Clio Edition 4 - page 34

Literature in Old English began to emerge following the
adoption of the Latin alphabet - primarily religious and legal
works but also heroic poetry, the most famous of which being
the 3,183 line epic Beowulf. Written sometime between
the 8th and 11th century in a combination of Old English
dialects, it detailed the battles of the eponymous hero against
the monster Grendel and its mother.
The invasions of the Danish Vikings in the 8th and 9th
centuries brought English into contact with Old Norse,
leaving us with over 1000 Norse-derived words in our
language today, including smile, sister, husband and silver.
Alfred the Great also played a significant role in the
development of the language during his reign (871-899)
generally trilingual nation:
French was the language of the nobility, English the language
of the peasants, and Latin the language of the Church and
During this transitional phase between the 11th and 14th
centuries the English language was under serious threat,
having been replaced by French for most official and political
functions, with Henry IV (r. 1399-1413) being the first
King to have English as a first language since the Norman
invasion. English survived for a few reasons: primarily
the loss of Normandy in 1204, forcing the Norman nobles
to focus more on their English estates. In addition, the
Hundred Years War (1337-1453), branded the French very
distinctly as the enemy, whilst the growth of an English-
speaking merchant and labour class led to increased
use of the language. English did not progress unscathed
though- the Normans had a huge impact on the language,
bringing around 10,000 new words particularly relating to
government, law and culture.
For the majority of the Middle English period, there was a
general sense of equality between the various dialects at the
time; differences were clearly visible, but no one dialect was
seen as objectively ‘correct’ or ‘better’ than the others. Over
time however the growth of London’s financial and political
power, as well as the establishment of the colleges at Oxford
and Cambridge, allowed the South- East to rise to a position
of dominance. This enabled its dialect to become the ‘proper’
way of speaking, whilst
regional dialects began to be
looked down upon.
This dominance was
consolidated in the 15th
century as the language
evolved into Early Modern
English. The introduction
of the printing press in
England brought about a
widespread standardisation
process, allowing London
spelling – where the
majority of publishers were
situated- to become accepted
as correct.
English continued to develop into the 16th and 17th
centuries, during which time English began to look and
sound far more similar to how it does today - 10-12,000 new
words were coined between 1500 and 1650, half of which
are still in use. England underwent a cultural Renaissance,
leading to an influx of words with Greek and Latin origins
as Classical languages rose in popularity. Writers such as
Shakespeare had a profound impact on the language, the
famous playwright having personally introduced up to 2000
new words to the English language. Many phrases of his
invention are still commonly used: ‘minds’ eye’, ‘wild-goose
chase’ and ‘to break the ice’ being but a few.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the language was firmly
‘[there are] over
1000 Norse
derived words
in our language
aiming to improve the literacy
of his subjects by personally
translating various texts
deemed necessary for a full
Following the Norman
invasion of 1066, the language
passed into a phase known as
Middle English, which was
an amalgamation of Old
English and Anglo- Norman
(a medieval French dialect).
This fusion took place over a
number of centuries, during
which time England was a
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