Key Events in the History of the English Language

Timelines of Old English, Middle English, and Modern English

Shakespeare book

 Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The story of English—from its start in a jumble of West Germanic dialects to its role today as a global language—is both fascinating and complex. This timeline offers a glimpse at some of the key events that helped to shape the English language over the past 1,500 years. To learn more about the ways that English evolved in Britain and then spread around the world, check out one of the fine histories listed in the bibliography—or this amusing video produced by the Open University: The History of English in 10 Minutes.

The Prehistory of English

The ultimate origins of English lie in Indo-European, a family of languages consisting of most of the languages of Europe as well as those of Iran, the Indian subcontinent, and other parts of Asia. Because little is known about ancient Indo-European (which may have been spoken as long ago as 3,000 B.C.), we'll begin our survey in Britain in the first century A.D.

  • 43—The Romans invade Britain, beginning 400 years of control over much of the island.
  • 410—The Goths (speakers of a now extinct East Germanic language) sack Rome. The first Germanic tribes arrive in Britain.
  • Early 5th century—With the collapse of the empire, Romans withdraw from Britain. Britons are attacked by the Picts and by Scots from Ireland. Angles, Saxons, and other German settlers arrive in Britain to assist the Britons and claim territory.
  • 5th-6th centuries—Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians) speaking West Germanic dialects settle most of Britain. Celts retreat to distant areas of Britain: Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

    500-1100: The Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) Period

    The conquest of the Celtic population in Britain by speakers of West Germanic dialects (primarily Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) eventually determined many of the essential characteristics of the English language. (The Celtic influence on English survives for the most part only in place names—London, Dover, Avon, York.) Over time the dialects of the various invaders merged, giving rise to what we now call "Old English."

    • Late 6th century—Ethelbert, the King of Kent, is baptized. He is the first English king to convert to Christianity.
    • 7th century—Rise of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex; the Saxon kingdoms of Essex and Middlesex; the Angle kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. St. Augustine and Irish missionaries convert Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, introducing new religious words borrowed from Latin and Greek. Latin speakers begin referring to the country as Anglia and later as Englaland.
    • 673—Birth of the Venerable Bede, the monk who composed (in Latin) The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731), a key source of information about Anglo Saxon settlement.
    • 700—Approximate date of the earliest manuscript records of Old English.
    • Late 8th century—Scandinavians begin to settle in Britain and Ireland; Danes settle in parts of Ireland.
    • Early 9th century—Egbert of Wessex incorporates Cornwall into his kingdom and is recognized as overlord of the seven kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons (the Heptarchy): England begins to emerge.
    • Mid 9th century—Danes raid England, occupy Northumbria, and establish a kingdom at York. Danish begins to influence English.
    • Late 9th century—King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great) leads the Anglo-Saxons to victory over the Vikings, translates Latin works into English, and establishes the writing of prose in English. He uses the English language to foster a sense of national identity. England is divided into a kingdom ruled by the Anglo-Saxons (under Alfred) and another ruled by the Scandinavians.
    • 10th century—English and Danes mix fairly peacefully, and many Scandinavian (or Old Norse) loanwords enter the language, including such common words as sister, wish, skin, and die.
    • 1000—Approximate date of the only surviving manuscript of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, composed by an anonymous poet between the 8th century and the early 11th century.
    • Early 11th century—Danes attack England, and the English king (Ethelred the Unready) escapes to Normandy. The Battle of Maldon becomes the subject of one of the few surviving poems in Old English. The Danish king (Canute) rules over England and encourages the growth of Anglo-Saxon culture and literature.
    • Mid 11th century—Edward the Confessor, King of England who was raised in Normandy, names William, Duke of Normandy, as his heir.
    • 1066—The Norman Invasion: King Harold is killed at the Battle of Hastings, and William of Normandy is crowned King of England. Over succeeding decades, Norman French becomes the language of the courts and of the upper classes; English remains the language of the majority. Latin is used in churches and schools. For the next century, English, for all practical purposes, is no longer a written language.

      1100-1500: The Middle English Period

      The Middle English period saw the breakdown of the inflectional system of Old English and the expansion of vocabulary with many borrowings from French and Latin.

      • 1150—Approximate date of the earliest surviving texts in Middle English.
      • 1171—Henry II declares himself overlord of Ireland, introducing Norman French and English to the country. About this time the University of Oxford is founded.
      • 1204—King John loses control of the Duchy of Normandy and other French lands; England is now the only home of the Norman French/English.
      • 1209—The University of Cambridge is formed by scholars from Oxford.
      • 1215—King John signs the Magna Carta ("Great Charter"), a critical document in the long historical process leading to the rule of constitutional law in the English-speaking world.
      • 1258—King Henry III is forced to accept the Provisions of Oxford, which establish a Privy Council to oversee the administration of the government. These documents, though annulled a few years later, are generally regarded as England's first written constitution.
      • Late 13th century—Under Edward I, royal authority is consolidated in England and Wales. English becomes the dominant language of all classes.
      • Mid to late 14th century—The Hundred Years War between England and France leads to the loss of almost all of England's French possessions. The Black Death kills roughly one-third of England's population. Geoffrey Chaucer composes The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. English becomes the official language of the law courts and replaces Latin as the medium of instruction at most schools. John Wycliffe's English translation of the Latin Bible is published. The Great Vowel Shift begins, marking the loss of the so-called "pure" vowel sounds (which are still found in many continental languages) and the loss of the phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds.
      • 1362—The Statute of Pleading makes English the official language in England. Parliament is opened with its first speech delivered in English.
      • 1399 At his coronation, King Henry IV becomes the first English monarch to deliver a speech in English.
      • Late 15th century—William Caxton brings to Westminster (from the Rhineland) the first printing press and publishes Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Literacy rates increase significantly, and printers begin to standardize English spelling. The monk Galfridus Grammaticus (also known as Geoffrey the Grammarian) publishes Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae, the first English-to-Latin wordbook.

      1500 to the Present: The Modern English Period

      Distinctions are commonly drawn between the Early Modern Period (1500-1800) and Late Modern English (1800 to the present).

      During the period of Modern English, British exploration, colonization, and overseas trade hastened the acquisition of loanwords from countless other languages and fostered the development of new varieties of English (World English), each with its own nuances of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Since the middle of the 20th century, the expansion of North American business and media around the world has led to the emergence of Global English as a lingua franca.

      • Early 16th century—The first English settlements are made in North America. William Tyndale's English translation of the Bible is published. Many Greek and Latin borrowings enter English.
      • 1542—In his Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, Andrew Boorde illustrates regional dialects.
      • 1549—The first version of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England is published.
      • 1553—Thomas Wilson publishes The Art of Rhetorique, one of the first works on logic and rhetoric in English.
      • 1577—Henry Peacham publishes The Garden of Eloquence, a treatise on rhetoric.
      • 1586—The first grammar of English—William Bullokar's Pamphlet for Grammar—is published.
      • 1588—Elizabeth I begins her 45-year reign as queen of England. The British defeat the Spanish Armada, boosting national pride and enhancing the legend of Queen Elizabeth.
      • 1589The Art of English Poesie (attributed to George Puttenham) is published.
      • 1590-1611—William Shakespeare writes his Sonnets and the majority of his plays.
      • 1600—The East India Company is chartered to promote trade with Asia, eventually leading to the establishment of the British Raj in India.
      • 1603—Queen Elizabeth dies and James I (James VI of Scotland) accedes to the throne.
      • 1604—Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, is published. 
      • 1607—The first permanent English settlement in America is established at Jamestown, Virginia.
      • 1611—The Authorized Version of the English Bible (the "King James" Bible) is published, greatly influencing the development of the written language.
      • 1619—The first African slaves in North America arrive in Virginia.
      • 1622Weekly News, the first English newspaper, is published in London.
      • 1623—The First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays is published.
      • 1642—Civil War breaks out in England after King Charles I attempts to arrest his parliamentary critics. The war leads to the execution of Charles I, the dissolution of parliament, and the replacement of the English monarchy with a Protectorate (1653–59) under Oliver Cromwell's rule.
      • 1660—The monarchy is restored; Charles II is proclaimed king.
      • 1662—The Royal Society of London appoints a committee to consider ways of "improving" English as a language of science.
      • 1666—The Great Fire of London destroys most of the City of London inside the old Roman City Wall.
      • 1667—John Milton publishes his epic poem Paradise Lost.
      • 1670—The Hudson's Bay Company is chartered for promoting trade and settlement in Canada.
      • 1688—Aphra Behn, the first woman novelist in England, publishes Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave.
      • 1697—In his Essay Upon Projects, Daniel Defoe calls for the creation of an Academy of 36 "gentlemen" to dictate English usage.
      • 1702The Daily Courant, the first regular daily newspaper in English, is published in London.
      • 1707—The Act of Union unites the Parliaments of England and Scotland, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
      • 1709—The first Copyright Act is enacted in England.
      • 1712—Anglo-Irish satirist and cleric Jonathan Swift proposes the creation of an English Academy to regulate English usage and "ascertain" the language.
      • 1719—Daniel Defoe publishes Robinson Crusoe, considered by some to be the first modern English novel.
      • 1721—Nathaniel Bailey publishes his Universal Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, a pioneer study in English lexicography: the first to feature current usageetymologysyllabification, clarifying quotations, illustrations, and indications of pronunciation.
      • 1715—Elisabeth Elstob publishes the first grammar of Old English.
      • 1755—Samuel Johnson publishes his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language.
      • 1760-1795—This period marks the rise of the English grammarians (Joseph Priestly, Robert Lowth, James Buchanan, John Ash, Thomas Sheridan, George Campbell, William Ward, and Lindley Murray), whose rule books, primarily based on prescriptive notions of grammar, become increasingly popular. 
      • 1762—Robert Lowth publishes his Short Introduction to English Grammar.
      • 1776—The Declaration of Independence is signed, and the American War of Independence begins, leading to the creation of the United States of America, the first country outside the British Isles with English as its principal language.
      • 1776—George Campbell publishes The Philosophy of Rhetoric.
      • 1783Noah Webster publishes his American Spelling Book.
      • 1785The Daily Universal Register (renamed The Times in 1788) begins publication in London.
      • 1788—The English first settle in Australia, near present-day Sydney.
      • 1789—Noah Webster publishes Dissertations on the English Language, which advocates an American standard of usage.
      • 1791The Observer, the oldest national Sunday newspaper in Britain, begins publication.
      • Early 19th centuryGrimm's Law (discovered by Friedrich von Schlegel and Rasmus Rask, later elaborated by Jacob Grimm) identifies relationships between certain consonants in Germanic languages (including English) and their originals in Indo-European. The formulation of Grimm's Law marks a major advance in the development of linguistics as a scholarly field of study.
      • 1803—The Act of Union incorporates Ireland into Britain, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
      • 1806—The British occupy Cape Colony in South Africa.
      • 1810William Hazlitt publishes A New and Improved Grammar of the English Language.​
      • 1816—John Pickering compiles the first dictionary of Americanisms.
      • 1828—Noah Webster publishes his American Dictionary of the English Language. Richard Whateley publishes Elements of Rhetoric.
      • 1840—The native Maori in New Zealand cede sovereignty to the British.
      • 1842—The London Philological Society is founded.
      • 1844—The telegraph is invented by Samuel Morse, inaugurating the development of rapid communication, a major influence on the growth and spread of English.
      • Mid 19th century—A standard variety of American English develops. English is established in Australia, South Africa, India, and other British colonial outposts.
      • 1852—The first edition of Roget's Thesaurus is published.
      • 1866—James Russell Lowell champions the use of American regionalisms, helping to end deference to the Received British Standard. Alexander Bain publishes English Composition and Rhetoric. The transatlantic telegraph cable is completed.
      • 1876—Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone, thus modernizing private communication.
      • 1879—James A.H. Murray begins editing the Philological Society's New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (later renamed the Oxford English Dictionary).
      • 1884/1885Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn introduces a colloquial prose style that significantly influences the writing of fiction in the U.S. (See Mark Twain's Colloquial Prose Style.)
      • 1901—The Commonwealth of Australia is established as a dominion of the British Empire.
      • 1906—Henry and Francis Fowler publish the first edition of The King's English.
      • 1907—New Zealand is established as a dominion of the British Empire.
      • 1919H.L. Mencken publishes the first edition of The American Language, a pioneer study in the history of a major national version of English.
      • 1920—The first American commercial radio station begins operating in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
      • 1921Ireland achieves Home Rule, and Gaelic is made an official language in addition to English.
      • 1922—The British Broadcasting Company (later renamed the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC) is established.
      • 1925The New Yorker magazine is founded by Harold Ross and Jane Grant.
      • 1925—George P. Krapp publishes his two-volume The English Language in America, the first comprehensive and scholarly treatment of the subject.
      • 1926—Henry Fowler publishes the first edition of his Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
      • 1927—The first "speaking motion picture," The Jazz Singer, is released.
      • 1928The Oxford English Dictionary is published.
      • 1930—British linguist C.K. Ogden introduces Basic English.
      • 1936—The first television service is established by the BBC.
      • 1939—World War II begins.
      • 1945—World War II ends. The Allied victory contributes to the growth of English as a lingua franca.
      • 1946—The Philippines gains its independence from the U.S.
      • 1947—India is freed from British control and divided into Pakistan and India. The constitution provides that English remain the official language for 15 years. New Zealand gains its independence from the U.K. and joins the Commonwealth.
      • 1949—Hans Kurath publishes A Word Geography of the Eastern United States, a landmark in the scientific study of American regionalisms.
      • 1950—Kenneth Burke publishes A Rhetoric of Motives.
      • 1950s—The number of speakers using English as a second language exceeds the number of native speakers.
      • 1957Noam Chomsky publishes Syntactic Structures, a key document in the study of generative and transformational grammar.
      • 1961Webster's Third New International Dictionary is published.
      • 1967—The Welsh Language Act gives the Welsh language equal validity with English in Wales, and Wales is no longer considered a part of England. Henry Kucera and Nelson Francis publish Computational Analysis of Present-Day American English, a landmark in modern corpus linguistics.
      • 1969Canada officially becomes bilingual (French and English). The first major English dictionary to use corpus linguistics—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language—is published.
      • 1972A Grammar of Contemporary English (by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik) is published. The first call on a personal cell phone is made. The first email is sent.
      • 1978The Linguistic Atlas of England is published.
      • 1981—The first issue of the journal World Englishes is published.
      • 1985A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language is published by Longman. The first edition of M.A.K. Halliday's An Introduction to Functional Grammar is published.
      • 1988—The Internet (under development for more than 20 years) is opened to commercial interests.
      • 1989—The second edition of The Oxford English Dictionary is published.
      • 1993—Mosaic, the web browser credited with popularizing the World Wide Web, is released. (Netscape Navigator becomes available in 1994, Yahoo! in 1995, and Google in 1998.)
      • 1994Text messaging is introduced, and the first modern blogs go online.
      • 1995—David Crystal publishes The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.
      • 1997—The first social networking site (SixDegrees.com) is launched. (Friendster is introduced in 2002, and both MySpace and Facebook begin operating in 2004.)
      • 2000—The Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED Online) is made available to subscribers.
      • 2002—Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum publish The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Tom McArthur publishes The Oxford Guide to World English.
      • 2006—Twitter, a social networking and microblogging service, is created by Jack Dorsey.
      • 2009—The two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is published by Oxford University Press.
      • 2012—The fifth volume (SI-Z) of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE ) is published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

      Bibliography:

      Algeo, John. The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th edition. Wadsworth, 2009.

      Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language, 5th edition. Prentice Hall, 2001.

      Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. Hodder & Stoughton, 2003.

      Crystal, David. The English Language. Penguin, 2002.

      Gooden, Philip. The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World. Quercus, 2009.

      Hogg, Richard M., and David Dennison, editors. A History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

      Horobin, Simon. How English Became English: A Short History of a Global Language. Oxford University Press, 2016)

      Lerer, Seth. Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. Columbia University Press, 2007.

      McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992.

      McWhorter, John. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English. Gotham, 2008)

      Millward, C.M., and Mary Hayes. A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2011.

      Mugglestone, Linda. The Oxford History of English. Oxford University Press, 2006.

      Nist, John. A Structural History of English. St. Martin's Press, 1966.