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The history of the English language is long and complicated. However, there are several major milestones throughout its evolution which make it what it is today.
In c.500 BC, the Celts, the first known inhabitants of the British Isles, invaded Britain. However, they were severely subjugated when the Romans invaded in 55 BC, resulting in very little of the Celtic language remaining today.
In 45 AD the Romans conquered Britain and Latin, therefore, is an important influence on the English language. The Romans then departed Britain to attend to their depleting empire in 410 AD, making way for the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes and the Fresians to invade in c.450. These four tribes brought with them versions of Old German and Old Danish, which helped to form our language.
C.680 saw the composition of Beowulf, which is the first narrative in the literary canon and in c.790 the Vikings invaded from Scandinavia, bringing Old Norse with them and changing the language still further.
The Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 and resulted in William the conqueror coming to power. During his reign, all those in power spoke French and this language, therefore, strongly influences today’s English.
1375 to 1400 saw the prodigious output of Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the most influential poets of all time and in 1476 William Caxton’s printing press made written English available to everyone.
The Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549 in Latin and would have seen read in church, demonstrating how written English continued to spread.
William Shakespeare, a hugely influential English poet and playwright produced works between 1570 and 1613 which remain in the British academic syllabus to this day. The King James Version of the Bible, in English, was published in 1611. In 1755 the first version of the dictionary was compiled, claiming to catalogue all the words in the English language.
1776 was an important date in the history of the English language because it was the year of American Independence and established millions of new English speakers and with them, the birth of a new form of English.
In 1884, the Oxford English Dictionary was published in twenty volumes, showing just how far the language had grown. English was broadcast around the world when the BBC was established in 1922.
All of this has contributed to English becoming one of, if not the, most widely spoken language in the world. The United Kingdom’s cultural, political, scientific, economic and military power from the 1700s onwards, as well as that of the United States from the mid 1900s, have seen the main drivers behind the language’s prominence.
In international science and business, English remains the most influential language and is an official language of many of the commonwealth countries and the European Union. It is the most popularly learned second language across the world, often being referred to as a ‘world language’ of contemporary society.
However, there are some criticisms of the language’s arguable global dominance. English has been accused of contributing to the ‘death’ of some languages by preventing them from being passed on to further generations. This has been termed ‘English Language Imperialism’ and continues to be debated.