The Story of English in 100 Words

Excerpted from The Story of English in 100 Words. Copyright © 2012 by David Crystal and reprinted by permission of

Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

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A Short History of English Words

The Anglo-Saxon monk, Bede, writing in his monastery in Northumbria in about the year 730, gives us an early account of those who first spoke the English language. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in Latin, he tells us that the island ‘contains five nations, the English, Britons, Scots, Picts, and Latins, each in its own peculiar dialect cultivating the sublime study of Divine truth.’ And he goes on to explain how this situation came about.

The first arrivals, Bede says, were Britons (we would now call them Celts), and they gave their name to the land. The Picts then arrived in the north, from Scythia via northern Ireland. The Scots arrived some time later, and secured their own settlements in the Pictish regions. Then, ‘in the year of Rome 798’ [= 43 AD], Emperor Claudius sent an expedition which rapidly established a Roman presence in the island.

The Romans ruled in Britain until the early 5th century, when Rome was taken by the Goths, and military garrisons were withdrawn. Attacks on the Britons by the Picts and Scots followed. The Britons appealed to Rome for help, but the Romans, preoccupied with their own wars, could do little. The attacks continued, so the Britons came to a decision. As Bede recounts:

They consulted what was to be done, and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations; and they all agreed with their King Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation… Then the nation of the Angles, or Saxons, being invited by the aforesaid king, arrived in Britain with three long ships.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports their landing in Ebbsfleet (Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate, Kent) in 449 AD. And within 250 years, it would seem from the earliest records, the language we now know as Old English (sometimes called Anglo-Saxon) achieved its distinctive character.

English Vocabulary

Vocabulary is always a primary index of a language’s identity, simply because there is so much of it. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows that the pronunciation and basic grammar can be acquired relatively quickly, but the task of word learning seems to have no end. Vocabulary is indeed the Everest of language. And it is a mountain that has to be scaled if fluency is to be attained.

In the case of English, the task has been made more complex by the range and diversity of its vocabulary – a reflection of the colourful political and cultural history of the English-speaking peoples over the centuries. To change the metaphor: English is a vacuum-cleaner of a language, whose users suck in words from other languages whenever they encounter them. And because of the way English has travelled the world, courtesy of its soldiers, sailors, traders, and civil servants, several hundred languages have contributed to its lexical character. Some 80 percent of English vocabulary is not Germanic at all.

English is also a playful and innovative language, whose speakers love to use their imaginations in creating new vocabulary, and who are prepared to depart from tradition when coining words. Not all languages are like this. Some are characterized by speakers who try to stick rigidly to a single cultural tradition, resisting loanwords and trying to preserve a perceived notion of purity in their vocabulary (as with French and Icelandic). English speakers, for the most part, are quite the opposite. They delight in bending and breaking the rules when it comes to word creation. Shakespeare was one of the finest word-benders, showing everyone how to be daring in the use of words.

So a word-book about English is going to display, more than anything else, diversity and individuality. There are few generalizations that apply to the whole of its lexicon. Rather, to see how English vocabulary evolved, we must distinguish the various strands which have given the language its present-day character.

Germanic Origins

We begin with the Germanic origins of the language, which can be seen in the early inscriptions that used a form of the runic alphabet widespread in northern Europe. Runes are found on monuments, weapons, ornaments, and many other objects, including some very unusual ones (1 roe). The Germanic character of English is also visible in the place-names of ancient Britain (2 lea), and in the ‘little’ words that show grammatical relationships (5 out, 10 what). By the 7th century, we find the earliest surviving manuscripts in Old English, first in the form of glosses and then in texts of continuous prose, several displaying distinctive scribal abbreviations (3 and). However, the actual name of the language is not recorded until the 10th century (13 English).


English has never been a purely Germanic language. On the mainland of Europe, the Germanic languages had already incorporated words from Latin, and these arrived in Britain with the Anglo-Saxons. Latin then continued to be an important influence, introducing everyday words to do with plants and animals, food and drink, buildings, household objects, and many other domains (6 street). This vocabulary continued to expand, with the growing influence of missionary activity reflected in an increase in words to do with religion and learning. Old English also contains a few Celtic words (12 brock) – not many, but enough to remind us of the earlier inhabitants of the island.

Scandinavia provided another source of words in the Anglo-Saxon period, but only after a considerable passing of time. The Vikings made their presence felt in Britain in the 780s, attacking the south coast, and then the monasteries in the north. Conflict continued for a century, until the Treaty of Wedmore in 886 between King Alfred and the Danish leader Guthrum established an area of eastern England which, because it was subject to Danish laws, came to be known as the Danelaw. A few Old Norse words are found in Old English writings, but the vast majority are not seen until the 13th century. The earliest Middle English literature shows hundreds of Norse words in use (20 skirt, 22 take away).

But the Latin and Norse elements in English are small compared with the huge impact of French in the Middle Ages – a consequence of the dominance of French power in England after 1066 and of French cultural pre-eminence in mainland Europe. Anglo-Saxon words could not cope with the unfamiliar domains of expression introduced by the Normans, such as law, architecture, music, and literature. People had no alternative but to develop new varieties of expression, adopting Continental models, and adapting traditional genres to cope with the French way of doing things. The early Germanic vocabulary, reflecting an Anglo-Saxon way of life (4 loaf, 7 mead) gave way to a French view of the world which affected all areas of life, from food (17 pork) to law (18 chattels), and introducing new forms of address (19 dame). The new words usually replaced the old ones, but more often the old words survived, sometimes developing a different meaning (21 jail) or stylistic use (30 royal).

The international contacts made by British explorers, traders, and travellers began as a trickle in the 14th century (33 taffeta) and by the 16th century had become a flood (39 potato). The renaissance of learning brought a renewal of contact with Latin and Greek, so much so that the number of classical words entering English actually generated huge controversy (41 ink-horn). Not all welcomed the change in the language’s lexical character. For some, the arrival of classical loanwords made the language elegant; for others, the effect was to make it alien. An argument in favour of keeping the Germanic character of English began in the 16th century and has been with us ever since (74 speech-craft). But nothing has ever stemmed the flow of loanwords into the language, and the range was greatly increased by the global spread of English.

American English was the first major variety of the language to emerge outside of the British Isles. It did not take long before the early explorers began to use words from American Indian languages (45 skunk) and these along with many others helped to develop an American identity (58 Americanism). From the 17th century on, the geographical horizons of the language steadily expanded as the British Empire grew, and English began to be adapted to meet the communicative demands of new cultures. A language soon shows the effect in its vocabulary of being in a new location, especially when we are dealing with such dramatically different parts of the world as India (48 lakh) and Africa (62 trek). A regionally distinctive English vocabulary involving thousands of items can emerge within just a few years. In addition to loanwords, the local culture will adapt native English words, giving them different forms and meanings (68 dinkum, 69 mipela). The process of borrowing continues today, largely motivated by economic and cultural factors (70 schmooze, 78 robot, 96 sudoku).

David Crystal is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. In 1995, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English language. He lives in the United Kingdom.