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Key Events in the History of the English Language

Timelines of Old English, Middle English, and Modern English


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 at the end of page three.

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.

Continued on page two

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