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English is the language that TEFL teachers teach. There are many varieties of English, including, but not limited to, American English, Australian English, British English, Indian English, South African English, and so on. This wide-ranging reality has led to most specialists now preferring to use the term the English languages.


Notwithstanding its many varieties, English has a long and varied history which is, not unnaturally, bound up with the history of England, the British Isles and its peoples.

The origins and ongoing history of the English languages

The following text spans the 1,500-year-old history of English, its structure and uses. It unfortunately, but necessarily, leaves out several important historical events and characters, concentrating only on those which have a direct bearing on the historical development of the language and then, for reasons of space, only on those which cannot be omitted under any excuse.

Likewise, it is inevitably simplistic and only touches the surface of the few points it does bring up, completely ignoring certain aspects which might be considered essential to any linguist and/or historian. Furthermore, and equally regrettably, apart from a brief summary of its current state, it stops short of the onset of Modern English, in itself a subject so diverse and eventful that it requires far more space than is available here.

One of the main characteristics of the English language, or the English languages, to use the terminology now preferred by most specialists to reflect its many existing varieties, is that it is the result of several successive linguistic “invasions”, each of which has added significantly to its creativity and diversity of form and structure. This, together with its readiness, both historical and current, to incorporate loan words from other languages – in the words of the editors of the OED: “a seemingly endless capacity to accept borrowings” – has led to its great richness.

The following account concentrates therefore on the changes English has undergone over the centuries to bing it to its prsent state of evolution. Thus, it does not consider the numerous modern influences brought about by its regional and cultural varieties, nor influences such as internet, international relations, etc.

These linguistic invasions are especially noticeable in one important feature of English – its many synonyms: for instance kingly (Anglo-Saxon), royal (French) and regal (Latin), allowing for subtle shades of meaning in style. Neat distinctions such as ask from English, representing the prosaic, and demand from French, representing “elegance”; and in the same manner we find nuances such as wish and desire; start and commence.

On the other hand, those same influences have produced many idiosyncrasies and apparent irregularities in English which have been preserved over time. But as the editors of The New Oxford Dictionary of English put it: "A good dictionary reports the language as it is, not as the editors (or anyone else) would wish it to be, ..."

Over the ages, in all cultures and languages, there have always been people who complain about the degeneration of language while others defend its natural evolution. Language is a very passionate and personal issue, as it influences to a very great extent what we think and say, both individually and collectively. “When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”. This quotation from Lewis Carroll’s second book about Alice, Through the Looking Glass, sums up the furious debates around language in general.

That said, most people would hold that illiteracy is no basis for linguistic evolution. However, despite numerous attempts over the centuries to set up a ruling body to impose "spelling reform" of the English language, the absence of any overseeing body corresponding to Spain’s Real Academia Española (RAE) allows for great flexibility in the use of the language, for better or for worse.

The first such Academy was founded in Italy in 1582, and had by 1612 produced its first dictionary, whereas the French Academy was set up in 1635, producing its dictionary in 1694, although there were already two, more scholarly, works in existence. The RAE was set up in 1713 and completed its first dictionary in 1739. As we shall see later, English dictionaries were a much more “commercial” enterprise, although not necessarily commercially viable.

The Romans

Although Caesar established trade relations with several tribes of Great Britain following his landings in 54 BC and 55 BC, and those commercial ties continued with with his successor Augustus, it was not until the time of Claudius that four legions were sent to conquer the island. Very few words remain to remind us of the almost four-hundred-year presence of the Roman legions (43 AD to AD 410) almost all of which which are related to the places in which they settled. These include towns and cities now ending in –chester (from the Latin word for camp, "castra"), or "straet" street, "win" for wine.

The original inhabitants of the Britain, the ancient Britons, were absorbed into a Celto-Roman society. With the departure of the Roman legions this Celtic-speaking society was left to fend for itself.

The first linguistic invasion - The Anglo-Saxons

Almost directly following the departure of the Romans, and perhaps as early as AD 449 Germanic tribes including Anglo-Saxons, Angles and Jutes began their invasion of the country and the true seeds of English were sown. They divided the territory into some 12 kingdoms and spent much of their time fighting amongst themselves.

The Celtic tribes began to be pushed to the north and west of the country where the Celtic languages were preserved and nurtured orally in areas such as Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, eventually evolving into Welsh, Cornish and Scots Gaelic, while the dominant language in England became what is now called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Apart from a few significant place names such as London and Dover, as well as several rivers – Thames and Avon, among others, – no more than two dozen Celtic loan words from this period have entered English, many of which relate to landscape features.

There are hardly any remaining written examples of the Celtic language, and the only folklore or historical reference remaining from that period is the Arthurian legend, although some sources refer to him as a Romano-British chieftain of the 5th or 6th centuries. Most pre-Roman evidence is therefore through archaeological research.

The Christian missionaries, led by St Augustine in 597, introduced a large Latin vocabulary, mainly to do with the church and religion but also including (exotic?) animals and some domestic words, such as those related to food. Thus we have abbot, angel, cucumber, elephant, hymn, laurel, lentils, lobster, mass, noon, nun, oyster, pear, priest, school, temple, tiger, and verse. In all, around 450 new words came into the language at that time.

The second linguistic invasion - The Norsemen

The second big linguistic invasion was a result of the innumerable Viking raids which began in AD 787 and continued until the beginning of the eleventh century. Apart from the more than 1,500 place names of Scandinavian origin in England – of which some 600, such as Rugby and Derby, end in -by, which is Danish for farm or village, some of the most commonly used words in modern English – cake, call, fellow, get, give, guess, hit, kid, knife, leg, lift, same, smile, take, them, they, want, weak – come from this period, directly introduced from Old Norse,[1] as do many of the words using the "sk" sound – skin, skirt, sky, skull, skill, etc. The suffix -son for family names were also introduced at this time. On the other hand, it was the monasteries that suffered the brunt of the raids and the 3,000-odd written documents that have survived the wrath of the Vikings only total around 3 million words. By way of reference, Dickens wrote some 4 million words.

The Norsemen occupied the north of the country and, like the Anglo-Saxons spoke a Germanic tongue. While there were substantial similarities in vocabulary between the two languages the grammar was more dissimilar. As the two languages merged the grammar of both was simplified and the large number of inflections which both languages initially possessed began to be reduced.

The third linguistic invasion - The Normans

The third linguistic invasion was the result of a single military incursion – that of Duke William of Normandy, with Rome’s blessing, to claim the crown he said he had been promised some fifteen years earlier – and the defeat of the newly-crowned Anglo-Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Following the Conqueror’s victory, the country was divided into English-speaking peasants and French-speaking Norman rulers who imposed their language of rule, of power, and of authority, introducing some ten thousand words over the next three hundred years. From army, soldier, guard and battle to crown and court; from duke and baron to peasant and servant; from authority to obedience; from sir to serf; from crime to fine to judge to jury. From spy to fool.

Not everything these invaders introduced, however, was the language of dominance. They also introduced words related to the arts: art, music, chess, poet, rhyme, dance, joy; to fashion and clothing: dress, boots, robe, fur, garment, veil, wardrobe. Everywhere they extended the language of the ruling classes, introducing names such as Geoffrey, John, Richard, Robert, Roger, Stephen and, significantly, William, all of which we would now consider as typically English names.

They also invaded the home, changing the eating and cooking habits of the native inhabitants. Thus, plate, table and chair. Fry, roast and toast. Pork, beef, veal, sole, herbs and fruit. Although William I had originally, at the outset of his reign, promulgated writs in English, Latin would be the language of the Church and all official documents while French the language used at court throughout this period. It would be more than three hundred years before English would again come to the fore. It is, however, on record that although William made an attempt to learn English towards the end of his life, he gave it up as being too difficult.[2]

But Old English had survived in the lower classes and, following the outbreaks of the Black Death which between 1348 and 1375 had wiped out between a third and a half of the English population, including most priests and the inhabitants of monasteries, the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 forced the 13-year-old King Richard II, though victorious in military terms, to address the rebels in not very fluent English, the first time a monarch had used the language since the Conquest, 315 years earlier. As far as we know, none of the preceding monarchs had been able to speak English. And it would not be until 1399, when Henry, Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard to become Henry IV, that a monarch claimed the crown, not in Latin, the language of state business, nor in French, the language of the ruling classes, but in English, Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Albeit with around 30 per cent of its then 50,000-word lexicon being French in origin.

English had emerged from the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages to develop into what would become the recognisably modern languages of Shakespeare and Swift, Tennyson and Dickens.

The structure of English


As we saw above, by the end of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) period the size of the lexicon was around 50,000 different words. By the end of the Middle English period (1100-1500), that figure had doubled and during the Early Modern English period (1500-1700) it doubled yet again to 200,000 lexemes. And just for the record, partly as a result of the Industrial Revolution which started in the late 18th century, and twentieth-century global expansion, it would double once more to the approximately 400,000 lexemes of Modern English (1700 to the present).

Different studies use differing criteria when counting the number of "words", lexemes or vocabulary items in a language. Estimates for English vary between 500,000 and 2 million words. A medium-sized dictionary may contain some 100,000 entries. The New Oxford Dictionary of English, published in 1998, is the biggest single-volume dictionary and contains 350,000 words, of which 52,000 are scientific and technical words, although it avoids over-technical terminology. On the other hand, the 20-volume OED, the definitive dictionary of the English language, contains over half a million lexemes.

A constant debate is whether concepts such as facts – the names of people or places and other proper names be considered as forming part of one’s personal lexicon when calculating its size. Undoubtedly, the name, or fact, Shakespeare, is as much a part of the English language as the word literature or drama. And the fact/word London is probably used more often than the word village or town. Thus, given the overlapping of criteria, calculating the size of one’s own vocabulary is complicated and must vary according to many different factors.

Likewise, terms such as UNESCO and NATO, both well-known acronyms even on an international level, must undeniably count as being part of an educated person’s vocabulary.

If a word has two spellings, does that count as one word or two? Or two past participles like "lighted" and "lit" or "dived" and "dove"? Does "dove" as a bird count as a separate word?

Furthermore, given that over eighty per cent of all words in English have more than one meaning – water as a verb and noun; lock as a verb and noun related to keys, or as a construction on a canal or river to regulate the ascent or descent of boats, or as a hold in wrestling or judo, or as in a lock of hair – should one count each meaning of the same word – the same combination of letters – as a different item? Surely if a person knows five meanings of the same word, he or she has a more extensive vocabulary than another person who knows only one meaning?

How would one count conjugations? past participles used as adjectives? Species names for flowers and insects which are common to all languages? Chemical names? (With these you can dwarf the number of "normal" words in any language.)

Equally difficult is the question of whether a word is actually used - it may exist but be so obsolete that it isn't used any more. Do we count it or not? Do we count slang? Do we count regional words? Do we count a word if it is used in the UK but not in the US or in all international varieties of English (including Indian English, which has a large selection of words from native languages.)

Take one of the most frequently used verbs in English – get. Should we consider the phrasal verbs get at, get away, get back, get by, get in, get off, get on, get over, get through, get up and a dozen other uses of get plus one other word, such as get home or get fat or get fatter or even more additions, such as get away with, get rid of, get over something, get your own back on somebody, as one lexeme -– get -– or an expression, a set phrase, an idiom? In a dictionary, these, and many others, might all be included under the entry get. And what about the inflections: gets, got/gotten, getting? Unlike other European languages, Modern English has very few inflections and contrary to what many people think, is surprisingly regular, despite its many exceptions.

Or words beginning with prefixes such as un-, as in unhappy, untidy, unlikely, many of which are not included in dictionaries because of their apparent obviousness. The same occurs with adverbs ending in -ly, or inflections of nouns (singular and plural), adjectives (comparison) and, as we saw above, the past tenses of most verbs unless they are so irregular as to cause possible confusion. Thus, bad, worse and [the] worst would probably be included as three separate entries, whereas in the case of more regular adjectives such as cold, its regular comparative and superlative – colder, [the] coldest – would probably be included under one single entry: cold.

And whilst on the subject of antonyms, what’s the difference between learning single words – big and small – and expressions like black and white, thick and thin, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, eggs and bacon, fish and chips, socks and shoes?

Another solution might to try to estimate the vocabulary of the average native speaker, but even this presents difficulties. Partly because we all have an active and a passive vocabulary and partly because we can often "know" words we have never seen before, either because of their context or because they are made up of other parts of words we already know.


One of the consequences of this long and varied history is that English spelling no longer corresponds particularly well with English pronunciation, giving rise to calls for spelling reform.

See also


  1. Crystal, David The Stories of English Allen Lane, 2004 ISBN 0-713-99752-4
  2. Bragg, Melvyn The adventure of English Hodder & Stoughton, 2003. ISBN 0-340-82991-5
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