The History of the English Language

imagesThe history of English is conventionally, if perhaps too neatly, divided into three periods usually called Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, and Modern English. The earliest period begins with the migration of certain Germanic tribes from the continent to Britain in the fifth century A.D., though no records of their language survive from before the seventh century, and it continues until the end of the eleventh century or a bit later. By that time Latin, Old Norse (the language of the Viking invaders), and especially the Anglo-Norman French of the dominant class after the Norman Conquest in 1066 had begun to have a substantial impact on the lexicon, and the well-developed inflectional system that typifies the grammar of Old English had begun to break down.

The following brief sample of Old English prose illustrates several of the significant ways in which change has so transformed English that we must look carefully to find points of resemblance between the language of the tenth century and our own. It is taken from Aelfric’s “Homily on St. Gregory the Great” and concerns the famous story of how that pope came to send missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity after seeing Anglo-Saxon boys for sale as slaves in Rome:

Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, “Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon.”

A few of these words will be recognized as identical in spelling with their modern equivalents—he, of, him, for, and, on—and the resemblance of a few others to familiar words may be guessed—nama to name, comon to come, wære to were, wæs to was—but only those who have made a special study of Old English will be able to read the passage with understanding. The sense of it is as follows:

Again he [St. Gregory] asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, “Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be angels’ companions in heaven.”

Some of the words in the original have survived in altered form, includingaxode (asked), hu (how), rihtlice (rightly), engla (angels), habbað (have), swilcum (such), heofonum (heaven), and beon (be). Others, however, have vanished from our lexicon, mostly without a trace, including several that were quite common words in Old English: eft “again,” ðeode “people, nation,” cwæð“said, spoke,” gehatene “called, named,” wlite “appearance, beauty,” andgeferan “companions.” Recognition of some words is naturally hindered by the presence of two special characters, þ, called “thorn,” and ð, called “edh,” which served in Old English to represent the sounds now spelled with th.

Other points worth noting include the fact that the pronoun system did not yet, in the late tenth century, include the third person plural forms beginning with th-: hi appears where we would use they. Several aspects of word order will also strike the reader as oddly unlike ours. Subject and verb are inverted after an adverb—þa cwæð he “Then said he”—a phenomenon not unknown in Modern English but now restricted to a few adverbs such as never and requiring the presence of an auxiliary verb like do or have. In subordinate clauses the main verb must be last, and so an object or a preposition may precede it in a way no longer natural: þe hi of comon “which they from came,”for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað “because they angels’ beauty have.”

Perhaps the most distinctive difference between Old and Modern English reflected in Aelfric’s sentences is the elaborate system of inflections, of which we now have only remnants. Nouns, adjectives, and even the definite article are inflected for gender, case, and number: ðære ðeode “(of) the people” is feminine, genitive, and singular, Angle “Angles” is masculine, accusative, and plural, and swilcum “such” is masculine, dative, and plural. The system of inflections for verbs was also more elaborate than ours: for example, habbað“have” ends with the -að suffix characteristic of plural present indicative verbs. In addition, there were two imperative forms, four subjunctive forms (two for the present tense and two for the preterit, or past, tense), and several others which we no longer have. Even where Modern English retains a particular category of inflection, the form has often changed. Old English present participles ended in -ende not -ing, and past participles bore a prefix ge- (asgeandwyrd “answered” above).

The period of Middle English extends roughly from the twelfth century through the fifteenth. The influence of French (and Latin, often by way of French) upon the lexicon continued throughout this period, the loss of some inflections and the reduction of others (often to a final unstressed vowel spelled -e) accelerated, and many changes took place within the phonological and grammatical systems of the language. A typical prose passage, especially one from the later part of the period, will not have such a foreign look to us as Aelfric’s prose has; but it will not be mistaken for contemporary writing either. The following brief passage is drawn from a work of the late fourteenth century called Mandeville’s Travels. It is fiction in the guise of travel literature, and, though it purports to be from the pen of an English knight, it was originally written in French and later translated into Latin and English. In this extract Mandeville describes the land of Bactria, apparently not an altogether inviting place, as it is inhabited by “full yuele [evil] folk and full cruell.”

In þat lond ben trees þat beren wolle, as þogh it were of scheep; whereof men maken clothes, and all þing þat may ben made of wolle. In þat contree ben many ipotaynes, þat dwellen som tyme in the water, and somtyme on the lond: and þei ben half man and half hors, as I haue seyd before; and þei eten men, whan þei may take hem. And þere ben ryueres and watres þat ben fulle byttere, þree sithes more þan is the water of the see. In þat contré ben many griffounes, more plentee þan in ony other contree. Sum men seyn þat þei han the body vpward as an egle, and benethe as a lyoun: and treuly þei seyn soth þat þei ben of þat schapp. But o griffoun hath the body more gret, and is more strong, þanne eight lyouns, of suche lyouns as ben o this half; and more gret and strongere þan an hundred egles, suche as we han amonges vs. For o griffoun þere wil bere fleynge to his nest a gret hors, 3if he may fynde him at the poynt, or two oxen 3oked togidere, as þei gon at the plowgh.

The spelling is often peculiar by modern standards and even inconsistent within these few sentences (contré and contree, o [griffoun] and a [gret hors], þanne and þan, for example). Moreover, in the original text, there is in addition to thorn another old character 3, called “yogh,” to make difficulty. It can represent several sounds but here may be thought of as equivalent to y.Even the older spellings (including those where u stands for v or vice versa) are recognizable, however, and there are only a few words like ipotaynes“hippopotamuses” and sithes “times” that have dropped out of the language altogether.

We may notice a few words and phrases that have meanings no longer common such as byttere “salty,” o this half “on this side of the world,” and at the poynt “to hand,” and the effect of the centuries-long dominance of French on the vocabulary is evident in many familiar words which could not have occurred in Aelfric’s writing even if his subject had allowed them, words likecontree, ryueres, plentee, egle, and lyoun.

In general word order is now very close to that of our time, though we notice constructions like hath the body more gret and three sithes more þan is the water of the see. We also notice that present tense verbs still receive a plural inflection as in beren, dwellen, han, and ben and that while nominative þeihas replaced Aelfric’s hi in the third person plural, the form for objects is stillhem.

All the same, the number of inflections for nouns, adjectives, and verbs has been greatly reduced, and in most respects Mandeville is closer to Modern than to Old English.

The period of Modern English extends from the sixteenth century to our own day. The early part of this period saw the completion of a revolution in the phonology of English that had begun in late Middle English and that effectively redistributed the occurrence of the vowel phonemes to something approximating their present pattern. (Mandeville’s English would have sounded even less familiar to us than it looks.)

Other important early developments include the stabilizing effect on spelling of the printing press and the beginning of the direct influence of Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek on the lexicon. Later, as English came into contact with other cultures around the world and distinctive dialects of English developed in the many areas which Britain had colonized, numerous other languages made small but interesting contributions to our word-stock.

The historical aspect of English really encompasses more than the three stages of development just under consideration. English has what might be called a prehistory as well. As we have seen, our language did not simply spring into existence; it was brought from the Continent by Germanic tribes who had no form of writing and hence left no records. Philologists know that they must have spoken a dialect of a language that can be called West Germanic and that other dialects of this unknown language must have included the ancestors of such languages as German, Dutch, Low German, and Frisian. They know this because of certain systematic similarities which these languages share with each other but do not share with, say, Danish. However, they have had somehow to reconstruct what that language was like in its lexicon, phonology, grammar, and semantics as best they can through sophisticated techniques of comparison developed chiefly during the last century.

Similarly, because ancient and modern languages like Old Norse and Gothic or Icelandic and Norwegian have points in common with Old English and Old High German or Dutch and English that they do not share with French or Russian, it is clear that there was an earlier unrecorded language that can be called simply Germanic and that must be reconstructed in the same way. Still earlier, Germanic was just a dialect (the ancestors of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit were three other such dialects) of a language conventionally designated Indo-European, and thus English is just one relatively young member of an ancient family of languages whose descendants conventionally designated Indo-European, and thus English is just one relatively young member of an ancient family of languages whose descendants cover a fair portion of the globe.

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Transition from Middle English to Early Modern English

gvsThe death of Chaucer at the close of the century (1400) marked the beginning of the period of transition from Middle English to the Early Modern English stage. The Early Modern English period is regarded by many scholars as beginning about 1500 and terminating with the return of the monarchy (John Dryden’s Astraea Redux) in 1660. The three outstanding developments of the 15th century were the rise of London English, the invention of printing, and the spread of the new learning.

Although the population of London in 1400 was only about 40,000, it was by far the largest city in England. York came second, followed by Bristol, Coventry, Plymouth, and Norwich. The Midlands and East Anglia, the most densely peopled parts of England, supplied London with streams of young immigrants. The speech of the capital was mixed, and it was changing. The seven long vowels of Chaucer’s speech had already begun to shift. Incipient diphthongization of high front /i:/ (the ee sound in meet) and high back /u:/ (as in fool) led to instability in the other five long vowels. (Symbols within slash marks are taken from theInternational Phonetic Alphabet.) This remarkable event, known as the Great Vowel Shift, changed the whole vowel system of London English. As /i:/ and /u:/ became diphthongized to /ai/ (as in bide) and /au/ (as in house) respectively, so the next highest vowels, /e:/ (this sound can be heard in the first part of the diphthong in name) and /o:/ (a sound that can be heard in the first part of the diphthong in home), moved up to take their places, and so on.

When Caxton started printing at Westminster in the late summer of 1476, he was painfully aware of the uncertain state of the Eprintingnglish language. In his prologues and epilogues to his translations he made some revealing observations on the problems that he had encountered as translator and editor. At this time, sentence structures were being gradually modified, but many remained untidy. For the first time, nonprofessional scribes, including women, were writing at length.

The revival of classical learning was one aspect of that Renaissance, or spiritual rebirth, that arose in Italy and spread to France and England. It evoked a new interest in Greek on the part of learned men such as William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, Sir Thomas More, andDesiderius Erasmus. John Colet, dean of St. Paul’s in the first quarter of the 16th century, startled his congregation by expounding the Pauline Epistles of the Christian New Testament as living letters. The deans who had preceded him had known no Greek, because they had found in Latin all that they required. Only a few medieval churchmen, such asRobert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, and the Franciscan Roger Bacon could read Greek with ease. The names of the seven liberal arts of the medieval curricula (the trivium and the quadrivium), it is true, were all Greek—grammar, logic, and rhetoric; arithmetic, geometry,astronomy, and music—but they had come into English by way of French.

Renaissance scholars adopted a liberal attitude to language. They borrowed Latin words through French, or Latin words direct; Greek words through Latin, or Greek words direct. Latin was no longer limited to Church Latin: it embraced all Classical Latin. For a time the whole Latin lexicon became potentially English. Some words, such as consolation andinfidel, could have come from either French or Latin. Others, such as the terms abacus, arbitrator, explicit, finis, gratis, imprimis, item, memento, memorandum, neuter, simile, andvidelicet, were taken straight from Latin. Words that had already entered the language through French were now borrowed again, so that doublets arose: benison and benediction;blame and blaspheme; chance and cadence; count and compute; dainty and dignity; frailand fragile; poor and pauper; purvey and provide; ray and radius; sever and separate; straitand strict; sure and secure. The Latin equivalents for kingly and lawful have even given rise to triplets; in the forms real, royal, and regal and leal, loyal, and legal, they were imported first from Anglo-Norman, then from Old French, and last from Latin direct.

images (3)After the dawn of the 16th century, English prose moved swiftly toward modernity. In 1525Lord Berners completed his translation of Jean Froissart’s Chronicle, and William Tyndaletranslated the New Testament. One-third of the King James Bible (1611), it has been computed, is worded exactly as Tyndale left it; and between 1525 and 1611 lay the Tudor Golden Age, with its culmination in Shakespeare. Too many writers, to be sure, used “inkhorn terms,” newly-coined, ephemeral words, and too many vacillated between Latin and English.Sir Thomas More actually wrote his Utopia in Latin. It was translated into French during his lifetime but not into English until 1551, some years after his death. Francis Bacon publishedDe dignitate et augmentis scientiarum (On the Dignity and Advancement of Learning, an expansion of his earlier Advancement of Learning) in Latin in 1623. William Harveyannounced his epoch-making discovery of the circulation of the blood in his Latin De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (1628; On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals).John Milton composed polemical treatises in the language of Cicelizabethero. As Oliver Cromwell’s secretary, he corresponded in Latin with foreign states. His younger contemporary Sir Isaac Newton lived long enough to bridge the gap. He wrote his Principia (1687) in Latin but hisOpticks (1704) in English.

Restoration period

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, writers again looked to France. John Drydenadmired the Académie Française and greatly deplored that the English had “not so much as a tolerable dictionary, or a grammar; so that our language is in a manner barbarous” as compared with elegant French. After the passionate controversies of the Civil War, this was an age of cool scientific nationalism. In 1662 the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge received its charter. Its first members, much concerned with language, appointed a committee of 22 “to improve the English tongue particularly for philosophic purposes.” It included Dryden, the diarist John Evelyn, Bishop Thomas Sprat, and the poetEdmund Waller. Sprat pleaded for “a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses, a native easiness; bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness” as possible. The committee, however, achieved no tangible result, and failed in its attempt to found an authoritative arbiter over the English tongue. A second attempt was made in 1712, when Jonathan Swift addressed an open letter to Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, then Lord Treasurer, making “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining [fixing] the English Tongue.” This letter received some popular support, but its aims were frustrated by a turn in political fortunes. Queen Anne died in 1714. The Earl of Oxford and his fellow Tories, including Swift, lost power. No organized attempt to found a language academy on French lines has ever been made since.

With Dryden and Swift the English language reached its full maturity. Their failure to found an academy was partly counterbalanced by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary (published in 1755) and by Robert Lowth in his Grammar (published in 1761).

Age of Johnson

In the making of his Dictionary, Johnson took the best caxtonconversation of contemporary London and the normal usage of reputable writers after Sir Philip Sidney (1554–86) as his criteria. He exemplified the meanings of words by illustrative quotations. Johnson admitted that “he had flattered himself for a while” with “the prospect of fixing our language” but that thereby “he had indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience could justify.” The two-folio work of 1755 was followed in 1756 by a shortened, one-volume version that was widely used far into the 20th century. Revised and enlarged editions of the unabbreviated version were made by Archdeacon Henry John Todd in 1818 and by Robert Gordon Latham in 1866.

It was unfortunate that Joseph Priestley, Robert Lowth, James Buchanan, and other 18th-century grammarians (Priestley was perhaps better known as a scientist and theologian) took a narrower view than Johnson on linguistic growth and development. They spent too much time condemning such current “improprieties” as “I had rather not,” “you better go,” “between you and I,” “it is me,” “who is this for?”, “between four walls,” “a third alternative,” “the largest of the two,” “more perfect,” and “quite unique.” Without explanatory comment they banned “you was” outright, although it was in widespread use among educated people (on that ground it was later defended by Noah Webster). “You was” had, in fact, taken the place of both “thou wast” and “thou wert” as a useful singular equivalent of the accepted plural “you were.”

As the century wore on, grammarians became more numerous and aggressive. They set themselves up as arbiters of correct usage. They compiled manuals that were not only descriptive (stating what people do say) and prescriptive (stating what they should say) but also proscriptive (stating what they should not say). They regarded Latin as a language superior to English and claimed that Latin embodied universally valid canons of logic. This view was well maintained by Lindley Murray, a native of Pennsylvania who settled in England in the very year (1784) of Johnson’s death. Murray’s English Grammar appeared in 1795, became immensely popular, and went into numerous editions. It was followed by anEnglish Reader (1799) and an English Spelling Book (1804), long favourite textbooks in both Old and New England.

19th and 20th centuries

In 1857 Richard Chenevix Trench, dean of St. Paul’s, lectured to the Philological Society on the theme, “On some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries.” His proposals for a new dictionary were implemented in 1859, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s grandnephew, Herbert Coleridge, set to work as first editor. He was succeeded by a lawyer namedFrederick James Furnivall, who in 1864 founded the Early English Text Society with a view to making all the earlier literature available to historical lexicographers in competent editions. Furnivall was subsequently succeeded as editor by James A.H. Murray, who published the first fascicle of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles in 1884. Later Murray was joined successively by three editors: Henry Bradley, William Alexander Craigie, and Charles Talbut Onions. Aside from its Supplements, the completed dictionary itself filled 12 volumes, had over 15,000 pages, and contained 414,825 words, illustrated by 1,827,306 citations. It is a dictionary of the British Commonwealth and the United States, a fact symbolized by the presentation of first copies in the spring of 1928 to King George V and Pres. Calvin Coolidge. It exhibits the histories and meanings of all words known to have been in use since 1150. From 1150 to 1500 all five Middle English dialects, as has been seen, were of equal status. They are therefore all included. After 1500, however, dialectal expressions are not admitted, nor are scientific and technical terms not in general use. Otherwise, the written vocabulary is well represented. A revised edition of this dictionary, known as The Oxford English Dictionary, was published in 1933. In the 1990s a CD edition was published, and in 2000 the dictionary became available online.

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Varieties of English

British English

The abbreviation RP (Received Pronunciation) denotes the accent of educated people living in London and the southeast of England and of other people elsewhere who speak in this way. Because of its association with education rather than region, it is the only British accent that has no specific geographical correlate: it is not possible, on hearing someone speak RP, to know which part of the United Kingdom he or she comes from. RP is not intrinsically superior to other varieties of English; it is itself only one particular accent that has, through the accidents of history, achieved more prestige than others. Although acquiring its unique status without the aid of any established authority, it was fostered by the public schools (Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and so on) and the ancient universities (Oxford andCambridge). Other varieties of English are well preserved in spite of the leveling influences of film, television, and radio. In several Northern accents, RP /a:/ (the first vowel sound infather) is still pronounced /æ/ (a sound like the a in fat) in words such as laugh, fast, andpath; this pronunciation has been carried across the Atlantic into American English.images (5)

In the words run, rung, and tongue, the RP pronunciation of the vowel is like the u in but; in some Northern accents it is pronounced like the oo in book. In the words bind, find, andgrind, the RP pronunciation of the vowel sound is /ai/, like that in “bide”; in some Northern accents, it is /i/, like the sound in feet. The vowel sound in the words go, home, and know in some Northern accents is /ɔ:/, approximately the sound in law in some American English accents. In parts of Northumberland, RP it is still pronounced “hit,” as in Old English. In various Northern accents the definite article the is heard as t, th, or d. In those accents in which it becomes both t and th, t is used before consonants and th before vowels. Thus, one hears t’book but th’apple. When, however, the definite article is reduced to t and the following word begins with t or d, as in t’tail or t’dog, it is replaced by a slight pause as in the RP articulation of the first t in hat trick. The RP /t∫/, the sound of the ch in church, can become k, as in thack (“thatch, roof”) and kirk (“church”). In some Northern dialects strong verbs retain the old past-tense singular forms band, brak, fand, spak for standard English forms bound, broke, found, and spoke. Strong verbs also retain the past participle inflection -en as in comen, shutten, sitten, and getten or gotten for standard English come, shut, sat, andgot.

In some Midland accents the diphthongs in throat and stone have been kept apart, whereas in RP they have fallen together. In Cheshire, Derby, Stafford, and Warwick, RP singing is pronounced with a g sounded after the velar nasal sound (as in RP finger). In Norfolk one hears skellington and solintary for skeleton and solitary, showing an intrusive n just as doesmessenger in RP from French messager, passenger from French passager, and nightingalefrom Old English nihtegala. Other East Anglian words show consonantal metathesis (switch position), as in singify for signify, and substitution of one liquid or nasal for another, as inchimbly for chimney and synnable for syllable. Hantle for handful shows syncope (disappearance) of an unstressed vowel, partial assimilation of d to t before voiceless f, and subsequent loss of f in a triple consonant group.

In some South Western accents, initial f and s are often voiced, becoming v and z. Two words with initial v have found their way into RP: vat from fat and vixen from fixen (female fox). Another South Western feature is the development of a d between l or n and r, as in parlderfor parlour and carnder for corner. The bilabial semivowel w has developed before o in woldfor old, and in wom for home, illustrating a similar development in RP by which Old Englishān has become one, and Old English hāl has come to be spelled whole, as compared with Northern hale. In some South Western accents yat comes from the old singular geat, whereas RP gate comes from the plural gatu. Likewise, clee comes from the old nominativeclea, whereas RP claw comes from the oblique cases. The verbs keel and kemb have developed regularly from Old English cēlan “to make cool” and kemban “to use a comb,” whereas the corresponding RP verbs cool and comb come from the adjective and the noun, respectively.

In Wales, people often speak a clear and measured form of English with rising intonations inherited from ancestral Celtic. They tend to aspirate both plosives (stops) and fricative consonants very forcibly; thus, two is pronounced with an audible puff of breath after the initial t, and while may be heard with a voiceless /w/.

Lowland Scottish was once a part of Northern English, but the two dialects began to diverge in the 14th century. Today Lowland Scots trill their r’s, shorten vowels, and simplify diphthongs. A few Scottish words, such as bairn, brae, canny, dour, and pawky, have made their way into RP. Lowland Scottish is not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language still spoken by about 60,000 people (almost all bilingual) mostly in the Highlandsand the Western Isles. Thanks to such writers as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, many Scottish Gaelic words have been preserved in English literature.

Northern Ireland has dialects related in part to Lowland Scottish and in part to the southern Irish dialect of English. The influence of the Irish language on the speech of Dublin is most evident in the syntax of drama and in the survival of such picturesque expressions as We are after finishing, It’s sorry you will be, and James do be cutting corn every day.

Sources used:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Encyclopedia Britannica

Also for further information on the varieties of the English Language: American, Canadian, Australian etc., refer to the same reliable resources.


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