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:
-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tudor Period – 1485 to 1603: This period sees experiments in style and debates about composition and diction (we catch hints of these in Shakespeare’s plays – Falstaff’s speaking in “Cambyses’ vein” in Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, scene 4, or Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, scene 1). Trade and discovery bring about rapid change, especially in the lexicon, and while some settling down of spelling may appear, it is far from being standardized.
Like a modern teenager, Shakespeare spells his name in many different ways. Modern school editions of the text of his plays may mislead as spelling is in 20th century standard forms mostly. On the other hand, modern editions of Elizabethan poetry may retain archaic spelling variants – as (in John Donne’s poetry, say) of personal pronouns ending in -ee –mee, hee or shee (like thee). Richard Mulcaster writes that it would be “verie praiseworthie…if som one well learned and as laborious a man, wold gather all the words which we use in our English tung…into one dictionarie”.
The 17th Century: It is in this period that the debate about standard forms becomes most strident. Lexicographers attempt to create dictionaries. In 1604 Robert Cawdrey produces the first English dictionary that uses synonyms to describe or define the 3,000 entries. Daniel Defoe proposes the creation of an Academy (as in France) to supervise and regulate the language. Far more influential in establishing a mature model of English prose and verse is the publication in 1611 of the “Authorized Version” (never authorized in fact) of the Bible. This translation was intended to produce a Bible for public reading aloud.
The 18th Century: In 1712 Jonathan Swift writes to the Lord Treasurer, urging the formation of an English Academy to regulate usage as “many gross improprieties” could be found in the language of “even the best authors”. Dr. Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, notes that “tongues…have a natural tendency to degeneration” but mocks the lexicographer who imagines that his dictionary “can embalm his language”, as “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride”. In the act of giving us the most enduring of our authorities for standard forms, Johnson sees its limitations. Johnson makes clear here that prescription is doomed to fail.
In 1721 Nathan Bailey produces the first substantial dictionary, the Universal Etymological English Dictionary which, by the 1736 revision contains 60,000 words. His definitions lack illustrative support and he is vague about usage. Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language remedies this dramatically. It has some 40,000 words (fewer than Bailey has) but has extensive quotations to support descriptions or definitions of words. Johnson had earlier sought to regulate and control the language – now, having considered its history more thoroughly, he recognizes this as folly. Nevertheless, his dictionary does establish models for spelling most of which are still accepted today.
In 1762, Robert Lowth publishes A Short Introduction to English Grammar – here are found many of the invented rules that Jean Aitchison dismisses in the first of her Reith Lectures (A Web of Worries). Lowth establishes the prescriptive tradition, mistakenly prescribing Latin-derived models, which still enjoys support today.
The 19th Century: In this century, Noah Webster establishes American standard spelling in his 1828 dictionary. Differences from Johnson’s are relatively few but mostly notorious. Most familiar are variants on the affixes –our and –re (Webster has –or and –er: e.g., color, labor; theater, center). In the UK Sir James Murray begins work on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1879 – he takes five years to reach ant. The researches of the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm lay the foundations for modern language science, and show that English is not “descended” from Latin but a Germanic original.
The 20th Century: Modern language science develops and the idea of prescription becomes less persuasive. Attempts at spelling reform and artificial international languages provoke interest but no long-term standardization. The invented languages (such as Esperanto) are less widely spoken today than Klingon (invented by a fan of Star Trek). But English has become the global language – which may help establish an International standard. This is unlikely to correspond exactly to current UK or US English.
Modern recording technology and mass broadcasting gives currency to idea of standard spoken forms. Finally, computer technology provides powerful means for encouragement of standard written forms with spell checking and grammar-checking. Interestingly, these allow the user to choose which standard to follow: US English, UK English, Australian or NZ English or International standard forms.
Studying standardization and language change by language category
Although a chronological model gives us a sense of succession and of history as narrative, it can make it hard to see the theory or outline of a question or contemporary opinion. It can also lead us to see historical divisions (the end of a century) as having more importance than is really the case. Here aspects of change and standardization are considered in terms of language categories. Some of these will affect spoken or written English only (e.g. phonology or spelling, respectively) while others (lexis, semantics, syntax) are common to both or (e.g. style) affect both but possibly in different ways.
Models or examples that we imitate become real standards. Texts with a large audience may thus create patterns to which we conform. Prescriptive rules are compiled because the writer presumably wishes to “correct” some real language tendency – these invented rules, akin to matters of etiquette or table manners, are likely to fail, but may in the meantime promote social attitudes about “correct” or “incorrect” English that are confused with genuine rules.
Some “rules”, like those drawn up by Lowth in 1762, in have acquired currency: for example, that one should not put a preposition at the end of a sentence, use double or multiple negatives, split the infinitive, or use they as a gender-neutral pronoun. R.W. Zandvoort describes how English usage ignores these pseudo-rules, while Jean Aitchison in her lecture A Web of Worries gives historical and modern examples to show what Zandvoort describes.
Lexis and semantics
This is less problematic or, rather, the problems are readily grasped. Some lexical items with some meanings are certainly standard features of English at a given time – the OED is full of them. Equally, some other items are obviously not standard or have n/s meanings. And many items are in the process of becoming or ceasing to be standard. Thus, in spite of continual language change, we can create a standard lexicon at any time. We can take this further and show how a given lexical item with a given meaning may be standard in a given context or within a variety but be n/s as regards the mainstream.
For example Hoover began life as a brand name, a proper-noun equivalent to generic vacuum cleaner. Nowadays, in spoken UK English Hoover or arguably hoover is acceptable as a generic name or common noun. At the turn of the century supplements to the OED recorded various forms of Kodak (small portable camera) including kodaker (photographer) and kodakry photography. These are no longer standard although Polaroid is acceptable to denote the instant photographs produced in such cameras.
Both lexis and semantics (especially semantic change or drift) may be culturally determined. They may depend on some other thing (a process or object) that ceases to be familiar, and so the word disappears or the meaning shifts. This has happened to words like wireless, telegram or terms from imperial measurement and pre-decimal currency (foot, inch, gallon, bushel, halfpenny [do you know the standard pronunciation of this?], and shilling.
Discussion of spelling is bedevilled by strong social attitudes. Even teachers, who should know better, characterize n/s spelling by epithets such as “bad”, “poor”, “awful” or “appalling” – as if the writer wilfully ignored the standard form. The National Curriculum draws attention to many other features of written performance, but the social attitudes persist. Yet Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton (necessarily) wrote without regard to a standard, so standard spelling can hardly be a measure of merit. The allegation that n/s spelling confuses the reader is often false (as with n/s omitted or added second consonant or n/s e before –ing in verbs). Non-standard spellings used in marketing (Kwik Fit, Kwik Save, Toys R Us) rarely appear in children’s writing.
Johnson’s dictionary establishes a standard because it is not prescriptive but records what is (in Johnson’s very wide reading) the most common form, making allowance for consistency of like elements, and showing etymology, for those who know other languages. Thus cede (verb = give, from Latin) and seed (noun) are differently spelt though homophones. Johnson also disarms critics by quoting usage, not merely laying down a preferred form.
The modern reader sees Webster’s variants as distinctly American (ax, color, plow, theater, waggon) but often Webster has recorded an older English form.
Punctuation, which may be more critical to communicating meaning than spelling, provokes much less strong social attitudes – perhaps because n/s forms are less obvious, perhaps because punctuation has no defining moment like the publication of Johnson’s dictionary, but has evolved gradually, has standard forms but is open to change.
From the 18th century onwards one sees most punctuation marks that are considered standard today. Some have changed their use – in general, late 20th century texts, especially non-literary texts, have less frequent use of marks deemed optional. In modern German, a comma to separate clauses is obligatory where it is optional in English. Businesses use so-called “open punctuation” of addresses (no comma after each element). In many cases ignorance or confusion about conventions may cause writers to avoid some marks: the semi-colon and colon are problematic, while the great difference of function between hyphen and dash may be confused by lack of difference in appearance: on a typewriter the same key served for both (some typists would repeat the stroke for a dash). Some modern computer software restores the difference, where the grammar checking can detect that the context calls for the (longer) dash – as here.
Some writers may have caused punctuation marks to lose impact by over-use. Most teachers are familiar with multiple exclamation marks, or with exclamation marks in contexts where only mild emphasis is intended.
Before the advent of modern recording and broadcasting technology debate about sounds was reliant on written transcripts, which could at best approximate to real phonology. Much is made of inference from, for example, rhyming words in poetry – did the poet use imperfect rhyme or have sounds changed in, for example, John Donne’s “And find/What wind/Serves to advance an honest mind”. Does US (rhymes with “lurk”) or UK (rhymes with “dark”) pronunciation of clerk preserve the older English form – or have two rival sounds fared differently in separate locations? And what of lieutenant? US loo-ten-unt (with stress on first or second syllable) is closer to the French original than UK lef-ten-unt (stress on second syllable).
The various phonetic alphabets give a symbolic representation of sounds that are described in terms of physical performance (for example the position of tongue relative to teeth). Modern recording technology can be used to give a far more precise and objective description of a sound produced, as a waveform or a measure of frequency and so on.
As sound recording is now more than a century old, we can observe change and standardizing tendencies in spoken English. Received Pronunciation (RP) is a notional standard form of pronunciation. RP is associated with prestige and formal public spoken discourse (the law, parliament, education or broadcasting – in some of which it may be in tension with regional variations). RP currently is a modified form of the accent heard in independent and grammar schools or spoken by newsreaders; the accent is largely neutral as regards region, but long/soft vowels are preferred to hard/short vowel sounds. Listening to a recording of a broadcast from an earlier period (a Pathé newsreel or Alvar Liddell [an early BBC radio broadcaster] reading the news for the BBC) will show how far RP has changed over time – the earlier RP survives in part in the accent of the Queen, who speaks with much less clearly differentiated (or less open) vowels than the modern RP speaker (the stiff upper lip is literal as well as a metaphor).
Invented rules – these are examples of some of the more common ones
They is not to be used as a singular pronoun.
Example: If anyone calls, tell them I’m in a meeting.
Comment: Such use may be inelegant style but does not break any real rule of grammar. R.W. Zandvoort says, “Where sex is unknown he or they may be used of an adult, he or it of children”. Jean Aitchison (The Language Web, p. 8) quotes examples from the 18th century to the present day of writers who disregard this “rule”, including William Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw.
The infinitive should not be split (separated from to by a qualifier)
Example: The mission was to boldly go where no man had ever gone before.
Comment: There is no justification at all for this supposed rule.
Double negatives are really affirmatives.
Example: I don’t know nothing about that.
Comment: This derives from Robert Lowth (“Two negatives… are equivalent to an affirmative”) but is deeply entrenched in popular attitudes to language. It arises from confusing vernacular languages with logic or theory of number. Now it is often used to signal an affirmative but indirectly, as in that’s not unreasonable. Aitchison finds a multiple negative for emphatic negation in Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
Different should be followed by from (not than or to)
Comment: Aitchison finds examples of different to and Fowler’s Modern English Usage labels the preference for different from a superstition. But different to and different than may have other distinct uses. Consider these examples:
After the room was painted it looked different to me.
After the room was painted it looked different from how it did before.
A dog is different from a wolf. A slug is different from a wolf.
A slug is more different than a dog from a wolf.
Most prepositions function in ways that are not coherent or logical. Many languages do not have them. Since their use is a matter of convention, the idea of style or fitness (as with the double negative) may now argue against different to.
Prepositions should not come at the end of a sentence.
Example: This is the man (who/that) I spoke to. (This is the man to whom I spoke.)
Comment: The suggestion that the preposition should come before the verb phrase has no justification. The second example above may be more elegant, but rigid enforcing of the “rule” can have the opposite effect, as in the notorious: This is English, up with which I will not put.
An outline history of English
Before English began - up to ca. 450 AD
British (Celtic) tribes: language related to modern Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish (Erse) Only real connection with Modern English is in lexis (mostly in place names).
Origins of English – ca. 450 AD to 1066
Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrive from north Germany Language (Old English) is at first spoken – only writing is runes Written form comes from Latin-speaking monks, who use Roman alphabet, with new letters (F, x and z) About half of common vocabulary of modern English comes from OE Word forms vary according to syntax (inflection, case endings and declension) and grammatical gender Vikings establish Danelaw – some erosion of grammar and addition of new vocabulary.
Middle English Period – 1066 to 1485
Lexis: terms for law and politics from Norman French General expansion of lexis, esp. abstract terms Case-endings, declension and gender disappear Inflection goes except in pronouns and related forms Writers concerned about change – want to stabilize language 1458: Gutenberg invents printing (1475: Caxton introduces it to England) – enables some standardizing.
Tudor Period – 1485 to 1603
Rise of nationalism linked to desire for more expressive language Flowering of literature and experiments in style – idea of elevated diction Vocabulary enlarged by new learning (Renaissance) – imports from Greek and Latin Lexis expanded by travel to New World, and ideas in maths and science English settlers begin to found colonies in North America.
The 17th Century
Influences of Puritanism and Catholicism (Roundhead and Cavalier) and of science Puritan ideas of clarity and simplicity – reasonableness and less verbose language English preferred to Dutch as official tongue of American colonies.
The 18th Century
Age of reason Ideas of order and priority Standardizing of spelling (Johnson; 1755) and grammar (Lowth; 1762) Classical languages seen as paradigms for English Romantic Movement begins – interest in regional and social class varieties of English.
The 19th Century
Interest in past – use of archaic words British Empire – huge lexical growth English travels to other countries Modern language science begins with Jakob Grimm and others.
The 20th Century
Modern language science developed – descriptive not prescriptive Non-standard varieties have raised status Ideas of formal and informal change Modern recording technology allows study of spoken English Influence of overseas forms US English dominant – becomes global language (e.g. in computing, communications, entertainment).
© Copyright: Andrew Moore – South Hunsley School; 1999