HERITAGE - 41: UNDERSTANDING ENGLISH, A Language In Progress
Beginnings: a language culture established and growing
Over the past fifteen hundred years or so, the English language has developed apace
The nature of the 'beast' can be assessed easily, but here are a few pointers to hep understand how the language came to the stage of development reached to date. The course the language has taken may help navigate the channels and eddies. Outside influences have smoothed its edges, broken off a few corners and submerged some of the harder surfaces in the following manner.
ORIGINS: Belonging to the Indo-European flow of languages, English is one of a myriad strain evolved from a common tongue we are told was 'Proto-Indo-European'. Words we use have come from a broad stream of sources, although largely within a common pool.
Earliest known sources are Northern European, in brief Norse and mainstream Germanic with a veneer of Latinised Frankish - itself a hybrid developed before and since AD 1066. With the growth of the British Empire, latterly Commonwealth, in the east words have been drawn from different sources in Asia. We can't see our way clear sometimes, to distinguish English words from loan words. Plainly there are words that have Germanic connotations from the swell of Anglian, Jutish and Saxon settlers in the 5th Century AD. Words we can identify from this era are the 'building blocks' of modern-day English, such as eat, drink, speak, house, door, woman and wife.
The newcomers, who swept in from the east displaced some Celts, whose speech can be traced to Welsh or Cornish (Brythonic or Gallic). Little of this can be found in modern English, although there are a few elements that relate to the lie of the land and features on the high ground such as tarn, a small, glacial lake in the mountains, and col, a pass between higher ground or peaks. Some dialects have Brythonic words linked to animal husbandry such as counting sheep into the pen, yan, twa, tethera, methera, pimp (one, two, three, four, five) and on to crackerbuck, (fifty). Some place names reflect original Celtic importance, such as Catterick in North Yorkshire, that comes from Cadraig, then a hill fort taken over by the Romans, and now an extensive army base near Richmond.on the River Swale (itself an O.E.. version of swallow, the bird). There is the old Celtic kingdom of Elmete, celebrated by the modern towns Sherburn-in-Elmet and Barwick-in-Elmet between Selby and Leeds in Yorkshire, either side of the A1(M).
These Angles and Saxons maintained links with the Continent, in specific what had become the Holy Roman Empire of the Franks, also a Gemanic confederation of tribes who adopted the Latinisation of their language in the days of Charles 'the Great' or Charlemagne. Following the mission of (Saint) Augustine of Hippo (a former Roman colony in North Africa, now in Tunisia) to Kent in AD 597 churches sprang up in the Roman style of architecture, with special attention given to learning. English began to adopt some 'Latin edges' in Kent, Mercia and Wessex. In Northumbria the church that was founded by Paulinus and followed Roman edicts was revived by the Irish monk Aidan. Invited by King Oswald, he introduced customs from the Celtic church of iona on the Irish Sea and established his base of operations on Lindisfarne off the coast near Bamburgh. The greatest point of dispute was the placing of the Easter Festival at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. Oswald's younger brother Oswy saw it politically expedient to adopt Roman practices against the interests of his sister, the Abbess Hilda.
This saw Latin revived as the language of learning in place of Aenglish (English) north of the Humber, although laws and title deeds were still written in the vernacular. The Synod of Whitby set the course for unification by Theodore, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and a shift in accent for the language of the three main kingdoms - Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. The Mercian king Offa in the 8th Century modelled himself on Charles 'the Great', yet struck his coins in the Byzantine style. Some words that entered English from Latin at the time were martyr, angel, shrine and disciple. Other words brought in by way of 'Anglicisation' were pound (weight), sack, tile, copper and mint (striking coins). Other words came from further afield, such as camel and pepper.
In the 9th Century a new influence on English would come from Old Norse, from the Danes (East Norse) and the Norweyans (West Norse, now Norwegians) via the Northern Isles, Ireland and Isle of Man. Norweyan settlement would come to the north-west after defeats in Ireland, and to the north-east and east with the Danes under Ubbi Ragnarsson and Guthrum. Under these and later Knut in the 11th Century, the kingdom would see a veneer of East Norse terminology in replacing the older Ealdorman with Earl (from Jarl) and the introduction of carucates as land measures, wapentakes (weapon-takes) as local government sub-divisions and Thrijungar (Ridings) in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Although Knut promoted the use of English as the national language and mainly ruled his 'empire' from here, some Norse words can be discerned, such as call, husband (husmand), queen (kvinde), take, law (lag) and freehold. Names of body parts such as leg, egg, root and window (vindue) co-existed with their English counterparts in the north and east. A great number of Norse words can be found in dialect between the Tweed and the Wash, as well as place name pre- and suffixes like kirk (church), thwaite (woodland clearing), toft (farm), by (town), thorpe (hamlet) and carr (marsh).
Meanwhile in Wessex King Aelfred and his successors kept the Old High English (only understood by courtiers, churchmen, kings and nobles) in ecclesiastical, state and educational matters. Latin was only used for purely academic purposes in contrast to Mainland Europe, where Latin was used in all governmental and educational matters. By the 10th Century there was a large amount of English prose and verse literature. Word games were popular amongst the English, with riddles and puzzles high on the agenda in leisure times. Anglian, Saxon and Anglo-Danish kingdoms co-existed for several generations, along with linguistic 'cross-fertilisation'. An important effect on English was the gradual disappearance of inflections, thus lending a smoother flow to the language. This was due partly to English and Norse stems being close in form, e.g, stan in English and sten/steinn in Norse for stone. Saxon Wessex held on stubbornly to the inflections that exist in current High German, whereas Mercian and Northumbrian Aenglish were simpler and therefore more easily understood by their Norse neighbours. A progress of assimilation continued into Middle English, modified by Norman Frankish (French) influence .
From the 6th Century several centres of learning sprang up around the various kingdoms after Christianity reached these shores. Each of these centres produced a chronicle, in East Anglia, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. Some were interrupted - when the Danes came - and others flourished until 1066 when William's churchmen established their hold on the Church in Norman French and Latin. One centre carried on the chronicle in the vernacular, the Peterborough Chronicle (E), that went on being written until the end of King Stephen's interrupted reign in AD 1154. There were differences in writing style between the Anglian, Kentish and Saxon kingdoms, here translated into modern English. Worth the shelf space in your bookcase!
With William's coronation at Christmas, AD1066 came an influx of Norman Frankish (French).
As I've already mentioned, the Germanic Franks adopted a large degree of Latinisation of their language, that led to - at the time of William's invasion - a language used by their Norman vassals. French had its roots in the spoken or 'vulgar' Latin used until around AD 600. For two hundred years after the Norman administration took over the running of England, the Norman strain of French became the coin of the nobility and Church. The laws of England did not change a lot, although new rules were introduced (in ownership). New words added were council, justice and tax, and some abstract terms such as liberty, charity and conflict.
Building and food terminology were added to the language, giving rise to the animal - bull calf, sheep or pig - becoming beef (from boeuf), mutton (mouton) and pork (porc). The spelling of English words underwent a shift too, with standardisation and simplificaton ushered in to ease the Normans' understanding. cwen became queen, cwic turned into quic (later quick). The English silent 'g' in mid-word or word-end was ignored altogether.
The admixture of peoples thrown together, first Celtic, then Jutish, Anglian and Saxon, Danish and West Norse with the new Norman (who had until a century-and-a-half earlier still spoken Danish Norse) had a lasting effect on English, although little uniformity of spelling existed until the standardisation of the written language in the 18th Century helped pinpoint the words on paper. The three sources - English, Norse, Norman - of vocabulary and varying speech forms are seen in modern English. Grammar varied as well. Word-endings co-existed in parallel form such as -ant, -ent, -er, -or, -able and -ible because the Latin words they were based on belonged to different classes of verbs and nouns, each with a different ending. For instance important comes from the Latin verb portare (to carry or bear) which belongs to one class of conjugation, while repellent comes from Latin pellere (to drive) belongs to another. Capable comes from Latin ending -abilis, while sensible comes from -ibilis and so forth.
Middle English: From Geoffrey Chaucer in the reign of Edward III (14th Century) to Shakespeare in the 16th-17th
Middle English (1100-1500)
Emerged as the spoken and written form of the language subject to these influences (see 'Norman Influx' above). By the reign of Henry II (AD 1154-89) many of the nobility spoke English through contact with servants, whet-nurses, men-at-arms, serfs and so on. The use of French was on the decline, particularly after John (AD 1199-1216) lost Normandy in AD 1204. Many Old High English (Saxon) words had disappeared from use. Niman (equivalent to modern German nehmen), replaced by East Norse taka, and OE sige (modern German sieg) was replaced by Latin-derived victory (OF). Other Old English words that vanished were adl (disease), lof (praise, as in German lob) and lyft (air, also similar to German, luft and Old Norse loft). Some words and phrases survived in dialect, such as addled, ill, or addle-pated as in not right in the head.
Many words from Norman French were short and simple, now only distinguished with difficulty against those of Old English origin. Bar, cry, fool, mean, pity, stuff, tender and touch are amongst such words. New and old words were used roughly equally. We still use words from both sources. Others include doom,judgement, stench, and smell; words such as shut and close might be used in the same sentence sometimes in order to avoid repetition. We buy at one shop, purchase at another, the Norman French word used usually by those of a 'better class' of people (in their eyes). The choice between 'common' and 'educated' words is prevalent in modern English. The word vendor is used by estate agents (US realtors) instead of seller, which is usually applied to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. To confuse the layman, words such as estop and usacaption are used in legal matters. You need a legally a legally trained professional to 'translate' terms for you. Most professionals are trained at specialist colleges or at university, often privately educated beforehand (Eton, Harrow, Marlborough etc).
Advances: the Stuart Era to Regency and late Georgian
'In The Print' (term used by those employed by newspapers, magazines and commercial printers)
Wide regional variation in Middle English pronunciation also led to confusion, although some measure of uniformity was called for in the development of the printed word by the 15th Century. This 'uniformity' was based equally on practical considerations, the 'correctness' agreed upon within the trade.
One such practice was the addition of an 'e' on the end of a word in a line to create a block of type (no spaces). Other changes were the abandonment of certain written characters in the English language that you would see in old manuscripts, replaced by characters available in the printers' trays. These printers, many being from the Netherlands and Germany used grammar from their own languages. The first English-born printer, William Caxton (AD 1422-91) had an important, although not always positive influence on printing in England. The uncalled-for addition of 'h' in 'ghost' was due to him, along with 'ghastly' and (maybe) 'ghetto'. Generally Caxton used the form of English as spoken in the south-east of England, although generally the East Midland dialect form (Peterborough, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Lincoln) was in wide use. Caxton's preference for the English of the south-east, with the capital's location in the region, had an effect on English that survives across social circles, business and the media. The original newspaper publishers were based outside the walls on west side of the City of London from around the early 17th Century, with a gentleman known as Wynkin de Worde establishing himself in Fleet Street (at that time the main thoroughfare between the City of London with the City of Westminster)..
Towards Modern English: 19th Century authors and thinkers
Pronunciation ('You say tomayto...')
At around the same time as the progress of print pronunciation underwent a major shift. The main shift that came about in Geoffrey Chaucer's time in the 14th Century (in the reign of Edward III).
Vowel sounds resulted in the reduction of long vowels, 'deed' as opposed to the later 'dead' (unless you're a Highlander). The change came in seven vowels becoming the five we know now, eg., barn, bean, bin, born and burn. The way other vowels were said was also affected, as in 'life', previously said as 'leaf'. 'Name' was said in two syllables, rhyming with 'farmer'. Often, as in 'name' the form of the word saw no change, resulting in 'silent' vowels at word endings. The result was the difference in the way we speak now.
The 'Golden Age', the Renaissance or re-birth.
Re-discovery across Europe of Ancient Greek and Roman culture brought a further Latinisation of English, which flowered in the 15th-17th Centuries. Scholarship grew, and the language spoken by scholars and writers was Latin. English 'public' schools (private fee-paying) adopted the learning of Ancient Greek and Latin, Grammar schools (then also private, although with scholarships available to the promising) adopted Latin and French.
In the Renaissance words like arena, dexterity, excision, genius, habitual, malignant, specimen and stimulus came into general use amongst the educated English. Nowadays they are familiar to us, useful words although their Latin source makes them awkward to deal with as we apply arena, genius and stimulus in the normal plural fashion. There was a tendency in the Renaissance also to try to stress the Graeco-Roman origins of words when writing them. See the unspoken 'b' in debt (in earlier English written det. In Latin it is written debitum). and the silent 'l' - although many do pronounce it - in 'fault', earlier faut, the Latin source being failere, to fail; again the silent 's' in 'isle' (previously ile as in French), pronounced insula in Latin; then we have the 'p' in 'receipt', formerly written receit. in Latin receptia.
Some words were brought back into use, although often their meanings changed, eg. artificial, disc (originally said 'dish' in accordance with Anglo-Saxon custom) as in scip for ship, and fastidious.
Twentieth Century: the modern age seen in a radical light
Technological advances - Industrial Revolution onwards (18th Century...)
Technological advances from the Industrial Revolution from the middle of the 18th Century also have had an effect on the language. Latin and Greek sources conveyed a precision of expression that earlier English would have needed multiples of words to describe, although there are original English words used in some areas, like 'software', 'splashdown' and 'take-off'.
Latin and Greek brought us 'bacteriology', 'microscope', 'radio-active', and 'semi-conductor'.On a more basic level more recently English speakers came into contact with the wider world through trade, colonisation and improved inter-continental communication, Such contacts as British engineers from the mid-19th Century, administrators and the military have made, have raised new horizons in expression.
The British Raj in India brought us 'bungalow' (from the Gujarati bangalo), jodhpurs (riding breeches) and 'khaki' (as camouflage - there's the French input again). There is also the word 'thug' that has more sinister origins, from the Indian thuggee, a killer who used strangulation on the unwary, with a knot that would slip over the thorax to apply extra pressure.
From other parts we have mufti, or plain clothes (Arabic, from the days of occupation in Egypt), bazaar (Farsi or Persian), kiosk (Turkish),anorak and kayak (from Inuit or Eskimo). From other parts of Europe we have 'balcony' (Italian), 'yacht' (Dutch), schadenfreude and angst (from Germany/Austria, delight in the misfortunes of others, and fear).
Untold numbers of loanwords from the Germanic perspective are seen as fully integrated into English. Additionally words and phrases as used in English that are looked on as 'foreign', and conventionally printed in italics to distinguish them when in use alongside English. Many are French, as in accouchement (child-birth), bagarre (scuffle), chanson (song), flanerte (idleness), range (domesticated). Other languages are represented by, eg., echt (genuine, German, machtpolitik (power politics, also German) and a manana (pronounced manyana, until tomorrow, Spanish).
Usage accepts the difficulties in absorbing words from divers sources by assimilating them into forms that already appear familiar. The word 'picturesque' came into use in the 18th Century as a compromise between its French origin, pittoresque and the existing Middle English 'picture', to which it is plainly linked. The English 'cockroach' is a conversion of the Spanish cucaracha into a pair of joined English words, 'cock' (bird) and 'roach' (fish). we know cockroaches are neither fish nor fowl, but the association is a purely linguistic tool.
Problems with inflection come with words from other languages. An '-i' ending does n ot sit well with English. Usage varies between '-is' and '-ies' in the plural. Similarly many adopted nouns end originally in '-o', some of which are Italian, others such as armadillo are Spanish. Some came from Latin, such as 'hero', Usage varies on this one, between '-oes' and simply '-os'. Verbs often need special treatment, like the French bivouac (which can also be a noun), its origins probably German-Swiss, calling for a 'k' in the past tense to give us bivouacked, as opposed to bivouaced, which might lead to mispronunciation. 'Ski' from Norwegian brought the English adaptation 'skied'. A bit 'off' to some, 'ski'd' being more acceptable to those language snobs who regularly spent weeks on and off-piste in Norway, France, Austria or Switzerland.
An inescapable result of the printed word in the 15th Century was that it lent itself to use in glossaries and dictionaries. This development should have led earlier to guides to the meaning, pronunciation and spelling of English words than William Bullokar in the 16th Century. Bullukar, a contemporary of the teenage William Shakespeare, published a manual in 1580 for the 'ease, speed and perfect reading and writing of English'. He called for an English dictionary to be compiled. Although a dictionary was finally published, it would not be for a couple of decades, by Robert Cawdrey in AD 1604. As with following works that came in quick succession (including Bullokar's 'English Expositor'). Its aim was described as 'being for the understanding of hard words'. Not until the 18th Century did dictionaries appear as we know them now, systematically listing all the words in general use then, irrespective of how easy or hard they might be. Most notable of these was one compiled by Nathaniel Bailey (1755). They were in part in answer to a plea expressed by Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and other writers for the English language to be 'fixed' or stabilised like mathematics. Could an English Academy be established to monitor it? None of these hopes were answered fully, although subsequent dictionaries fulfilled an important role in settling form and senses of English words.
Systematic research and recording of words in all their aspects, and on an historical basis was initially and exclusively echoed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) begun by Scots schoolmaster James A H Murray in 1879. This work describes origin, spelling, inflections and meanings of words. It is supported by quotations from earlier printed and hand-written works (illuminations), and other sources as evidence from Old English to the time he compiled his work. To account for more recent changes and developments in English a four volume 'Supplement' was added to the list from 1972-86. A new edition integrating the original dictionary and its 'Supplement' was published in 1989.
Due to the depth of scholarship the OED forms a major basis of all English dictionaries produced since. Smaller, concise and household dictionaries that were aimed to record the broad vocabulary in current use appeared early in the 20th Century. Recently that number has burgeoned. Dictionaries of up-to-date English, as opposed to historical dictionaries, by and large echo the language as understood at the time of publication. Compilers will be forever 'in arrears' by the time their work comes to print. The margin between 'right' and 'wrong' perception changes constantly, unlike French, which is governed by a body, the Academie Francaise, although there is constant complaint there by purists about the intrusion of English words like 'weekend'. Computer terminology is also English-based.
The English language is not monitored by one authoritative body, and one outcome of this is the toleration of alternative spellings. These are based on certain patterns of word formation and variety, through the languages from which loan words have come to us. It should also be noted that smaller dictionaries provide only a selection based on the use of recorded 'stock' of over half a million words. That is, they are representative of 15-20% of what is known to exist in printed sources and other material. In other words dictionaries vary in their selection beyond the core of vocabulary and idiom that can be found in any dictionary.
The Story Of English
A more up-to-date edition of McCrum's 'The Story of English'. If you want to know more about how English developed from when the Jutes, Angles and Saxons came into Britain and changed the map forever, look no further. It doesn't pretend to be the Grail or the Fount of Knowledge, but it'll take you a long way toward them. Read how English metamorphosed through Danelaw English, Norman French, eventually Chaucer's rarified version of the English language... through Milton, Swift and the classic English writers to the modern day. You could read 'untranslated' Shakespeare at a pinch, but it would be hard going further back. Enjoy!
Dialect and variety 'from the norm':
Regional variations of vocabulary and pronunciation that date back to Middle English and before exist within the British Isles and the Irish Republic as they must elsewhere, i.e., not slang but dialect.
In more recent times since the Education Act of the late 19th Century (after compulsory schooling was ushered in for children up to age 12) dialect has suffered a decline in use. Special features of a dialect in its vocabulary is the description of everyday things understood within an area or region. Dialect influence on a wider scale has been witnessed from watching or listening to dramatisation or comedy. Words such as 'flummoxed' (confused),'scrounge' (steal) and shoddy (rubbishy) have come into general use from watching regional 'Soaps'. A lot more on dialect can b found in The English Dialect Dictionary (edited by J Wright, London 1898-1905), in the OED and from regional publishing houses such as Dalesman who produce a paperback periodical and books on the region as well as Yorkshire dialect books. There are three forms of Yorkshire dialect, defined by East, North and West Riding usage. Some words from the eastern 'cross over' to the northern and vice verse. Some cross from western to eastern, very few are shared between northern and western.
Modern usage is largely influenced by the media (web, TV, radio, newspapers etc). British English speakers come into contact with our American and Australian cousins, some speech patterns picked up stick in the mind after a holiday of some duration. This influence has been seen by purists as harmful, has a considerable effect on our vocabulary, idiom and spelling of British English and will go on doing so. I get exasperated by the expression 'train station', rather than 'railway station'. It might be more accurate to call it 'passenger station', as non-stopping freight trains often pass through railway stations when signals allow.
English is a global language, and from that there is a variety of forms of English, divers accents and understanding. A South or West African can converse with an Australian, a Canadian, American, New Zealander, Hong Kong Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Singaporean and Commonwealth partners they meet on business or on holiday. They in turn can all converse, share letters, e-mails and Internet media with Britons. In these countries British English is the starting point for an education in the language. In others American English is preferred for one reason or another. I see it this way: American and Canadian English is the same as the English as spoken around the English-speaking world up to 1776, with its spelling and inflections. British English went through another shift after the American Revolution. Spellings were changed and some words understood differently in meaning. Some words like 'sidewalk' introduced into the language from across 'the Pond' were added. In the wild West these sidewalks took the form of 'duck-boards' (as we call them here) to avoid sinking into the morass on the street after a downpour.
See also: A G Baugh and T Cable, 'A History of the English Language' (3rd ed New Jersey and London, 1928; B M H Strang, 'A History of English' (London, 1970).
More up-to-date is R W Burchfield's 'The English Language' (Oxford, 1985) and R McCrum's 'The Story of English' (London, 1986).
'The Oxford Companion to the English Language (ed. T MacArthur, (Oxford, 1992) explains the process English went through, to the English we use nowadays.
Don't be put off by the snobbery of perfectionists, or those who belittle English from the point of view that the more complex the grammar, the higher quality it encompasses (and I won't name names - other than watch out Pierre or Johan!)