History of English: Internal Changes and External Events
ENG 333/359--Dr. Jacobsen

Old English (OE) brought with it many features of the West Germanic including fixed stress on the root syllable, dental preterite, phonemic length for consonants and vowels, compounding, different values for consonants from other PIE languages (Grimm's Law), a two tense verbal system, and a large word stock independent from PIE.  Thus, many of the features listed under "Internal Changes" for OE will be the same as the features in the list you just read.

Old English (OE) (449-1066)

Internal Changes/Features External Events
Phonological 449-Germanic Migration Begins
Fixed Initial Stress  597-Christianization Begins
Addition of Phonemic Alveopalatal Africates  787-1042-Viking Invasions/Influence
   and Voiceless Alveopalatal Fricative 878-Danelaw (Treaty of Wedmore)
Loss of Velar Fricatives  1000-Copy of Beowulf Survives
Heavily Inflected (Synthetic):
   3 noun declensions (case, number, gender)
   10 verb conjugations (7 strong verbs) 
   strong/weak adjective declension
Dental Preterite
Preferred SVO Syntax 
Adjectives often Follow Nouns
Compounding & Affixation
Latin and Danish Borrowings 


Elaboration: Culturally, England was a loose confederation of seven kingdoms (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex, Kent) called the Heptarchy. Literacy is largely non-existent, and many literate people use Latin (thus our alphabet is of Latin characters).  Thus, OE was by no means a unified, homogeneous language.  Multiple dialects existed, some of which were almost certainly mutually unintelligible.  The Danish influence north of the Danelaw preserved many Germanic features, especially phonological ones.  Written documents are often in the West Saxon dialect, which makes OE seem more stable than it is.

Middle English (ME) (1066-1500)

Internal Changes/Features External Events
Phonological  1066-Norman Invasion
Inflectional Simplification (All Categories)  1337-1453-Hundred Years War 
Addition of Phonemic Voiced Fricatives  1348-51-Black Death
Morphological 1400-Chaucer 
Inflectional Simplification (All Categories)
Weakening of Phonemic Vowel Length
Reliance on SVO Syntax
Phrases Begin to Replace Inflections, 
   especially in Verbs
French Borrowings (10,000 words added) 
Compounding and Affixation

Elaboration:  Culturally, the Norman occupation resulted in a feudal society with French spoken at the top and English spoken at the bottom.  Widespread borrowing and bilingualism eventually led to the collapse of the inflectional system.  While some inflectional machinery certainly existed in ME, by the 1200s English largely relied on syntax.  Vowel length remains phonemic, but the loss of word final inflections begins to shorten vowels across the board.  The London dialect becomes the basis for standardization.  This is by far the period of greatest change in the history of English.

Early Modern English (EME) (1500-1800)

Internal Changes/Features External Events 
Phonological 1453-Hundred Year's War Ends 
Addition of Phonemic Voiced Alveopalatal  1476-Printing Press in England 
   Fricative and Velar Nasal 1590s-Shakespeare's Works
Great Vowel Shift 1500-1800s-Colonial Activity 
Inflectional System Similar to Present 
   Day English
Pronouns Still Inflected 
Printing Freezes Many Forms
SVO Syntax Becomes the Norm
Previously Inflected Forms Become 
   Periphrastic, especially Verbs 
Quasi-modals & Noun Adjuncts Become More 
Borrowed Greek and Latin Scientific Terms 
   (Ink Horn Terms) 
Compounding, Affixation, and Functional Shift 

Elaboration: Culturally, England became autonomous; moreover, the advent of printing brought literacy and education, and hence, the affirmation of the London dialect as standard and, eventually, prescriptive grammar.  Most grammatical patterns in place during the EME Period are still in place today.  The most significant internal event during EME is the Great Vowel Shift.  EME may also be seen as the starting point for World Englishes, given the extraordinary colonial activity of the period, including the birth of America.

Present Day English (PDE) (1800-Present)

Internal Changes/Features External Events
Phonological Advent of Mass Communication 
Relative Stability Explosion of World Englishes
   (especially among consonants) English becomes Lingua Franca for 
Morphological      Science, Air Travel, Information 
Inflections Reduced to Eight  International Business, Internet 
   (2 noun; 4 verb; 2 adjective)
Inflectional Simplification Greater 
   in Certain Varieties 
Periphrastic Elements Become 
   More Complex 
Increase in Quasi-modals & Noun Adjuncts 
Free Borrowing
Compounding, Affixation, and Functional Shift 

Elaboration: Culturally, Standard American English (SAE) has supplanted the London dialect as the desired International version, due in part to mass communication and other modern media.

Adapted from C.M. Millward, A Biography of the English Language, 1996.