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The evolution of English: From the 17th century to the present day

Updated Wednesday, 1st July 2020

Part two: The history of colonialism was a major factor in the development of English. Follow the global spread of English from the 17th century to the present day.

Scroll back and forth through the dates in the timeline below using the arrows either side. You can then read more about each time period, see images and even play videos.

The evolution of English - Part two

A journey through time with the history of English.

Agostino Brunias under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
"A Linen Market with a Linen-stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indies" by Agostino Brunias

Colonisation of Barbados


Having been claimed in the name of James I in 1625, a party of settlers arrives to occupy the island in February 1627.

Paris - L'Académie Française

Académie française established


Cardinal Richelieu establishes the Académie française to act as the official authority on the French language. 

Map of Barbados, 1673

Ligon’s account of Barbados


Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados is published.

tonynetone under CC BY 2.0 license
John Wallis

Wallis’s Grammar


Wallis publishes his Grammatica linguae Anglicanae. It is the last English grammar to be written in Latin.

Fry1989 under CC BY-SA 3.0 license
Coat of Arms of the Royal Society

Royal Society established


The ‘Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ is founded in November 1660, five months after the Restoration of the monarchy.

Royal Society under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
1665 Philosophical Transactions Vol I

Philosophical Transactions


The ‘Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ is founded in November 1660, five months after the Restoration of the monarchy.

Sir Godfrey Kneller under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Isaac Newton, 1689. Painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Newton’s Principia Mathematica


Isaac Newton publishes his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in Latin. 

D-Kuru under public domain
The first edition of Newton's Opticks

Newton’s Opticks


Newton publishes his Opticks in English.

Act of Union


The ‘Act of Union’ unites the Parliaments of England and Scotland, creating the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’.

Charles Jervas under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Jonathon Swift. Painting by Charles Jervas

Swift’s Proposal


Jonathan Swift, Anglo-Irish writer and satirist, writes A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, in which he argues for the standardisation and ‘fixing’ of the English language.

The thorn letter which was dropped in this period

Start of the ‘Modern English’ period


The ‘Modern English period’ runs from c. 1750 to c. 1950.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Johnson's Dictionary

Johnson’s Dictionary


Samuel Johnson publishes his Dictionary of the English Language, which becomes the model for English language lexicography for the next century and a half.

Chris 73 under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Lowth, D.D. Lord Bishop of London. Original Painting by L.E. Pine

Lowth’s Grammar


Robert Lowth, Lord Bishop of London, writes his Short Introduction to English Grammar, one of the most influential of eighteenth-century English grammars and still in use in early twentieth-century Britain.

Stack of German and English books

Concept of ‘national literature’


Starting in Germany and quickly spreading throughout Europe, the idea of linking the nation state, the national literature and the national language becomes an influential political and cultural concept.

Emanuel Leutze under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Washington Crossing the Delware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

American War of Independence


 In July 1776, thirteen British colonies declare their independence after war and create a new nation, the United States of America. This is the first country beyond the British Isles to have English as its primary language. 

Charles Gore under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Botany Bay,New South Wales, ca 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore

Penal colonies established in Australia


The ‘First Fleet’ arrives in New South Wales with one and a half thousand emigrants, approximately 800 of whom are convicts. The first European colony in Australia is established. 

Dean under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lindley Murray

Murray’s English Grammar


Grammarian Lindley Murray writes English Grammar, one of the most influential of eighteenth-century grammars, particularly in the United States.

Union Jack, Flag of Great Britain and Ireland

Acts of Union unite Britain and Ireland


Acts incorporating Ireland into Britain, and creating the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ are passed.

Thure de Thulstrup under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
"Hoisting of American Colors over Louisiana" by Thure de Thulstrup

The Louisiana Purchase


The United States buys France’s North American territories, thus vastly increasing its size.

Richard Bridgens (Yale Center for British Art) under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
"Protector of Slaves Office (Trinidad)" by Richard Bridgens

British slave trade ends


The British Parliament passes the ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’. While this ends the British slave trade, slavery itself remains legal in the British Empire until the ‘Slavery Abolition Act’ of 1833.

Samuel Morse under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Noah Webster, by Samuel Morse

Webster’s American Dictionary


Most of the differences between British and American spelling can be attributed to Noah Webster, whose most influential work is his American Dictionary of the English Language.

Unknown under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Edward Trevelyan (contemporary lithograph)

Anglicism in British colonies


Charles Trevelyan outlines why English literature is better than vernacular literatures by way of providing a rationale for education via the medium of English in British colonies.

Unknown under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Waitangi Sheet of the Treaty of Waitangi

Treaty of Waitangi


Treaty in which the Maoris cede the rights of government in New Zealand to the British.

hugovk under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license
1901 forerunner to the Oxford English Dictionary

Proposal for New English Dictionary


The Philological Society in London draws up a proposal for a new dictionary of English based on historical principles. This project develops into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Canadian Flag

Canada given self-government


The ‘Dominion of Canada’ is created.

Australian Flag

Australia given self-government


The ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ is established.

National Archives of Ireland under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Signature page from the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 From the National Archives of Ireland

Irish Free State established


The Irish Free State – a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire – is established in December 1922 as a result of the ‘Anglo-Irish Treaty’ of 1921. 

Panhard under CC BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-2.5 license
BBC Television Centre at White City, West London, which opened in 1960 and closed in 2013

BBC founded


The British Broadcasting Corporation (originally the British Broadcasting Company) is founded, becoming the first national broadcasting organisation in the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Publication of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary


The production of the ten-volume Oxford English Dictionary takes over half a century, and involves contributions from hundreds of scholars and editors, led by James Murray (1837-1915). The first edition is finally completed in 1928.

under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference, London, UK

British Commonwealth created


The ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ is formally created by the ‘Statute of Westminster’. 

The national flag of India hoisted on the Red Fort in Delhi

Independence from British colonial rule for India


Following successive waves of resistance to British rule, India finally gains independence from Britain.  

Start of the ‘Late modern English’ period


The ‘Late modern English’ period begins c. 1950.

Eric Teoh under CC-BY-SA-2.0 license
Malaysia's National Flag

Independence from British colonial rule for Malay states


The states of the Malay peninsula gain independence in 1957. In 1963 they are joined by Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore to create the country of Malaysia. Singapore leaves to become an independent state in 1965.

under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Map of Kenya

Independence from British colonial rule for Kenya


After at least a decade of often violent opposition to British rule, Kenya gains independence in 1963.  

Jorel Pi under CC BY 2.0 license
An ascii image of pi using the first 333 digits of Pi

First edition of ASCII


The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) is devised to enable texts created on one computer to be read on others. It places users of non-English languages at a disadvantage because it initially makes no provision for non-English writing systems.

ARPANET Interface Message Processor

Foundation of the ARPANET


The founding of the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a computer network funded by the US Department of Defense. It has developed into today’s internet.

Jacob under WikiCommons license
Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000

Political migration


The 1970s witness large-scale migration of political exiles fleeing oppressive regimes in countries including Chile, South Africa and parts of Eastern Europe, to settle in Western Europe, the US and Canada.

Dictionary through a magnifying lens

Macquarie Dictionary published


The first edition of the Macquarie Dictionary, which is ‘the first comprehensive dictionary of Australian English’, is published.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o signs copies of his book

Decolonising the Mind


The Kenyan writer Ngũgi wa Thiong’o writes Decolonising the Mind, in which he rejects an English language literature canon for Kenya.

Mk2010 under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license
Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner's English Dictionary

Publication of the first COBUILD dictionary


The Collins COBUILD dictionary is the first to be based on statistical analysis of contemporary English speech and text. The work is carried out by researchers at the University of Birmingham under the direction of John Sinclair.

Unicode Yi Syllables

Proposal of UNICODE


Proposed by Joseph Becker, a computer scientist working for Xerox, UNICODE is a single code based on ASCII but potentially capable of representing every symbol in every human writing system. It has helped to erode the initial dominance of English on the internet.

Magnifying glass

Creation of the first computer search engine


Archie, the first search engine, is created by Alan Emtage, a postgraduate student at McGill University. It is essentially an automatically updated index of all files available via the internet.

NeXTcube, used by Tim Berners-Lee as the first web server

Launch of the World Wide Web


The World Wide Web is launched by Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist working for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. 

UnknownGringoStar under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
BBC World News Logo

Launch of BBC World News


In the wake of the First Gulf War, the BBC World Service launches a television news channel to compete with CNN (the US cable news channel).

Col under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license
South African Flag

End of apartheid in South Africa


Although South Africa gained independence from Britain in 1910, it is not until the first free elections of 1994 (four years after Nelson Mandela’s release from jail) that apartheid is ended and all people of the country can be said to be ‘free’. 

Paul Keller under CC BY 2.0 license
Al-Jazeera English newsroom

Founding of Al-Jazeera


Based in Doha, Al-Jazeera is the first major global news provider to have its headquarters outside the English-speaking world. Its English-language sister channel, Al Jazeera English, is launched in 2006.


First social network site


SixDegrees is the first dedicated social networking site on the world wide web. It proves a commercial failure, but pioneers many of the features of later social network sites such as Facebook (launched 2004), Mixi (2004), Bebo (2005), and Twitter (2006). 

Carlos Luna under CC BY 2.0 license
Google HQ

Launch of Google


Google – the company behind what becomes the world’s most popular web search engine – is founded by Larry Page and Sergei Brin, two former Stanford University PhD students. In 2004, it begins its project for a searchable database of all printed books.

jayneandd under CC BY 2.0 license
Life in the UK form

Citizenship tests


Citizenship tests, which have been used in the US and Canada for many years, come into being in Britain and several European countries, as well as New Zealand and Australia.

Wikipedia Logo in the head office, San Francisco

Launch of Wikipedia


Launched by the entrepreneur, Jimmy Wales and the philosopher, Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is the world’s first open content encyclopaedia.

Flag of Malaysia

English-medium education policy introduced in Malaysia


English is reintroduced into Malaysian schools as a medium of instruction for science and mathematics, following its wholesale replacement by the national language over the previous 30 years. In 2010 this policy is reversed, with English once again becoming a subject rather than a medium of instruction.

Rwandan Flag

English-medium education policy introduced in Rwanda


The Rwandan government decides to remove French as one of the country’s official languages, and introduce a policy of English-medium education to replace its existing French-medium system.





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