It is widely spoken in many countries both as a first language and as a second language, and it has even achieved dominance in the virtual worlds of cyberspace and the internet. This has not always been the case, however, and many people are not aware that only two thousand years ago, the English language did not even exist. Around year 1 AD Europe was dominated by the Mediterranean based Greek and Latin languages and cultures, while the northwestern portion of Europe was a mass of small tribes fighting against each other and against the colossal force of the expanding Roman Empire.
Linguists tend to divide the study of English into four main periods called Old English (500-1100 AD). Middle English (1100-1500 AD) Early Modern English (500-1800) and Modern English (1800 AD until the present day). 1 These are not exact categories, and they mark significant historical periods rather than any clearly identifiable sudden changes in the language. The significance of the year 500 AD is that it marks the start of a period in the history of the British Isles when Germanic tribes began to colonize the islands. As part of a long process of migrations and invasions, they gradually moved West and North to take over more and more of the British Isles, pushing the local British tribes, which were of Celtic origin far out to the fringes of the land. Fennel sees the dialects of these Germanic tribes as “the raw material for the development of English”2.
It is important to remember that in this period most communication took place orally and very few people could read or write. This meant that there was a lot of local variation from place to place, with no fixed form, especially in low technology cultures like that of the Germanic settlers. Dialect variations were common, and as communities spread out over greater and greater distances, these variations became more pronounced.