Sunday, April 1, 2012

History of English

History of English

Author: Matthew Fisher

English spelling is a curious thing to the untrained eye. With no amount of explanation can all of English orthography be explained and that is the unfortunate nature of the language, but the words contain a very insightful glimpse into English's history that many other languages do not.

As we know, English is a Germanic language and therefore has much of its roots firmly grounded in what was known as Proto-Germanic. A proto-language is a posited language that is the parent language of a number of sister languages. English, Swedish, Dutch, German, and Danish are all sisters of their parent - Proto-Germanic (often seen as PGmc.). Proto-Germanic, along with Celtic, Indo-iranian, Italic (Latin), and others are all part of a larger language family: Indo-European, also called Proto-Indo-European. The important thing to know about proto-languages is that they are reconstructions, meaning that we don't absolutely how the languages worked, but we have more than enough information to reconstruct the languages and make assumptions about how they looked based on their daughter languages.

If Proto-Germanic had been the only major influence on English, we would have a much different language, but Germanic influence is not the only part of English's complex history. I'll tell the shortened version of it's history here.

Originally in England were the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons, who spoke Germanic dialects for a while, until certain events happened that inspired the development of what we now call Modern English.  The dialects that they used had some aspects of other languages the peoples had been in contact with, most notably Latin through the churches. In the Norman Conquest of 1066, Old-French-speaking Normandy invaded England and established itself as a power. The dialect of Old French they spoke is now known as Old Norman. Therefore, all things government and noble required the use of Old French and did not look kindly on the use of Old English, although it was still well-used in peasant homes and various other places.

When languages come in contact like that, words are often traded and borrowed. In the case of English, quite a number of words were adopted to fit the needs of the new form of society the Normans had created. During this time, there were thousands of words that entered English, many of them having to do with positions of power like parliament or crown. Another notable addition to English from French borrowings is words pertaining to food. The society created by the Normans was one of class division: with regard to food, peasants harvested the food that the noble persons ate. Thus, there entered different words in English to describe the same thing. We now have, as a result, word pairs like pig - pork and sheep - mutton.

With the introduction of the printing press in 1475 by William Caxton, which produced books using many Latin and Greek words, words from Latin and Greek entered English more quickly. English also borrows from Arabic, Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Irish, Dutch, and more languages.
"Not only does the English Language borrow words from other languages, it sometimes chases them down dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets."
-Eddy Peters
No, English doesn't always treat the words it borrows with respect, but when a word is entering a language, it is changed and adapted to fit the host language and therefore forgiven. Once the words are a part of the host language, they can broaden (add additional meanings), narrow (lose parts of meanings), or even go through meaning shifts (a change in meaning).

Words aren't the only thing influenced by language change, sounds and other aspects are affected as well. There was a major change between Middle English and Modern English (between 1400-1600) that is known as The Great Vowel Shift. As its name implies, vowels underwent changes, resulting in a new sounds for English, which accounts for some of the differences we now see in pairs like please - pleasant or sane - sanity. In terms of spelling, English still represents a lot of the previous pronunciations of words as well as the original spellings of the source languages it borrowed from. English spelling is unique in that it shows us a lot about where the language has been, where it comes from, and how it was pronounced.

After all of the syntactic, semantic, morphological, phonetic, phonemic, lexical, and other kinds of change English has gone through, we now have what we call Modern English. These are the major stages English went through before become Modern English:

Old English (5th - 11th century)
Middle English (11th - 14th century)
Early Modern English (14th - 17th century)
Modern English (17th century - present)

Works Cited:

Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language. 9th. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. pp. 488 - 530. Print.

*all blue terms are defined in the "Linguistics Glossary" section of this site.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

How do Deaf people think?

How do Deaf people think?

Author: Matthew Fisher

I have come across the question a few times in the past and wondered about this subject myself: how do Deaf people think? Well, the answer to a question like this is never simple. Otherwise, the question probably wouldn't exist. It is actually quite complicated, but I think I can shed some light on the matter. The short answer: it depends.

How a person thinks really depends on many factors contributing to the makeup of that person person. Is that not also the case with hearing people? Do you think that your thoughts or even modes of thinking match those of every other hearing person or even any other hearing person? I doubt that's the case and that idea does not apply to Deaf people, either.

As a person studying multiple languages, I know that I think at different times in different languages, depending on the needs of each situation. This can be true for Deaf people, too, if they know more than one language. As a general, but far from perfectly accepted, rule is that Deaf people should learn signed language before anything else because it is the language most accessible to them. It is generally known by people involved with Deaf studies of the Deaf population that Deaf people trained orally without exposure to a signed language know maybe about 50 words by the age of 5, whereas a hearing person in the same boat would know thousands of words (Moore and Levitan 79). Learning a language within what linguists and psychologists call The Critical Period is extremely important because it gives children the necessary foundation to use and continue to develop language. A child who does not learn a primary language (or two or three) during this critical window of opportunity will have a lot of problem later on developing fluency in any language, often showing difficulty in production of function words like of and the that have little to no real-word connection.

That being said, a Deaf person who is trained with a signed language (let's take American Sign Language (ASL) as an example) and no other language may think in signed language. It might be hard to conceptualize a person thinking in signs, but put it into this context: what did cave dwellers do many years ago before they had develop language as complex as those that exist today? What were their thoughts like? This is of course not to compare Deaf people to cavemen, but rather to illustrate that there is a difference in thinking from person to person that can only be fully understood by the person who thinks in that way. What is very important to note is that, as long as it is done during The Critical Period, "[D]eaf children acquire sign language much in the same way that hearing children acquire a spoken language, going through the same linguistic stages including the babbling stage" (Fromkin et al 20). What this really tells us is that Deaf children are no different than hearing children in terms of being able to acquire a primary language, given the important condition that that there is sufficient exposure to it during The Critical Period.  Similarly, they will develop the same ability as hearing children to think and comprehend, but only through a different modality - signed language.

As a generalization, let us say that hearing people think in the sounds (phonemes) that make up the words of their spoken languages and Deaf people think in the movements (visemes) that make up their signed languages. The same exact thoughts can be encountered and, well, thought in both, but the modalities will be different. Think of it this way: because both spoken languages and signed languages are acquired in much the same ways, mirroring the same stages, the difference between thinking in ASL and thinking in English is comparable or akin to the difference between thinking in English and thinking in Bengali – just a different way to conceptualize the same idea.

Of course, as I have said, it is not this simple. It gets a little murkier when we look at Deaf people (or Hard of Hearing people) who have acquired a sign language as a primary language and a spoken language as a secondary (or tertiary, quaternary, etc.) language. Much like my situation with languages, and not very surprisingly, those who have the ability to think in different languages as a function of knowing different languages will think in different languages. It seems so sensible, but I think that that fact is often overlooked. Just as I can switch back and forth between thinking in English, Spanish, German, or another language, a Deaf person knowing ASL and English, for example, can switch back and forth between thinking in ASL and English. A simple idea, yet worth mentioning.

As mentioned, it also depends on the individual. No one person will think in exactly the same way as any other person; it is just not possible and not recommended if one is looking for a world full of different, unique, and stimulating experiences and world-views.

Works Cited:

Moore, Matthew S., and Linda Levitan. For Hearing People Only. 3rd. Rochester: MSM Productions, Ltd., 2011. p. 79. Print.

Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language. 9th. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. p. 20. Print.

*all blue terms are defined in the "Linguistics Glossary" section of this site.

A Way with Words

I wanted to enclose this link as a wonderful resource for all things language. This is a series of podcasts done by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett with some really fascinating content and pretty funny dialogues and anecdotes.