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English History

English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This broad family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches: Latin and the modern Romance languages (French etc.); the Germanic languages (English, German, Swedish etc.); the Indo-Iranian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit etc.); the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech etc.); the Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian; the Celtic languages (Welsh, Irish Gaelic etc.); Greek.

Of these branches of the Indo-European family, two are of paramount importance, the Germanic and the Romance (called that because the Romance languages derive from Latin, the language of ancient Rome). English is a member of the Germanic group of languages. It is believed that this group began as a common language in the Elbe river region about 3,000 years ago. By the second century BC, this Common Germanic language had split into three distinct sub-groups:
  • East Germanic was spoken by peoples who migrated back to southeastern Europe. No East Germanic language is spoken today, and the only written East Germanic language that survives is Gothic.
  • North Germanic evolved into the modern Scandinavian languages of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic (but not Finnish, which is related to Hungarian and Estonian and is not an Indo-European language).
  • West Germanic is the ancestor of modern German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and English.

Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; to c.1150)

The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what we now call Old English. Old English did not sound or look like English today. Native English speakers now would have great difficulty understanding Old English. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English. Old English was spoken until around 1100.

Middle English (to c.1500)

Middle English is the name given by historical linguistics to the diverse forms of the English language spoken between the Norman invasion in 1066 and the mid-to-late 15th century, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, began to become widespread, a process aided by the introduction of the printing press into England by William Caxton in the 1470s. By this time the Northumbrian dialect spoken in south east Scotland was developing into the Scots language. The language of England as spoken after this time, up to 1650, is known as Early Modern English.

Unlike Old English, which tended largely to adopt Late West Saxon scribal conventions in the immediate pre-Conquest period, Middle English as a written language displays a wide variety of scribal (and presumably dialectal) forms. It should be noted, though, that the diversity of forms in written Middle English signifies neither greater variety of spoken forms of English than could be found in pre-Conquest England, nor a faithful representation of contemporary spoken English (though perhaps greater fidelity to this than may be found in Old English texts). Rather, this diversity suggests the gradual end of the role of Wessex as a focal point and trend-setter for scribal activity, and the emergence of more distinct local scribal styles and written dialects, and a general pattern of transition of activity over the centuries which follow, as the north east, East Anglia and London emerge successively as major centres of literary production, with their own generic interests.

Modern English

Modern English is the term used for the contemporary use of the English language. In terms of historical linguistics, it covers the English language after the Middle English period; that is, roughly, after the Great Vowel Shift, which was largely concluded after 1550.

Despite some differences in vocabulary, material from the early 17th century, such as the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible, is considered to be in Modern English, or more specifically, they are referred to as Early Modern English, and most people who are fluent in the English of the early 21st century believe they can read these books with little difficulty.

Modern English has a large number of dialects, spoken in diverse countries throughout the world. Most of these, however, are mutually comprehensible. This includes American English, Australian English, British English, Canadian English, Caribbean English, Hiberno-English, Indian English, New Zealand English and South African English. These dialects may be met in different contexts, for example the stereotypical villain in some American movies has a British accent, and many British pop singers (and some Australian pop singers) sing in an American accent.

According to Ethnologue, there are over 508 million speakers of English as a first or second language as of 1999, a number dwarfed only by the Chinese language in terms of the number of speakers. However, Chinese has a smaller geographical range: it is spoken primarily in mainland China and Taiwan, and by a sizable immigrant community in North America. In contrast, English is spoken in a vast number of territories, including Britain, Canada, the United States of America, Australia, India and Southern Africa. Its large number of speakers, plus its worldwide presence, have made English a common language for use in such diverse applications as controlling airplanes, developing software, conducting international diplomacy, and business relations.