History of Written (and spoken) English

Click here for an extract in Middle English, the Lord's Prayer, shown side by side with early modern English, also in old Gothic and old English (Anglo-Saxon).

Extract from the University of Nottingham

From 1066 until the end of the 1300s, Anglo-Norman (French) was the language of the king of England and his court. During this period, marriages with French princesses reinforced the French status in the royal family.

It was used in law courts, becoming known as Law French. This was a technical language, with a specific vocabulary, where English words were used to describe everyday experience, and French grammatical rules and morphology (word-forms) gradually declined, with confusion of French noun genders and the adding of -s to form all plurals.

The law courts used three languages: Latin for writing, Norman French as the main oral language during trials, and English in less formal exchanges between the judge, the lawyer, the complainant or the witnesses. The judge gave his sentence orally in Norman French, which was then written in Latin. Only in the lowest level of the manorial courts were trials entirely in English.

All professional business contracts were written in Latin.

In 1275, the Statute of Westminster which codified the existing law in England in 51 chapters, was the first official document to be actually written in Norman French, instead of Latin.

At the same time, intermarriages with English nobility became more frequent. Norman French became progressively a second language among the upper classes. And with the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) and the growing spirit of English and French nationalism, the status of French diminished.

While Middle English (the language of the Wycliffe Bible in 1384), followed by early Modern English (the language of Shakespeare and the KJV in 1600), became the main spoken language, Latin and French continued to be exclusively used in official documents. For example, in depositions written in 1610, the words spoken by ordinary people are written in English, as they said them, but the rest of the document explaining the case is in Latin.

This was the situation right up until Oliver Cromwell's Act of Parliament was passed in 1650, insisting upon English being used in all legal documents. Persons offending against this Law, to forfeit twenty pounds.

A second Act to confirm this was passed in 1730, under King George II, that came into force throughout England in 1733.

By then it was almost three centuries since the king had ceased speaking primarily French. 
The wheels of progress turn slowly. North America In the thirteen colonies of British America, starting with the Colony of Virginia in 1606, English became its official spoken and written language right from the beginning. Further north in Canada which was initially settled by the French, following Federation in 1867 the country became a bilingual nation with the decree that "the Acts of the Parliament of Canada and of the Legislature of Quebec shall be printed and published in both those languages" — French and English and it mandated their use for parliamentary debates, parliamentary publications, and federal court cases. Today it is estimated that 85% of Canadians can speak English. In the French-speaking Province of Quebec, it is estimated that over 40% can speak English.

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