Reference > Cambridge History > The Victorian Age, Part Two > Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time > The world-wide expansion of the English language
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time.

§ 1. The world-wide expansion of the English language.

IN a general view of the fortunes of the English language since Shakespeare’s time, one of the first things to strike an observer is the world-wide expansion of its use. At the beginning of the seventeenth century it was, with slight exceptions, confined to England. The exceptions were Ireland, where English colonisation had begun in the previous century, and Scotland, where literary English was already influencing the speakers of a tongue descended from the old Northumbrian dialect. Even to-day, English does not completely occupy the whole of the United Kingdom. Celtic exists in Ireland, in Wales and in the Scottish Highlands, while, in the Channel islands, Norman-French has by no means disappeared. Till into the eighteenth century, Cornish survived in Cornwall, and Norse in Orkney and Shetland. Outside the British isles, the language has followed the flag, and is spoken all over the empire—in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Africa, and in the East and West Indies. Beyond the boundaries of the empire, it possesses a vigorous life and literature among many millions in the United States of North America. 1    1
  Since in those regions English was planted at different times and has been subjected to varying influences, the types of language, especially as spoken, differ from standard English and from one another. The vocabulary, in particular, is notably dissimilar. Strange objects, new conditions of life, have either added native words, or caused special adaptations of old words or extensions of meaning. Sometimes, also, as in the United States, the language is splitting into dialects. To discuss all these varieties of English as well as the numerous dialects in Britain, with their chequered history during the last three centuries, would be impossible here, for want of space, if for no other reason. We must, accordingly, restrict ourselves to the standard literary language, which is everywhere practically homogeneous. Its principal changes we shall now consider under the three divisions of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.   2

Note 1. Attempts have been made to calculate how many persons employ English. Exact figures are not obtainable; but, in round numbers, 120,000,000 may be considered a tolerably safe estimate—about double the aggregate of those who speak French, or Italian, or Spanish; and half as many again as speak German, or Russian. It is believed that, in 1600, English was spoken by about 6,000,000, much fewer than then spoke French, or German, or Italian, or Spanish. [ back ]

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