Short animated history of the English language

I am fascinated by the way language evolves and so enjoyed this animation from the British Open University that in just ten minutes gives a flippant but informative history of the main steps in the development of the English language and the origins of many of the words and phrases that we use.

(Via Maggie Koeeth-Baker.)


  1. says

    One comment: Didn’t abbreviations for phrases start with letter-writing?

    I do seem to recall Tigger, who far predates the internet, using TTFN — “Ta ta for now”.

  2. Félix Desrochers-Guérin says

    Military jargon also gave us a few ones, many of which involve the letter F like SNAFU, FUBAR, etc.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    They missed an Indian-sourced word used a lot in my youth in Northern England. If your friend had something you wanted to see, you’d say “give us a dekko!”. I had no idea it came from India until years later.

  4. left0ver1under says

    The entirety of that video can be summed up in a single quote, both as definition and example:

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    – Science-Fiction writer James Nicoll, 1990, in the Usenet group rec.arts.sf-lovers

    Nicoll later pointed out that “riffle” was a typo, when he actually meant “rifle” (see also: PWN instead of “own”).

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything Milne wrote on the subject, and I can’t remember Tigger ever saying anything like…

    wait. That’s right, didn’t Disney do something execrable to the whole series? That wasn’t until the sixties, though, when acronyms were pretty well established.

  6. says

    Yes, i was referring to the Disney version. Either way, this history attributes the usage of acronyms in written communications to the internet age. I’m not sure that’s entirely true.

  7. Suido says

    As far as we know, Winston Churchill was the first to read the term O.M.G., in a letter sent to him by a Lord Fisher in 1917.

  8. AsqJames says

    Funnily enough “military brat” itself derives from an acronym: British Regiment Attached Traveller.

    If you didn’t know that already, just pretend you did and were making a subtle allusion to it 😉

  9. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    My Oxford-educated high school English teacher explained it as, “English was invented by Norman soldiers trynig to get lucky with Anglo-Saxon barmaids. The results were a bastard language spoken by bastards.”

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    English, as defined by the unabridged dictionaries, has > 200,000 words. Languages like French, Spanish, and Russian, supervised by national academies, have roughly 50-60,000 words. The failure of Their collective Britannic Majesties to set up a Royal Academy of the language may rank as the most brilliant omission of history.

    The timeline in this video deserves some major quibbling Abbreviations (such as “tho” and “morn”) go back much further than implied here, as do acronyms (“HMS” dates at least to George III, no?).

    And of the millions of things which had to be left out in this “10-minute” (harrumph!) video, the loss of gender (another consequence of the post-1066 mashup of Anglo-Saxon & Norman French) irks me the most.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve read that the loss of gender, and other grammatical simplifications, were largely a result of contact with Norse (mostly Danish) colonists in the North East of England.

    For example.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    From yr wiki link: The Germanic language of the Old English-speaking inhabitants was influenced by extensive contact with Norse colonizers, resulting perhaps in cases of morphological simplification of Old English, including the loss of grammatical gender …

    The most impactful of the 11th-century Norse arrivals in England were those Norman fellows, fwiw.

    Yr 2nd link, which I don’t know enough about linguistics to more than skim, seems to imply that intermixing languages results in simplification, among whose effects loss of gender gets listed without elaboration. The linguist who told me that English lost gender due to Big Bill’s conquest spelled out that Germanic languages assign gender to objects almost exactly opposite to those assignments in French (la table, der Tisch, etc). Thus, while lords & churls might sort out whose word to use, for the articles they had to settle for basic grunting (“thuh“). Would Norse & Anglo-Saxon-Jute have differed in that way?

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Read the previous para. The Norse colonizers referred to are the Danes of Jarvik and Danelaw, not the Normans. The Normans were conquerors, not colonizers, and by 1066, they were not Norse in much of anything but name.

    This link doesn’t mention effects of Norse contact, but does say;

    The loss of grammatical gender is pretty much complete in Northumbria by the beginning of the eleventh century.

    Perhaps it’s a lot more complicated than either of us thought!

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    The “Norse” were Danes?!? Couldn’t those guys keep anything straight?

    Perhaps it’s a lot more complicated than either of us thought!

    Nahh, how could that ever happen?

  15. says

    English has complicated spelling but simple grammar. There are essentially only two tenses: past and present, with everything else being formed through the use of auxiliary verbs. Verbs are used more or less straight; with pronouns required to indicate the subject and inflection limited to appending “s” on the third person singular present tense, “ed” to make the past tense or “ing” to make the present participle (this last also serving as a gerund). The few irregular verbs are you use all the time anyway. Gender is pretty much common and neuter, with some nouns occuring in masculine / feminine pairs and only the third person singular pronouns being split masculine / feminine. Third person common, as second person, is not distinguished between singular and plural (even the special inflected 3s form is not used in this case: “he wants”, “she wants”, “it wants”, but “they want” the same for one person or many).

    Compare that with some languages from across the Channel, where everything is inflected. Spanish and Italian drop pronouns, but French retains them — with inflection. In French, you need to conjugate verbs in at least the present, past imperfect, future, conditional and subjunctive tenses, as well as form past and present participles and remember whether the past pefect is formed using avoir or être and whether the imperative is like the present or subjunctive, and there are a few rare tenses only used in old written French. There are three regular conjugations and many irregular verbs (again, all commonly-used). All nouns are either masculine or feminine, with rules and exceptions that have to be learned (if you thought an e on the end was always feminine, your brother or your sister will soon disabuse you of that notion).

    I love English. Its spoken form literally bounces along, with alternating light and heavy stress; and there are always new expressions to be formed, or old ones to be rediscovered and savoured again. And even spelling-wise, there are still rules, even with all the exceptions.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    Digging through some of my reference books, I was disappointed that The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language has nothing pertinent to say about this (at least as shown via “gender” in the index).

    Likewise Joseph M. Williams’s Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History.

    Robert Claiborne’s Our Marvelous Native Tongue: The Life and Times of the English Language unambiguously supports the Anglo-Sanxon vs Norman French story.

    So now I’ll tentatively stick with the latter, while freely acknowledging this comes from my bias for printed books above online sources, even Wikipffftia.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    I first read about the Scandinavian hypothesis in a book years ago (forget which, but it may have been this one). I would generally agree with preferring text sources to Wikipedia, but both our sources are decades old, and by non-specialists.

    The wordorigins link does reference several texts, and if indeed Northumbrian had lost grammatical gender by 1000 AD, that would cast doubt on a strictly Norman French/Old English cause.

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, just dug it out – it was The Story of English, and the authors are quoting Tom Shippey on simplification as a result of the meeting of two similar lexicons with different grammars.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    … if indeed Northumbrian had lost grammatical gender by 1000 AD…

    Ye cannot be bothered if ’tis carlman or wifman? They be puttin’ saltpetre in ye porridge, I swears it!

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