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A Brief History of English

A Brief History of English

Author: Alex Seydow

In this learning packet you will learn:

1. the major groups and time periods in the history of the English language.

2. what kinds of words English borrowed from each influential group.

3. why languages are always changing.

4. why English spelling and grammar is so irregular.

This learning packet includes many video excerpts to explain the major historical groups and how they influenced the language.

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A Brief History of the English Language

From the native Celts to the British colonizers, the English language has changed tremendously throughout its evolution.  Each section of this learning packet will concisely explain one of the major historical groups who influenced the language including examples of the kinds of words English borrowed from them.  Most sections have a corresponding video to bring the information to life.  The videos are very well done and often include examples of how the language sounded at the time.  Enjoy!

The Celts

Who?  The Celts were the native inhabitants of Britain.  They were oppressed by Roman soldiers and considered unsophisticated and backwards people.

When?  Their history on the British Isles dates back to 500 BCE.

Borrowings from Celtic in the English language

Although they were the native inhabitants, the Celtic influence on the English language is limited due to their low status in society. Celtic words include:

River and Place Names 

Thames      London     Dover     Avon

The Sophisticated Celts

Watch this excerpt from the documentary "The Ancient Celts" to learn about how the Celts kept track of the year and why the native people were more sophisticated than the Romans believed.

Occupation and Oppression


The Roman Soldiers

Who?  The Roman soldiers raided the British Isles and created the Roman colony of Brittania. 

When?  The Roman occupation lasted until 410 CE.  As the Roman Empire was crumbling, the Romans retreated the British Isles leaving the Celts defenseless against the invading Germanic tribes.

Borrowings from Roman Soldiers

During their occupation, the Roman soldiers contributed many Latin words including:

Food Words

Pepper  Dish

Butter  Cheese


Words for Trade

Trade  Bushel  Pound

Loan  Coin

90% of our Common Words

The Anglo-Saxons

Who?  The Anglo-Saxons were split into four main tribes: the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians.  They migrated from what is today northern Germany and Denmark.

When?  The Anglo-Saxons occupied Britain in 449 CE.

Click here for more information about Anglo-Saxon history including maps and activities.

Borrowings from Anglo-Saxon

The Anglo-Saxon influence on the English language was tremendous.  Around 90% of common words in English come from Anglos-Saxon such as:

Family Words

Son  Daughter


Common Verbs

Drink  Come  Go

Sing  Like  Love


In  On  Into  By  From

Speaking Anglo-Saxon

Watch this video from BBC One to hear the spoken Anglo-Saxon.

Conversion and Correspondance

The Roman Missionaries

Who?  The Roman missionaries spread Christianity throughout Britain.  They also contributed the Latin alphabet to the English language which allowed words to be written with ink and paper instead of carved into wood or stone like the Runic alphabet of the Anglo-Saxons. This helped in the creation of Christian Bibles which  had a profound influence on the accessibility of the written language.  For more information about how the Bible helped spread English literacy, watch the video under the section "Bizarre Spelling." 

When?  The Roman missionaries arrived in 597 CE.

Borrowings from the Roman Missionaries

The Roman missionaries contributed many words such as:


Religious Words

Altar  Organ  Monk

Alms  Pope  Stole

Hymn  Mass  Martyr


Education Words

School  Master  Verse

Notary  Script

Alfred the Great and the Pagan Pirates

The Vikings and the Danes

Who?  Sometimes called Pagan Pirates, the Vikings settled in East Anglia and controlled Northern and Eastern England.  They raided churches and villages and burned religious books.  However, they were more than just ransacking barbarians.  They were also a people who loved music and celebrated heroism through the telling of epic poems.  

The arrival of the Danes and their language, Old Norse, threatened the English language.  Alfred the Great, one of the most important figures in English history, saved England and the English language when he established a peace treaty with the Danes during what is now referred to as the Danelaw period.  For more information about Alfred the Great, watch the video below.

When?  The Vikings and Danes arrived around 787 CE.

Borrowings from the Vikings and Danes

The Danes and the English often traded and  intermarried which contributed to a blending of English and Old Norse and simplified English grammar.  Old Norse contributed words such as:


They Them Their


Family Names

The Danes added the suffix –son onto the father’s name to create names such as Harrison or Richardson.

How Alfred the Great Saved the English Language

Watch this excerpt from the documentary series "The Adventure of English" to learn more about Alfred the Great and the blending of Old Norse and English.

The Upper Class Speaks French

The Normans

Who?  The Normans arrived in Britain from France.  They brought with them the language of Old French which became the language of power, relegating the English language to the lower classes. At this time, any advanced person in society knew at least some French.

When?  The arrival of the Normans marked the period of Middle English around 1066 CE.

Borrowings from the Normans

It is estimated that around 10,000 French words were contributed to the English language at this time including words such as:

Words for Law and Government

Jail  Attorney  Court  Crime  Judge

Prison  Tax  Verdict      Evidence

Words for Nobility

Count  Countess  Duke  Noble  Royal

Princess  Prince  Peasant

Culture and Fashion Words

Fur  Jewel  Clarinet  Dance

Ruby  Satin  Pendant  Painting  Music

The Language of the Upper Class

Watch this excerpt from The History Channel documentary “The Adventure of English” to learn more about the class system in Britain and the French influence on the English language.

A Rebirth and a Literary Genius


The Renaissance

What?  The Renaissance was a time of new inventions, education, travel and cultural exploration.  Shakespeare also wrote his plays at this time.

When?  Early Modern English was ushered in with the Renaissance in 1500 CE.

Borrowings from Latin and Greek

Many Latin and Greek words were contributed to English during the Renaissance including:

Science Words

Abdomen  Anatomy  Physician  Gradual  Skeleton  Data

Cultural Words

Tragedy  History  Climax  Comedy


Shakespeare's Amazing Vocabulary

Watch this excerpt from the documentary series “The Story of English” to learn more about Shakespeare’s influence on the English language and to hear how Shakespeare's plays would have sounded during the Renaissance.

New Lands and New Words


Colonial Expansion

Around 1800 CE, Colonial expansion brought new Indian American, African, and Australian words to the English language.  Many of these words were used because there was no existing word in English to describe what the colonizers saw and heard in the new colonies.

Borrowings from the Colonies

Nature Words

Moose  Opossum  Zebra  Kangaroo  Hickory

Music Words

Jazz  Jitterbug  Jukebox  Digeridoo

Immigration and Evolution

Language Change

Today, immigration patterns and globalization are continually adding new words to the English language.  English speakers often borrow words from other languages to describe favorite foods.  Words such as tortilla, guacamole, and burrito were adopted from Spanish.  Likewise, the words linguini, espresso, pasta, pizza, ravioli, and spaghetti were adopted from Italian. 

There are also many rule governed dialects such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) which have their own grammar rules and are changing what we come to think of as English.   

The English language is not finished evolving.  Over the next century, new vocabulary and grammatical structures will change the language even more.  If there is one language rule, it is that language is always changing.  And that's a good thing!

Bizarre Spelling

Have you ever wondered why English spelling and grammar are so irregular? The answer lies in the history of English. Watch this video excerpt from the documentary series “The Adventure of English” to learn about how the printing press helped to standardize English and how the Bible promoted literacy across the country.