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English Language History

Brief History of the English Language

Brief English Language History

Why should students know a bit about the history of the English language?

Knowing the origin and development of the English language helps students understand the dynamic nature of language. The English language has evolved over two millenium and continues to change. Each year thousands of new words are added to the English lexicon (the complete vocabulary).

By studying the etymologies (the origins) of words and how figures of speech (non-literal expressions, such as the rule of thumb) developed into what they now mean, students gain better command of word choice in their speech and writing.

Plus, students learn about word derivations (how prefixes and suffixes have been added to roots) to form new words.

Students also learn how English syntax (the order of words) and its grammar have been structured. They see why grammar rules do and do not make sense and what constitutes Standard and Non-Standard English.

Furthermore, students learn how foreign language influences have shaped Modern English and why it makes sense to study these languages to improve one’s vocabulary. Indeed, sometimes reading English text does seem like reading a foreign language. And this does make sense, because so much of English derives from other languages.

Brief History of the English Language

Welsh Village

1. The islands of Britain and Ireland, as well as the northwestern region of France, known as Brittany, once shared the same Celtic language. We still have remnants of this language in the Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland, the Welsh of Wales, and the Breton of Brittany. Check out the name of this town in Wales→

2. The Celtic language was gradually displaced from what became the country of England, beginning with Julius Caesar’s occupation in 56 B.C.E. The Romans introduced the scholarly languages of Greek and Latin, but these were not used by the English commoners.

Brief History of the English Language

Brief English Language History

3. The origins of the English language began at the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Over the next few centuries, three Germanic tribes: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes repeatedly invaded Britain and introduced the language we know as Old English. Today, we still use a few of these Germanic words, such as and, dream, and god.

4. From 700–900, multiple Viking invasions added over 2,000 Norse words to the language of Old English, such as give, knife, and cake.

5. In 1066, Norman invaders from Northern France occupied England and chipped in a whole slew of fancy French words, such as commence, continue, and engage. Many of these French words derived from Latin, which itself derived from Greek. These new words help transition the common language from Old English to Middle English.

6. After England defeated the French in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), the English lexicon expanded exponentially over the next few centuries with contributions from English scientists, philosophers, novelists, and playwrights. William Shakespeare, alone, invented at least 1,700 words during his short life (1564–1616), including dwindle, bandit, and fashionable. During this cultural Renaissance, many Greek and Latin words became more commonly used and their word parts, such as prefixes, were added on to common English roots. The invention of the printing press and the publication of the English Bible and the dictionary helped standardize most of the Modern English we are speaking, writing, and reading today.


For full-year vocabulary programs which include multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), Greek and Latin morphology with Morphology Walls (L.4.a.), figures of speech (L.5.a.), words with special relationships (L.5.b.), words with connotative meanings (L.5.c.), and academic language words (L.6.0), check out the assessment-based grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Comprehensive Vocabulary.

Get the Grades 4,5,6,7,8 Vocabulary Sequence of Instruction FREE Resource:

Get the Greek and Latin Morphology Walls FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Academic Language Assessment FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

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  1. Paola Tayvah
    March 1st, 2023 at 18:55 | #1

    book you might enjoy : Beneath the surface of words by Sue Hegland

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