History of English

A Brief History of the English Language

The English language has undergone many changes over the centuries. There are two main reasons for language change or evolution: socio-historical reasons and linguistic reasons.

Socio-historical reasons for change are external in influence, such as the effects of migration. Linguistic reasons for change in language are those developments that happen naturally over time.


The English language is continually developing as new generations use words differently from previous generations. New vocabulary arrives regularly and words change their meaning over time.

This development in language can be seen with English, for example, where ‘ham’ in Old English became ‘home’ in Modern English.

History of English Language - Old English to Modern English

The same sentence written in Old English (1), Middle English (2), Early Modern (3) and Present day English (4)

English Language Dates Boundaries 

The English language can be split roughly into the following date boundaries:

Old English: c. 450 -1100 (For example, the epic poem Beowulf)

Middle English: c. 1100 -1500 (For example, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales)

Early Modern c. 1500 -1800 (For example, Shakespeare’s plays and poems)

Late Modern c. 1800 – present day


Development of the English Language

Our History of English section will take you through the main changes over the centuries as English has changed and developed into the language we know today:

Old English

The first section begins by describing the origins of English, the grammar and literature of Old English and the influence of the Church.

The Norman Conquest

Our second section looks at the impact of the Norman Conquest on the English language, including the influence of French and the demise of Old English.

Middle English

We then move on to explore the development of Middle English, including the influence of Chaucer. We also discuss the beginnings of standardisation of English through the development of the printing press.

First Printing Press

The first printing press

Early Modern English

Next, we look at Early Modern English, the Great Vowel Shift and the impact of the Great Plague. We also explore Shakespeare’s legacy. We have also created a sub-section devoted to the first English dictionaries, which helped to standardise English spelling and usage.


Late Modern English

Finally, we arrive at Late Modern English, exploring how the industrial revolution, scientific advancements and the expansion of the British Empire affected the English language.

Explore our fascinating History of English section using the links below:

Old English

The Norman Conquest

Middle English

Early Modern English

The First English Dictionary

Late Modern English


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