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 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.

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.

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.

Submitted by Mamoon Tariq on Wed, 06/12/2017 - 18:17

English has gone through remarkable impacts of history and culture. It is not impossible to count the phrases in English but to really get through their meanings we need to get an historical insight into English comprehension. As though it seems that English is the most proficient language of the world but very few people can contextualise their meanings with a sufficient labour.

Submitted by Poemer on Tue, 18/07/2017 - 16:36

-Chinese is one of biggest historic languages the belonging to Sino-Tibetan languages, and have been invented for over 5000 years. -I think I can read Middle English for about 50 percent, because it still have respectable similarity with Modern English from the video. -I believe that English will be more and more popular in the future. Your know, Chinese is perhaps difficult for non-native people to learn, so it's incovenient to be used as a global language. English is deeply impacted by French in history, and it will be affected by other langhages in the future.

Submitted by Nizam Balinese on Sat, 08/07/2017 - 10:18

Hello Team. Help me with this, please. I can't catch what Roger says in the video with time code 1:45 - 1:50. But the transcript says : "And so what you can see is how this changed and evolved over time." Is it correct to use the sentence in past tense rather than present perfect? "What you can see is how this has changed and evolved over time." Would you like to explain, please? Thank you in advance.

Hello Nizam,

What the transcript says is accurate. Yes, the past simple is fine here, as he's really talking about changes in the past, some of which are quite old. It's true that he speaks about English still changing, so I can see why you might prefer the present perfect (and that would also be fine), but the past simple is also OK here.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nizam Balinese on Thu, 01/06/2017 - 09:17

Hello everyone. ☆ What do you know about the history of your language? - 'Melayu' is a major language of the Austronesian family. It has an official status in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunai and Singapore. It's spoken since a thousand years ago and now by 290 million people nearly across southeast of Asia. The Indonesian language is a variant of Melayu and is the official language of Indonesia. It's primarily used in commerce, administration, education and the media. ☆ Do you think you could read Middle English? Why or why not? - Yes I do, when we look up to Middle English, say, Shakespear's periode, where printing has come in and the begining standart of the language has been used, it indicates that it's not difficult like old english anymore but of course it's also not as easy as to read modern english. Definitely, It will take more time. ☆ How do you think English will change in the future? - Technology enable people all over the world speaking English with each other but impact of them will change the language. However, the changing takes a long time, at least a hundred years or maybe more. People often to speak in easy way, the main idea of the communication is the message across. So I guess, the future of english is it will be shortening words, it will be communicated in less grammers and adopts many words from other languages.
Hello, Team. I'm trying to correct some of mistakes of sentences above (only for the third question). Do you think you could get me some advices, please? - Technology enables people all over the world speaking english with each other in the internet but impact of it is it will change the language. - However, the changes will takes a long time, at least a hundred years or maybe more. - People often to speak in the easy way. The main idea of communication is that message across. - So I guess, the future of english is it will become shortening words, it will be communicated in less grammar and adopts many words from other languages. ================== Thank you in advance.

Hello Nizam Balinese,

The correct sentences would be as follows:


Technology enables people all over the world to speak English with each other on the internet but its impact will change the language.

However, the changes will take a long time, at least a hundred years or maybe more.

People often speak in a simple way. The main idea of communication is to get the message across.

So I guess the future of English is that it will have shortened words, it will be communicated with less grammar and adopt many words from other languages.


Please note that we do not generally correct sentences for our users. WIth so many users it is just not something we have time to do.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by soxumi1995 on Sun, 26/03/2017 - 12:34

Richard sad "what impact has technology had on the English language?" what means "had". Here we have "has". so for what is required - "had" ?

Hello soxumi1995,

The form here is present perfect (see here for more infomation on this form). It is made as follows:

have/has + past participle

For example:

have looked

have eaten

has gone

has been

When the main verb is 'have' we use the past participle 'had' and so we have 

have had

has had


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Genc on Sun, 26/02/2017 - 09:06

When Ottoman Empire rule the world, they use Ottoman Turkish which is really far from different Turkish, though.It was difficult to write and speak.That's why Atatürk which is revolutionary, and founder of the Republic of Turkey altered our alphabet into Latin alphabet. Well, I remember once I have tried to read Shakespeare's English and I couldn't make any sense, at all.I don't think that I would be able to read Middle English. I'd argue that English will be changing more and more over time because of the technology.Everyday new words are being added, anyway.For instance, podcast,tweet,hashtag,skype,google and etc.