The Historical Development of the English Standard

Seminar Paper, 2004

22 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction: The English English Standard

2. The genealogy of English

3. Before English
3.1.1. The first settlers in Britain
3.1.2. Roman invaders

4. The Old English Period (ca. 450-1150)
4.1. The Anglo-Saxons
4.2. The Vikings
4.3. The Normans

5. The Middle English Period (ca. 1150-1500)

6. The Early Modern English Period (ca. 1500-1800)

7. The Victorian Age and the Industrial Revolution

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

10. Appendix

1. Introduction: The English English Standard

Before looking at the different varieties of English, it is important to take a closer look at the standard, how it is defined and how it developed. For this purpose, “standard” means the English that is spoken in England.

Standard English is that form of English speech which so closely resembles the average pronunciation of most educated speakers as to seem identical with it to a hearer with a reasonably good ear.[1]

It is itself only one of many dialects, which has gained more importance than any other. This paper shall explain why this special dialect became the standard and shall therefore shall trace its development from the first settlers in Britain and their languages to today’s standard pronunciation, spelling, syntax, lexis, etc. To explain the changes that occurred, it is necessary to describe historical, social and cultural developments and events that influenced the people and, thereby, their language, because

although some writers refer to language as if it were an organism having an independent life of its own, it is necessary to remember that language is a series of habits formed by human beings and that it has no independent existence.[2]

2. The genealogy of English

The English language is a West Germanic language, belonging to the group of Germanic languages which themselves are a branch of the Indo-European language group. The Indo-European language seems to be the ancestor of most European and many Asian languages. It is only known from its remnants in modern languages but linguists conclude that it was much more complicated than any of the modern languages which descended from it. This is explained by Otto Jespersen, who says that languages develop with a “tendency from inseparable irregular conglomeration to freely and regularly combinable short elements”[3].

3. Before English

3.1. The first settlers in Britain

English speaking people were not the first to settle on the British Isles. Already as much as 250,000 years ago, Britain and some of the surrounding smaller islands were inhabited by cave dwellers. The people who probably erected Stonehenge came in about 2000 B.C. from the Iberian Peninsula and “shortly” after, around 750 B.C., the Celts came from the south of Germany and the northern Alps. They spread through nearly all the British Isles, built walled farms and hut villages and used metal tools to grow crops. Their languages were the first known languages there: Gaelic in Ireland and Highland Scotland and Cymraeg in Wales.[4]

3.2. Roman invaders

From 55 B.C. onwards, Roman legions under Julius Caesar were trying to invade England but had little success due to their underestimation of the Celtic ability for defence and their own insufficient preparations. In A.D. 43, however, Emperor Claudius finally managed conquering the island. He sent an enormous force who overwhelmed the Celts and pushed them back behind Hadrian’s Wall, to Wales, Ireland and to the Scottish Highlands.

The Romans stayed in Britain until about A.D. 410, when their empire started to break down. During their stay, they built roads and towns and remodelled existing towns to Romanesque cultural centres. The rural life of most Celts was not too much affected by the invasion, but some Celtic Britons adapted the Roman life style, built their houses like Romans, owned slaves, wore Roman clothes and started to speak Latin. This Romanisation of Britain and its people led to some Roman-derived words, mainly place-names, in the English vocabulary during the next centuries.[5]

4. The Old English Period (ca. 450-1150)

4.1. The Anglo-Saxons

When the Romans left Britain in AD 410[6], the Celts had no chance of resisting the invading tribes of Picts and Scots. So Wytgoern, the king of Kent had to ask other, Germanic, tribes for help against them. In return, he offered them an island on the north eastern tip of Kent and that was the beginning of a very important period in the British history: starting in 449, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, who all became later known as “Anglo-Saxons”, came to Britain and roughly 250 years later[7] had conquered the greater part of the island. The weakened Celts were driven to the Scottish Highlands, Wales, and Cornwall, and the Anglo-Saxons could establish seven kingdoms[8] whose inhabitants probably had different dialects.[9]

There is […] evidence that a considerable number of Britons lived among the Anglo-Saxons, but they were a defeated people whose language had no prestige compared with that of the conquerors […][10]

The Anglo-Saxons became the largest ethnic group in Britain and gave their name to England (Angleland) and the English (Anglisc) language. The Anglo-Saxon language linguistically overwhelmed the Celts. It contained only few Celtic words, which were mainly place-names (e.g. Leeds, Avon, Thames, Kent, Devon[11]) or described features of the landscape that were unknown in the former homelands of the Anglo-Saxons in Northern Germany, like crag, tor (a high rock), and combe (a deep valley). The Anglo-Saxon language is the basis of today’s English: the building blocks, e.g. many articles, pronouns etc., are Anglo-Saxon.[12]

The Anglo-Saxons were very skilful and sophisticated in the art of speech and had a “highly developed, completely oral culture, with a love of ambiguity, innuendo and word-play”.[13]

This rich oral basis was boosted, when England was christianised from 597 onwards and a huge number of Latin words were brought into the language by the missionaries, e.g. vinum (Old English (OE) win, today: wine), missa (OE messe, today: mass), papa (OE papa, today: pope).[14] Before, the Anglo-Saxons had had difficulties in expressing abstract ideas, e.g. they used frumweorc (fruma meaning “beginning” and weorc meaning “work”) before they had the Latin word “creation”. But there were also many native words adapted to the Christian concepts, like God, heaven and hell.[15]

Christianity also introduced the Anglo-Saxons to writing,[16] before they had only used runes for short inscriptions and not written longer texts.[17] Now, the Anglo-Saxons, as well as the related Scandinavians, who had also been christianised, used the alphabet Futhorc:

It is based upon the Latin alphabet, which lacked differentiation between i and j, and u, v, and w, and added the letters edh, thorn and wen[18] […] Edh and thorn represented the sound th; sc represented sh; and c represented k. Thus the words scip, bæð, nacod, and þæt are the modern words ship, bath, naked, and that.[19]

In the Anglo-Saxon language, word order was relatively unimportant, because in order to show the various relationships and functions of the words it was highly inflected, similar to Latin or today’s German, French and many other languages.

4.2. The Vikings

The next major influence on the Anglo-Saxon language came with the mass movement of Danes to Britain between 750 and 1050, after the Vikings, who had invaded and plundered many parts of Europe and even Asia, had “absorbed all or part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Essex into the Danelaw, where Danish law prevailed.”[20] The cultural leadership among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms meanwhile passed from Northumbria to Wessex and works from all Anglo-Saxon dialects were translated into its language[21] which led to the recognition of the West Saxon dialect as a literary standard. However, West Saxon “is not the direct ancestor of modern standard English, which is mainly derived from an Anglian dialect.[22]

Anglo-Saxons and Danes lived in relative peace and since their languages had common Germanic roots they could understand each other quite well and a process of pidginization occurred which resulted in today’s English having lots of words from Danish origin.[23] An example for that is brought by Jamie K. Chang, who cites Tom Shippey:

Consider what happens when somebody who speaks. . . Old English. . . runs into somebody. . . who speaks good Old Norse. They can no doubt communicate with each other, but complications in both languages are going to get lost. So if the Anglo-Saxon from the South wants to say (in good Old English) "I'll sell you the horse that pulls my cart," he says: "Ic selle the that hors the drageth minne waegn."

Now the old Norseman -- if he had to say this -- would say: "Ek mun selja ther hrossit er dregr vagn mine."

So, roughly speaking, they understand each other. One says "waegn" and the other says "vagn". One says "hors" and "draegeth"; the other says "hros" and "dregr", but broadly they are communicating. They understand the main words. What they don't understand are the grammatical parts of the sentence. For instance, the man speaking good Old English says for one horse "that hors" but for two horses he says "tha hors". Now the Old Norse speaker understands the word horse all right, but he's not sure if it means one or two because in Old English you say "one horse", "two horse". There is no difference between the two words for horse. The difference is conveyed in the word "the" and the old Norseman might not understand this because his word for "the" doesn't behave like that. So: are you trying to sell me one horse or are you trying to sell me two horses? If you get enough situations like that there is a strong drive towards simplifying the language.[24]


[1] Brook, G.L.: A History of the English Language. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd., 1958., p. 13f

[2] Brook, p. 12

[3] Brook, p. 20

[4] see McCrum Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books-Viking, 1986. in: Chang, Jamie K.: „A Compact History of the English Language“

[5] Chang

[6] see Barber, Charles: The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1993., p. 100

[7] ibid.

[8] see McCrum, Cran and MacNeil in: Chang

[9] Barber, p. 102

[10] ibid., p. 101f

[11] ibid., p. 101

[12] McCrum, Cran and MacNeil in: Chang

[13] ibid.

[14] Berndt, Rolf. A History of the English Language. VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie Leipzig. 1989., p. 52

[15] Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1993. in: Chang

[16] Barber, p. 106

[17] Barber, p. 107

[18] which were runes that had already been used before (see Barber, p. 107)

[19] Pfordresher, John, Gladys Veidermanis, and Hellen McDonnel. England in Literature. America Reads: Classic Edition. Glenview: Scott, 1991. in: Chang

[20] ibid.

[21] Chang

[22] see Barber, p. 106

[23] McCrum, Cran and MacNeil in: Chang

[24] Mc Crum, Cran and MacNeil in: Chang

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The Historical Development of the English Standard
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Susanne Opel (Author), 2004, The Historical Development of the English Standard, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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