From Old English to Modern English


By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

Old English was a lot like German. But what’s interesting is that Old English did not stay that way. Modern English is different from Old English in ways beyond vocabulary. How has English diverged from its origins in so many ways?

A page from the Winchester, or Parker, Chronicle.
Old English is very much like Germanic, but evolved to have other features along the way. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Gender and Inherent Reflexives

English is unlike most other Germanic languages in a variety of ways. The difference is not just in terms of words but also structure and usage. English is the only Indo-European language of Europe that does not have gender. Why does English lack it?

There are all sorts of other things that English doesn’t have. For example, inherent reflexives. In German you sit yourself, in Russian you tire yourself; in Spanish, a window breaks itself. Why in the world would a language mark that? But no, the question is actually: why doesn’t English? If you look at most of Europe, that reflexive is part of the language. Only in English do windows just break, do we just remember and do we just get angry.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Archaisms and Word Order

Then you see certain words that sound peculiar and archaic, like ‘hither’, ‘thither’, and ‘whither’. All Germanic languages have these expressions. If you speak a Germanic language, then saying ‘thither’ and ‘hither’ is normal. There is one Germanic language where suddenly you come ‘here’ and go ‘there’ instead of going ‘hither’ and ‘thither’. That is Modern English.

In German, verbs often wind up at the end of the sentence. Word order is different but in related ways, in not just one, but all of the Germanic languages. There is some pattern along those lines. There is one Germanic language where that isn’t true, and where it’s just subject-verb-object, all the time without exception. That is again English.

So you look at these things and it’s not just that English is randomly different. All of these differences are of a certain kind. It’s as if somebody encountered Old English and they were making a jolly good effort, but they were too busy to learn the language completely. If you look in the documentation of English you start seeing these sorts of mysterious changes after a particular time, and that is because of the Vikings.

Learn more about the development of modern English.

Scandinavian Vikings in England

The Scandinavian Vikings came to England in 787. They didn’t just come and blow everybody’s house down and take all the gold and leave. They came and lived, and married into the society. They spoke Old Norse. They didn’t speak Old English. So, they had a language learning task when they came to England. They clearly didn’t force everybody to learn Old Norse. Obviously, it was about them learning what they would have known as “Englisk.”

Apparently, they did learn it, but they were grown-ups. As grown-ups they weren’t going to be as good at it as kids. They just want to be able to talk and they’ve got plenty of other Vikings to talk to, anyway. So they’re not going to learn perfect English. But they need to go buy things and harass people and make deals and the things that you do, as a Viking who is settling into becoming a member of English society.

Learn more about how culture drives language change.

Simplifying English

The Vikings did not use gender in their own language. It was unusual for them to try and get their heads around the fact that non-living things have gender, let alone remember what is which. So they probably just decided to ignore the whole thing altogether.

The opening to the Old English epic poem 'Beowulf'.
The Viking influence on English can be seen in many early works of Old English. (Image: Anglo-Saxon/British Library/ Public domain)

They may have just decided to keep everything in the same word order for simplicity. Why not just make everything subject-verb-object? Then, this is a society where kids are born, and they’re going to hear this as much as they hear the regular kind of Old English. So most likely—we can’t know, because nobody wrote things like this down—but most likely the second generation thought that their fathers talked a kind of a weird English. He was comprehensible, but mommy spoke the real English.

But then particularly if you’re a boy, and it’s a very gender-segregated society, you’re spending a lot of time with men who don’t really speak the full Old English but are comprehensible. You’re actually going to hear so much of that speech that you’re going to talk kind of like them. You’re a leader of society, and you’re probably not going to talk as much like your mother.

From Old to New English

Then there’s another generation. After a while nobody remembers this original situation where there were people who kind of talked funny, because now everybody is talking kind of like that. That is the new English. That would have been an abbreviated kind of Old English.

Generally, it seems clear that English is different from the rest of Germanic because it was incompletely learned at that stage and then passed down the generations. It wasn’t so incompletely learned that it wasn’t a language—by no means. English is very challenging to a foreigner. There are plenty of things that are complex about this language. But, in a real sense, it is a language that has come a long way from it Germanic, and indeed, even its Proto-Indo-European roots.

Common Questions about Old English and Modern English

Q: In terms of gender, how is English a unique language?

Among all the Germanic languages, English is the only one that does not have a gender that is part of its structure.

Q: How is English different in terms of word order form other Germanic languages?

Unlike other Germanic languages where the verb can come at the end of the sentence, English is the only Germanic language which uniformly has the subject-verb-object structure.

Q: What is the possible explanation for Modern English having developed the way it has?

The most probable explanation for the modification of English is the arrival of the Vikings in England. Since they were learning the language as adults, the language changed and morphed into the modern version.

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