Historical changes in the English language


Some historical changes in the English language

Stockwell & Minkova (2001, p9. 20-26) use the analogy of languages being similar to family trees where there are parents, children, cousins etc. They all closely relate, and new languages can be seen to be added as the ‘family’ or language evolves over time. They suggest that ‘English vocabulary today reveals layers of words that correspond to its family history’ and note that English is an Indo-European language ‘which derives from the geographical range over which these languages were spoken before some of them spread to the New World: roughly from India to Iceland (p.20).

Knowles (2001, p.3) explains ‘English has been subjected to a pattern of continuous small-scale change interrupted by major Language and social change 3 events which have brought about dramatic and sudden change. It is these major discontinuities that enable us to divide the history of the language into convenient ‘periods’.’ These 3 periods are Old English, Middle English and Modern English.

Changes evolved over time and it is the accumulation of these that have defined our language today. The following activity can be found in the Skills for Life Quality Initiative resources. I have genuinely made my suggestions first, then added the SfLQI suggestions at the end of each section to complete my notes.

I. Invasion or war

Angles, Saxons & Jutes (Anglo-Saxons) conquered England and English replaced the Celtic language
Normal Conquest – After, French became language of English aristocracy/Latin as written language

Suggestion from SfLQI – new words introduced from other countries

II. Trade and commerce

Industrial revolution
War – geographical re-location, people ‘mixing’
Colonisation, integration, immigration, emigration and economical changes resulted from this

SfLQI – new words created to describe trade and commercial activities

III. Technology
Caxton’s introduction of printing in 1470s
Scholars started to write in English and Latin words borrowed into English
Industrial revolution
Marketing and broadcasting

SfLQI – the printing press, spelling of words.

IV. Social change

French spoken/Latin written by aristocracy, English used by lower classes
Mid-14th C, English replaced French, but heavily borrowed French words
Literary figures increased spread of language
Jonathan Swift proposed fixing English – scholars decided what’s in and out – only some could read
Fixed pronunciation – only some could access education, so most people were left out
Fashions, trends
Norms/values and acceptance
Rise of technology promotes social change and integration
Class systems and social mobility from increased and decreased opportunities

SfLQI – how major social upheavals brought about changes, e.g. in the time of Cromwell language became simpler to echo the Puritan view of life.

V. Power or politics

The Bible printed in 1611 – religion has been associated with power and politics in British history. Socially, only some could read meaning it was inaccessible to most. As The Empire grew, so did the language.
Fixing pronunciation form of power as only higher classes could afford education. Knowles (1997, p.4) explains ‘A shift of power does not of itself bring about language change, and is mediated by intellectual change, in that shifts of power can affect the basic assumptions people make about their language.’ He continues that scholars’ deliberately tried to change written language from Latin to English, and there was a shift from aristocracy to the middle classes.

SfLQI – how the monarchy, bureaucrats, aristocracy or ruling classes wanted to preserve power and use language to make social distinctions between people.

Knowles (1997, p.3) continues ‘English vocabulary, expressions and idioms come from a wide range of sources, mainly Latin, French and Germanic, but also Hindi, Hungarian and native American and Australian languages. English pronunciation is largely Anglo-Saxon, but also in part Danish and French. English grammar is basically Germanic, but it has been modified by French and Latin.’

What did you learn? 

I learnt that there is no single thing that has made our language the way it is today. The spread and changes in language can’t always be identified in a linear way – it’s an accumulation of events such as trade events, war, social, political and cultural changes which result in subtle changes over time.

How will you apply it? Practical implications? Resources made/changed? For assignment? Meet with? Find out more about? By ___ in my teaching.

We have an assignment on language development, and I think that this will underpin a little of the context for me when I write my assignments. It was difficult to report on this as none of this is mine, but recycled facts. I just tried to give myself a brief outline in my research for future reference. I’d like to research this in more depth in future though.


Knowles, G. (1997) A Cultural History of the English Language. London: Edward Arnold. pp. 1–6 (1.1 and 1.2)

Stockwell, R. and Minkova, D. (2001) English Words, History and Structure. Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–26.

Web Sources

The Skills for Life Quality Improvement course documents are useful for future reference.

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