Why is English So English? A (Very) Brief History of English

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You don’t need to be a TEFL teacher to realise that English is a very tricky language. After all, why is the plural of mouse mice, but the plural of house isn’t hice? And how is it possible that a sentence like The opinion he had had had had no effect on her actually makes sense? And why don’t cough, bough and though rhyme? As you can imagine, this can cause massive difficulties for English language learners. As English as a Foreign Language teachers, it is up to us to simplify the language as much as possible to try and make it make sense for our learners. Besides being interesting, a knowledge of the history of English is also helpful to answer the constant Why? questions from your students.

So let’s take a very brief look at the history of English to help prepare you for the classroom.

It all started in 5AD

Long, long ago, far, far away…well, England in 5AD to be exact, three Germanic tribes invaded Britain. These tribes were called the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes and they came from Germany and northern Denmark. The Angles came from a place called Englaland and spoke a language called Englisc, so you can see where the words England and English come from.

450 – 1100 AD

With these three tribes now living in the same area, a new language developed which was a combination of their three languages. This is known as Old English, though it does not particularly resemble the English we speak today.

1100 – 1500 AD

After Old English, came Middle English. William the Conqueror (the Duke of Normandy) invaded Britain in 1066. As the Normans became the ruling class, so their language (French) became the language of the upper class. For a while there were two languages spoken in Great Britain, Old English and French. These soon merged into one language, Middle English. If you’re familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales then you know Middle English. At this time a number of words related to the church and the government were adopted into English from French. 

1500 – 1800 AD

Printing was invented in 1476 with the first printing press being invented by William Caxton. Because of this, English became standardised, and spelling and grammar rules becoming fixed. Pronunciation was changing at this time but these changes were not reflected in the spelling. This, added to the fact that a number of words have retained their foreign spelling, has resulted in the “odd” English spelling that we have today.

From 1500 AD there were a number of events that changed Middle English drastically. The Great Vowel Shift in 1500 saw vowels being pronounced much shorter than before. At around this time, the British colonisation of North America led to the development of another English, which we now call American English. American English preserved certain elements of the English brought in by the invaders, while also adopting a number of words (like ranch and stampede) from Spanish.

It was also at around this time that William Shakespeare came on the literary scene. He is credited with inventing over 1 700 words which we still use today – words like eyeball, fashionable and gossip. He did this by merging words, changing nouns into verbs or adding prefixes and suffixes. It might seem funny that one man could have had such an impact on the language but considering the time he was in, it is logical. This was a time of constant change for the English language and as a popular writer of the time, he was bound to have an impact on the language.

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The first English dictionary was published in 1602. This was the time of Early Modern English.

1800 AD – present

After Early Modern English came, naturally, Late Modern English. The Industrial Revolution and the developments in technology resulted in many new words related to science and technology being coined. Many of these words have Latin or Greek roots, such as biology and psychology.

At this time, too, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world. Consequently, English adopted a number of foreign words and this colonisation further resulted in the spread of English. A number of different Englishes sprung up around the world, each with their own accent, vocabulary and grammar, though all identifiable as English. You just need to go to India, Singapore, Nigeria or any one of many different countries to hear a language you might recognise as English but you might not totally understand.

Modern-day English

Today English is spoken by approximately 1.35 billion people around the world as a first language or second language. Still, grammatical rules and common usage changes regularly, as evidenced by the inclusion of new words every year into the dictionary. New developments in technology and science as well as a greater awareness of social, cultural and political issues have again led to the invention of new words. Just think of WhatsApp, LGBTQI, and gender-based violence. 

Read more: New Words in 2020 All TEFL Teachers Should Know

While the classic authors and playwrights are still popular – and Chaucer and Shakespeare are still studied at schools around the world – there are thousands of new authors who have brought us literary masterpieces over the years.  By exposing our learners to these authors and natural English as it is used around the world, we are helping our learners improve their English. At the same time, we can foster their love for the language, which will encourage them to use the language in their own lives.

Nothing can prepare you for some of the questions you might be asked in the EFL classroom. English is a tricky and challenging language to learn and as the teacher, the learners will expect you to know all the answers! Having a knowledge of the origins of English will help you answer some questions, it’s totally fine to admit that you might need Google to help you answer!

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