The Story of English

Swapna Mirashi

How an obscure dialect became the world’s most spoken language. A book by Joseph Piercy

An interesting read of how once a peasants’ language has now become a distinction of class in many societies world wide. Interesting also to read the key milestones in the evolution and popularity of the English language as we it know today.

“Language is the armoury of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Peppered with interesting quotes like the one above, this account of English in 6 parts. Each part traces the historical, sociological backdrop and the key literature of the time – one that was not just significant for the time but also in some way responsible for the development of English as a language. 

  • Pre-English (Celts and Romans)
  • The Rise of Old English 
  • Middle English
  • Early Modern English
  • Late Modern English
  •  Post Modern English

Some Interesting Facts:

  • While the old English was pretty standardized,  but after 1066 the standardization disappeared and there were many dialects. English became a peasant language without a writing system.
  • In terms of semantics, lexicon and phonology, middle English = mixture of Old French, Middle French, Anglo Saxon English and Old Norse
  • The Hundred Years’ War between England and France, the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt led to the decline of French influence on English society. Willian Langden’s poem Piers Plowman was a landmark, in that it was written not to entertain the court but to give an account of common people’s life. It then became linked to Peasants’ Revolt
  • Written English came about around 1400. The period between 1350 and 1550 saw The Great Vowel Shift and had a great influence on the lauguage development
  • The Early Modern Era is considered as the Golden Age of English Literature due largely to the works of William Shakespeare
  • Shakespeare the wordsmith coined words and idioms and phrases. The Oxford English Dictionary cites over 2000 words first found in Shakespeare’s poetry and plays.
  • Francis Bacon, John Milton (Paradise Lost by John Milton runs into 12 books and over 10,000 lines of blank verse. This strongly influenced the Romantic Movement, especially works of poets William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. It also inspired many heavy metal bands.)
  • Advent of printing press led to standardization in the language – punctuation, pronouns and standardized spellings.
  • In the late modern period, the language of ships/ shipping entered the vocabulary as also foreign words from across the seas and American Colonies. This period saw the growth of English as a world language due to mainly the Industrial Revolution and expansion of British empire.
  • Grammar guides: In the 50 years between 1750 and 1800 over 200 guides were published – rules governing the language. Two distinct camps – ‘prescriptivists’ – adherence to strict rules and forms of the language and ‘descriptivists’ – rules should be flexible thus allowing to reflect and incorporate common usage.
  • Industrial Revolution and Rise of the Empire – (Macaulay’s education system) – spread of the language.
  • English has proven to be an adaptable language, absorbing from where it traveled – geographically and with age;  Singlish and Spanglish, slang, Euphemism and digital

The Story of English also highlights the key literary works of each era and its contribution to the language.