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29 October 2014
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English today
The birth of English
The spread of English

The spread of English

By the Middle Ages English had spread to the extent that it was the main native language in all of England except Devon and Cornwall in the southwest, Cumbria and in the northwest, and some areas adjacent to Wales, where Welsh was still spoken.

Four hundred years ago, in 1600, English didn't have an important role as a foreign or second language anywhere, and it was spoken as a native language in a very small area of the globe indeed: it was the native language of the indigenous population in most of England, and in the south and east of Scotland. It was still absent from much of Cornwall and from Welsh-speaking parts of Shropshire and Herefordshire; most of Ireland was Irish-speaking; nearly all of Wales was still Welsh-speaking; the Highlands and Hebridean Islands of Scotland spoke Gaelic; Orkney and Shetland spoke Scandinavian Norn; the Isle of Man was Manx-speaking; and the Channel Islands were still French-speaking.

During the course of the 1600s this situation changed dramatically. English arrived as a native language, as a result of colonisation, in Ireland, in what is now the United States, and in Bermuda, Newfoundland, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It also spread during this time into many island and mainland areas of the Caribbean as well as to eastern coastal and island areas of Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia which remain English-speaking to this day.

During the 18th century English began its expansion into Wales and north western Scotland, and mainland and maritime Canada. In the 19th century, again as a result of colonisation, English expanded to Hawaii, and into the Southern Hemisphere - not only to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but also to the South Atlantic Islands of St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha and the Falklands. There was also expansion from the Caribbean islands to eastern coastal areas of Costa Rica and Panama; and Caribbean Islands which had previously been French-speaking started on a process of becoming English-speaking to different degrees: Dominica, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

There are also today long-standing indigenous groups of British-origin native English speakers in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Many of these areas now have their own distinctive forms of the language. We can distinguish in particular North American, Caribbean, Southern African, and Australasian English.

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