For some modern speakers of English, the works of William Shakespeare can seem like they were written in an alien language. But the truth is that the English language hasn't changed all that much since Shakespeare's time. The most significant shifts in the way we write and speak happened many centuries ago, stemming from events such as migrations, invasions, and exploration. While Elizabethan English may sometimes seem difficult, it's quite straightforward compared to what was spoken at the very beginnings of the language.
The Germanic Origins of English
Old English is considered to be the earliest direct ancestor of our modern English language. It was spoken primarily in England and Scotland before the year 1100 and was introduced there by Anglo-Saxon invaders in the 5th century. It developed out of the dialects of Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons. The social and political dominance of the Anglo-Saxons in England led to the Anglo-Saxon tongues displacing the common languages at the time, which included the indigenous Common Brittonic and Latin, which itself was a remnant of past Roman invasions.
Old English itself displayed dialectical variations in response to geographic and local differences, and the four primary dialects were Northumbrian, Kentish, West Saxon, and Mercian. The latter two of these dialects were most instrumental in the development of Old English as well as its evolution into Middle and Modern English.
Written Old English initially relied on a runic script known as the futhorc, and it was only in the 9th century that the alphabet was replaced by a forebear of our current Latin alphabet, marking a major milestone in its evolution. Due to variations in dialect and script, Old English is often unintelligible to those who have not studied the norms and rules of it because of the markedly different ways in which it approaches the usage of components such as verbs, nouns, and adjectives and the order in which words are presented.
Few artifacts of the language exist in the present day, owing to scant availability of writing tools such as paper as well as natural degradation, including fires that erased or eroded some of these works. A prominent remnant of Old English exists in the 3,000-line epic poem Beowulf, which follows the titular hero over 50 years as he slays monsters for a king and ends with his death after defeating a dragon that mortally wounds him in the battle. Written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, it is notably far-removed from contemporary English. Old English works such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle survive as a record of the history of early England, and Caedmon's Hymn survives as the earliest example of a Christian poem in English. Other, more routine documents such as sermons, translations, and legal documents also exist.
The Norman Conquest and Middle English
The definitive event that forced the transition from Old to Middle English was the Norman Conquest of 1066, which saw Duke William II of Normandy invade Britain from his native France. The Norman conquest introduced Anglo-Norman to England, an Old French dialect that was soon adopted as the language of the English ruling class, doing away with Old English. This intermingling of languages eventually gave rise to what is now called Middle English.
Though Middle English arose out of Old English, it saw many notable introductions and changes in aspects such as spelling, grammar, capitalization, hyphenation, punctuation, and the like. French vocabulary seeped into Middle English, and by the 13th century, about 10,000 French words had found everyday use in Middle English. Other changes that took place as the French invasion forced Old English's evolution into Middle English included more concrete rules for word order, more phonetic spellings, and the loss of inflections.
Dialects more or less carried over, however, and remained close relatives of the localized dialects that Old English had. The Mercian dialect of Old English formed the largest basis for Middle English, but the London dialect of Middle English enjoyed the most popularity owing to London's status as a commercial center and port as well as its proximity to the court in Westminster, where upper-class nobles would congregate. Despite this, works of literature often struggled to gain widespread popularity because of extreme dialectical variation.
It was only with the 14th century that the more renowned works of Middle English literature began to appear, including the poems Pearl, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, the most prominent Middle English text remains Geoffrey Chaucer's regrettably incomplete The Canterbury Tales, which follows 30 pilgrims journeying to Canterbury as they share stories.
Around 1430, the Chancery Standard of written English came into being, marking the age of Late Middle English. Based on the London dialect of Middle English, the Chancery Standard was slowly adopted for bureaucratic purposes. Though it did not directly give rise to later forms of English, it did provide the foundation for what would later be called Modern English.
The Invention of the Printing Press and the Age of Exploration
The Great Vowel Shift effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from Middle to Modern English. The shift was gradual, lasting from the late 14th century to the middle of the 16th century, and while linguists don't know exactly why it happened, this shift dramatically altered the pronunciation of the language. But the true and final catalyst of the evolution from Middle to Modern English was the advent of the printing press which enabled widespread distribution of literary works and the ideas contained within.
Major texts from the 17th century including Shakespeare's expansive body of work and the King James Bible were written in Early Modern English, also referred to as Elizabethan English. The English Renaissance also fueled the rapid evolution of the English language during this time. Because of the surge in availability and distribution of literature, dialectical discrepancies were thrust into the forefront. A number of factors led to the eventual standardization of English, including the introduction of A Dictionary of the English Language in the 18th century and the immense popularity of Shakespeare's plays. The rapid pace of this linguistic change is evident when considering that Shakespeare's 400-year-old plays are largely comprehensible to modern audiences, but Chaucer's works, written 200 years prior, are nearly unintelligible to many.
In the modern era, English continues to evolve, aided by the speed at which information can be transferred and manipulated. We have progressed past the telegraph and the telephone to the Internet, which enables instantaneous transfer of information on a scale that is comparatively unprecedented. In addition, the rules of English grammar and vocabulary have been standardized, and disparities may be attributed to specialized usages such as slang words and group-specific terminologies. While this standardization would seem to indicate a slowing of linguistic change, meme culture has blurred the lines between prescriptive and descriptive usages. Modern culture exemplifies the extent to which words may be invented, updated, or discarded at a rapid pace, as words like "selfie" find a place in the dictionary. Slang words like "bae" can soon become standard parts of the language, showing the power of the Internet and the speed at which information can be dispersed.