English is the most widely spoken of the Western Germanic languages, both in number of native speakers and in geographical distribution. It is the official language of Great Britain and the native language of most of the British (although Welsh is still spoken in Wales, and Scottish Gaelic in parts of Scotland). Together with Irish Gaelic (which is only spoken in some of the westernmost regions of Ireland) it is also an official language in the Republic of Ireland. Outside the British Isles English is the official language in two other European regions, namely Gibraltar (although most inhabitants have Spanish has their native language) and Malta (where the inhabitans speak Maltese among themselves).

As a result of the rise of the British Empire the English language spread to many other countries and it is now the dominant language of the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and of Canada (where it is co-official with French). English is also the official language (or widely used as a lingua franca) in many other former British territories, such as India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Zambia. After the demise of the British Empire English remained an important world language due to the rise of the USA as a new world power.

Old English, the ancestor of Modern English originated from the dialects that were spoken by the Germanic tribes from northwest Germany and Jutland that invaded Britain in the 5th century. The name English evolved from the name of one of these tribes, the Angles whose homeland was the angular (hence their name) coastal region of what is now the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Another of these tribes were the Saxons (after which Saxony in Germany was named) and Anglo-Saxons is the common name used for the Germanic tribes who conquered England. Eventually English replaced the Celtic languages that were dominant in Britain before these invasions, and they only survided in the most isolated areas.

Old English was actually a very different language from Modern English; it differs much more from its modern descendant than for instance Ancient Greek differs from modern Greek. Nevertheless, much of the basic vocabulary of Old English is more or less recognizable for modern speakers of the language. Here are a few examples of Old English words that are similar to their modern counterparts (although sometimes their meanings have changed):

Old EnglishModern English
deordeer (orig. wild beast)
cnihtknight (orig. youth)

It is important to realize that the spelling of Old English differs considerably from the spelling of Modern English. For instance, in cyning the letter c is pronounced as k, the combination sc in scort (also spelled sceort) is pronounced as sh, and the y sounds like the u in French or the ü in German (a vowel not found in Modern English). Furthermore the examples above show that Old English uses the letters æ and þ that are not used in Modern English anymore. Together with a third letter (ð) they later disappeared from the English orthography. The letters þ (called thorn) and ð (called eth ) were borrowed from the Germanic runic script to represent the two consonants that are spelled th in Modern English.

With regard to the runic script it should be noted that it co-existed with the Latin alphabet in England for many centuries after the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Christian religion. Only after England was conquered by the Normans, who brought the French language to this country, did the runes finally give way to Latin letters.

In later centuries the English vocabulary has become vastly different from the vocabularies of other Germanic languages, which is due to the massive borrowing of words from non Germanic sources (mainly Norman French) and changes in the sounds as a result of isolation from the continental Germanic languages. Nevertheless, there are still many similarities in basic vocabulary as shown in the next table, which compares some English words with their cognates in Dutch, Frisian, German (Western Germanic) and in Danish and Icelandic (Northern Germanic).


As mentioned before, Celtic languages were spoken in England before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, but there are but few Celtic loanwords in English. Most of the early borrowings are toponyms, like the name of the river Avon (meaning simply river, cf. Welsh afon and Gaelic abhainn). Celtic words in English that are not toponyms are usually words borrowed in later centuries. Examples of these are cromlech from Welsh and whiskey from Scottish Gaelic (uisge beatha = "water of life").

When the Anglo-Saxons came to England they already used some words of Latin origin which the Germanic tribes had borrowed from the Romans, like cealc (chalk, from Latin calx, meaning lime) and win (wine, from Latin vinum), and after they became Christians their language got a few more foreign words from Latin and/or Greek, like apostol (apostle, Lat. apostolus, Gr. apostolos) and munuc (monk, Lat. monachus, Gr. monachos). But usually when the Anglo-Saxons needed a word for something that was new to them, they created a new word rather than borrow a foreign word for it. Examples of these words are tungolcræft (lit. "star-craft") for astronomy, and rimcræft (lit. "number-craft") for arithmetic.

In the late 8th century a series of new Germanic invasions of Britain started, this time from Scandinavia. The pirate raids of the vikings were eventually followed by a full-scale invasion which resulted in the permanent occupation by the Danes of a part of England (the so-called Danelaw in the northeast). The Danelaw was reconquered by the English in the early 10th century, but the Danes renewed their raids and in 1016 Cnut, king of Denmark and Norway, became the ruler of England as well.

As a result of all this the language of the Scandinavian invaders (Old Norse) has influenced Old English, and many common English words are of Scandinavian origin. Examples of these are window (cf. Icelandic vindauga, lit. "wind-eye") and sister (cf. Icelandic systir. Apparently the Scandinavian word replaced, or at least influenced, the related Old English sweostor).

The differences between Old English and Old Norse were not so great as those between Modern English and for instance Modern Danish, and many words were quite alike. In some cases the English and Scandinavian forms of which is etymological the same word, are both still present in Modern English, but used with slightly different meanings. An examples of such a pair is shirt and skirt. English words that begin with sk (which corresponds to English sh) are almost always of Scandinavian origin. Another such word is sky which originally meant cloud and existed in Old English as sceo. The English form sceo has disappeared and the Scandinavian sky has acquired the meaning of Old English heofon, which in turn was narrowed in meaning. Nowadays the modern form heaven is mainly used in a metaphysical sense.

Old English is a typical inflectional language which in this respect can be compared to present-day Icelandic (the most conservative of the Germanic languages). The endings of Old English nouns and adjectives depend upon the function of those words in the sentence. The following table shows of the words nama (name), eare (ear) and tunge the various forms in every combination of number (singular or plural) and case (nominative, genitive, accusative and dative case).



Note that as in Modern German, nouns in Old English can be either masculine, neuter or feminine. Nama is masculine, eare neuter and tunge feminine. If a word denotes a living being the gender will often be the same as the sex of this being, but this is not always the case. For instance widuwe (widow) is feminine, but wif (woman or wife) is neuter and wifmann (woman) is masculine!

All three words in the table belong to the so-called weak declension class. There are two more types of declensions, both considerably more difficult than the weak declension (to which belong only a few words that are declined slightly differently from the rest).

In Modern English only a few remnants of declension have remained. To the English word horse can be attached the ending -s to make the plural form horses, and by attaching -'s we can make the genitive form horse's (which is pronounced exactly the same as horses, so strictly speaking Modern English regular nouns have only two forms: the root itself and the root plus -s). Another leftover from the Old English declensional system are the personal pronouns, which usually have two forms (the only exception being you and it). In the nominative case the forms I, he, she, we, they are used, but in the oblique case (into which the old accusative and dative case have merged) the forms me, him, her, us, them are used instead. So, it is still possible to change the word order of the sentence "I hit him" into "Him I hit" without changing the meaning of the sentence. However if we would change the sentence "The dog saw the cat" into "The cat saw the dog" any reader or listener would be inclined to interpret the second version quite differently (unless the context and a strong stress on the word cat would suggest otherwise). The reason is for this is that in Modern English the subject almost always comes before the object, so normally we would assume that the cat (object) was seen by the dog (subject).

In Old English however it would be possible to put the object before the subject without changing the meaning of the sentence, because the case endings would still unambiguously mark the subject and object. As said earlier, only relics of this system exist in Modern English, which largely depends on a more or less fixed word order and the use of prepositions (e.g. the palace of the king rather than the king's palace) as alternatives for the old case system.

Like Old English nouns, Old English verbs have many more forms than in verbs in Modern English. Suffice it to say that the conjugation of verbs in Old English is even more complicated than the declension of nouns. To illustrate this the following table shows the various forms of the verb lufian (to love).


Inflected infinitive
 to lufienne

Present indicative
1st sing.lufie
2st sing.lufast
3st sing.lufaþ

Preterite indicative
1st sing.lufode
2st sing.lufodest
3st sing.lufode

Present subjunctive

Preterite subjunctive


Present participle

Past participle

After comparing Old English with Modern English, which has to do with love, loves, loved, loving and the rarely used "biblical" forms lovest, loveth and lovedst, saying that that the number of possible verb forms in English has been reduced would be an understatement. Since English is nowadays an important world language it is fortunate for non-native speakers (like myself) that they only need to learn 3 different endings for the regular verbs!

It is generally assumed that the contact between Old English and Old Norse contributed to the disappearance of much of the English inflectional system. The theory amounts to this: Both Old English and Old Norse had an elaborate system of inflections. Also Old English and Old Norse were fairly closely related, so to a certain extent the English and the Scandinavians could communicate with each other, each party using its own language. Old English and Old Norse inflections and the ways they were used were in some cases similar and in other cases different, so it is safe to assume that confusion arose and that endings were mixed up or even neglected, making it more difficult to indicate the grammatical functions of the words by way of inflection. This confusion possibly let to the rise of other ways to indicate those functions, like a fixed word order and the addition of new auxiliary verbs to the language.

In the 11th century England was invaded again, this time by the Normans. The Normans were descendents from Scandinavians (Norman = "North-man") who had settled in the part of France that is now known as Normandy. Although their ancestors of course spoke Norse, they had already adopted the language and culture of their new homeland at that time. So, the Normans spoke French and their language would become the language of the ruling class in England for several centuries.

It will be obvious that this French from 11th century Normandy differed from French as it is spoken today. Some borrowings from Old French that still exist in English are not used in Modern French anymore, such as mortgage (Modern French hypothèque), and many others have changed more drastically in French than in English. An example is for instance the Old French warderobe which became wardrobe in Modern English but garderobe in Modern French.

After the conquest of England French became the language of the aristocracy and the higher clergy while the common people continued to speak Anglo-Saxon. But naturally Anglo-Saxon became heavily influenced by French in the centuries after the invasion; many thousands of French words were borrowed, and English lost even more of its inflectional character.

Eventually the aristocracy became completely anglicized and English emerged again as the language of all the inhabitans of England. But although Modern English is basically still a Germanic language the French influence (and to a lesser extent the Scandinavian influence) has caused it to have a vocabulary that differs in many respects from that of its continental relatives. And due to the insular position many Germanic words in English have become pronounced very differently from their cognates in the other Western Germanic.

A rather unfortunate heritage of the Norman invasion is the chaotic spelling of Modern English, which is partly due to the fact that is actually a mixture of two very different systems, Anglo-Saxon and French. And in some cases scholars made the situation even worse by introducing spellings like island with an s that has never been pronounced (this word originates from Old English iegland and not from Old French isle, which indeed lost its s and became île in Modern French). Another example is the word whore to which the learned men added a w, although this word (originally Scandinavian) has always started with an h in pronunciation (cf. Icelandic hóra and Dutch hoer).

Yet the English spelling does have this one advantage that for instance the word national is easily recognized as a deriviation of nation, even though the first vowel in national is pronounced differently from the one in nation. This would be less obvious in a spelling that better reflects the pronunciation (e.g. national and naytion).