The History of English Podcast - Episode 1: Introduction

Welcome to the first episode of the History of English podcast.

My name is Kevin Stroud, your host for this podcast which will explore the history of

the English language.

In this introductory episode, I want to lay the groundwork for the series of episodes

which will follow.

Let me begin by noting that this is ultimately a history podcast.

The topic happens to be English, but this is not a podcast about the technical aspects

of English.

It’s not my goal or intention to teach anyone proper grammar or pronunciation.

Instead, this is a podcast about the history of the language.

And you can’t separate the history of the language from the history of those who spoke

the language.

So this is really the story of the English language from its earliest ancestor, the Indo-European

language spoken in Eastern Europe over 4,000 years ago, to its current status as the closest

thing we have to a modern international language.

And it’s the story of the people, places, and events which shaped the language into

what it’s become today.

It’s also the story of the words which we use today and how those words came into our


In speaking of the language we have today, it’s a language that’s emerged from an obscure

Germanic dialect spoken in Northern Europe about 2,000 years ago to one of the most commonly

spoken languages in the world.

Technically speaking, English ranks behind Chinese and Spanish in terms of the most commonly

spoken native or first languages.

But when second or other learned languages are taken into account, it rivals Chinese

in terms of speakers and is undoubtedly the most commonly learned language in the world.

Some linguists estimate that nearly one billion people speak English today.

Of the total number of English speakers, it’s estimated that there are approximately three

times as many non-native speakers of English as native speakers.

And this reflects the desire of people around the world to learn English as the de facto

international language.

English is routinely used as the common medium of communication among speakers of other languages.

When German businessmen established a Volkswagen plant in China, the Germans and their Chinese

counterparts used English to communicate with each other, even though it’s not the native

language of either group.

And a Russian airline pilot landing in Rome will communicate with the Italian air traffic

controller in English, not Russian or Italian, because English is the official language for

international aviation.

So it’s very easy to see that English has emerged and continues to emerge as the predominant

international lingua franca.

So why should we bother learning about the history of English?

Well, first, simply because it’s interesting.

It really is a fascinating story.

But also because it helps to explain many of the peculiar aspects of English.

Why do so many of us say, I could care less, when what we really mean to say is, I could

not care less?

And why do we have houses, but not mouses?

We have mice.

Why do we have boxes and foxes, but not oxes?

We have oxen.

We have man, woman, and child, but we don’t have mans, womans, and childs.

Why do we spell knife with a K, or gnome with a G?

And why is the F sound sometimes spelled with a GH as in cough, and other times with a PH

like phone?

I mean, I could go on and on because the examples seem endless.

But the answers to those questions lie in the history of the language.

Now I’ve heard some people express that English must have an unusually large number of these

peculiarities compared to other languages.

But that’s not necessarily true.

There are lots of languages, and many of them are quite complicated and have lots of unusual

or peculiar rules.

But the one thing that English does have that lots of other languages don’t is a massive


It’s generally agreed that no other language has the number of words that English has.

And that should tell you something.

Unlike some languages, which reject outside influences, English has shown an incredible

willingness and ability to adapt and evolve, to borrow elements from other languages, including

words, and to adapt them into English.

About 1,000 years ago, in the year 1066 to be precise, an army led by William of Normandy

invaded England from northern France.

And many of you will know this story very well because William of Normandy became known

to history as William the Conqueror, the last foreign leader to invade and conquer


The arrival of the Normans changed almost everything in England, socially, culturally,

economically, legally, and especially linguistically.

The defeated Anglo-Saxon earls were wiped out and removed from power, and they were

replaced by Norman French earls and knights who had fought with and supported William.

For the next three centuries, French became the official language of the English government,

the courts, the aristocracy, and the ruling class.

In fact, it was not until the late 1300s, around the beginning of the so-called Wars

of the Roses, that we have an English monarch who spoke English exclusively again.

What we see happening here is a theme which will extend throughout the podcast.

Language shift is not about numbers.

It’s about power.

A relatively small number of powerful people speaking one language can make a much larger

number of people learn their language.

We see the same phenomenon in Western Europe when a relatively small number of Latin-speaking

Romans imposed their language on the Celtic peoples who they invaded in Western Europe.

Today, almost everyone in continental Europe west of Germany speaks a language which evolved

from Latin, the so-called Romance languages.

We also see it in the spread of English in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The total number of people who speak English as their first language is relatively small

compared to the world at large, yet people throughout the world seek to learn and communicate

with each other in English.

It’s this tendency for language to spread because of power, sometimes military or political

power, sometimes economic power, sometimes social or cultural power.

But it’s this tendency for language to spread because of certain power associated with the

speakers of the language that caused a major upheaval in the English language when the

Norman French arrived in 1066.

Afterwards, French was imposed by the Normans as the official language of England.

During that period, English came very close to disappearing as a distinct language.

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that it almost became an anglicized dialect

of French.

It absorbed a massive number of French words.

But it didn’t become French.

It remained English, albeit a highly modified version of English.

It became a much larger language with an enhanced vocabulary.

The language changed so much as a result of this experience that linguists mark this period

as the transition from Old English or Anglo-Saxon to the period known as Middle English.

And this is but one example of how English survived by assimilating outside influences

rather than rejecting change and subsequently dying out.

The Norman conquest was just one event that changed the English language.

But all languages are constantly evolving and changing.

It’s just that the changes are typically more gradual and subtle, not the sudden and

dramatic change marked by the Norman conquest of England.

In fact, linguists employ a general rule to mark the natural evolution that most languages experience.

That general rule is that most languages evolve over the course of a thousand years to the

point that a speaker at the beginning of that period would not be able to communicate with

a speaker at the end of that period because of the natural language change.

And this general rule certainly applies to English.

As I mentioned before, there are earlier periods of English known as Old English and an intermediate

period known as Middle English.

There’s also a third period which represents the version of English which we speak today

called Modern English.

So those are the three periods to keep in mind.

Now if I conducted a poll and told most people that there were three periods of English,

Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, and I asked them to tell me which period Shakespeare

belonged to, I suspect that the overwhelming majority would answer either Old English or

Middle English.

In fact, I would not be completely surprised if no one gave the correct answer, which is

Modern English.

Shakespeare is considered a Modern English writer because we can read his words today

without the need for a translation.

Now I know some of you will say, hold on a minute, I need a translator to read Shakespeare.

But there is a difference between not understanding Shakespeare’s references, or the particular

way in which he uses words for literary effect, and not understanding the language itself.

There are certainly translations of Shakespeare’s works into conversational contemporary English,

and those translations can be helpful, but they’re not necessary.

If you’re willing to spend the time and effort, you can read Hamlet or Macbeth today in the

same words Shakespeare used and still understand the gist of the story.

Another literary work from the same time period is the King James Bible.

Once again, there are modern translations of the King James Bible to make it easier

to read, but it’s not necessary.

If you’re so inclined, you can read the King James Bible and understand it without a translation.

Now Shakespeare’s works and the King James Bible were written in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

So this was near the beginning of the Modern English period, and that’s part of the reason

why there are noticeable differences between the English used in those works and contemporary English.

But English has not evolved to an extent that we can no longer understand those 16th and

17th century works.

But if we were to go back in time a little further, from the 1600s to the 1300s, we would

find ourselves in the period known as Middle English, the period following the Norman conquest

of England.

And the big difference between that period and the Modern English period is the way words

were pronounced, especially vowels.

For some reason, around the year 1500, English speakers in the British Isles, primarily in

England and even more specifically in the south of England, in and around London, they

began to change the way they pronounced their vowels.

This is known as the Great Vowel Shift.

This shift or pronunciation change is one of the events which marks the transition from

Middle English to Modern English.

So what did Middle English sound like?

Well, one of the benefits of a podcast is that I can actually illustrate how these older

versions of the language sounded.

But first, a disclaimer.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the pronunciation of Middle English or Old English.

Again, my focus here is on the history, not so much the precise manner in which Old English

vowels or consonants were enunciated.

However, I hope that my pronunciation will give you at least a general sense of how the

earlier versions of the language sounded.

So in order to illustrate the evolution of English, I want to read a passage from one

of the most important pieces of literature composed during the period of Middle English,

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

It’s very likely that you read The Canterbury Tales in school.

I know I did.

But what you probably read was a Modern English translation of the original text written by

Chaucer in the 1300s.

The book is a collection of tales told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine

of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral.

The following passage occurs near the beginning of the book as the author recalls his first

impressions upon meeting the pilgrims, in this instance a knight.

A knight there was, and he was a worthy man, who from the time that he first began, to

ride out, he loved chivalry, truth and honour, freedom and courtesy.

He fought bravely in his lord’s wars, and in them he had ridden no other man so far.

As well in Christendom as in heathen places, and ever honoured for his worthiness.

Now here’s the same passage as it was actually written by Chaucer, and as it would have been

read in the 1300s during the period of Middle English.

A knight there was, and that a worthy man, that from the time that he first began, to

ride out, he loved chivalry, truth and honour, freedom and courtesy.

He fought bravely in his lord’s wars, and in them he had ridden no other man so far.

As well in Christendom as in heathen places, and ever honoured for his worthiness.

That was the sound of Middle English.

I think the most important thing to take from that passage is that it’s really not that

far from modern English.

The words and grammar are very similar.

The biggest difference is pronunciation.

Again there was a time when certain words, and especially the vowels, were pronounced

differently than today.

There are three key components to language.

The words that are spoken, the vocabulary, the way in which those words are put together,

the grammar, and the way in which the words are actually spoken, the pronunciation.

The first two of those are very similar to modern English.

It’s the third that marks the biggest difference.

Let me give you another example.

I’m going to use a passage which is often used for the purpose of illustrating the evolution

of English, the Lord’s Prayer.

I’m going to use this passage not for any particular religious purposes, but simply

because it’s a passage which exists in many different historical languages, including

modern, middle, and old English.

The modern English version comes from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, so this is shortly

before Shakespeare’s writings.

Here it is.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that

trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Now in Middle English.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that

trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

So as you can hear, Middle English is not the English we speak today, but it’s close

enough that we can recognize it as a form of English.

But if we were to go back in time even further, to the period before Middle English, before

the arrival of the Norman French in Britain, we see and hear a language that’s barely recognizable

as a form of English at all, but it is.

It’s the earliest version of English, which is known as Old English, or Anglo-Saxon.

You’ve probably heard English described as a Germanic language, but you may not know

exactly what that means.

Does that mean English came from German?

No, not exactly.

It means that English, like modern German, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian, all evolved

from an ancient ancestral language spoken in Northern Europe called Germanic, or Proto-Germanic

to be precise.

So English did not come from German, nor did German come from English.

They each came from an even older shared language.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the further back in time we go, the more English looks

and sounds like German.

Because the further back in time we go, the more they have in common.

Old English was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who were Germanic-speaking tribes from Northern

Germany and modern-day Denmark.

They were only a small part of many Germanic tribes that dominated Central Europe east

of the Rhine.

And when the Roman Empire began to collapse in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Germanic

tribes poured into Western Europe, into the areas previously controlled by the Romans.

This included Southern Britain, in the area we know today as England.

What began as an invitation became a migration and eventually became an outright invasion.

Beginning in the fifth century, these Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons defeated and displaced much of

the native Celtic-speaking Britons, and they established several independent Anglo-Saxon

kingdoms, which eventually coalesced in the face of Viking invasions beginning in the

seventh century to become a unified nation.

These were the same Anglo-Saxons who were defeated by the Norman French in 1066.

So what did this very early version of Anglo-Saxon English sound like?

Well, fortunately, we have many sources from this period to document the language of the


One of the most well-known is one of the earliest poems composed in English.

You may have read it in English class in school.

It’s the epic poem called Beowulf, and it’s virtually certain that if you read it, you

read a modern English translation because, as you will see and hear, Old English is so

far removed from Modern English and so much closer to the original Proto-Germanic language

that it’s completely foreign to modern ears.

Remember the general rule that languages evolve over the course of a thousand years to the

point where they can no longer be mutually understood.

So let me read the first few lines from Beowulf in Modern English.

So the speardanes in days gone by, and the kings who ruled them, had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

Now here’s the same passage in the original Old English.

As you can hear, there’s very little in that which is recognizable to modern English ears.

Let’s also listen to the Lord’s Prayer in Old English and compare it to the Middle English

version I read earlier.

Again, this is far removed from Modern English.

It’s difficult to discern much in that passage that’s familiar as English.

As I said earlier, even though Modern English differs from Middle English in pronunciation,

it still shares a great deal of vocabulary and grammar.

But when compared to Old English, it shares neither pronunciation nor grammar.

And the vocabulary is so far removed from Modern English that we only see glimpses of

words that will eventually become recognizable to us.

So how did we get from there to here?

Well, that’s the question I’m going to try to answer over the course of this podcast


I’m going to take you back to the beginning, the very beginning, to the ancient language

from which English ultimately derived, the oldest known ancestor of English, the Indo-European


Of course, this is also the oldest known ancestor of almost all of the languages of Europe,

as well as many of the languages of Central Asia, including Sanskrit and Persian.

Over the next few episodes of the podcast, I’m going to cover the period from the original

Indo-European language to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain.

This is the story of Pre-English, and it’s very important to the overall story of English

because English is a mutt language, combining elements of many different languages.

But almost all of those major influences share a common Indo-European ancestry.

The Germanic languages, Greek, Latin, French, the Celtic languages, they all came from this

common source.

So in order to fully understand the history of English, you have to understand this essential


I will then look at the period from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain to their defeat

at the hands of the Norman French.

That’s the period of Old English.

After that, we will cover the period from the Norman conquest in 1066 to the time just

before Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

That’s the period of Middle English.

And then the last portion of the podcast will cover the period from Shakespeare through

the creation of the British Empire and the expansion of English to North America, the

Indian subcontinent, Australia, and beyond.

That’s the period of Modern English.

Collectively, that’s the story of English.

So in closing this introductory episode, I would like to make note of a quick housekeeping


I would encourage you to check out the website for this podcast,

Each episode is available at the site, and there’s a specific page dedicated to each

episode with a summary of the episode and maps and illustrations mentioned in the episode.

So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.

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