Key Events in the History of the English Language

Timelines of Old English, Middle English, and Modern English

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The first English printer, William Caxton (c.1415-c.1492), is depicted in this plate from Pictures of English History (1850). (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The story of Englishfrom its start in a jumble of West Germanic dialects to its role today as a global languageis 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 at the end of page threeor 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 namesLondon, 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.

1589 The 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.

1622 Weekly 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.

1702 The 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.

1783 Noah Webster publishes his American Spelling Book.

1785 The 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.

1791 The Observer, the oldest national Sunday newspaper in Britain, begins publication.

Early 19th century Grimm'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.

1810 William 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).

1884/1885 Mark 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.

1919 H.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.

1921 Ireland 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.

1925 The 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.

1928 The 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.

1957 Noam Chomsky publishes Syntactic Structures, a key document in the study of generative and transformational grammar.

1961 Webster'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.

1969 Canada 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.

1972 A 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.

1978 The Linguistic Atlas of England is published.

1981 The first issue of the journal World Englishes is published.

1985 A 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.)

1994 Text 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.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Key Events in the History of the English Language." ThoughtCo, Jul. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/events-history-of-the-english-language-1692746. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, July 25). Key Events in the History of the English Language. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/events-history-of-the-english-language-1692746 Nordquist, Richard. "Key Events in the History of the English Language." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/events-history-of-the-english-language-1692746 (accessed December 18, 2017).