but also in other areas of the world, many new words entered the English language. From the indigenous people of North America, the words “raccoon” and “wigwam” were borrowed; from Peru, “llama” and “quinine”. “Barbecue” and “cannibal” were borrowed from the West Indies; from Africa, “chimpanzee” and “zebra”. From India, “bandanna”, curry”, and “punch” were borrowed and from Australia, “kangaroo” and “boomerang”. In addition, thousands of scientific terms were developed to denote new concepts, discoveries, and inventions. Many of these terms, such as “neutron”, “penicillin”, and “supersonic”, were formed from Greek and Latin roots.

The last major factor in the development of Modern English was the advent of the printing press. William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476. Books became cheaper and as a result, literacy became more common. Publishing for the masses became a profitable enterprise, and works in English, as opposed to Latin, became more common. The printing press finally brought standardization to English. The dialect of London, where most publishing houses were located, became the standard. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and Samuel Johnson published the first English dictionary in 1604. Spelling, however, remained unchanged and was preserved from that period, as a result of the advent of printing in England about 1475. The influence of the mass media appears likely to result in standardized pronunciation, more uniformed spelling, and eventually a spelling closer to the actual pronunciation.

Since the 16th Century, because of the contact that the British had with many people worldwide, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, several words have entered the language either directly or indirectly. New words were created at an increasing rate. Shakespeare coined approximately two thousand words. This process has grown significantly in the modern era. Borrowed words include names of animals (giraffe, tiger,), clothing (pyjama, shawl), food (chocolate, orange), scientific and mathematical terms (algebra, species) and drinks (tea, coffee). Other borrowed words include religious terms (Jesus, Islam,), sports (checkmate, golf), vehicles (chariot, car,), music and art (piano, theatre,), weapons (pistol, rifle), political and military terms (admiral, parliament), and astronomical names (Saturn, Leo). Languages that have contributed words to English include Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic, Hindi, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and Ewe (from Africa).

Despite all these borrowings the heart of the language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. Only approximately five thousand words from this period have remained unchanged and they include the basic building blocks of the language: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Embedded into this basic collection was a wealth of contributions to produce, what many people believe, is the richest of the world’s languages. New words are constantly being coined and usages modified to express new concepts.


1. Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., Hyams, N. An Introduction to Language. Thomson-Heinle Corporation Inc. Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich Co. 7th Edition, 2003.

2. “English Language,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2004.

http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation.

3. “History of the English Language,”, by David Wilton, 1997-2004.


4. “The Cambridge History of English and American Literature”


5. “History of the English Language: English”


6. “A Brief Look at the History of English”


Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59