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.

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