The Evolution of the English Language
The English language evolved from a combination of sources. Before 1066, Britain was invaded and colonized mainly by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Denmark and Germany who overran the Celtic-speaking natives, many of whom fled west to Wales and Ireland, or north to Scotland. Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic-sounding language, and perhaps the most important piece written in it was the epic poem Beowulf.
The most astounding change in the English language came when the Norman king, William the Conqueror, defeated King Harold at the battle of Hastings in 1066 and made himself king of England. Those who had lived in England all their lives continued to speak Anglo-Saxon. But the new lords spoke Norman French. Over 300 years later, by 1400, a blending of languages had taken place: thousands of French and Latin words had become absorbed into the Germanic Anglo-Saxon. This created a new lan-guage that came to be known as Middle English. Late in the Middle Ages, a linguistic change called “the great vowel shift” ushered in Modern English.
The major change was one of structure. The basis of all modern European romance tongues — French, Italian, and Spanish — is Latin. Word order is not very important in Latin (or Anglo-Saxon) because the words take their meaning from the differing endings or inflections they can have depending on the work they're supposed to do in a sentence.
Middle English became a language that more closely resembles our own in terms of sentence structure. The elements of a sentence (subject, verb, and object) became more dependent on word order than word form. One of the masterpieces of this period was Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Two hundred years later, by the time Shakespeare was born, English men and women were speaking Early Modern English. Later Modern English, which is essentially what we speak today, dates from about the middle of the seventeenth century. New concepts in grammar and spelling were categorized to make the language uniform. What we now know as “English” has changed little since that time.
How many words did Shakespeare have in his vocabulary?
By Shakespeare's time, thousands of new words were entering the language from the publication of Greek and Latin texts, as well as from books in Italian, French, and Spanish. Of the approximately 25,000 different words that Shakespeare used in his plays, at least 2,000 of them were ones he either invented or recorded for the first time.