INTRODUCTION TO A Short history of the english language

By Richard K. Munro

Figure 1 Roman soldier and barbarian In English there has long been a battle between the LATIN  (Classical soul) and the ANGLO-SAXON soul.

That book you read,” she asked wistfully, “what’s it about?”

“It was written by a man named Plato,” Ranse told her stiffly.

“It was written in Greek.”

She brought him a cup of coffee and hesitated for a minute, and then asked, “You can read and write American, too, can’t you?”

“English, Miss Hallie, “he corrected. “English is our mother tongue. I am quite familiar with English.”

She put her red hands on the café counter. ‘Mr. Foster,” she whispered, “will you teach me to read?’    FROM “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” by Dorothy M. Johnson.



Brief timeline of English history

  • Neolithic (Stone Age) period, c. 5000-2000 BC, agriculture, mound tombs
    • Non-Indo-European speaking people of Britain (indigenous population; related to Picts and Basques?)
    • Stonehenge I & II (2800-2000 B.C.)
  • Bronze Age, 2000-500 B.C.
    • Indo-European language, burial with drinking vessels, flint, metal
    • Stonehenge III & IV (2000 B.C. -1100 B.C.)
    • Celtic inhabitants (British) arrived around 750 B.C., hill forts
  • Iron Age, , in Britain around 500 or 600 B.C.; Began in Europe around 8th century B.C
    • CELTIC  people in British Isles from Gaul and Spain: Britons (hence Britannia) Κελτοί Keltoi  was a Greek word and Celtae was the Latin equivalent.  Britain (Britannia) seems to be land of painted people (Picts).Albion is also an ancient name meaning land of the “White Cliffs” (Dover).  [1]
    • Celtic languages: Gaelic, Brythonic (British; ancestor of Welsh) Celtic place names in Britain:

London, Avon, Carlisle,  Dover, Devon, Cornwall, Tobermory, Glasgow,  Tremaine,Aberdour,Aberdeen,,Cardiff, Tredgar, Breedon, Braemar, Usk, Esk, Thames,

Camulodunum “Camelot” = chief Celtic town named after Camulos a God of War in Celtic Britain; later “Colchester”, York (Eboracum:”Place of the Yew Trees”) Bows were made of Yew wood so occupying this place would have of strategic importance.

Figure 3 Britannia circa 150 AD

  • Roman Britain
    • Julius Caesar invades Britain, 55/54 BC  Roman influence grows
    • 43 AD Roman Conquest begins under Claudius, Romanization of Britain 43-410 AD: introduction of Latin & Latin alphabet.  ; Roman place names (sometimes mixed with native Celtic) Castra meant military camp (fort):Chester (camp of XX Legion), Colchester,Gloucester, Manchester, Lancaster, Portchester;  Lincoln (Colonia)
  • Hadrian’s Wall (73 miles long), 121-127 A.D. Fortification against Picts and Scots.  First evidence of Jews and early Christians in 2nd century.  

Figure 4 Hadrian’s Wall

  • 4th and 5th centuries: Germanic tribes invade  Roman Empire ; Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 A.D.)
  • Roman departure from Britain 410 AD
  • Birth of St. Patrick in Roman Britain circa 432AD; his mother was the niece of St. Martin of Tours and his father was a deacon and a low-ranking Imperial official.
  • Fall of Roman Empire in the West 476 AD
  • Anglo-Saxon barbarian Invasions  of Britain
    • Roman Britain besieged by Picts, Scots, and Saxons (barbarian tribes) circa 375-410
    • Circa 410: British leader Vortigern invites Saxons (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) into as mercenaries against  other barbarians (Picts and Scots);
    • Large-scale Germanic invasions (Angles, Saxons, Jutes), 449
    • Saxon settlements in Britain  (Sussex and Wessex, 477- 495)
    • British Celts (Romano-Britons) driven into Wales, Cornwall and Brittany (on northwest coast of France)
    • British resistance, King Arthur, British victory at Mt. Badon, A.D. 500 (quasi-historical King of Camelot).[2]
    • Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae (The Fall of Britain) (c. A.D. 540) , a Latin work describing and lamenting the fall of Britain to the Anglo-Saxons.
    • Anglo-Saxons in control of “England” (Angle-Land)  by sixth century
    • St. Columba (Irish saint) establishes center of learning and Christianization at Iona which will spread the Latin alphabet and Christianity to Scotland and northern England. 563 AD.
  • Anglo-Saxon England    
    • Angles’ settlements in East Anglia, the Midlands, and Northumbria;  England (“land of the Angles”)[3]
    • Pope Gregory the Great sends St. Augustine (the “Apostle of the English)”a Roman Benedictine monk,[4] to Kent A.D. 597
    • Aethelbert I of Kent (Jutes), converted to Christianity by Augustine, first Christian king of Anglo-Saxon England (Rex Anglorum), also compiled law code (c. 600)
    • Gradual Christianization of pagan Anglo-Saxons by Roman and Irish (Gaels) missionaries (St. Aidan and others, 635-655); Theodore of Tarsus, Greek and Latin speaking archbishop of Canterbury organized the Anglo-Saxon church.
    • Lindisfarne Gospels 698, Latin Vulgate text with interlined Old English paraphrase
    • Circa 725 AD Beowulf    Old English epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative lines. It is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English (Anglo-Saxon)
    •  Venerable Bede (673-735), Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) (731), Latin work;
    • Offa, king of Mercia (r. 757-796); Alcuin of York (732-804), high level of Latin scholarship
    • First Viking attacks 787, sack of Lindisfarne Priory 793; Book of Kells: created in Iona:  Irish illuminated manuscript of four gospels (8th c.) in Latin.
    •  King Alfred the Great of England
    • King Alfred the Great (849-899), king of Wessex (r. 871-899), many victories over Vikings ; 886 Alfred captures London and is recognized as king of all England (except for Danish parts)
    • King Alfred’s employment of Mercian scholars (Plegmund, Waerferth, Aethelstan, and Werwulf) in educational and literary endeavors (885), revival of learning, beginnings of Anglo Saxon Chronicle (written in Old English not Latin) Alfred the Great’s unique importance in the history of English letters came from his conviction that a life without knowledge or reflection was unworthy.
    • West Saxon dialect became literary standard of Old English literature; oral tradition.  Many translations from Latin into English fostered by Alfred the Great.
    • late 10th and early 11th century, renewed Scandinavian (Viking) invasions of British Isles (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales)
    • Aethelred II Unraed (r. 978-1016); married to Emma (daughter of Richard II, duke of Normandy); peak of monastic and literary revival: Aelfric (955-1020), Catholic Homilies, Lives of the Saints; Wulfstan d. 1023, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (1014, “Sermon of the Wolf to the English People”) (in Old English with Latin introductory words).
    • Battle of Maldon 991; Old English poem Battle of Maldon recorded in manuscript Cotton Otho (destroyed by fire in 1731)
    • Cotton Vitellius (c. 1000), manuscript containing Old English poem Beowulf  Judith, partially destroyed by fire in 1731
    • Danish Canute (Cnut), king of England (r. 1016-1035), married Aethelred’s widow Emma and fathered Hardecanute, king of England (1040-1042)
    • Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), son of Aethelred II Unraed and Emma; lived in exile in Normandy, during Danish rule of England, until 1041; conflicts and power sharing with Godwin, earl of Wessex, and his son Harold Godwinson (last Anglo-Saxon king, killed in 14 October 1066 at the Battle of Hastings)
    • 1066 Norman invasion; William the Conqueror, Battle of Hastings 1066, end of Anglo-Saxon Period   French and Latin become the languages of law and higher education.
    • Circa 1120  Eadwine’s Psalterium triplex, which contained the Latin version accompanied by Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon renderings, appeared.
    • Circa 1350 Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Talesin Middle English using thousands of French borrowings.
    • By 1362 English had replaced French as the common language of the English parliament but the elite study Latin and speak French.
    • Inspired by John Wycliffe, Nicholas of Hereford leads English translation of the Bible. Circa 1380.
    • In 1408 a synod of clergy summoned to Oxford by Archbishop Arundel forbade the translation and use of Scripture in the vernacular (English). The Wycliffe Bible 1420-1450 in English gains popularity; thousands of handwritten copies (200 manuscripts extant).
    • Gutenberg’s Bible (1455); printing double-faced on linen paper spread rapidly throughout Europe opening unexpected possibilities in education, commerce, religion and communication.
    • Protestant Reformation 1519-1560; establishment of national churches with national languages undermines the supremacy of Latin.
    • 1523-1525 William Tyndale translates English New Testament directly from Greek, over 18,000 copies are printed.
    • Act of Supremacy(1534); confirmation of the  English-speaking Anglican  church by Parliament,
    • 1538“Great Bible” of Henry VIII placed in every parish church in England; 2500 copies are printed to start and six more editions are printed in 1540’s.
    • Colonies of dissident exiled Protestants   make the “Breeches” Bible new translation of the Bible published in Geneva (New Testament, 1557; Old Testament, 1560) by a colony of Protestant scholars in exile English will become the standard language of the Calvinist Church of Scotland leading to a decline of Gaelic and of Scots (Scottish dialect of English).Geneva Bible is an important influence on the translators of the James King Version of 1611.
    • Jerome’s Latin Vulgate served as the basis for translations of both the Old and New Testament into Syriac, Arabic, Spanish, and many other languages, including English. The Vulgate provided the basis for the Douai-Reims Version (New Testament, 1582; Old Testament, 1609–10) ,revised in 1740-1752 by Bishop Challoner which remained the only authorized Bible in English for Roman Catholics until the 20th century.
    • Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587); leads to war with Spain until 1604;  continues decline of French and Latin in England and Scotland
    • Destruction of Spanish Armada (1588) opens America to English and French colonization.
    • Famous speech by Queen Elizabeth (1588) “On eve of facing the Spanish Armada.”
    • First English dictionary A Table Alphabeticall (1604) by schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey
    • Colonization of North America by England : the South (Jamestown:1609) and the North (Plymouth 1620) Seed of USA and Canada
    • James King Version of Bible 1611.  Most influential English book of all history.
    • William Shakespeare (1564-1616) contemporary with King James Bible and the greatest poet and playwright of the English language.  Sonnets circa 1592;
    • Defeat of the French in the Seven Years War 1755-1763 (“French and Indian War”) leads to the eclipse of French on the Indian subcontinent, and the dominance of English in British North America.   French survives as a regional  (“official”) language in Canada but English will be the predominate culture language in South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand , Singapore, Hong Kong and many islands in the Caribbean.
    • Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)
    • Declaration of Independence (1776); US Constitution “and Bill of Rights (1787-1791): English will become divided into what we may call a“British Standard” (Standard English based on the “received pronunciation”) and American English where the emphasis in on grammar “good usage and spelling” not pronunciation.
    • 1898 USA acquired Hawaii and the Philippines (Spanish was an official language until 1966) and English will become the lingua franca; Puerto Rico, officially bilingual remains Spanish-speaking.
    • 1914-1945  War with   Germany in two World Wars undermines use of German by German-American Communities (at one time about 20% of the American people -30 millions- spoke German and it was studied more than any foreign language except French and Latin.
    • 1900-1945 USA becomes major English-speaking world power;
    • about 50% of all native English speakers are American (C. 2016)


English is not the oldest native language of the British Isles and Ireland but today it is the preeminent language of many English-speaking nations such as England (the U. K.), the USA, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  English has become the native language of more than 380 million people and is the most important second language in the world spoken by perhaps 1 billion people.  English is worth studying because it is very useful in business, law, medicine, technology, computers, and education.  English has a vast and famous literature, an influential musical culture and arguably the greatest film and entertainment industry in the modern world.  English is also the language of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy and the Roosevelts and so has been an instrument in spreading democracy and human rights throughout the world. The first step in gaining command of English is to know the story of English. Along the way you will be introduced to selection of great authors, orators and writers of the English language.

[1] Thomas, Charles (1997). Celtic Britain. London: Thames and Hudson. p. 82. “If we seek a meaning, the favored view is that it arises from an older word implying ‘people of the forms, shapes or depictions’  

  • [2] Morris, John (1977). The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Phillimore & Co Ltd.   

[3] The legal name of the country we sometimes call England is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”  Their passport is British, their Army is British, and the Parliament is British.  There is an English national football team (soccer) and a Scottish national football time.

[4] NOT the more famous St. Augustine, author of The Confessions who lived 354-430 A.D.)