This post is an outcome of asking so many whys. I never fancied that I’ll start writing on the evolution of English, let alone the history of England. However, the differences between the American and British English piqued my interest and I started doing a little research that took me to the origin of English, 1500 years of history. It is amazing to note the metamorphosis that the language which is considered International English today gone through since it originated under the Anglo-Saxons.
English, it its 1500 years of existence, was influenced a lot by countries and cultures, far and near. As near as the Germans and as far as Australia. The strength of English language is its assimilating nature. It has borrowed and anglicized thousands of words from languages around the globe. Until around 11th century, when Old English ceased to exist in common man’s life, English was influenced by so many cultures that invaded and settled in England. English existed only in the name – if you are given a piece of writing in Old English, you may not even recognize that it is written in old English. A special study of Old English is needed. English then took up the task on itself and voyaged around the world, making colonies, dominions, mandates and many other ways of subjugating kingdoms around the world. This Great Empire-making also resulted in culture crosscurrents and thousands more words get into the language, making the life of lexicographers difficult.
As I read all these things and many more, I thought why not share my understanding with you. I’ve broken down the very long article into comfortable pieces: a little history of England, evolution of English, how English become so rich in its vocabulary, the herculean tasks of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, and finally the starting point, differences in British and American English. Before we begin, An important disclaimer to begin with:
DISCLAIMER: Let me first clarify this: I’m not an authority on English literature or language; nor am I an authority on the history of England. I’m sharing with you whatever I learn about the history of English. If you stumble upon this page recommended by any search engines, please go back and look for a different web site.
During the Iron Age, the land we call now England was inhabited by Celtic people, called the Britons, and some Belgae tribes. Even though Celtic language is almost absent now, English syntax was influenced also by the Celtic language. For example, the continuous tenses are a legacy of the Celtic language, a syntax that was absent in other Germanic languages.
The Romans started conquering Britain in AD 43. They retained their grip over the province of Brittania for more than 400 years. Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain marked the end of the Roman occupation. This period is also regarded as the origin of England and the English people. The Anglo-Saxons are a collection of various Germanic peoples, and they established kingdoms that became the primary powers in what is now England and parts of southern Scotland. The previously used British language was slowly replaced by Old English. Even though Old English bears the name English in it, we cannot read this language without a separate study of Old English. Such is the distinction between the Old English and the Modern English in use now. However, many currently used English words have their roots in Old English. A quick look-up at the word-origin section of a standard dictionary will easily confirm this.
During the frequent attacks by Vikings by AD 800, the Norsemen ruling several parts of the present England made efforts to unite the various kingdoms; by 10th century, the Kingdom of England was formed. The Norse language they spoke resembled Anglo-Saxon in many ways. Even the original Anglo-Saxon was already a blend of the dialects of west Germanic tribes living along the North Sea coast: The Saxons (in Germany and eastern Holland), the Jutes (possibly from northern Denmark, the area now called Jutland), and the Angles (probably living along the coast and on islands between Denmark and Holland). The dialects were close enough for each to understand the other.
The invasion of William the Conqueror and his Norman supporters brought with them the French influence on English. The Norman French was the official language of the court of William the Conqueror.
The political events following this may not have any direct impact on the evolution of English language, which was already influenced a lot by the Celt, the French, Latin, Greek, Scandinavian languages, Norman, and Dutch. The birth and growth of English literature, development in science, and industrial growth are the factors that contributed to the evolution of English. Old English ceases to exist during this period. There were other events that contributed to the evolution of English – more precisely, the evolution of Middle, Early Modern and Modern English – during these phases; we will return to them in a different post.
However, for a holistic understanding, let me briefly take you through the phases of the consolidation of Great Britain.
Following William the Conqueror, England was ruled by many, including certain chaotic periods where there were no single ruler: The Anarchy, the House of Plantagenet, Hundred Years’ War (involving peoples and leaders from England and France), and War of the Roses. Henry Tudor ended the War of Roses, effectively establishing the Tudor Dynasty, which was followed by Stuart Dynasty. During the rule of the Stuarts, English Civil War was fought; King Charles I was executed; and Commonwealth of England established. The Protectorate was a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. Even though Stuarts were restored to the throne, their incessant questioning of the religion resulted in Glorious Revolution, which saw the deposition of James II. Great Britain was formed in the early 18th century. Late 18th century and the early 19th century witnessed the Industrial Revolution, at the end of which Great Britain became a worldwide empire.