The current exhibition at London’s British Library – Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices – is the first ever to explore the English language from Anglo-Saxon runes to modern day rap. English is spoken by a third of the world’s population, but how did a tongue used by just a few hundred Germanic settlers become so prominent today?

Estimates vary as to exactly how many people speak English, but it is thought that around 400 million people speak it as a first language and 1.4 billion as a second tongue. It is the third most natively-spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish and has become an international lingua franca in many fields, from business to IT.

The Evolving English Exhibition - © British Library

Yet its origins start around 1,500 years ago among the Germanic tribes of northern Europe.  The Romans ruled Britain for more than 400 years, departing around the year 410 AD after the legions were called back to defend Rome from barbarian invasion.  The Picts and Scots in the north saw an opportunity to attack the Britons who could no longer rely on Roman soldiers to defend them. What happened next is recounted by the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk and chronicler of early English history, who wrote: “They consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations; and they all agreed with their King Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation…” These men duly arrived in three long boats and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has them landing at Ebbsfleet (Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate, Kent) in AD 449. A larger fleet followed but only around 400 or so people in this country then spoke the language which became Old English, or Anglo-Saxon as it was sometimes called.

Those early Germanic settlers were primarily Angles, Saxons and Jutes and, as Professor David Crystal says in his catalogue accompanying the exhibition: “[They] came from different parts of northern Europe and would have had different Germanic dialects. They settled in different parts of England, from the southern coast to the far northeast.”  This is why we speak with different accents in our own small country and it was the origin of dialectical variation which is still strong today.

Beowulf (c. 1000) © British Library

Latin-speaking missionaries arrived in Britain at the end of the sixth century and introduced the Latin alphabet as a way of transcribing Old English. Beowulf (c. 1000) is the longest epic poem in Old English (3,182 lines) and would originally have been recited from memory by a minstrel, to the tune of a harp. The exhibition is displaying the earliest known version of the saga, in a copy damaged by fire in 1731. In this section, Beowulf, the hero, kills a dragon in a fight that ultimately leads to his own death.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle actually pre-dates Beowulf. It was begun around 890 on the orders of Alfred the Great who wanted a yearly account of English history which was added to over the year until the mid-twelfth century. This version is known as the Worcester Chronicle and dates from the eleventh century. Here the scribe recounts the terrible signs that were witnessed before the Viking invasion of Lindisfarne in 793 when the monastery was destroyed and ‘fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky.’

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (11th century) © British Library

The Norman invasion of 1066 led to Latin and French dominating the literary and learned scene in England for some hundreds of years. While the peasantry got by on a form of spoken Old English, the Christian scribes and aristocracy primarily used these two languages. Gradually, however, as the Normans became more integrated into British society, so their language increasingly merged with Old English, a fact not lost on John of Trevisa (present-day Trevessa, near St. Ives in Cornwall.)

He translated the Latin Polychronicon, an early history of man from the Creation until 1352, into English in 1387 and added an aside of his own about the struggle between French and English for supremacy in the country, writing:

“In all the grammar schools of England, children abandon French, and compose and learn in English, and have thereby an advantage on the one hand, and a disadvantage on the other. The advantage is that they learn their grammar in less time than children used to do. The disadvantage is that nowadays children at grammar school know no more French than their left heel, and that it is a misfortune for them if they should cross the sea and travel in foreign countries, and in other such circumstances.”

John of Trevisa, Polychronicon 1387 © British Library



By 1300, the Old English dialects of Anglo-Saxon had evolved to such an extent that linguists refer to them as Middle English.


Clearly, the language was becoming more dominant and was now used by those in power, so much so that King Henry V himself, an English patriot to the core, employed it, and not the traditional Latin or French, to communicate with his regent, the Duke of Bedford, around 1419, while he was fighting in France.




A letter from King Henry V in his own hand, c. 1419 © British Library

This period also marks the first attempts to standardise English. Chaucer. for example, bemoaned the fact that there was so much variety in grammar and spelling, saying in his poem Troilus and Criseyde, written around the mid 1380s: “And for there is so great diversity in English and in writing of our tongue, so pray I God that none miswrite thee…: ”

Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400 but the problem of non-standardisation of the language continued long after his death. The printer William Caxton, somewhat ironically, encountered difficulties when he published his second edition of The Canterbury Tales in 1483 after a reader of the first edition complained that his own family had a more accurate version in its possession. Caxton duly borrowed this version and made many alterations.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1483 edition © British Library

In fact, it took another 400 years for a national, standard English to emerge and when it did, the growth of English as a world language led to further diversification, although as Professor Crystal states, “the differences should not be exaggerated: a solid common core of usage still unifies the various dialects and styles. But increased regional, social and ethnic diversity has introduced a huge amount of stylistic variation.”

The exhibition contains more than 130 different items, virtually all of them from the British Library itself. So you can see the first book to be printed in English – Recuyell of the Historyes of Troyes (1471) – again by Caxton and it is unlikely that many of these exhibits will be seen again for a long time, and certainly not together in one location as they are here.

William Caxton, printer, Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye 1471 © British Library

Indeed, there is a particular grouping of four of the most important books ever to appear in English. They are Wycliffe’s English Bible of the 1380s, Tyndale’s New Testament of 1525, the Book of Common Prayer of 1611, and the King James Bible, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. Here seen side-by-side, almost certainly for the first time, even the learned Professor Crystal confessed he was moved by the sight at the press launch.

Wycliffe compiled the first English translation of the Bible as he wanted ordinary people to be able to read it. His work never had the influence he would have hoped as he was victimised for his involvement in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Tyndale’s bible was a huge influence on versions in the century that followed in terms of its vocabulary and phrasing. The Book of Common Prayer remains in use to this day and has given us many expressions such as ‘as long as ye both shall live’, ‘for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’ and ‘till death us do part’ among others from the marriage service, to ‘ashes to ashes’, ‘dust to dust’ and ‘earth to earth’ from the funeral service.

John Wycliffe Bible, 1382 © British Library

The King James Bible says in its title page that it was ‘Appointed to be read in Churches’ so it became known popularly as ‘The Authorised Version’, although it was never authorised by any legal body.

However, it achieved its authority by being a detailed work carried out by a team of translators who said they wanted to make an already good work better, one that could indeed be held to be the definitive text. Measuring 17.5 inches tall by a foot wide, it rested imposingly on church pulpits and both its mass and use of a heavy, ‘black letter’ font, lent it further gravitas.

The King James Bible, 1611 © British Library



The bible’s translation of St. Matthew’s gospel has proved the most fruitful in providing expressions still in common use today, including ‘salt of the earth’, ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘the spirit … is willing, but the flesh is weak’.

The exhibition is also displaying the first printed version of Shakespeare’s Richard III and, as of 2010, there were more than 1,800 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary where the playwright is recorded as the first user  of a word.



William Shakespeare, Quarto text of Richard III 1597 © British Library

As Professor Crystal points out, though, he may not have invented the word himself but is the first known user of it in written form. About 1,000 of these words do not survive in common  English usage but of the 800 that do we have such surprises as ‘addiction’, ‘assassination’, ‘countless’, ‘laughable’ and even ‘downstairs’. It is difficult to imagine nowadays that such basic common words were new in Shakespeare’s day.

As you would expect, Evolving English includes all the landmarks of the English language such as Dr Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, first published in 1755. Taking eight years to compile, it included 42,773 entries and thousands of quotations to support the definitions, a practice since adopted by all good lexicographers. It wasn’t the first attempt at an English dictionary by any means, but it was the most thorough and exact, and was the standard lexicographical reference work for almost a century until superceded by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755 © British Library

As education grew alongside the burgeoning middle-class, pronunciation became all-important and became a useful pointer to social standing. So we find John Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary (1774-91) in which the author states that the accent of cultured London is ‘undoubtedly the best’. According to Walker, everyone else mispronounces, especially those who are ‘at a considerable distance from the capital’, namely the Scots and Irish. Cockney, however, is ‘a thousand times more offensive and disgusting’ than these. Some words would now sound strange to us, however, including balcony which Walker said should be stressed on the second syllable.

The stress on correct pronunciation was eventually to lead to the peculiarly English fascination with RP – received pronunciation, a clear-cut southern English accent as heard for some decades on BBC radio and then, until around the 1980s, on BBC television. Astonishingly, this was when RP reached its peak with about 20 per cent of the population in the UK speaking it. Beginning around the time of Walker’s work on pronunciation, the accent of the educated classes and aristocracy was later adopted by the socially-aspiring lower middle classes as a means of getting on in society.

Thomas Sheridan, Lectures on Elecution, 1762 © British Library

Thomas Sheridan, father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, took advantage of this demand for exact speech by earning a fortune from his lectures and books on elocution. It has been estimated that he would have made £150,000 in today’s money from just one of his courses and he was equally popular in America where pronunciation anxiety was similarly acute.

Phrase books had been published for hundreds of years, often as a useful guide for merchants and travellers, but one of the most famous dates from 1883 and is known for its outrageous errors which begin with the title itself. English As She is Spoke was by Pedro Carolino who had the distinct disadvantage of not speaking English. So he used respected conversation guides to go from Portuguese into English via French.The result includes such gems as “Have you say that?”, “Put your confidence at my” and the surrealist “sing an area”. The whole thing is reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch about an English-Hungarian phrasebook intended to cause a breach of the peace with such phrases as “my hovercraft is full of eels” and “my nipples explode with delight”.

Pedro Carolino, English As She is Spoke, 1883 © British Library

Evolving English has a section on accents and dialects, always a good source of humour. It includes an early example in The Reeve’s Tale by Chaucer where two Cambridge students take revenge on a miller for stealing corn. Chaucer tells us they are from a place ‘fer [far] in the north’ and they talk with a northern accent whereas the miller is from the south.

One example is the students’ use of ‘Ga’ for go, while the miller’s wife says ‘go’.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Reeves Tale, 14th century © British Library


The spread of English around the world is also covered in the exhibition. As Professor Crystal says in his catalogue: “English had hardly established itself as a language when it began to travel out of England. During the Middle Ages it moved north into Scotland, west into Wales and across the sea into Ireland. Each area in due course developed its own national dialect and a home-grown literature with a distinctive voice. And in the last 400 years the same thing that happened across the British Isles has been repeated on a global scale.”

So we see how American English developed into its own variant within a few years of the arrival of the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. American English is spoken with different accents and this derived from the different accents of the original settlers who themselves came from various locations in England. After Independence, American English became a separate entity with its own spelling and usage, embodied in Noah Webster’s Compendious Dictionary of 1806.


Noah Webster, Compendious Dictionary, 1806 © British Library

Churchill’s famous dictum that the English and Americans are divided by a common language became increasingly apparent as travel between the two countries increased and American cultural influence grew. An interesting example is seen in The Daily Mail Annual for Girls of 1956-7 where the author provides a glossary of American and English words. Oddly, switchback, which we never use in Britain nowadays, was apparently then the word for a roller coaster, which we now always do use and despite the writer informing us that bath-robe has been adopted from the American, dressing gown is surely still the common usage.

India also provides a rich source of material for its development of a flowery, over-ornate English. Known as Babu or ‘baboo’, it is unusual in that, as Professor Crystal points, out, “generally people who acquire a language in an untutored way produce a simpler version of it, often popularly called ‘broken’ or ‘pidgin’. Here, however, the opposite effect is achieved. This is an elaborate, flowery kind of English, full of learner errors yet aspiring to poetic heights in its vocabulary and phrasing. The name Babu…came to be used sarcastically by the British elite in India to refer to native clerks seeking to impress their masters with their new-found ability to use English.”

Arnold Wright, Baboo English as tis Writ, 1891 © British Library

The writer here says “Those words are not my fancyless imagination, but a desire of ardent hope that I shall be patronize by you and that patronism and gratitude are ever remain in my heart from my eternity as long as I live in this world…” It transpires that the letter-writer is after a job.

It is not surprising that a colonial mentality would have looked down upon literary strainings such as these but it was a throwback to a more literary language as taught to Indians in school which has its roots in Elizabethan courtly mannerisms and Regency circumlocution.

With such a wide range in usage and form, the question finally is: who owns English? Can you indeed own a language? Evidently, as the exhibition and catalogue show, no one does. It is constantly in a state of flux and exposed to new ideas almost every day it is in use. As more new speakers from around the world adopt the tongue, this transformational effect is only likely to grow, as we are seeing with the Internet and its particular offshoot, the tweet, not to mention text messaging which has even provided its own form of literature.

The final word should be left with John Agard (born 1949), a Guyanese playwright and author of children’s books who first learned to love the English language by listening to cricket commentary on the radio. Now settled in the quintessential English town of Lewes in Sussex, he nevertheless wrote a witty and telling poem – Listen Mr Oxford don – in 1985 which seems to sum up the universality and malleability of the English language, and the fact it belongs to everyone who speaks it.

“Me not no Oxford don
me a simple immigrant..
But listen Mr Oxford don
I’m a man on de run
And a man on de run
Is a dangerous one…
…mugging de Queen’s English
is the story of my life….
I ain’t serving no jail sentence
I slashing suffix in self-defence
I bashing future wit present tense
And if necessary
I making the Queen’s English accessory to my offence.”

Evolving English continues at the British Library until 3 April, 2011 and admission is free. So far more than 100,000 people have visited and if you do, you can play a part in recording the evolution of English yourself. Over 10,000 English-speakers have contributed to an audio map of the many ways in which the language is spoken today. The recordings will enter the permanent collections of the British Library and the Library’s curators are asking for further contributions to the Map Your Voice project to provide a detailed snapshot of English as a global language. Visitors to the Library can record their voices using phone booths inside the exhibition or can contribute online at:


Co-curator Jonnie Robinson, the Library’s curator of Sociolinguistics, says that despite the thousands of contributions, “there are a number of regions that are currently under-represented and from which we’re very keen to receive more examples.” In particular, if you’re an English-speaker in the Caribbean, India, Africa, the Middle East, South America and Australasia, the BL wants to hear from you. There are two set texts, a quote from a Mr Men story or a list of six words that highlight the ways pronunciation is changing. So go online or, even better, roll up and record and take in this engrossing exhibition at the same time. As Professor Crystal says: “It is an extraordinary story and only the extraordinary resources of the British Library could ever do justice to it.”

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices
An Illustrated History of the English Language by David Crystal

£25 hardback, ISBN: 978 0 7123 5099
£16.95 paperback, ISBN: 978 0 7123 5098

Posted in Museums and Galleries.

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