This project began under the sponsorship of IDLE in the Department of English at Virginia Tech in 1998, and has been used since primarily as a supplemental text in ENGL4054, History of the English Language, and as an IDLE module. The author is Daniel W. Mosser and all materials are subject to the copyright of the author. This text is made freely available for pedagogical use, but please do notify me by email of you adopt it for your course: .

Short Version


This section is intended to serve as both an introduction to the accompanying web pages--their content, structures, and relationships--and to sketch briefly an overview of the Evolution of Present-day English. Throughout, the following abbreviations will be used to refer to the various periods of the language's history: OE (Old English); ME (Middle English); EME (Early Modern English); and PDE (Present-Day English). The abbreviations B.C.E (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) are used as more neutral alternatives to "B.C." and "A.D." respectively.

External History


Old English (External History)

Middle English (External History)

Norman Conquest

Early Modern English (External History)

American English

The origin of English is customarily linked to the date 449 C.E. This is the year in which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Laud MS version) records the issuing of an invitation by Vortigern (king of the British, or Celts) to the "Angle kin" (Angles, led by Hengest and Horsa) to help them in their defense against the Picts. In return for their military assistance, the Chronicle says the Angles were granted lands in the southeast. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of three peoples of Germanie": "of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes). These "immigrants" were, as the Chronicle tells us, Germanic, and the roots of English are in the Germanic family of languages. Germanic, in turn, is a branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Subsequent to the establishment of English in "Englalond" (i.e., the land of the Angles), the most profound outside influences on the development of PDE are the Viking conquests and settlements--resulting in the establishment of the Danelaw--and the Norman Conquest. These events resulted in the assimiliation of Old Norse and French vocabulary and other linguistic features.


OE Syntax

ME Syntax

EME Syntax

18th-Century Syntax

Anglo-Saxon, as the language spoken by these Germanic immigrants came to be known, or "Old English," was a much more richly inflected language than the English spoken today. Linguists use the term inflection to refer to the endings added to words to signify their grammatical function and relationships in a phrase or sentence. Present-day English (PDE) has very few grammatical inflections, eight to be precise:

PDE Inflections

third person singular, present tense (verbs)


plural (nouns)

-s ('s)

possessive (nouns)


past tense (verbs)


progressive aspect/ present participle (verbs)


perfect aspect/past participle (verbs: in weak verbs, this is realized as -ed)


comparative (adjectives)


superlative (adjectives)

(Noah Webster, who successfully urged a number of simplifications in American English, at times argued against the preservation of any inflections and for merging the past tense and past participal forms of strong verbs in English. )

OE Nouns
ME Nouns
EME Nouns

A PDE noun, then, has only two inflections: one to signal plurality, and another to signal possession:

PDE Noun Paradigm

singular (Ø inflection)


plural (-s)


possessive ('s)

A language that relies on inflections to do most of the "work" (the signaling of grammatical functions and relationships) is known as a synthetic language. One of the primary differences between OE and PDE is the language's transformation from a highly synthetic language to one the is essentially analytic in character: an analytic language relies on word order and function words to signal grammatical functions and relationships. As a consequence of this change between OE and PDE, if we change the order of the words in a sentence like this one:

The Skipper threw a coconut at Gilligan.

We change the meaning:

Gilligan threw the Skipper at a coconut.

While the sentence is now somewhat nonsensical, we still recognize it as a possible sentence of English, but all of the noun phrases now perform different functions in the sentence because they occupy different positions in the sentence. In the second version of the sentence, Gilligan occupies the subject position; the Skipper occupies the direct object position, and a coconut--the object of the preposition at--occupies an indirect object position.

In OE, however, inflectional endings on nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and determiners can signal those relationships regardless of word order. For example:

Both sentences mean "The fisher(man) caught the fish." In this case, it is the form of the demonstrative pronoun (functioning here much like "the" in PDE) that signals the function of the noun phrase: signals "nominative, singular, masculine" (subject), and signals "accusative, singular, masculine" (direct object).

Gothic Pronouns
OE Pronouns
ME Pronouns
EME Pronouns

The inflections used with nouns, pronouns, and adjectives are signals of case: the function, or grammatical role that the word performs in a phrase or sentence. Strictly speaking, PDE nouns have only two cases signaled by inflections: subject/object, and possessive. The PDE pronoun system preserves the richest array of changes in form to signal case, since for these words a change in form also occurs for the object function.

PDE Pronoun Paradigm

First Person



Nominative (Subject)






Pronominal Genitive



Adjectival Genitive



Second Person



Nominative (Subject)






Pronominal Genitive



Adjectival Genitive



Third Person





Nominative (Subject)










Pronominal Genitive





Adjectival Genitive





Works of Shakespeare
King James Bible

While this paradigm is relatively conservative (i.e., it preserves many older features of the language), readers of Shakespeare and the King James Bible are reminded that as recently as Early Modern English, the language differentiated between singular and plural in the second person: thou, thee, thine for the singular and ye, you, yours for the plural. By Chaucer's time, however, the singular forms were being used by speakers to signal that they regarded the person being spoken to as an inferior, and the plural was used when addressing a single person to indicate deference to their [perceived, or known] superior social status. The plural form thus became in most circumstances the "safest" choice regardless of the number of people being addressed.

The Development of Prescriptive Grammar

Early Modern English negation

Early American views on English Grammar

Another feature of the grammar of English that has been lost (in Standard English) is the use of multiple negatives for emphasis. Chaucer could say of the Knight:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
In all hys lyf unto no maner wight.
General Prologue, 70-71)

And Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, Act 4, Scene 1, has the Feste the Clown say:

Well held out, i' faith! No, I do not know you; nor I am not sent to you by my lady, to bid you come speak with her; nor your name is not Master Cesario; nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so, is so.

In the Eighteenth Century--a period of heightened anxiety about language change and the perceived corruption of English--Bishop Robert Lowth (Short Introduction to English Grammar, 1762) pronounced "Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative," and the (standard) language was forever changed. Multiple negation still occurs regularly in nonstandard forms of English, such as Eddie Murphy's declaration in the movie "48 Hours" that "Neither one of us ain't got nuthin' ta lose." The American Noah Webster chafed against the constraints imposed by Lowth: "In polite and classical language, two negatives destroy the negation and express an affirmative....In popular language, two negatives are used for a negation according to the practice of ancient Greeks and the modern French" (Philosophical and Practical Grammar, 1807; quoted in Finegan 42).

"Ain't" is, itself, a proscribed form in standard English usage, and while one might see the argument about double negatives as an attempt to make the language more "logical" (by invoking mathematical analogy), it is difficult to see the logic that applies here. Note the gap in the following paradigm of standard, informal English contractions of pronoun+be=negative:

I am not

We aren't

You aren't

You aren't

He/She/It isn't

They aren't

Not only does standard English lack the capacity for contraction here in the first person, singular, but speakers of English must commit another illogical act by using the plural verb form for the second person singular (another consequence of Lowth's Grammar). James Sledd once summed up the status of ain't in American English very succinctly (and somewhat hyperbolically) when he observed: "any red-blooded American would prefer incest to ain't"(1964, p. 473). In 1919, H. L. Mencken (The American Language 202) had much to say about ain't:

A shadowy line often separates what is currently coming into sound usage from what is still regarded as barbarous. No American of any pretensions, I assume, would defend ain't as a substitute for isn't, say in "He ain't the man," and yet ain't is already tolera bly respectable in the first person, where English countenances the even more clumsy aren't. Aren't has never got a foothold in the American first person singular; when it is used at all, which is rarely, it is as a conscious Briticism. Facing the alternative of employing the unwieldy "Am I not in this?" the American turns boldly to "Ain't I in this?" It still grates a bit, perhaps, but aren't grates even more.

If Mencken thought he was spotting a trend, however, he was misled. In the first Supplement (1945, p. 406) to The American Language, Mencken give Will Rogers "the last word, perhaps" on ain't: "'Maybe ain't ain't so correct, but I notice that lots of folks who ain't usin' ain't ain't eatin'.'"

Phonology (and the representation of sounds in writing)

If you compared the PDE spelling of the word "stone" in the paradigm above to the spelling of the same word in OE, you probably noticed that the vowel o was spelled in OE as a (with a macron above it to indicate length). This is one of many differences in the appearance of OE and PDE. Between ca. 1500 and 1700, English long vowels underwent a systematic change that resulted in the vowel system found in most varieties of English today (Scots English is one clear exception). This process is generally referred to as the Great Vowel Shift. This process will be dealt with in a more sophisticated fashion elsewhere, but as a preview, the following drastically simplified description might be useful. In the table below, the focus is on the vowel sounds that these PDE spellings signifiy. The sounds in the lefthand column represent the pre-GVS state and the sounds in the righthand column the post-GVS state:















Vowels are notoriously unstable, and one can hear vowel shifts underway in many regional varieties of PDE. Listen, for example, to variations in the pronunciation of "oil," "bye," "wire," and "pen" in the speech of your friends, co-workers, or speakers on radio and television. It is unlikely that the spellings of these sounds will change to reflect changes in standard pronunciation. In fact, that is one of the problems created by the Great Vowel Shift: English spellings had become relatively fixed before the GVS occurred; as a result, our representations of those sounds using the spellings of pre-GVS sounds means that English spelling is somewhat "out of synch" with phonetic alphabet representations.

Because the Latin alphabet did not require characters to represent some of the sounds used in OE, scribes supplemented it with characters from the runic alphabet, futhorc, as well as with innovations of their own. Four OE characters that may cause PDE readers problems are:


By the Middle English period, while thorn and eth were still common, ash and wen had fallen out of use.

Most of the differences between American and British spelling were introduced by Noah Webster, most notably in his An American Dictionary of the English Language.


OE Lexicon
Celtic Influence
Latin Influence
Church Influence
Old Norse Influence
ME Lexicon
EME Lexicon
Inkhorn Controversy

American English Lexicon


The vocabulary of Present-Day English bears witness to the interaction of English speakers with speakers of other languages. Two "hostile takeovers" in the middle and at the end of the OE period resulted in the importation of significant words and significant numbers of words. Of the thousand most frequently-used words in English today, it is estimated that over 80% are descended from OE (Cassidy & Ringler, p. 3, citing Roberts, p. 37). Of the approximately 24,000 words in OE, only about 3% were borrowed from other languages. By contrast, at least 70% of the vocabulary of PDE derives from loan words (Kastovsky, p. 294, citing Scheler, p. 74). The majority of loanwords in the OE period came from Latin. The Viking invasions of parts of England from 787-850 initiated contact between two Germanic speech communities: OE and Old Norse. This period of contact was overshadowed by the large-scale invasions and subsequent settlements of Danes that began in 866 and culminated in the Treaty of Wedmore, which established the Danelaw: an area of Danish rule in the northeast of England. In the OE period, only about 150 loanwords from Old Norse are attested, but in the Middle English period, several thousand Old Norse words come into the language, of which perhaps as many as 900 survive in Present-Day Standard English and "600 or more in the dialects" (Kastovsky, p. 320, citing Hansen, p. 63, and Geipel, p. 70).

Some of the more notable borrowings from Old Norse include such commonly-used words as: sky, egg, dirt, rotten, give, get, raise, and the plural pronoun forms beginning with th-, they, their, them.

The next major infusion of loanwords follows the Norman Conquest in 1066. The period from the Conquest up to about the year 1250 results in fewer borrowings of lexical items (about 900), than the period following 1250, with the largest number of loanwords from this period illustrating the influence of the Church. Non-ecclesiastical terms include feast, dame, servant, messenger, and story. By 1485, a up to 10,000 loanwords from French had entered the language, of which about 7,000 survive (Bourcier, p. 40).





















C.E. is frequently used as an alternative to A.D. and can signify "Common Era" or "Christian Era." [back]