The history of English is long, winding, and complex—but here are the main events that shaped the history of English and gave us the language we use today. Click the links below to read more about English through time.

Nineteenth-Century English

The 19th century saw a lot of changes around the world. Explore the impact this had on the English language, with new words and changing grammar over the 1800s.

  • The Impact of New Technology
    New technology leads to new vocabulary. What influence did cars and the telephone have on English?
  • Local and Global English
    We explore changes to English in the 19th century, on a local and global scale, and look at what contemporary scholars of English were saying.
  • Recording the Language
    The 19th century is the first period from which we have recordings of actual voices—and it was also the dawn of a new approach to dictionary-making.
  • Changing Grammar and New Words
    In the 19th century the English language went through some fundamental changes in terms of spelling, sound, syntax, and meaning. Read all about this period.
  • The Science of Language
    A number of language specialisms appeared at this time, but how did James Murray describe himself?

Twentieth-Century English

How has English changed between 1900 and 1999? And is there truly only one English language?

  • Circles of English
    How did the English language develop in the 20th century? There are three circles that have been identified to represent the diversity of varieties of English.
  • Converging Varieties of English
    Varieties of English seem to have converged over the 20th century: how, and why?
  • Converging Varieties of English
    Varieties of English seem to have converged over the 20th century: how, and why?
  • New Vocabulary
    A lot can change in 100 years: take a look at what happened to English vocabulary over the 20th century and learn how many new words were added to dictionaries.
  • Descriptivists vs Prescriptivists
    Do recent developments in English ever irk you? We look at modern descriptivism and prescriptivism.

Text 1 (Early Modern English)

The extract below was written by John Donne in 1623. Donne was a post and also Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language; and euery Chapter must be so translated; God imploies seuerall translators; some peeces are translated by age, some by sicknes, some by war, some by iustice; but Gods hand is in euery translation: and his hand shall binde vp all our scattered leaues againe, for that Library where euery booke shall ly open to one another: As therfore the Bell that ringes to a Sermon, calls not vpon the Preacher onely, but vpon the Congregation to come; so this Bell calls vs all; but how much more mee, who am brought so neer the doore by this sicknesse… No Man is an Iland, intire of it self; euery man is a piece of the Coninent, a part of the maine; if a clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as wel as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends, or of thine owne were; Any mans death diminishes mee, because I am inuolved in mankind; And therefore neuer send to know for whom the bell tols; It tols for thee.

Text 2 (Late Modern English)

ONE TOUCH OF NATURE


DRAUGHTSMEN, expert in floating architecture, sat in their drawing offices and prepared designs for the new great palace of the seas, that was to carry restless comfort-loving people from one world to another. An exquisite little model of the palace was made in wood, with the innumerable plates and rivets marked thereon, from which model, again, a score of detailed plans were made showing each section enlarged. All this employed the well-paid works of scores of clever people but all this was but a prelude to the real thing.

The real thing, after this relatively abstract preparation, was the concrete battle with resistant matter. Work of the disciplined hand was to follow labour of directing mind.

At once, with formidable din of ringing blow, you may imagine the workshops in the shipyard beginning to hammer upon the hints provided. An army of workmen, a colony of workshops, a population supported upon this! Frames and plates for the gigantic vessel’s sides, plates for the keel which must be ‘sighted’ till its evenness is perfect, riveting of steel frame ribs, staying by cross-girders, a slow building up of the sides of the sea-monster. You see, then, a mighty scaffolding erected by regiments of carefully divided men, each section of them mastering each piece, as the unearthly forest of pine poles rears itself along the length of the building berth. Meanwhile, more men labouring with trained minds and obedient bodies, hour by hour, week by week, proceed with the making of the bulkhead divisions, the deck plates, the deck structures, each in its careful order and situation. Huge hydraulic gantries with electric power assist in the riveting and flattening. Thousands of pounds of electric power, thousands of pounds for the men employed (between three and four thousand of these), thousands of pounds in valuable matter expended, two years or so of unceasing toil in the slow creation of a vessel of many thousand tons—it all amounts at the end to something like a million and a half in money; if for the moment, you consider money as representative of worth.

And then the launching—the huge building slips, the floating crane, with its enormous pillars, the sense of wonder and triumph on that breezy day with a high tide when the Leviathan leaves workshop to receive her final touches—the bowels of her Vulcanic heat, followed by the dry dock finishings. Next—the inauguration, the proud display of her perfections. Now all is ready and the combined skill, the converging effort of an army of human beings, has results at last in this comfortable sea-home for those who buy their passages in it. A permanent population is appointed to live here, with the changing passengers ready to begin the voyage…

There is much in that warning of the philosophers about the grain of sand mightily influential as obstacle in the way of mechanism; or in their thoughts of human endeavour   wrecked by some little kink in the brain, some mote in the eye, some stone falling by chance, so that the very philosopher himself, who was to shatter worlds by his speculation, now lies ashes and nothingness. For Nature, in her careless manner, steps in and makes the time and the labour, the constant effort of the many intelligences, void and helpless before a piece of herself, a futile iceberg, left floating in the monster’s way. In once second, by a mere touch of this Nature, our stepmother, the striving of an army of men is turned to mockery. The Titanic has met an iceberg on her maiden voyage overseas.

(By W. M. from The Mirror, 16 April 1912)

Text 3 (Late Modern English)

THE SUN SAYS

Black hole

THE one thing everyone feared was a fire in the Channel Tunnel.
But we were assured that the safety measures could cope with anything.
That is clearly not true.
A catalogue of failures and human errors could easily have led to a huge loss of life.
Happily, everyone survived—but it could all have been so different.
The public deserves a full explanation of what went wrong and what will be done to make sure that it never happens again.
WHY did the blazing train stop in the tunnel instead of heading for safety?

Sophisticated

WHY was there almost an hour’s delay before Eurotunnel told Kent fire HQ about the
blaze?
WHY didn’t the driver or the train chief uncouple the blazing wagons and move the train
to safety?
WHY did they panic, according to passengers, instead of doing what they were trained
to do?
WHY did the train chief open the carriage doors and let in toxic fumes?
WHY didn’t the sophisticated ventilation system blow the smoke away?
These are not just quibbles about procedures. They are vital questions of public safety
that must be dealt with swiftly.
Eurotunnel have a clear duty to provide answers. Until they do, a lot of people won’t go
near the Chunnel.
The facts about this near-disaster must not be allowed to disappear down a black hole.

(From The Sun, 25 November 1999)