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A Biography of English

It is helpful to learn some of the history of English—a language less than 2000 years old that has made its way to almost every corner of the world, making it the one true global language. Knowing something about the history of the language as well as its present qualities should not only intrigue you, but also give you more facility to acquire new vocabulary and use it well in your college writing.


It has been said that English came to Britain “on the edge of a sword.” In 449 AD, Britain, at the time settled by the Celts, became the target of several invasions because other groups of people wanted its fertile land. The first group of people to invade, the Anglo-Saxons, drove the Celtic-Britons westward, settled into the fertile land, and began farming their new property. The Anglo-Saxons were an agricultural people; everyday words like sheep, shepherd, ox, earth, dog, wood, field, and work come from the Anglo-Saxon Old English. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to write a modern English sentence without using Anglo-Saxon words like the, is, you, here, and there.

The Vikings built on the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary with their merciless invasions. During the time of the Viking invasions, Anglo-Saxon writing reflected a bitter, negative tone. Themes like transience of life, heroism, and keeping dignity in the face of defeat permeated their writings about themes such as the cruel sea, ruined cities, war, and exile. One notable example of Old English writing is the heroic epic poem Beowulf. Lines 20-25 of the Prologue in Old English read:

Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean,

fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,

pæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen

wilgesipas, ponne wig cume,

leode gelæsten; lofdædum sceal

in mægpa gehwære man gepeon.

These lines are translated as follows:

So becomes it a youth to quit him well

with his father’s friends, by fee and gift,

that to aid him, aged, in after days,

come warriors willing, should war draw nigh,

liegemen loyal; by lauded deeds

shall an earl have honor in every clan.

Most likely, you found it impossible to interpret even one word of the poem as it was originally written; Old English was certainly very different from English as we know it today.


It would take yet another invasion to add just a bit of present-day “normalcy” to the language. This invasion came in 1066 and became known as the Norman Conquest. It transformed the English language, marking a turning point in the language’s history from Old English to Middle English. When the Normans invaded Britain from present-day Normandy, France, and William the conqueror took the throne, English began its transformation into the melting pot of all languages.

When the Normans arrived in Britain, they found a people governed by what they considered to be inferior moral and cultural standards. Consequently, French was the language of the aristocrats, the well-bred—the language of the civilized. However, English survived for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was too established to disappear. In addition, there was intermarriage between the French-speaking Normans and the English-speaking Anglos, and, in instances where an Anglo woman married a Norman, the children were more likely to speak their mother’s language, thus carrying the language to the next generation.

Other events had an effect on the strength of English as well. The Hundred Years War caused French to lose its prestige while it bolstered nationalism for English. During the war, the Black Plague took so many lives that labor was scarce, forcing the rise of the English working man. The disease had the same effect in churches and monasteries.


Through the survival of English came many changes to its vocabulary and to its written form. The biggest change was the addition of many borrowed words, especially from French and Latin. Although English borrowed many words from French, French had little impact on the grammatical structure of the language, though there were notable changes to its form. For example, pronunciations and spelling changed as regional dialects formed. In addition, word order began to change. Through all the changes, English began to take on more of the look that we recognize today although there were still marked differences. Following is an excerpt from the Prologue of Chaucer’s

Canterbury Tales. Try deciphering the left column without consulting the translation in the right column.

Here bygynneth the Book
of the tales of Caunterbury

Here begins the Book
of the Tales of Canterbury

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature 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.

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage);
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak

Undoubtedly, you found Canterbury Tales easier to decipher than Beowulf, even in its original form. Clearer still is the following well-known excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name!

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I’ll no longer be a Capulet. (2.2.33-36)

William Shakespeare along with King James marked the change from Middle English to Modern English although their writing reflected a use of word order that still sounds awkward in our present-day English. For example, the King James version of the Bible uses such phrases as follow thou me, speak ye unto me, cake unleavened, things eternal, they knew him not. Although these authors’ writings may seem antiquated to us today, they both have left a lasting impression. Many present-day phrases came from Shakespeare: good riddance, lie low, the long and the short of it, a fool’s paradise, sleep a wink, green-eyed jealousy, and love at first sight. King James contributed many of today’s idioms: the root of the matter, wolf in sheep’s clothing, lambs to the slaughter, an eye for an eye, and straight and narrow.


In comparison, English as Shakespeare and King James knew it and English as we know it is quite different. Truly, English is a changing language. And, although it seems to have already had a very full life, there is no reason to assume that it will not continue to pass through new and different stages in its life.

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