The story of English--from its start in a jumble of West Germanic dialects to its role today as aglobal language--is both fascinating and complex. This timeline offers a glimpse at some of the key events that helped to shape the English language over the past 1,500 years. To learn more about the ways that English evolved in Britain and then spread around the world, check out one of the fine histories listed in the bibliography at the end of page three. The Prehistory of English
The ultimate origins of English lie in Indo-European, a family of languages consisting of most of the languages of Europe as well as those of Iran, the Indian subcontinent, and other parts of Asia. Because little is known about ancient Indo-European (which may have been spoken as long ago as 3,000 B.C.), we'll begin our survey in Britain in the first century A.D. 43 The Romans invade Britain, beginning 400 years of control over much of the island.
410 The Goths (speakers of a now extinct East Germanic language) sack Rome. The first Germanic tribes arrive in Britain.
Early 5th century With the collapse of the empire, Romans withdraw from Britain. Britons are attacked by the Picts and by Scots from Ireland. Angles, Saxons, and other German settlers arrive in Britain to assist the Britons and claim territory.
5th-6th centuries Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians) speaking West Germanicdialects settle most of Britain. Celts retreat to distant areas of Britain: Ireland, Scotland, Wales.
500-1100: The Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) Period
The conquest of the Celtic population in Britain by speakers of West Germanic dialects (primarily Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) eventually determined many of the essential characteristics of the English language. (The Celtic influence on English survives for the most part only in place names--London, Dover, Avon, York.) Over time the dialects of the various invaders merged, giving rise to what we now call "Old English." Late 6th century Ethelbert, the King of Kent, is baptized. He is the first English king to convert to Christianity.
7th century Rise of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex; the Saxon kingdoms of Essex and Middlesex; the Angle kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. St. Augustine and Irish missionaries convert Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, introducing new religious words borrowed from Latin and Greek. Latin speakers begin referring to the country as Anglia and later as Englaland.
673 Birth of the Venerable Bede, the monk who composed (in Latin) The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731), a key source of information about Anglo Saxon settlement.
700 Approximate date of the earliest manuscript records of Old English.
Late 8th century Scandinavians begin to settle in Britain and Ireland; Danes settle in parts of Ireland.
Early 9th century Egbert of Wessex incorporates Cornwall into his kingdom and is recognized as overlord of the seven kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons (the Heptarchy): England begins to emerge.
Mid 9th century Danes raid England, occupy Northumbria, and establish a kingdom at York. Danish begins to influence English.
Late 9th century King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great) leads the Anglo-Saxons to victory over the Vikings, translates Latin works into English, and establishes the writing of prose in English. He uses the English language to foster a sense of national identity. England is divided into a kingdom ruled by the Anglo-Saxons (under Alfred) and another ruled by the Scandinavians.
10th century English and Danes mix fairly peacefully, and many Scandinavian (or Old Norse)loanwords enter the language, including such common words as sister, wish, skin, and die.
1000 Approximate date of the only surviving manuscript of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, composed by an anonymous poet between the 8th century and the early 11th century.
Early 11th century Danes attack England, and the English king (Ethelred the Unready)...
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