English has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years. The earliest forms of English, a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century, are called Old English. Middle English began in the late 11th century with the Norman conquest of England, and was a period in which the language was influenced by French. Early Modern English began in the late 15th century with the introduction of the printing press to London, the printing of the King James Bible, and the start of the Great Vowel Shift.
Through the worldwide influence of the British Empire, modern English spread around the world from the 17th to mid-20th centuries. Through all types of printed and electronic media, and spurred by the emergence of the United States as a global superpower, English has become the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions and in professional contexts such as science, navigation and law.
English is the third most widespread native language in the world, after Standard Chinese and Spanish. It is the most widely learned second language and is either the official language or one of the official languages in almost 60 sovereign states. There are more people who have learned it as a second language than there are native speakers. English is the most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and it is widely spoken in some areas of the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia. It is a co-official language of the United Nations, of the European Union and of many other world and regional international organisations. It is the most widely spoken Germanic language, accounting for at least 70% of speakers of this Indo-European branch. English has a vast vocabulary, though counting how many words any language has is impossible.
Modern English grammar is the result of a gradual change from a typical Indo-European dependent marking pattern with a rich inflectional morphology and relatively free word order, to a mostly analytic pattern with little inflection, a fairly fixed SVO word order and a complex syntax. Modern English relies more on auxiliary verbs and word order for the expression of complex tenses, aspect and mood, as well as passive constructions, interrogatives and some negation. Despite noticeable variation among the accents and dialects of English used in different countries and regions – in terms of phonetics and phonology, and sometimes also vocabulary, grammar and spelling – English-speakers from around the world are able to communicate with one another with relative ease.
English is an Indo-European language, and belongs to the West Germanic group of the Germanic languages. Old English originated from a Germanic tribal and linguistic continuum along the coast of the North Sea, whose languages are now known as the Anglo-Frisian subgroup within West Germanic. As such, the modern Frisian languages are the closest living relatives of Modern English. Low German/Low Saxon is also closely related, and sometimes English, the Frisian languages, and Low German are grouped together as the Ingvaeonic (North Sea Germanic) languages, though this grouping remains debated. Old English evolved into Middle English, which in turn evolved into Modern English. Particular dialects of Old and Middle English also developed into a number of other Anglic languages, including Scots and the extinct Fingallian and Forth and Bargy (Yola) dialects of Ireland.