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This article is focused on English-language literature rather than the literature of England, so that it includes writers from Scotland, Wales, the Crown dependencies, and the whole of Ireland, as well as literature in English from countries of the former British Empire, including the United States. However, until the early 19th century, it only deals with the literature of the United Kingdom, the Crown dependencies and Ireland. It does not include literature written in the other languages of Britain.

The English language has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years.[1] The earliest forms of English, a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the fifth century, are called Old English. Beowulf is the most famous work in Old English, and has achieved national epic status in England, despite being set in Scandinavia. However, following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the written form of the Anglo-Saxon language became less common. Under the influence of the new aristocracy, French became the standard language of courts, parliament, and polite society.[2] The English spoken after the Normans came is known as Middle English. This form of English lasted until the 1470s, when the Chancery Standard (late Middle English), a London-based form of English, became widespread. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400), author of The Canterbury Tales, was a significant figure in the development of the legitimacy of vernacular Middle English at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were still French and Latin. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 also helped to standardise the language, as did the King James Bible (1611),[3] and the Great Vowel Shift.[4]

Poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and one of the world's greatest dramatists.[5][6][7] His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.[8] In the nineteenth century Sir Walter Scott's historical romances inspired a generation of painters, composers, and writers throughout Europe.[9]

The English language spread throughout the world with the development of the British Empire between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history.[10] By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time,[11] During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these colonies and the USA started to produce their own significant literary traditions in English. And in the last hundred plus years numerous writers from Great Britain, the island of Ireland, the USA, and members of other former British colonies have received the Nobel Prize for works in the English language, more than in any other language.