Main article: History of the English language
Beowulf, an epic poem written in Old English between the 8th and the 11th centuryEnglish is an Anglo-Frisian language. Germanic-speaking peoples from northwest Germany (Saxons and Angles) and Jutland (Jutes) invaded what is now known as Eastern England around the fifth century AD. It is a matter of debate whether the Old English language spread by displacement of the original population, or the native Celts gradually adopted the language and culture of a new ruling class, or a combination of both of these processes (see Sub-Roman Britain).
Whatever their origin, these Germanic dialects eventually coalesced to a degree (there remained geographical variation) and formed what is today called Old English. Old English loosely resembles some coastal dialects in what are now northwest Germany and the Netherlands (i.e., Frisia). Throughout the history of written Old English, it retained a synthetic structure closer to that of Proto-Indo-European, largely adopting West Saxon scribal conventions, while spoken Old English became increasingly analytic in nature, losing the more complex noun case system, relying more heavily on prepositions and fixed word order to convey meaning. This is evident in the Middle English period, when literature was to an increasing extent recorded with spoken dialectal variation intact, after written Old English lost its status as the literary language of the nobility. It has been postulated that English retains some traits from a Celtic substratum. Later, it was influenced by the related North Germanic language Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings who settled mainly in the north and the east coast down to London, the area known as the Danelaw.
The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 greatly influenced the evolution of the language. For about 300 years after this, the Normans used Anglo-Norman, which was close to Old French, as the language of the court, law and administration. By the latter part of the fourteenth century, when English had replaced French as the language of law and government, Anglo-Norman borrowings had contributed roughly 10,000 words to English, of which 75% remain in use. These include many words pertaining to the legal and administrative fields, but also include common words for food, such as mutton and beef. The Norman influence heavily influenced what is now referred to as Middle English. Later, during the English Renaissance, many words were borrowed directly from Latin (giving rise to a number of doublets) and Greek, leaving a parallel vocabulary that persists into modern times. By the seventeenth century there was a reaction in some circles against so-called inkhorn terms.
During the fifteenth century, Middle English was transformed by the Great Vowel Shift, the spread of a prestigious South Eastern-based dialect in the court, administration and academic life, and the standardising effect of printing. Early Modern English can be traced back to around the Elizabethan period.
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