Language Change

These cards look at some of the key features of English in different periods as it has progressed.

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Features of Old English

  • English was a much more inflectional language than it is today.
    • Inflections mean that variations in spelling carried the meaning, rather than word order.  This left writers free to play around with word order for effect (e.g. in poetry) without losing meaning.
  • There were Runic letters in the alphabet: Đ, Æ, Þ - these come from when Anglo-Saxon was a runic language.

Key differences between Old and Modern English:

  • Old English had a dual pronoun (meaning 'you two', 'us two', etc.)
  • Neuter third person personal pronouns no longer exist (just he / she)
  • Third person plural pronouns have changed orthography ('hie'/'heo' --> 'they' | 'hiera'/'heora' --> 'theirs')
  • Feminine third person singular pronoun has changed orthography ('heo' --> 'she')
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History behind Old English

  • Old English was used between 450 -1150
  • England originally invaded by Anglo Saxons -language comes from the Germanic group of languages, similar grammatically to German / Dutch
  • Saxons forced Celts into border regions of Wales, Scotland and Cornwall - took language with them (Kernowec = Cornish language which still remains today)
  • Wales comes from Saxon word 'wealas' meaning 'foreigner' - Celts made into foreigners in own land
  • Romans imposed rules on Celtic people but kept culture separate so when Romans left, culture and language retained - Romans took Latin with them like Celts took their language with them
  • Anglo-Saxon survived due to increasing literary culture
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Middle English

Changes from Old English

  • More stress on the first syllable.  Therefore, inflections at the end of words were more weakly stressed and eventually became redundant.
  • Old English was grammatically inefficient because it had so many common endings, even between singulars and plurals.
  • People tend to adopt changes introduced by more powerful or prestigious groups (in this case, the Normans, who invaded and conquered England in 1066)
  • The King of England between 1016 and 1042 was Danish; having a Scandinavian language was prestigious around this time.

Five main dialects:

  • Kentish
  • Southern
  • East Midlands
  • West Midlands
  • Northern

The most prestigious dialects were Kentish and Southern, while the East Midlands is most similar to Modern English.

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Middle English: key changes

  • The pronunciation of many English words were copied down by French scribes with the French spellings, for example ‘Cwen’ became ‘Queen’ or the use of ‘gh’ in words such as ‘night’ rather than merely ‘h’.
  • Other important changes were the replacement of ‘u’ in close proximity to ‘m’, ‘n’ or ‘v’ with an ‘o’, as the similarity of the u often made it hard to read – thus ‘come’, ‘son’ and ‘love’.  ‘C’ was also used before ‘I’ – ‘cercle’ to ‘circle’
  • ‘K’ and ‘Z’ became more used (as did ‘J’ as a variation of ‘I’)

This meant that by the 15th Century, the English Language had become a blend of two separate spelling systems (English and French). This is one of the reasons why (while often phonetically similar) the spellings of Old English can throw off speakers of Modern English, which is not phonetically spelt.

  • While French was the language of the aristocracy, not everyone spoke French: in 1191, four knights had a legal dispute; one did not speak French, leaving him unable to understand the proceedings.  Around 1160, some English Knights had to hire Normans to teach their children French.
  • In 1200, books started appearing which taught French as a foreign language, with Brut’s ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ of the same year signalling the rebirth of Middle English as the literary language.
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Middle English to Early Modern

Middle English is the basis for the Modern English we use today.

The number of words increased greatly – for the first time, animals had a different word when killed (e.g. cow --> beef).  Similarly, because of the French and Germanic influences, similar words such as deem/judge allowed for a more subtle, precise meaning.

Similarly, adding French words such as ‘gentle’ to English words such as ‘man’ allowed the creation of words such as ‘ungentlemanly’, plus all combinations between the two.

The main reason we find OE so hard to understand is because Modern English is derived from the East Midland dialect of ME, not West Saxon, which most original sources are written in.  The two have different spelling conventions.

Simplified grammar also came as a result of people trying to communicate easily with non-English speakers, made easier by the brief disappearance of English as a written language.

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Early Modern Period

The Early Modern Period is from 1450 to 1800.

  • Standardisation started to occur during this period.
  • Received Pronunciation (RP) started to be based on the South Eastern dialect.

Significant events during this period:

  • 1476 - Caxton's Printing Press
  • 1523 - William Lily's schoolbook A Shorte Introduction of Grammar
  • 1611 - King James Bible
  • 1755 - Johnson's Dictionary

Caxton's Printing Press

  • Increased availability of literature – cheaper, more numerous texts printed for more readers
  • Chose his local dialect (Westminster)
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What is standardisation?

  • Process of change from vernacular language to one with standardised variety to be identified with English as a national state.
  • A standard language is one which provides agrees norms of usage – defined in dictionaries and grammars, for a range of institutional purposes like education, government and science – used for official documents.
  • SE primarily denotes written, especially printed, language use by educated people.

How did it happen?

These processes can occur simultaneously:

  • Selection: An existing language is identified as a base.  Generally the variety selected is that of the most powerful or influential social or ethnic group.
  • Elaboration: ensuring that the new language is able to be used in a variety of different functions (reformation / Renaissance)
  • Codification: establishment of norms of grammatical usage, spelling and vocabulary.
  • Implementation: Encouraging users to develop a loyalty and pride in their language and discourage, as a result, the use of varieties within official domains.
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How standardisation happened


  • Caxton selected his own dialect when creating his printing press, in order to maximise his own profit, because it was the dialect used by those who had the most money.
  • To an extent, the Renaissance contributed to this as key classical texts were translated into English for increased accessibility.


  • The Renaissance was a key contributor to this stage because in the process of translating classical texts into English, new loan words came across into English meaning that an enhanced vocabulary was at the users’ disposal for a variety of functions.
  • The breakaway from Latin into English as the language of the church will have led to an increase in the ‘acceptability’ of English; because it was more widely accepted as a language, people will have had more of a vested interest in it.


  • Reactionary approach did not stem the influx of Latin words but it shows that were defenders of the role of English as a standard language.
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How standardisation happened (2)


  • The school textbook by William Lily taught for the first time the grammatical rules and conventions of English.
  • This meant that for the first time, those learning the language at school were being educated a standard set of linguistic rules in English, meaning that they would have applied these in a common fashion throughout their lives.
  • The use of the book over a long period will have caused the conventions that it taught to ‘set in’, being increasingly widely studied and adopted by students.
  • Similarly, Johnson’s Dictionary set out for the first time the standardised way in which to spell words.  The reduction of variety that would have resulted will have had a similar effect to that of the grammar book in that the standardised spelling would become simply ‘the’ spelling, with variants dying out.


  • The growth of capitalism will have contributed to this, as people wanted there to be an element of prestige to their language, with an English identity resulting from the English language.
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Early Modern Period: Socioeconomic factors

  • The Renaissance – translation of classical languages into English --> process of translation helped to advance English and caused an influx of imported vocabulary, particularly scientific (at one point, 300 words a year) --> more words to talk about things made it a more purposeful language
  • Capitalism – growth of middle class and increase in poverty.  Attitudes of ‘correctness’ --> tool for middle class to separate themselves from working class (prestige).  Changes in structure of class lines.  Emerging middle class could not necessarily speak French or Latin.  Only aristocratic class were educated in French/Latin.  Increased readership of English.
  • Reformation – breaking away from Catholicism into Protestantism.  Helped break away from Latin, with English increasingly becoming the language of the church.
  • Puritanism – came from the back of the reformation movement – wanted more extreme changes.  More reforms to celebrate English culture.  Saw Anglo Saxons almost as a golden era when English was untainted by French.
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Common features of Early Modern English

  • Interchangeability of i/j u/v s/ʃ
  • 3rd person verb inflection ‘eth’ à ‘s’
  • th’ pronouns vs ‘hem’ pronouns
  • NS capitalisation
  • French loan words
  • Final ‘e’
  • Formation of negative
  • Formation of possessive
  • Runic letters (ð, þ, æ)
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Paul Dutton

A clear and informative guide to language change covering a wide range.

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