Member of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is traditionally described as having passed through four major stages over about 1,500 years:
- Old English or Anglo-Saxon (c. 500-1050), rooted in the dialects of invading settlers (Jutes, Saxons, Angles, and Frisians);
- Middle English (c. 1050- 1550), influenced by Norman French after the Conquest 1066 and by ecclesiastical Latin;
- Early Modern English (c. 1550-1700), including a standardisation of the diverse influences of Middle English, and;
- Late Modern English (c. 1700 onwards), including in particular the development and spread of current Standard English.
Through extensive exploration, colonisation, and trade, English spread worldwide from the 17th century onwards and remains the most important international language of trade and technology. It is used in many variations, for example British, American, Canadian, West Indian, Indian, Singaporean, and Nigerian English, and many pidgins and creoles.
The ancestral forms of English were dialects brought from the northwest coastlands of Europe to Britain by Angle, Saxon, and Jutish invaders who gained footholds in the southeast in the 5th century and over the next 200 years extended and consolidated their settlements from southern England to the middle of Scotland.
Scholars distinguish four main early dialects: of the Jutes in Kent (Kentish), the Saxons in the south (West Saxon), the Mercians or southern Angles in the Midlands (Mercian), and the Northumbrians or northern Angles north of the Humber (Northumbrian). The first dialect of Old English to rise to literary prominence was Northumbrian, and during the early Old English period Northumbrian schools were the most learned in Christendom, producing such scholars as Bede and Alcuin, confidant and adviser of Charlemagne.
The Danish invasions of the 9th-11th centuries destroyed Northumbrian culture. A new literature arose in the south, under the guidance of King Alfred, and West Saxon became the standard literary dialect. Until the Danish invasions, Old English was a highly inflected language but appears to have lost many of its grammatical endings in the interaction with Danish, creating a more open or analytic style of language that was further changed by the influence of Norman French after the Conquest 1066.
The Middle English period saw a proliferation of regional dialects as earlier forms died out. However, with the rise of London as a metropolis and large- scale immigration from the surrounding area into the city, Midland (roughly corresponding to Mercian of the Old English period) gained predominance and a distinct metropolitan written dialect emerged. For several centuries English was in competition with other languages: first the various Celtic languages of Britain, then Danish, then French as the language of Plantagenet England and Latin as the language of the Church.
In Scotland, English was in competition with Gaelic and Welsh as well as French and Latin. In 1362 English replaced French as the language of the law courts of England, although the records continued for some time to be kept in Latin. Geoffrey Chaucer was a court poet at this time and strongly influenced the literary style of the London dialect. When William Caxton set up his printing press in London (1477) the new hybrid language (vernacular English mixed with courtly French and scholarly Latin) became increasingly standardised, and by 1611, when the Authorised (King James) version of the Bible was published, the educated English of the Home Counties and London had become the core of what is now called Standard English.
Great dialect variation remained, and still remains, throughout Britain. By the end of the 16th century, English was firmly established in four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and with the establishment of the colonies in North America in the early 17th century was spoken in what are now the USA, Canada, and the West Indies.
Seafaring, exploration, commerce, and colonial expansion in due course took both the standard language and other varieties throughout the world. By the time of Johnson's dictionary (1755) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776), English was international and recognisable as the language we use today.
The orthography of English was more or less established by 1650, and, in England in particular, a form of standard educated speech (known as received pronunciation (RP)) spread from the major public schools in the 19th century. This accent was adopted in the early 20th century by the BBC for its announcers and readers, and is variously known as RP, BBC English, Oxford English, and the King's or Queen's English. It was the socially dominant accent of the British Empire and retains prestige as a model for those learning the language. In the UK, however, it is no longer as sought after as it once was.
Generally, Standard English today does not depend on accent but rather on shared educational experience, mainly of the printed language. Present-day English is an immensely varied language, having absorbed material from many other tongues. It is spoken by more than 300 million native speakers, and between 400 and 800 million foreign users. It is the official language of air transport and shipping; the leading language of science, technology, computers, and commerce; and a major medium of education, publishing, and international negotiation. For this reason scholars frequently refer to its latest phase as World English.