LogoLogo

History of English

The English language developed borrowing from many sources, which produced a huge and varied vocabulary. The video (available on the The Open University YouTube channel) offers a global view of the history of English, from the early invasions to the present.
History of English
English is a West Germanic language originating from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic invaders from various areas of what is now northwest Germany, southern Denmark and northern Netherlands.

Initially, Old English was a group of several dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, late West Saxon, at one point came to dominate. The original Old English was then influenced by two waves of invaders, one of speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic languages, who conquered and colonized parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries; the other was the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Norman French.

The Norman occupation grafted a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance languages derived from Latin. With the Renaissance, Latin and classical Greek supplanted Norman French as the main source of new words.

With colonialism and technological innovations, the rate of new words entering the language has accelerated enormously, so much so that today we have different varieties of English in the various countries where it is spoken

The transcription of the video is accompanied by notes explaining words and idioms, below the text.
Follow Eamus on Facebook:

[0:04] The History of English In Ten Minutes - Chapter One Anglo-Saxon Or "Whatever happened to the Jutes?"

[0:11] The English language begins with the phrase "Up Yours Caesar!" ( 1 ) as the Romans leave Britain and a lot of Germanic tribes start flooding in, tribes such as the Angles and the Saxons who together gave us the term Anglo-Saxon, and the Jutes -- who didn't.

[0:22] The Romans left some very straight roads behind, but not much of their Latin language. The Anglo-Saxon vocab was much more useful as it was mainly words for simple everyday things like 'house', 'woman', 'loaf' and 'werewolf'.

[0:35] Four of our days of the week were named in honour of Anglo-Saxon gods, but they didn't bother with Saturday, Sunday and Monday as they had all gone off ( 2 ) for a long weekend.

[0:42] While they were away, Christian missionaries stole in bringing with them leaflets about jumble sales and more Latin. Christianity was a hit with the locals and made them much happier to take on funky ( 3 ) new words from Latin like 'martyr', 'bishop' and 'font'.

[0:55] Along came the Vikings, with their action-man words like 'drag', 'ransack' ( 4 ) , 'thrust' and 'die'. They may have raped and pillaged but there were also into 'give' and 'take' two of around 2000 words that they gave English, as well as the phrase 'watch out for that man with the enormous axe.'

[1:11] Chapter II - The Norman Conquest, or: "Excuse my English".

[1:15] 1066 (Ten sixty-six). True to his name, William the Conqueror invades England, bringing new concepts from across the Channel, like the French language, the Domesday book ( 5 ), and the duty free ( 6 ) Galois's multipack ( 7 ) .

[1:25] French was "de rigueur" for all official business, with words like 'judge', 'jury', 'evidence' and 'justice', coming in and giving John Grisham's career a kick-start ( 8 ).

[1:33] Latin was still used "ad nauseam" in Church, but the common man spoke English, able to communicate only by speaking more slowly and loudly until the others understood him.

[1:41] Words like 'cow', 'sheep' and 'swine' come from the English-speaking farmers, while the "a la carte" versions- 'beef', 'mutton' and 'pork' - come from the French-speaking toffs ( 9 ) -- beginning a long running trend for restaurants having completely indecipherable menus.

[1:54] All in all, the English absorbed about ten thousand new words form the Normans though they still couldn't grasp the notion of cheek kissing.

[2:00] The bonhomie all ended when the English nation took their new warlike lingo of 'armies', 'navies' and 'soldiers' and began the Hundred Years War against France. It actually lasted 116 years but by that point no one could count any higher in French and English took over as the language of power.

[2:15] Chapter III - Shakespeare - or 'a plaque on both his houses'. As the dictionary tells us, about 2000 new words and phrases were invented by William Shakespeare.

[2:24] He gave us handy words like 'eyeball', 'puppydog' and 'anchovy' and more show-offy ( 10 ) words like 'dauntless' ( 11 ), 'besmirch' ( 12 ) and 'lacklustre' ( 13 ).

[2:31] He came up with the word 'alligator', soon after he ran off of things to rime with crocodile. And a nation of tea drinkers finally took him to their hearts when he invented the 'hobnob' ( 14 ). Shakespeare knew the power of catch phrases ( 15 ) as well as biscuits.

[2:43] Without him we'd never "eat our flesh and blood" ( 16 ), "out of house and home" ( 17 ), we'd have to say "good riddance" ( 18 ) to the "green eyed monster" ( 19 ), and "breaking the ice" ( 20 ) would be "as dead as a doornail" ( 21 ). If you tried to get your "money's worth" ( 22 ) you'd be given "short shrift" ( 23 ) and anyone who "laid it on with a trowel" ( 24 ) could be "hoist with his own petard" ( 25 ).

[2:58] Of course, it's possible other people used these words first but the dictionary writers liked looking them up in Shakespeare, because there was more "cross-dressing" ( 26 ) and people "poking" each other's eyes out.

[3:07] Shakespeare's poetry showed the world that English was a rich, vibrant language with limitless expressive and emotional power, and he still had time to open all those tea rooms in Stratford.

[3:17] Chapter IV - The King James Bible, or "Let there be light reading".

[3:21] In 1611 "the powers that be" ( 27 ) "turned the world upside down" with a "labour of love" ( 28 ) a new translation of the Bible. A team of scribes with the "wisdom of Solomon" "went the extra mile" ( 29 ) to make King James's translation "all things to all men" ( 30 ), whether from their 'heart's desire' ( 31 ), 'to fight the good fight' ( 32 ), or just for the 'filthy lucre' ( 33 ).

[3:39] This sexy new Bible went "from strength to strength" ( 34 ), getting to 'the root of the matter' ( 35 ), in a language even "the salt of the earth" ( 36 ) could understand.

[3:46] "The writing wasn't on the wall" ( 37 ), it was in handy ( 38 ) little books and with "fire and brimstone" ( 39 ) preachers reading from it in every church, its words and phrases 'took root' 'to the ends of the earth' - well at least the ends of Britain.

[3:56] The King James Bible is the book that taught us that "a leopard can't change its spots" ( 40 ), that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" ( 41 ) , that 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' ( 42 ) is harder to spot than you would imagine and how annoying it is to have 'a fly in your ointment' ( 43 ).

[4:10] In fact, just as "Jonathan begat Merib-Baal and Merib-Baal begat Micah", the King James Bible begat a whole glossary of metaphor and morality that still shapes the way English is spoken today. Amen.

[4:22] Chapter V - The English of Science, or how to speak with gravity

[4:26] Before the 17th century, scientists weren't really recognized, possibly because lab coats had yet to catch on ( 44 ). But suddenly Britain was full of physicists: there was Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and even some people not called Robert, like Isaac Newton. The Royal Society was formed out of the "invisible college" ( 45 ) after they put it down somewhere and couldn't find it again.

[4:44] At first they worked in Latin. After sitting through Newton's story about the 'pomum' falling to the 'Terra' from the 'arbor' for the umpteenth ( 46 ) time, the bright sparks ( 47 ) realized they all spoke English and they could transform our understanding of the universe much quicker by talking in their own language.

[4:58] But Science was discovering things faster than they could name them: words like 'acid', 'gravity', 'electricity' and 'pendulum' had to be invented just to stop their meetings turning into an endless game of charades ( 48 ).

[5:09] Like teenage boys, the scientists suddenly became aware of the human body coining new words like 'cardiac', 'tonsil', 'ovary and 'sternum' and the invention of 'penis' and 'vagina' made sex education classes a bit easier to follow, though 'clitoris' was still a source of confusion.

[5:26] Chapter VI - English and Empire, or "the sun never sets on the English Language".

[5:32] With English making its name as the language of science, the Bible and Shakespeare, Britain decided to take it on tour, asking only for land, wealth, natural resources, total obedience to the crown and a few local words in return.

[5:44] They went to the Caribbean looking for gold and a chance to really unwind, discovering the "barbeque", the "canoe" and a pretty good recipe for rum punch. They also brought back the word 'cannibal' to make their trip sound more exciting.

[5:54] In India there was something for everyone. 'Yoga' -- to help you stay in shape, while pretending to be spiritual. If that didn't work there was the "cummerbund" ( 49 ) to hide a paunch and, if you couldn't even make it up the stairs without turning "crimson" they had the "bungalow".

[6:06] Meanwhile in Africa they picked up words like 'voodoo' and 'zombie', kicking off ( 50 ) the teen horror film. From Australia, English took the words 'nugget' ( 51 ), 'boomerang' and 'walkabout' ( 52 ) and in fact the whole concept of chain pubs.

[6:18] All in all between toppling ( 53 ) Napoleon and the first World War, the British Empire gobbled up ( 54 ) around 10 millions square miles, 400 million people and nearly a hundred thousand gin and tonics, leaving new varieties of English to develop all over the globe.

[6:34] Chapter VII - The Age of the Dictionary, or "the definition of a hopeless task".

[6:39] With English expanding in all directions, along came a new breed of men called lexicographies who wanted to put an end to this "anarchy", a word they defined as 'what happens when people spell words slightly differently from each other'.

[6:51] One of the greatest was Dr. Johnson, whose "Dictionary of the English Language" took him nine years to write. It was 18 inches tall and contained 42,773 entries, meaning that even if you couldn't read, it was still pretty useful if you wanted to reach a high shelf.

[7:05] For the first time when people were calling you a 'pickle-herring' ( 55 ) , a 'jobbernowl' ( 56 ) or a 'fopdoodle' ( 57 ) , you could understand exactly what they meant and you'd have the consolation of knowing they were all using the standard spelling.

[7:15] Try as he might( 58 ) to stop them, words kept being invented, and in 1857 a new book was started that would become the "Oxford English Dictionary".

[7:22] It took another 70 years to be finished, after the first editor resigned to be an Archbishop, the second died of TB ( 59 ) , and the third was so boring that half his volunteers quit and one of the ended up in an asylum ( 60 ) .

[7:32] It eventually appeared in 1928 and has continued to be revised ever since, proving the whole idea that you can stop people making up words is complete 'snuffbumble' ( 61 ) .

[7:35] 7:41] Chapter VIII American English - or "not English but somewhere in the ballpark" ( 62 ).

[7:46] From the moment Brits landed in America, they needed names for all the plants and animals, so they borrowed words like 'raccoon', 'squash' and 'moose' from the Native Americans, as well as most of their territory.

[7:56] Waves of immigrants fed America's hunger for words. The Dutch came sharing 'coleslaw' ( 63 ) and 'cookies', probably as a result of their relaxed attitude to drugs.

[8:04] Later, the Germans arrived selling 'pretzels' ( 64 ) from 'delicatessens', and the Italians arrived with their 'pizza', their 'pasta' and their 'mafia', just like 'mamma' used to make.

[8:12] America spread a new language of capitalism getting everyone worried about the 'breakeven' ( 65 ) and 'the bottom line' ( 66 ), and whether they were 'blue chip' ( 67 ) or 'white collar' ( 68 ).

[8:20] The commuter needed a whole new system of 'freeways' ( 69 ) , 'subways' ( 70 ) and 'parking lots' and quickly, before words like 'merger' ( 71 ) and 'downsizing' ( 72 ) could be invented.

[8:27] American English drifted back across the pond as Brits 'got the hang of' ( 73 ) their 'cool movies', and their 'groovy' ( 74 ) 'jazz'.

[8:34] There were even some old forgotten English words that lived on in America. So they carried on using 'fall', 'faucets' ( 75 ), 'diapers' ( 76 ) and 'candy' ( 77 ), while the Brits moved on to 'autumn', 'taps', 'nappies' and NHS ( 78 ) dental care.

[8:47] Chapter IX - Internet English, or "Language reverts to type".

[8:51] In 1972 the first email was sent. Soon the Internet arrived, a free global space to share information, ideas and amusing pictures of cats.

[9:00] Before the Internet, English changed through people speaking it, but the net brought typing back into fashion and hundreds of cases of repetitive strain injuries ( 79 ) .

[9:07] Nobody had ever had to 'download' anything before, let alone use a 'toolbar', and the only time someone set up a 'firewall', it ended with a massive insurance claim ( 80 ) and a huge pile of charred wallpaper.

[9:17] Conversations were getting shorter than the average attention span. Why bother writing a sentence when an abbreviation would do and leave you more time to 'blog', 'poke' and 'reboot' when your 'hard drive' crashed?

[9:28] 'In my humble opinion' became IMHO, 'by the way' became BTW, and 'if we're honest that life-threatening accident was pretty hilarious!' simply became 'fail'.

[9:38] Some changes even passed into spoken English. For your information people "frequently asked questions" like "how can 'LOL' mean 'laugh out loud' and 'lots of love'? But if you're going to complain about that then UG2BK.

[9:51] Chapter X - Global English, or "Whose language is it anyway?"

[9:56] In the 1500 (fifteen hundred) years since the Roman's left Britain, English has shown a unique ability to absorb, evolve, invade and, if we're honest, steal.

[10:03] After foreign settlers got it started, it grew into a fully-fledged ( 81 ) language all of its own, before leaving home and travelling the world, first via the high seas, then via the high speed broadband connection, pilfering ( 82 ) words from over 350 languages and establishing itself as a global institution.

[10:18] All this despite a written alphabet that bears no correlation to how it sounds and a system of spelling that even Dan Brown couldn't decipher.

[10:26] Right now around 1.5 billion people speak English. Of these about a quarter are native speakers, a quarter speak it as their second language, and half are able to ask for directions to a swimming pool.

[10:36] There's Hinglish which is Hindi-English, Chinglish which is Chinese-English and Singlish which is Singaporean English and not that bit when they speak in musicals.

[10:45] So in conclusion, the language has got so little to do with England these days it may well be time to stop calling it 'English'. But if someone does think up a new name for it, it should probably be in Chinese.


Notes and Explanations


(1) -
Up Yours Caesar!= a vulgar insult
(2) -
gone off= left
(3) -
funky= (informal) modern and stylish, derived from music (having a strong dance rhythm)
(4) -
to ransack= to plunder, pillage, raid (Italian "saccheggiare")
(5) -
Domesday book= a manuscript record of the "Great Survey" of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of King William the Conqueror.
(6) -
duty free= goods that are exempt from payment of duty
(7) -
multipack= a package containing a number of similar products sold at a discount
(8) -
kick-start= to start a motorcycle engine with a downward thrust of a pedal - metaphorically, provide an impetus to start or restart a process
(9) -
toff= a rich or upper-class person
(10) -
show-offy= adjective from show-off, a person who likes to show publicly themselves, their possessions, their accomplishments
(11) -
dauntless= showing no fear (Italian "intrepido")
(12) -
besmirch= to damage someone's reputation
(13) -
lacklustre= lacking in vitality, force, or conviction (Italian "pallido, sbiadito")
(14) -
to hobnob= mix socially, from early 19th century "drink together"
(15) -
catch phrase= a well-known sentence or phrase (slogan)
(16) -
flesh and blood = an idiom derived from from the Merchant of Venice, meaning "family"
(17) -
eat someone out of house and home= from "Henry IV", Part 2, Act II Scene I: "He hath eaten me out of house and home" means that some guest or child has consumed so much that none is left for the owner
(18) -
good riddance = people say that when they're happy someone or something is gone (from "Troilus and Cressida")
(19) -
green eyed monster= personification of jealousy (from Othello)
(20) -
breaking the ice= do or say something to get conversation going in a strained situation or when strangers meet. The idiom derives from the practice, when ships would get stuck during the winter because of ice, to send small ships from the other side to clear a way
(21) -
as dead as a doornail= since a nail bent to fix a door was not easily pulled out, thus no more usable. Used already in William Langland's The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman (circa 1362) but popularized by Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"
(22) -
money's worth= good, important enough to justify the money spent
(23) -
short shrift= to give little consideration to something. A shrift is a penance imposed by a priest in a confession in order to provide absolution, often when the confessor was near to death. Criminals were sent to the scaffold immediately after sentencing and only had short time for penance.
(24) -
lay it on with a trowel= exaggerated (Italian "calcare la mano, andarci pesante")
(25) -
hoist with his own petard= idiom that means "to be harmed by one's own plan to harm someone else", implying that one could be blown upward by one's own bomb
(26) -
cross-dressing= wear clothing typical of the opposite sex
(27) -
the powers that be = those individuals or groups who collectively hold authority
(28) -
labour of love = a task done for pleasure, not reward
(29) -
go the extra mile= to make more effort than is expected of you
(30) -
be all things to all men (today men is replaced by people)= satisfy everyone completely, from Paul's statement (I Corinthians 9:22)
(31) -
heart's desire= the thing or person you most want
(32) -
to fight the good fight= to fight a noble battle
(33) -
filthy lucre= money obtained dishonestly
(34) -
to go from strength to strength= to gradually become more successful
(35) -
the root of the matter= the essential part of something from Job 19:28 (King James Version)
(36) -
the salt of the earth= a person or group of people of great kindness (from Jesus "Sermon on the Mount")
(37) -
the writing on the wall= the likelihood that something bad will happen (based on a the Bible, when Daniel reads the handwriting on the wall that predicts the end of the kingdom of Babylon)
(38) -
handy = convenient to handle, useful, ready to hand
(39) -
fire and brimstone= the supposed torments of hell
(40) -
a leopard can't change its spots= a person cannot change who they are, no matter how hard they try - from the Bible, Jeremiah 13:23 (King James Version)
(41) -
a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush= it's better to be content with what you have than to risk losing everything by seeking more (Italian "chi s'accontenta gode" or "meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani)
(42) -
a wolf in sheep's clothing= a person or thing that appears friendly but is really hostile - form Aesop's Fables, and the Bible
(43) -
a fly in the ointment= an old idiom, a fly may ruin the healing properties of a medicine - the meaning is that some minor irritation spoils the success or enjoyment of something
(44) -
to catch on= to take hold, become popular
(45) -
invisible college= a community of scientists, intercommunicating scientific research group
(46) -
the umpteenth time= something that happens again after having happened many times before (Italian "ennesimo"); it derives from "umpty", an indefinite quantity, the Morse code slang for "dash"
(47) -
bright spark= a clever, witty person
(48) -
game of charades= a guessing game in which words or phrases are represented in pantomime, sometimes syllable by syllable
(49) -
cummerbund= from Hindi, a broad waist sash, often worn with single-breasted dinner jackets (or tuxedos)
(50) -
kick off= to begin something (Italian "calcio d'inizio")
(51) -
nugget= a solid lump of a precious metal, especially gold, found in the earth (Italian "pepita")
(52) -
walkabout= a walking tour, an informal stroll among a crowd of an importnt person (from a rite of passage of Indigenous male Australians)
(53) -
topple = cause to overbalance and fall (from top)
(54) -
gobble up= eat a large amount of food quickly (Italian "ingurgitare")
(55) -
pickle-herring= A herring preserved in brine; (obsolete) a buffoon
(56) -
jobbernowl= the head, especially that of a stupid or foolish person
(57) -
fopdoodle= an insignificant fellow
(58) -
try as he might= (Italian translation) per quanto provasse
(59) -
TB= tuberculosis
(60) -
asylum= today the term refers mainly to a mental hospital
(61) -
snuffbumble= nonsense
(62) -
in the ballpark= within a reasonable range - from a baseball field, and out of the ballpark would mean beyond what can be reached
(63) -
coleslaw= a salad dish of shredded raw cabbage, carrots, and other vegetables mixed with mayonnaise.
(64) -
pretzel= (Italian "brezel") a crisp biscuit baked in the form of a knot or stick and flavoured with salt
(65) -
breakeven= the point at which cost and income are equal and there is neither profit nor loss
(66) -
the bottom line= the fundamental and most important factor - from the line in a financial statement that shows net income or loss
(67) -
blue chip= stock in a corporation with a reputation for quality and reliability - from the poker betting discs white, red, and blue, where traditionally the blues are highest in value
(68) -
white collar= an office worker in an office environment, often with a computer or desk, who do minimum physical effort
(69) -
freeways= (in Australia and parts of the US) autostrada
(70) -
subway= an underground rapid transit rail system used in various parts of the world; in Britain a walkway that passes underneath an obstacle
(71) -
merger= combining two or more businesses into one
(72) -
downsizing= reducing the number of employees
(73) -
get the hang of= to understand the technique of doing something
(74) -
groovy= a slang colloquialism popular during the 1960s and 1970s, meaning cool, fashionable, pleasant, enjoyable. After the invention of the phonograph, a "groove" was the spiral track on the surface of a record in which the needle rides; so when jazz musicians spoke of "being groovy", it meant that they felt they were producing the music as easily, as a phonograph needle following the grooves on a record.
(75) -
faucets= rubinetto (American English, a "tap" in BE)
(76) -
diapers= pannolino (AmE, a "nappy" in England, New Zealand and Australia)
(77) -
candy= caramella (North American, "sweet" in BE)
(78) -
NHS= National Health System in Britain
(79) -
repetitive strain injuries= or RSI, a general term used to describe the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons related to actions which are frequently repeated
(80) -
insurance claim= a request to an insurance company asking for a payment based on the terms of the policy
(81) -
fully-fledged= completely developed, from having the plumage or feathers necessary for flight (Italian "a tutti gli effetti", "qualificato")
(82) -
pilfer= to steal, especially in small quantities, often from the place where you work (Italian "rubacchiare")