The history of English



About 5000 years ago, somewhere in central Europe, lived a tribe of people. At that time there were many tribes of people, living in different parts of the world, and each spoke its own language. The languages with the most speakers belonged to the tribes that managed to spread and grow the most.

In nature, the animal species that survive are the ones best fitted to their environment. For example, if there are two kinds of bears living on a snowy tundra, one with white fur and one with black fur, the white-furred bears are more likely to survive because their fur blends in better with the snow. Their prey won’t see them sneaking up.

It’s the same with humans. The groups that survive, spread, and grow the most are the ones that are best fitted to their environments. Unfortunately, when human groups come in contact, war often becomes a part of their environment. So the “fittest” groups tend to be the ones that are best at fighting.

About 5000 years ago, this central European tribe was very good at fighting. By that time, most humans had invented basic weapons like swords and spears, but this tribe had two technologies that no other tribe in the area did: the horse and the wheel. You may not think of the horse as a “technology,” but taming the horse definitely was a skill that not every tribe had managed. As for the wheel, it made possible the cart. Hitch a horse to a cart and you have a war wagon, which would have made you pretty much unbeatable 5000 years ago.

The central European tribe was a nomadic tribe. It hadn’t discovered farming yet, so it got its food by hunting animals. When the animals moved, the tribe moved with them. In this way, the tribe spread across Europe, and when it met other tribes, they fought. Thanks to its war wagons, the central European tribe nearly always won. In this way, it spread very far. One branch of it got as far as present-day India. As the tribe spread across the continent, its language spread with it. Because this language is the ancestor of almost all the languages spoken today in Europe and India, we call it Proto-Indo-European. Proto means “first” or “earliest,” Indo means “India,” and I don’t think I have to tell you what European means.

Eventually, the Proto-Indo-European supertribe spread out so much that it split into different sub-tribes. One lived in present-day Italy, another in present-day Greece, another in the British Isles, and so on. The sub-tribes were so spread out that they didn’t have many chances to talk to each other, and after a while, each came to speak the Proto-Indo-European language in its own way. For example, the sub-tribe living in present-day Greece spoke it in a way peculiar to itself; you can think of it as a Greek accent. In time, their “Greek-accented” Proto-Indo-European became so different from the “Italian-accented” Proto-Indo-European that the two were no longer just different versions of the same language, but two different languages altogether.

As a matter of fact, the “Greek-accented” and “Italian-accented” sub-tribes became the two greatest cultures of the ancient Western world. They figured out how to farm, settled down by the Mediterranean Sea, made many trades with each other and the people of North Africa and Asia, and eventually imported a very useful new technology from North Africa: writing. Using modified versions of the North African alphabet, these two Proto-Indo-European sub-tribes produced a great deal of literature in their own languages. The languages were Greek and Latin, and they are so important in history that we still study them today. Latin, the language of the Roman empire, is the source of a great many English words.

The birth of English

Another sub-tribe of the Proto-Indo-Europeans was the Germanic sub-tribe. In time, this sub-tribe split off again into three regional varieties: East Germanic, North Germanic, and West Germanic.

The East Germanic people came to be called Goths, and their language was Gothic. This language isn’t spoken today, and there aren’t many writings in it, but the Goths became important in history when they conquered the western half of the Roman empire. After that victory, instead of creating their own kingdom, they broke up into several smaller groups and were gradually absorbed by the new kingdoms that came up.

The North Germanic people were the sea-faring people we call Vikings. They called themselves Norsemen (“north men”), and their Old Norse language eventually broke off into several languages that are still spoken today in and around Scandinavia, a cold peninsula in north-central Europe. Among these languages are Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. Danish is an important language in the history of English because the Danes, one of the Viking groups, conquered the northeastern part of England for a time.

The West Germanic people started out in west-central Europe, where Germany is today. From there they spread out in several directions. Some stayed in present-day Germany, where their descendants speak German. Some went north by the sea, where their descendants speak Dutch. Three tribes of West Germanic–speaking people even crossed from the European mainland to the British Isles. These were the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes.

The Angles got their name from the shape of their homeland. It was shaped like a fishhook. The Angles were not particularly good fishers, but fishing was one source of food for them, so they had a word for fishhook: angle. We still use that word today: when we angle for a compliment, we fish for it (indirectly ask someone for it), and anglers are fishermen who fish for fun, rather than for a living. So the Angles were literally the “people of the fishhook”—the people who came from a fishhook-shaped land.

The Saxons also took their name from a metal tool. Sax is what they called a kind of knife that they were well known for using. A sax looks like a small sword without a hand-guard. The Saxons were the “people of the knife.”

It is less clear where the Jutes got their name, or even who exactly they were. They left no writings, and not much is written about them. But we do know that they came over from the mainland to the British Isles with the Angles and the Saxons.

When these three West Germanic tribes moved into the British Isles, they found people already living there. These were the Celts, a Proto-Indo-European sub-tribe that had crossed the water from Europe long before. One of the Celtic groups called itself the Bretons; this is the source of “Britain” and “British.” The Celts were known as warriors, but they weren’t as strong as the people who invaded their islands.

Earlier, an army from Rome had invaded the British Isles and made them a Roman colony. Often, when one group of people conquers another, the conquered group starts speaking the language of the conquerors, and its own language eventually dies out. This never happened to the Celts. They didn’t adopt the Latin language of their Roman conquerors; instead, they kept speaking their own languages. When the Romans finally gave up on their British colony and left the Celts to themselves again, they left only a few Latin words in the region. This is a testament to the strength of the Celts’ self-identity.

But the Celts didn’t get to enjoy their freedom for long. Only a short while after they became free of the Romans, they were invaded again: this time by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from west-central Europe. The Jutes stayed put in southeastern Britain and weren’t heard from much again, but the Angles and Saxons were fierce. They pushed the Celts from the middle parts of the British Isles to the northern and western outskirts—places like Scotland, Ireland, and Cornwall. The Celts’ descendants still live in these places today, and some of their languages, like Irish and Welsh, are still spoken proudly, if not by large numbers of people.

The Angles and Saxons spread across most of the British Isles. As the two tribes came into increased contact with each other, their two languages, which had earlier split off from a single West Germanic language, began to merge again. The Anglo-Saxon language, as it was called, was spoken throughout the British Isles. It was spoken in different ways in different places, but despite this variation, it was still a single language. The Saxons, especially the ones living in the western part of Britain, were more powerful than the Angles, so the Anglo-Saxon language was more Saxon than Anglo-. But when the Anglo-Saxon language came to be known by a shorter name, that name came from the Angles, not the Saxons. The language spoken across the British Isles came to be called “Anglisc.” Today, we call it “English.”

The language you’re reading right now is named after a West Germanic tribe from a fishhook-shaped spit of land in west-central Europe. But English has changed a lot from the way the Angles spoke it. First, the Saxons joined their language to it, creating the Anglo-Saxon language. This language, spoken from about 450 to 1150 A.D., is the one that today we call “Old English.”

You may think that “Old English” refers to the English of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Certainly, that form of English, with all its thees and thous, is a much older form of English than you’re used to. But it isn’t Old English. Shakespeare and King James’s English is actually Early Modern English. What you and I speak is Late Modern English. Old English is what the Angles and Saxons spoke. Here’s a sample of Old English, from the epic poem Beowulf:

Hwæt, we gar-dena in geardagum
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

“That isn’t English!” you may be thinking; but it is! That passage from Beowulf is hard to understand today, but two words, we and in, are unchanged from Modern English, and another, hu, is a lot like our word how. Still, it’s very different from the English we’re used to. Overall, you may think Old English sounds more like German than English. And it should: Old English was the language of the Angles and the Saxons, two West Germanic tribes. Also, you probably noticed that Old English used a couple of letters that Modern English doesn’t: þ and ð. These letters are called “thorn” and “eth,” and both were used to write the th sound. English doesn’t use them anymore, but some other Germanic languages, like Icelandic, still do.

If English used to sound so German, how did it ever get so we can understand it? Several big events helped shape English into the form we use today. These were the Danish invasions, the Norman invasion, the Great Vowel Shift, and the rise of the printing industry in London. Three men named William were especially important in these events. We can track the changes in the language across three periods: Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.

Old English

Old English was born when two West Germanic peoples, the Angles and Saxons, combined into a new English people in the British Isles that they had won from the Celts.

As a West Germanic language, descended from Proto-Indo-European, Old English had many features in common with that ancient language. That is why it was more complex than Modern English. You may be surprised to hear that Proto-Indo-European was more complex than the modern languages that came from it. Our modern technologies, like cars and planes, are more complex than Proto-Indo-European technology, like the horse and cart, so shouldn’t our modern languages be more complex as well? Actually, the older a language is, the more complex it is likely to be. Part of the reason that humans have been able to develop technology as far as we have is that lots of different groups, speaking different languages, have been in contact with each other. When two different languages come into contact, the more-complex one tends to become simpler, down to the level of the less-complex one. This helps both groups of speakers understand each other better. As we will see, this happened twice in the early history of English, and it is still happening today.

Being a very early language, Proto-Indo-European was very complex. If you had grown up speaking it, you would have had to learn an awful lot of grammar. Many words had many different forms when they were used in different ways. To a lesser degree, Modern English is like this too. The verb walk has three different forms: walks, walked, walking. The verb eat has even more: eats, ate, eating, eaten. If English is your first language, you can use these forms correctly without even thinking about them, but if you have learned English as a second language, you have probably had to learn some complicated facts about them: eat is the infinitive form, eats is the third-person singular present form, ate is the past form, eating is the present participle and gerund, and eaten is the past participle. That’s a lot to remember! As complicated as grammar can be in Modern English, it was much more so in Proto-Indo-European. Verbs had many more forms, and it wasn’t just the verbs; nouns and adjectives had different forms, too, depending on how they were used in a sentence.

You may wonder how a tribe like the Proto-Indo-Europeans, busy as they were with hunting and fighting and without any established schools, were able to learn and use such a complex language. The short answer is that Proto-Indo-European was their native language. The same way you are able to say “He eats” without thinking that eats is the third-person singular indicative present of eat, the Proto-Indo-Europeans were able to juggle their huge variety of verb, noun, and adjective forms because they had grown up hearing them from childhood. They didn’t have to study their language because they were simply used to it. But it is worth considering that they probably weren’t very concerned about using it “correctly.” They were busy hunting and fighting, and they didn’t have schools. In fact, they didn’t even have a writing system. The Proto-Indo-Europeans were a pre-literate people, living before the invention of writing. They had plenty of words, but no way to write them down. This means that they didn’t have any standard for what was “correct” Proto-Indo-European or not beyond whether they could be understood. Not having a standardized written form also meant that the Proto-Indo-European language was very susceptible to change. With no textbook to tell them otherwise, one group of Proto-Indo-Europeans might use one set of speech patterns that it felt was correct, and another group might use another set of speech patterns that it felt was correct. In fact this happened quite a lot, and once the various Proto-Indo-European sub-tribes had lost contact with each other, their languages came very quickly to differ.

The Germanic sub-tribe’s language differed in several ways from the languages of other sub-tribes, like the Italic and the Greek. As time went on and the Germanic language itself broke up, the West Germanic and North Germanic languages grew quite different from each other. The West Germanic language, and in turn the Anglo-Saxon language, kept a lot of the complexity of the old Indo-European language, such as different forms for nouns used in different roles in the sentence. For example, the Old English word for “king” was cyning. If the king was the subject of the sentence, as in “The king makes the laws,” the Anglo-Saxons called it cyning. And if the king was the direct object, as in “We must defend the king,” it was still cyning. But if the king was the indirect object (“They gave the king a gift”) it became cyninge, and if it was possessive (“The king’s castle is strong”) it became cyninges. And that’s just for the singular; if you spoke of more than one king, you’d use different forms (cyningas, cyninga, cyningum). And not all nouns used the same endings as cyning did; there were different sets of endings for different groups of nouns. That was one way that the West Germanic languages remained complex. Modern German is still that way. But North Germanic stopped doing that fairly early. By the eighth century A.D., the North Germanic languages were a lot simpler than the West Germanic ones when it came to noun forms.

In the eighth century, the Danes, a North Germanic Viking people, started raiding the east coast of Britain. They made quick attacks on monasteries, communities of Christian monks. Because monasteries tended to be wealthy and prefer writing to fighting, they made tempting targets for Viking raiders. After several successful raids, the Danes wanted more from England. In the second half of the eighth century, they came with an army, and while they couldn’t conquer all the Anglo-Saxons, they did manage to win a big chunk of northeastern England. This region became known as the Danelaw, because the people living there had to obey the Danes’ laws.

Old Norse words came into the Anglo-Saxon language with the earliest Viking raids. Because the English knew the Vikings at this time only as raiders from the sea, the words they borrowed from the Vikings had mostly to do with sailing and fighting. Though many Norse words entered English in the first half of the eighth century, the Scandinavian influence really ramped up in the second half, when the Danelaw was established. Many new words rushed in, and even the grammar of Old English grew simpler. To improve communication between the English and their new Danish masters, the West Germanic system of using different forms for nouns with different functions began to die away. The work that the different noun forms used to do was now done by separate function words that we call prepositions. These changes helped bring Old English a little closer to the language we speak today. Obviously, the Danish influence came quickest and heaviest in northeastern Britain, but the Viking influence began a work of simplifying that would spread to the whole English language.

The Danelaw was not the end of Old English. Though the Danes had carved out part of Britain for themselves, their language did not replace the Anglo-Saxon language there. And of course the Anglo-Saxon language was still being used everywhere else in Britain but the Celtic outskirts. Histories were written in it. Religious texts were written in it. Stories and poems, including Beowulf, were written in it. Despite simplifying shocks from the Vikings, Old English was a vital, thriving language.

But it was not immune to change. Even outside the Danelaw, Old England was not one kingdom but four, so there wasn’t one standard version of the Old English language. Instead, there were several dialects, each with its own words, spellings, and pronunciations. By the 11th century, the differences had grown so great that English speakers from northern and southern Britain could scarcely understand each other. This was due partially to the Danish influence on the north, and partially to the natural diversifying trend that had branched the Anglish and Saxon languages off West Germanic, and West Germanic from Germanic, and Germanic from Proto-Indo-European. Interestingly, while northern and southern Britain struggled to understand each other, people living in the middle part of Britain could still understand people from both north and south. When the English language finally did become standardized later, the standard came from this middle part.

That was the state Old English, if it could still be called one language, was in when it suffered the blow that would knock it into a whole new period.

Middle English

The Vikings were restless in Scandinavia, and the Danelaw was not the only place they conquered. What they did on the east coast of Britain, they also did on the north coast of France, just across the water from Britain. The Norsemen who settled there were called Normans by the local French, and their home in France was called Normandy. It still is today; its beach is famous as the site of the Allied counter-invasion of Europe that won World War II.

One big difference between the Danes in Britain and the Normans in France lies in their attachment to their Norse language. The Danes in Britain, though they didn’t force their English subjects to speak Danish, weren’t eager to speak English themselves. The Danes and English simply co-existed, managing to talk to each other when they needed to. On the other hand, the Normans quickly gave up their North Germanic language and adopted the French language of their new home.

From the Norman point of view, French both was and wasn’t a completely new language. To understand why, we will briefly look over the languages that had been spoken in that part of Europe. The first one was probably a form of Proto-Indo-European, especially of its Celtic branch. The Celts, like the other Proto-Indo-European sub-tribes, started out on the European continent. Some of them, like the Gaels, Picts, Cornish, and Welsh, crossed to the British Isles; others, like the Gauls, stayed on the mainland. The Gauls lived and spoke their Celtic language in present-day France until Julius Caesar, a Roman general, conquered them and made their land a Roman colony. The Latin language quickly displaced the Gauls’ Celtic one. For a while, the Latin spoken here was much the same as the Latin spoken across the empire, but after the empire split into western and eastern halves and the capital moved to the eastern half, the lack of central authority led western Romans to speak dialects of Latin that were more local and different from each other. Though all the Latin dialects grew simpler, the one spoken in present-day France simplified much faster, a process sped up by contact with the Franks, a West Germanic tribe that saw the Roman empire’s pivot to the east as a chance to build a kingdom in the west. When the Goths sacked Rome in 410, killing off the weakened western Roman empire, the Franks were free to build that kingdom. They called it Frankia; we call it France. They called their West Germanic language Frankish. The language it changed into, after absorbing so much local Latin that it became much more Italic than Germanic, is the one we call French. That language is the one that people in France were speaking when the Normans arrived in the eighth century. In the sense that it was by now mostly Latin, French would have been very new to the North Germanic Normans; in the sense that its core was West Germanic, it might have been at least faintly familiar.

Whatever the Normans thought of the French language, they learned it quickly and forgot their own. But almost as soon as the Normans had given up their linguistic independence, they started getting some of it back. The French language in the 10th and 11th centuries had two dialects: the main version spoken in Paris in the south, and the offshoot Viking version spoken in the north. The Normans spoke very good ninth-century French, but as the language moved on and pronunciations changed in the south, Norman French stayed much the same. For example, the Latin word campus (“field”) was camp in ninth-century French, and by a popular southern trend that changed ca- to cha-, camp became champ there. But to the Normans it was still camp, and this is the version that would go with them to England. Perhaps the Normans were so proud of the language they had learned that they didn’t want to participate in its corruption—an attitude, ironically, that today’s southern French embrace.

By the 11th century, the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been united into one. In 1066 a Norman duke named William, believing that the English throne belonged to him, led an army into England and conquered it. This event did more to change the English language than any other. After the Norman Conquest, English society was divided into two layers: English people on the bottom, French people on top. This applied to the languages, too: English on the bottom, French on top. French was used more and more, and English less and less. English children didn’t even learn English in school! They learned French instead. With French rule pressing so heavily on England, it seemed likely that the English language would die out.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. English did not die out, but it did change a lot. Specifically, it became more French. Not only did it take in lots and lots of words from French; its grammar also changed to become more like French grammar. That meant that it got a great deal simpler. The system of role-marking endings on adjectives and nouns, already diluted by Viking influence in the north, disappeared across the Isles. Verbs, too, lost many of their endings, which had slipped out of French much earlier. Even poetry changed. In Old English, a line of poetry had four beats, two or three of which started with the same consonant sound. Since Old English words were all stressed on the first syllable, this formula made sense. But in Middle English, a line of poetry had five beats, and each was an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern was more natural in French, which stresses every word on the last syllable. That even the poetry changed shows just how French-like Middle English became.

For a long time after the Norman Conquest, not much was written in English. Even the yearly histories that the Anglo-Saxons had kept started to be written in Latin, and nearly everything else was written in French. French was the dominant language in Britain then, so even if you were English, if you wanted to get ahead in your society, you would speak French whenever you could.

But after a while, English literature made a comeback. The Normans still controlled England, but they and their Anglo-French language were becoming less important there, leaving more room for English people and their Middle English language in the public conversation. English was back in the books—but what a different English it was!

Before the Conquest, we have seen, English people had spoken a variety of dialects. Some spoke so differently that they couldn’t understand each other. But just about everything written in English had been in West Saxon, the dialect of Wessex, the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. So even if Old English hadn’t sounded like a single language, it had certainly looked like one.

Then the Normans came, and written English went to sleep for a couple hundred years. When it woke up again, it looked for the first time like it sounded. Texts from one area of the country used different words and forms than texts from another area.

For all their differences, the books written in Middle English had some things in common. Gone were the endings on verbs, nouns, and adjectives that the West Saxon dialect of Old English had used. The letters þ and ð were replaced by th, a French spelling. The several dialects of Middle English were more like each other, and in ways like French, than they were like Old West Saxon. As Norman England re-Anglified, its dialects moved forward, and as they moved they got closer together.

One reason that Anglo-Norman French grew less important is that the other French, the kind spoken in southern France, especially Paris, grew more important. In the same way, the English spoken in southern-central England, especially London, was growing more important. If the dialects of Middle English were competing, London English was winning. Its greatest victory in the Middle English period was The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories and poems written by Geoffrey Chaucer of London at the end of the 14th century. More than any work before it, The Canterbury Tales showed that English, formerly regarded as a peasant language, could be as respectable a literary language as French or Latin. Having a blockbuster book pushed the London dialect past the others in the race to Modern English. In fact, the language of The Canterbury Tales is so close to our language that you can pick up a copy of it and follow some of what’s going on. Just try that with Beowulf!

Of course, big changes were still ahead. Chaucher had put London and English on the map of world literature, but the undisputed master of English letters was still to come. To match his literary conquests, he had a conquerer’s name: William.

Modern English

In 1476, William Caxton opened a shop in London. No, he wasn’t the master of English letters, but he made more of them than any Englishman ever had. In his shop was the first printing press in England.

A quarter-century earlier, a German named Gutenberg had made the first printing press. Before this machine, to copy a book, you had to write out the whole thing by hand. Letter by letter, word by word, page by page. Because of the time and skill it took to copy them, books had been rare and expensive. But the printing press started a revolution in reading and writing. People who never dreamed of buying a book, or even learning to read, could now do both.

Because Caxton’s print shop was in London, English writers clustered there. Most English books were printed there. That meant that the most widely read books in England were made by people who spoke the London dialect. Today, the whole world hears Californian English in Hollywood movies; in the 16th century, all of England read London English.

And London English was leading the charge toward Modern English. Earlier, grammatical endings had dropped off words faster in the north than the south, under the influence of the Danes, but by the 16th century the simplification was fastest in London. There are several reasons for this. One is that London had become the commercial center of England, so it had more contact with other languages than other English cities did. But the main modernizing force in London was Caxton himself. Before the printing press, people mainly spelled words the way they heard them, and the same word could be spelled a variety of ways. But Caxton wanted printed English to be spelled consistently, so he had to come up with a lot of new standards himself. When the first dictionary of English came out in 1604, it helped lock in new spellings that were less like Chaucer’s and more like ours.

But the new face of English might not have replaced the old so decisively, or lasted so long, if one man had not worn it so well as to make it unforgettable. He was the third William: Shakespeare, that is.

When you’re reading Shakespeare for the first or second time in school—an experience we’ve all had—it can be hard to appreciate Shakespeare’s place in our language. “I can’t read this,” you think, “it’s in Old English.” It isn’t, of course; Beowulf is in Old English, and you truly can’t read that unless you’ve studied Old English like the foreign language that, at this point, it is. Shakespeare’s English also isn’t Middle English; Chaucer’s is, and you can’t read that right off the page, either. But Shakespeare’s language is our language. The words are often different (we say “coward,” he says “poltroon”), and they’re often not in the order we’re used to, but the language is the same one we still use. You can read it right off the page. If Shakespeare’s works sound weird to you, that’s because they’re poetry and you probably aren’t used to poetry, not because they’re in a different languange. They’re in ours.

Shakespeare’s plays are the best-known, best-loved works of English literature. He wrote them in the five-beat pattern that English took from French, but that by his time was completely English. He also wrote many famous sonnets. The sonnet is a form that English took from Italian. Shakespeare was so good at writing sonnets that the form he wrote his in, the Shakespearean sonnet, is also called the English sonnet. It’s possible to write English-language sonnets in the original Italian form, also called the Petrarchan form after the Italian poet Petrarch, but for English readers, an “English sonnet” is a Shakespeare-style sonnet. That’s the kind of shadow Shakespeare casts over English literature, and poetry in general. Knowing Shakespeare—not just having a vague (SparkNotes) idea of his plots, which aren’t his anyway, but actually being able to read and understand his writing (without SparkNotes)—is essential to taking part in the culture that English speakers share. To ignore Shakespeare is to know English incompletely.

Besides Shakespeare’s works, another work of Early Modern English that everybody read when it came out and that people still read today is the King James translation of the Holy Bible. The Church of England, or Anglican Church (called the Episcopal Church in America), a Protestant demonination of the Christian religion, was an important part of English life in the 15th century. To this day, even Christians who use Late Modern translations of the Bible, like the New International Version, are familiar with the Early Modern English of the King James Version: “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …” Because Shakespeare and the King James Bible have stuck around, we’re all still aware of pronouns like thee, thou, and thy and verb endings like -est and -eth, even though most of us have forgotten how to use them correctly. When writers want to sound old-fashioned, they pepper their sentences with these words from Early Modern English. More often than not, they use them incorrectly, making mistakes like “What thinketh thee?” for “What thinkest thou?” Today’s writers may be largely ignorant of those outdated words, but the fact that they still try to use them shows the influence that Early Modern English still has on us.

Compare The Canterbury Tales with a Shakespeare sonnet or a chapter of the King James Bible, and you’ll see how different Early Modern English was from Middle English. But the biggest difference is one you can’t see on the page. It’s one you have to hear. The one event that did most to move our language from Middle to Modern English was a widespread sound change called the Great Vowel Shift. If you’ve studied any Spanish, French, or Italian, you know that the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) in those languages sound different from their long versions in English. Our ā sounds like their ei. Our ē sounds like their i. Our ī sounds like their ai. Our ō sounds like their o, but our ū sounds like their yu. Why is this? Are the Spanish, French, and Italians the weird ones, or are we? The answer: we are. The other European languages have kept the original sounds of these vowels, but they changed in English during the Great Vowel Shift of the 16th century. Like the other changes to English at the time, the Great Vowel Shift started in London and rippled out from there.

Interestingly, and unfortunately, the Great Vowel Shift was just getting started when Caxton opened his print shop in London, and it didn’t complete until his spelling standards—and the ones in the first dictionary—had already taken root. This means that English spellings froze just before English pronunciations changed radically. That’s why there are so many ways to write a certain sound, and why so many words aren’t spelled the way they sound. Not only the Great Vowel Shift itself, but also the fact that it happened right after the spellings were fixed, made written English so hard to learn, for native speakers and foreign learners alike.

Many other changes have happened in English since the 16th century. British colonies like America, Canada, Australia, and India took the language to new lands, where it evolved into many new forms. Back in England, the letter r stopped being pronounced in England. Revolutions in philosophy, science, and technology brought in new words coined from Greek and Latin parts. The British colonies became their own countries, and one of them, the United States, became the most influential in the world. With its own dictionary and spelling system made by Noah Webster, American English became the language of the world, learned by people hoping for successful careers, used as a third language by speakers of two different langugages who otherwise couldn’t talk to each other, and enjoyed in movies and music. Today, only Chinese has more speakers worldwide than English; but even Chinese people are learning English. All these changes have shaken, swelled, and streamlined Early Modern English into the Late Modern English that we use today. Yet no change since has been as great as the Great Vowel Shift. That’s why we can confidently call Shakespeare’s English the same as ours.

Our words have come a long way since their first speakers were chasing deer across Europe 5000 years ago. The movements and clashes of people have jarred them into new forms. Some relics of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, like the gender of nouns, have vanished. Some, like the -s ending of third-person singular verbs, are hanging on by a thread. And some, like the pronoun system, have seen both change and preservation. We don’t distinguish anymore between thou and thee, between those and you, or (in speech) between who and whom; but we still do between I and me, she and her, he and him, they and them. Even as English leads the charge into the Information Age, it holds onto some of its oldest features—not because it needs them, but simply because they’re parts of it we aren’t quite ready to give up.

Who knows where English will go from here? All we can say for sure—and isn’t it exciting?—is that you and I will help take it there.