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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Profile picture for user Ivanhzo

Submitted by Ivanhzo on Tue, 18/12/2018 - 15:34

"There is" with plurals?? Rogers says: "there's lots of reasons", "there's no grammars, there's is no guides".

Hi Ivanhzo,

In informal situations, it's not uncommon for native speakers to use 'there's' with plural nouns. I never recommend that my students speak this way, as they are judged differently as non-native speakers, but it's useful to know that natives speak this way sometimes!

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Néstor Serrano on Mon, 23/07/2018 - 16:27

Hi! Spanish is a great language so I was remembering that our language have several greek and latin roots like the best known phrase: -Nosce te ipsum- that means: You have to know yourself, this is the knowlege principle, another phrase that I study when I was a child: vox populi vox Dei, that means: The people voice is the voice of God. I don't think that I'll be possible to read and understand the Middle English because after I have readed some of phrases that Shakespeare written, I consider is different like the english today and I see other words that I never seen before. I think that English is a versatile and live language and surely, it will be changing with the step of the years.
Profile picture for user btriton

Submitted by btriton on Sun, 20/05/2018 - 12:59

Spanish language started around one thousand years ago after the defeat of Roman Empire, so is base in Latin Language and catch many words from other cultures and language, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is as equivalent to Shakespeare in Spanish with his book "El Quijote de la Mancha", in my country nowadays Spanish language was enriched with Native languages as Quechua, some words from it is commonly used in daily basis.