Advanced level English language: Language Change




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Advanced level English language: Language Change

Linguists have traditionally studied variations in a language occurring at the same time (synchronic study) or how language develops over time (diachronic or historical study). Both can be useful aids to understanding.


The study of language change is often narrowed to consideration of change in one aspect of language: lexis, semantics or syntax, say. But you should have a sense of the broad historical development of English. Later, you may wish to study more fully how the language developed at a particular period. For the 20th century, we are able to study some kinds of change over a very short time, as there is plenty of evidence. The further back we go, the longer may be the periods over which change can be observed. Before the 20th century, most of the evidence that survives is of written forms. We have some second-hand written evidence of spoken language forms, but no recorded speech earlier than that allowed by modern recording technology.


English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. It is, therefore, related to most of the languages spoken in an area stretching from Iceland across Europe to India. The language most closely resembling Modern English is Frisian, which is spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland. Icelandic, on the other hand, has changed little in more than 1,000 years. It is the living language most closely resembling Old English.


The period before English began: The original inhabitants of the British Isles did not speak English, but Celtic languages. (Modern forms include Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Erse [Irish] and Breton, as well as dead languages like Cornish and Manx.) The periods of development of the English language proper are Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, and Modern English.


The beginnings of English (ca. 450-1066): English comes from the language of the Germanic tribes who arrived in England in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. These were Jutes, Saxons and Angles. They organized themselves into kingdoms (such as the West Saxons, South Saxons, East Saxons and East Angles). Once they settled in England, their language developed separately from the various forms found in what is now Germany. The Angles were the Engla, the country Englalond and their tongue Englisc. The form of English spoken at this time is Old English (sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon). Because of the settlement patterns of the invading tribes, four Old English dialects developed: Northumbrian, Mercian (or Southumbrian), West Saxon, and Kentish.


About half of the common vocabulary of Modern English comes from Old English, especially names of everyday objects and basic processes. Forms of words varied according to syntax: inflection, case endings, declensions and grammatical gender are all found (as in modern German). Nearly all of these have disappeared from the language as spoken today. English was first written by Roman missionary priests or monks. Their spelling approximated to that used for similar sounds in Latin, and was not standardized.


At the end of the 8th century the first Viking raiders came to Britain. In the 9th century, their raids became more frequent, culminating in invasion, conquest and the establishment of the Danelaw: this was the area of England (most of it) subject to Viking rule, with its capital at York. Ordinary people were not generally harmed once the Vikings were settled in the country. In 937 century the West Saxon royal house under Aethelstan defeated the Vikings at Brunanburh, and within a few years, the Danelaw came to an end. But there were still Viking rulers who claimed the throne (Sweyn and Cnut in the 11th century). On the death of the Saxon king of all England, Edward the Confessor, one of his nobles, Harold, seized power. At Stamford Bridge in 1066 he defeated another Harold, a Norwegian invader, but fell at Hastings to William. William was also a Viking – but the Normans had long been settled in France and their language was French.

The Scandinavian (Viking) invaders of the 8th century and beyond were quite closely related to the original Germanic settlers of England, as was their language. The Viking influence on our language lies in two things. Negatively, speakers of Norse languages helped erode the inflexional endings of Old English. Positively, they made additions to the English lexicon. We can consider these under a number of clear headings:


  • Place names:

  • -by ending (from Norse byr =village) in Whitby, Derby, Ferriby

  • -beck (=brook) in Birkbeck, Troutbeck

  • -brack, -breck, -brick (=slope) in Haverbrack, Norbreck, Scarisbrick

  • -fell (=hill) in Scafell Pike, Whinfell

  • -garth (=yard) in Applegarth, Arkengarthdale

  • -gill, -keld, -mel, -rigg, -thwaite are also Scandinavian place names.




  • Words preserved in dialects: addle (=earn), binks (=benches) and ettle (=strive).




  • Pairs of words descended from a common Germanic source, but entering English at different times, and which persist in both Old English and Scandinavian forms, with either identical or closely-related meanings: no/nay, from/fro, rear/raise, shirt/skirt, edge/egg (verb, as in egg on).




  • Words where the Old English and Scandinavian forms were identical, and which have descended from either or more probably both: bring, come, hear, meet, ride, see, sit and think.




  • Legal or governmental terms: law (replaces Old English doom); by-law (byr [=village] law), outlaw (man outside the law), husband (hus-bondi [=householder or manager of a house]), fellow, husting, riding (=thirding [=third part of]).




  • Parts of body and animals: calf, leg, skin, skull, bull, kid, reindeer (originally Norse rein with later addition of Old English deer [=animal]).




  • Adjectives (some have become adverb, noun or verb by conversion): (a)thwart, awkward, sly, weak and wrong.




  • Verbs: call, cast, cut, flit, glitter, rake, rive, skulk, take, thrive and want.




  • Phrases formed by verb followed by adverbial preposition: take up, take down, take in, take off, take out. These were popular in Tudor times, disapproved by prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century but revived in modern times, largely thanks to US English influence.


The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought in Norman French and eventually placed the four Old English dialects on an even footing. The center of culture gradually shifted to London, and usages there slowly came to dominate. Latin persisted for centuries as the language of the church and of learning.

Middle English lasted from about 1100 to 1450 and was less highly inflected than its predecessor. During this period the Statute of Pleadings (1362) made English instead of French the official language of Parliament and the courts.

After the dawn of the 16th century the movement toward the development of Modern English prose was swift. It was aided by the printing of certain literary works that helped standardize the language. In 1525 William Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament. The next 90 years were the golden age of English literature, culminating in the plays of Shakespeare and in publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611.


Inflection


German, Latin, Russian, Greek, and French are inflected languages. This means that many words undergo changes of form (spelling or pronunciation) to show changes of grammar: tense of verbs, gender of nouns, case or plurality of nouns, mood of verbs, agreement of adjectives, and other distinctions. For example, the French word for “beautiful” or “fine” is beau. When used to modify the plural noun arts, it becomes beaux, as in the expression beaux-arts, meaning “fine arts.” When used before a vowel, it becomes bel, as in le bel age, an idiom for “youth.” When used to modify a noun of the feminine gender, it becomes belle, as in la belle dame, or “beautiful lady.” Old English was a highly inflected language.

Modern English is relatively uninflected. Adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections are invariable. Their form remains the same no matter how they are used. Nouns, pronouns, and verbs are inflected:


  • Most English nouns show plural by adding an s or an es: cow, cows; box, boxes. Some nouns have what are called mutated, or changed, plurals: man, men; woman, women; foot, feet; tooth, teeth; goose, geese; mouse, mice; louse, lice. A very few nouns - for example, ox, oxen - have plurals ending in -en. A few noun forms are unchanged in the plural: deer, sheep, moose, and grouse.




  • Five of the seven personal pronouns have distinctive forms for subject or object use: I, me; he, him; she, her; we, us; and they, them. And there are also distinctive possessives (adjectives and pronouns): my/mine, his, her/hers, our/ours, their theirs.




  • Verb forms are inflected, but mostly in straightforward ways. The one English verb with the most forms is “to be” (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, and being). Weak (regular) verbs have only four forms: talk, talks, talked, and talking, for example. Strong, or irregular, verbs have five forms: sing, sings, sang, sung, and singing. A few verbs (that end in a t or d) do not form the past tense with –ed, and have only three forms: cut, cuts, cutting. These verb inflections are in marked contrast to Old English, in which ridan, or “ride”, had 13 forms, and to Modern German, in which reiten (“ride”) has 16.


Flexibility


Loss of inflection leads to flexibility of use. Words that were once distinguished as nouns or verbs by their inflections are now used both ways. It is possible to run a race (race as noun) or race someone to the corner (race as verb). It is also possible in English to use nouns as [attributive] adjectives: dog show, village fair, ice-cream van. Pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs can also function as nouns. English adopts or adapts any word as needed to name a new object or describe a new process.


In explaining real examples of language structures, you should categorize lexemes by how they operate in a phrase, clause or sentence, rather than by a dictionary or reference categorization. When Rick (in the 1940 film Casablanca) says to the heroine, “Cigarette me” (he is driving at the time), he uses cigarette as a transitive verb. It is especially common in modern English for nouns to be used as (attributive) adjectives, as in health education, Design Council and vicarage tea party.


Word Formation


Adding a prefix or suffix, combining or blending words, all create new forms. A prefix is attached to the front of a word: way, subway; done, overdone. Sometimes a foreign prefix is added such as the Greek macro or micro: macroeconomics, microbiology.

One of the most common suffixes is -er, which usually means someone who engages in the act that the verb suggests: singer, player, seeker, and writer. Other suffixes also denote activity: actor, saboteur, merchant and scientist.

Combining words to form new ones is common: cloverleaf, gentleman and dateline. Some words in combination alter their meanings slightly: already is not quite the same as all ready, and a gentleman is not quite the same as a gentle man. Blackbird is a bird of a single species (Turdus merula), of which the female is in fact brown, but black bird suggests a bird of a particular colour.

Blends of words fall into two categories - a coalescence or a telescoped word. Lewis Carroll calls these portmanteau words – chortle (chuckle and snort) is his invention in Through the Looking-Glass. One of the most commonly used coalescent forms is smog, a blend of the words smoke and fog. A telescoped form is motorcade, made by combining motor with a remnant of cavalcade. In the same way a travel monologue becomes a travelogue, and an informative commercial (=advertisement) is an infomercial.


The Lexicon


There are an estimated 750,000 words in the English language. Nearly half of these are of Germanic (or Teutonic) origin, and nearly half from the Romance languages (languages of Latin origin - such as French, Spanish, and Italian – or Latin itself). There also have been generous borrowings from other languages, including Greek, Dutch, Modern German, and Arabic. Use a good etymological dictionary to learn about the origins of English words.


Most borrowings from other languages occur in a given historical period. For example, the close relationship between India and Britain within the British Empire adds to the lexicon in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.


Greek and Latin are unusual in that they contribute to the lexicon both directly and indirectly (through other European languages) and at different times – most actively when they are no longer living vernaculars. Classical Greek was a dead language long before English existed. Latin is not a living vernacular (that is spoken by people in a given region) after the early Middle Ages, having changed into Italian. But it survived into the 19th century as the international language of learning, especially science. In some areas of science (e.g. biological classification [taxonomy] and astrophysics) it is still used.


More borrowings from classical languages occur in Modern English than in Old or Middle English. The meaning and use of a given lexeme may indicate when it entered the language – thus Greek bishop (from episcopos = overseer) and Latin grammar are found in Old English, while Greek cosmonaut, Latin television and the Greek-Latin compound astrophysics belong to the modern era.


Many borrowings from Latin are compounds: circumference, conjunction, compassion, contemporary, malnutrition, multilingual, submarine, substantial, suburb, supernatural, transfer and hundreds more.

Borrowings from Greek are heavy in the sciences and technology. In addition to macro and micro, often-used prefixes include poly- and tele-. Among the well-known English words from Greek are alphabet, biology, geometry, geology, logic, logistics, metamorphosis, pathology, photography, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, sympathy, telephone, and zoology.


It is a common mistake to suppose that lexemes of classical origin are complex polysyllables like philoprogenitive or disestablishmentarian. A sample of twenty-five lexemes (from the Oxford History of the Classical World, ed. Boardman, Grifffin and Murray, p. 13, Oxford, 1986) shows that many basic and morphologically simple words come from classical Greek or Latin: act, art, beauty, colour, crime, fact, fate, fork, hour, human, idea, justice, language, law, matter, music, nature, number, place, reason, school, sense, sex, space and time.

The lexicon of Old English is almost wholly Germanic – the exceptions are classical borrowings for the beliefs, organization and personnel of the church. It gives us such nouns as father, mother, brother, man, wife, ground, land, tree, grass, summer, and winter, as well as abstractions like friendship. Old English verbs include bring, come, get, hear, meet, see, sit, stand, and think. Most of our everyday essentials (articles, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns) are found in Old English.

French adds greatly to the lexicon in the Middle English period, under the Norman and Plantagenet royal houses. It gives us political terms: constitution, president, parliament, congress, and representative. Also borrowed from French are city, place, village, court, palace, manor, mansion, residence, domicile, cuisine, diner, cafe, liberty, veracity, carpenter, draper, haberdasher, mason, painter, plumber, and tailor. In modern times many terms relating to cooking, fashion, drama, winemaking, literature, art, diplomacy, and ballet also come from France.


English has acquired many words from Spanish. Some of these came directly into English, especially in the age of sea travel and conquest: cigar, armada, guerrilla, matador, mosquito, and tornado. Others have come to Spanish from one of the Indian languages of the Americas: potato and tomato, for example. Many Spanish words have entered American English from Latin America: canyon, lasso, mustang, pueblo, and rodeo.

Arabic words have usually come into English by way of another European language, especially Spanish. Arabic was spoken in Spain during the period of the Muslim domination, in the early Middle Ages. Among the common English words that have come from Arabic are: alcohol, alchemy, algebra, alkali, almanac, arsenal, assassin, cipher, elixir, mosque, naphtha, sugar, syrup, zenith, and zero.

Common words borrowed from other languages are: coffee (Turkish); gull (Cornish); flannel (Welsh); brogue, blarney, clan, plaid and shamrock (Gaelic and Irish); mammoth, soviet, and vodka (Russian); howitzer, robot (Czech); paprika (Hungarian); bungalow, dungarees, jodhpurs, jungle, loot, polo, pyjamas, shampoo and thug (Hindi); paradise, lilac, bazaar, caravan, chess, shawl, and khaki (Persian); flamingo, marmalade and veranda (Portuguese); bamboo, ketchup and orangutan (Malay); taboo and tattoo (Polynesian); and ukulele (Hawaiian). Other words from native languages include hammock, hurricane, maize and tobacco (Caribbean) and chimpanzee and voodoo (African).


The lexicon does not change simply by growing. No single speaker is able to use all 750,000 words (most adult English speakers will use between 10,000 and 40,000). There is a difference between those words we are likely to use in any context and those we understand, but are only likely to use where the context requires it, for example igloo, pangolin or glockenspiel. Over time one lexeme may replace another. The adverbial down to you (me, him, Fred etc.) effectively replaced up to you between the 1970s and the Millennium. Many English speakers today substitute for a single adverb, an adverb phrase of the form on a X basis, where X is usually a noun, used as attributive adjective. And some words disappear from use. Hardly anyone wears breeches or pantaloons anymore. People rarely say verily or Lo! (except in badly-written historical novels). And lamplighters and organ grinders, gramophones and slide rules are things of the past. To confuse things further, some lexemes return to fashion, so boffin (= clever person) and rag (= to tease) which were current in the 1950s, but rarely heard for several decades following, are again current in the speech of English teenagers.

Language change and standardization


See comments on theory of standard and n/s forms under language and society. Those who urge standard forms on the public may be more or less aware of these.


Note the difference between a linguist like Randolph Quirk who advocates teaching standard forms in schools as a form of social empowerment and a politician like Norman Tebbitt (1985; quoted by Jean Aitchison in The Language Web) who argues that n/s forms are linked to crime (although this is plausible – the incidence of reading difficulty for the UK prison population is higher than that for the whole UK population).


Also note non-expert commentators, like Prince Charles, who endorse a model which reflects a mistaken belief that English is modelled on classical languages, or, like Gillian Shephard, former Secretary of State for Education, favour a “standard” partly defined negatively as not being so-called “Estuary English”. Since her comments (1995) this alleged variety has not become established. Confusingly “Estuary English” has been described as a new (demotic) standard form (Coggle, P; 1993; Do you speak Estuary? The new standard English).


Aitchison’s first Reith lecture: A Web of Worries (Chapter 1 of The Language Web) gives much of the historical background and disposes of many myths, which she groups under three metaphorical headings: the “damp teaspoon syndrome”, the “crumbling castle view” and the “infectious disease assumption”. Find out what these are.


Classical literary Greek and Latin (necessarily) do not change. This is the source of the illusory standard advocated throughout the history of English but especially loudly in Chaucer’s time, in the classical revival of the 17th and 18th centuries, and in our own day. The advocates of this myth believe that Classical languages did not change (wrong – none is alive today), that Greek and Latin are in some way ideal or perfect languages and that English is derived from these: all these are contentions which modern language science contradicts.


About this we can say two things with confidence: many people, learned or ignorant, with many motives have sought to impose standard forms on other people; none has succeeded. But we can qualify this by noting that over shorter periods standard forms for particular purposes (e.g. writing a business letter or pleading in the High Court) have been accepted.


Invented standards may be prescribed but will be observed only if speakers or writers are coerced – which is a problem for English-speaking countries which guarantee (some measure of) freedom of speech. On the other hand, some standards may be accepted out of respect for the authority from which they are derived, or for powerful pragmatic reasons – such as the use of agreed conventions for air-traffic control.


In discussing influences on standardization you should note how and in what way they are accepted (e.g. the OED, Webster or Microsoft indicate standard spelling but few writers use these with complete consistency).


You may wish to organize these influences chronologically or by category – although in some cases influences in a given period may more or less correspond to language category. Below is a selection of events in the history of English that have influenced language change or standardization, along with comment on these.

The beginnings of English: English is at first a dialectal variant of a contemporary Germanic language. Grammar is not enforced by a standard, but conventional and stable forms have been described and reconstructed by modern scholars (e.g. H. Sweet, C.L. Wrenn and Bruce Mitchell) from old texts. Written English is rare, and comes from Latin-speaking monks, who use the Roman alphabet, with new letters (F, x and z) usually to record texts for others to read aloud or in public. The arrival of the Vikings and establishment of the Danelaw bring about change – some erosion of grammar and addition of new vocabulary.

Middle English Period – 1066 to 1485: After the Norman Conquest the language of government is mediaeval French, but in 1362 (under Edward III) English becomes the official language. Writers express concern about change – Chaucer describes it, while Ranulph Higden bemoans the strange sounds of English in a way that anticipates Gillian Shephard’s 1995 outburst against “Estuary English”: the English, he says, practise “strange wlaffyng, chytering, harryng and garryng grisbittyng” (stammering, chattering, snarling and grating tooth-gnashing).


In 1458 Gutenberg invents printing (in 1475 Caxton introduces it to England) – this enables some standardizing. But note that there is no widespread standard form of spelling, nor of punctuation. Some publishers may attempt in-house consistency. Also, for some time after the invention of printing, more books than previously are produced by hand – printing is at first reserved for books (such as the Bible) which are likely to justify the time taken to set up type. The press provides the technical means to guarantee standardizing of spelling, but this will wait for some 300 years.

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