English is GREAT - Part 1

The story of English starts more than a thousand years ago. Richard goes to the British Library to hear – and see – how the language has changed over the years.


The English language. It’s the official language of 54 different countries and is spoken by over a billion and a half people worldwide. Adding together native speakers, people who speak English as a second language or an additional language and people who are learning English, and it’s the most commonly spoken language across the globe. So what makes English so great? And why do people want to learn English?

This is the British Library in London. It’s the national library of Great Britain and there are over a hundred and fifty million items here from every age of the written word. Let’s go inside.


The Library’s collection has developed over two hundred and fifty years and it keeps on growing. There are books, magazines and manuscripts, maps, music and so much more. Every year, 3 million new items are added, so an extra 12 kilometres of shelves have to be put up.

Roger Walshe is the Head of Learning. 

Richard: Roger, why is the British Library a good place to come to find out about the English language?

Roger: Well, there’s lots of reasons. We’ve a hundred and fifty million items from all over the world, so we capture a snapshot of what the language is like. But I think perhaps more importantly, we have documents here that go right back a thousand years to the beginning of the language. And so what you can see is how this changed and evolved over time. And when you see it changing like that you get a feel for where it might be going in the future.

Richard: So how has English changed over time?

Roger: Oh, it’s changed hugely. If you look back to old English - like a thousand years, it’s almost like German. Very, very difficult to read, only a few people can do so. Then you look up to, say, Shakespeare's period: early modern English. Printing has come in and that begins to standardise the language. 

Richard: So what impact has technology had on the English language?

Roger: Well, it has two big impacts: one is that lots of new technical words come into the language. We see this in the Industrial Revolution over a hundred years ago. But the other, bigger, influence is that it enables people all over the world speaking English to communicate with each other, underneath YouTube clips or in chat rooms, and they’re influencing each other's English.

Richard: That’s great, Roger. Is there something you can show me?

Roger: Absolutely. We’ve got some great stuff. If you’d just like to follow me...

Richard: So, Roger, what’s this?

Roger: Well, this is one of the treasures in the British Library’s collections. English goes back about a thousand years to Old English. This is Middle English, about five hundred years ago, and it’s the first book ever printed in the English language.

Richard: So who actually printed this?

Roger: This was printed by William Caxton. Very famous. He went on to print Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the first bestseller in the English language. And one of the difficulties you have as an early printer is that there’s no standard language. There’s no dictionary, there’s no grammars, there’s no guides to usage really, so he often had to make up how to spell words himself.

Richard: And is the spelling consistent throughout the book?

Roger: Well, no, it’s not, even on this page here. This is a kind of a foreword - an introduction to the work. He says he translates it from the French. He has here ‘to French‘: f - r - e - n - s - s - h - e.

Richard: Right.

Roger: That’s how he spells French. But if you go down to the centre of the page
here, you’ve got ‘French’ again, and it’s got one ‘s’ in it: f - r - e - n - s - h - e.

Richard: Incredible... And this looks a lot more modern here, what’s this over here?

Roger: This is a very different work. It’s something we chose. It’s from 1867, so a hundred and thirty years ago and we’re all familiar with how people use mobile phones now to text each other - SMS. And they shorten words and they use letters to get their message across. This is a poem written in the nineteenth century in which somebody has done exactly that; he says 'I wrote to you before' - he uses a number 2, letter ‘B’, the number 4.

Richard: That’s amazing. So what does this tell us about the English language?

Roger: Well, it tells us it’s very versatile. It tells us that people play with it and sometimes the changes they make stay. Some of those changes were made 500 years ago, some of them were made 100 years ago. But some of the changes we make now in internet chatrooms and the way we talk to each other and the way people around the world use English will become the future of English as well.

I’d never really thought about English changing, but of course new words are being added all the time and not all types of English are the same.

Task 1

Which of these things do Richard and Roger discuss at the British Library?


Task 2

Type in the missing words or numbers.


Task 3

Can you turn these SMS messages into correct English?


Task 4

Choose the best phrasal verb to complete the sentence.



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Submitted by meknini on Tue, 19/07/2022 - 03:41


Malay language is my language and it's roots I'm not quite sure but the vocabulary consists words from different parts of the world probably due to colonization and international trades in the early years. I could quite easily identify English, Arabic, Indian and Chinese words used in daily communication and a splatter of Portuguese, French and Dutch. The other words are mostly Malay lingua franca which are Indonesian, Cambodia, Thai and Philippines.

Maybe I could identify some old English words that are now more modern because I studied ancient civilization classes and some literature classes like Shakespeare's playwright and sonnets. They use old English although not nearly middle ages.

English for sure are going to adopt more Asian words especially Chinese as more westerners are residing in Mainland and trades are accelerating between European and Asian countries. Even some of my Malay words have already been adopted into the English language and my country is not nearly as forceful as China, Korea and Japan. So, I would expect to hear more popular words to be used by English speakers.

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Submitted by jogrereco on Mon, 01/03/2021 - 18:08

Are these videos downloadable?. Thanks so much

Submitted by nikoslado on Thu, 26/03/2020 - 21:54

Hello everyone , what could I say about Greek language through its live history of over than 2500 years, spoken and written constantly since about 900 BC.There are hundreds of monuments, memorial or burial plaques and of course thousands of papyrus written in ancient Greek, in all the worldwide museums.The letters almost stay the same, but-of course- there are huge differences with the contemporary language and a lot of influences from other populations, during these fifteen centuries.Greek and Latin language are considered to be the mother languages for almost all the main European ones. Best wishes for all the people, at these tough moments. Nikoslado

Submitted by AnnyMarkina on Sat, 25/01/2020 - 16:21

Hello! Could you please explain when we can and cannot make the contraction of the verb “have”? Here I came across this example in the transcript: “Roger: Well, there’s lots of reasons. We’ve a hundred and fifty million items from all over the world, so we capture a snapshot of what the language is like.“ And I cannot get the point of the short form with “We have”.

Hello again AnnyMarkina

The contracted form 've is very common in speaking because it's shorter. It's a little bit like the way many Spaniards pronounce the ending 'ado' (e.g. 'he hablado') as something like 'ao' instead of 'ado'.

The contraction can be used in most contexts. An exception is when it is used in a short answer such as 'I have' (which we say sometimes instead of a full verb form with object). For example, if you asked me, 'Have you been to Menorca?', I could answer 'Yes, I have' instead of 'Yes, I have been to Menorca'. In this instance, 'Yes, I've' is not correct.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mafina2000 on Sat, 14/09/2019 - 04:44

This video reminds me what incredible changes the English language has undergone and that It Is thanks to its flexibility if nowadays It Is still amongst the most widespread languages in the world. It Is impossible for me to understand Middle English. As for the Italian language, Its origins are from Latin and many dialects are spoken which are often hard to be understood by the Italian themselves.

Submitted by Patricia Jasmi… on Tue, 16/04/2019 - 15:31

Hi, I love this page.

Submitted by memorex on Fri, 08/03/2019 - 05:04

I really loved the video, even though I need to get familiarized more with British English.

Submitted by irene_catalano on Sat, 23/02/2019 - 17:10

I'm Italian, and so I know that my language comes from Latin. Having studied latin and a little philology I found out the evolution of the language due to the various contact through the centuries among population of different culture and language. I think it that this kind of evolution is very fascinating. I use to think of language like a "living being", which changes, develops togther with their speakers. I've studied English literature and history at University, so I read poems and poetry either in old or in middle English. It was a little difficult but understandble. I agree with the fact that English will change in the future, most of all because of Internet and of immigration and other social changes.