Diachronic Study Of English Language English Language Essay

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In this lecture we will look at how English language from the Germanic family of languages through different ages. It also looks at the different cultural and historical developments that helped English reach the way it is spoken now. This final section looks at the different English that are spoken world wide and the major differences between British, Indian and American English. "Language in its spoken and written form at a given time plays a crucial part in the culture of its speakers at that time, that feelings of group identity or national identity were often forged in a decisive way by the bond of a common language. In the early periods, linguistic phenomena may relate to political situations, or to a scholarly and/or political interest taken in the state of a language, to a degree that these phenomena cannot be sufficiently understood in terms of purely linguistic criteria." [1] 

Old English (450 - 1066): The earliest inhabitants of the Island were Celts. The languages spoken in Britain at that of which we have any knowledge are the Celtic languages which survive in modern Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic. The introduction of Christianity among the Celts with the arrival of Romans (43 - 410 Before the Common Era), Latin was in general use. After the supremacy of the Roman invaders diminished the Saxon invaders from beyond the North Sea who were constantly attacking the east coast of England gained prominence. We get a glimpse of these developments from the Ecclesiastical History of England, written by St. Bede (a monk from Jarrow writing in the late eighth century) around 730 AD. "In the course of the next century, the newcomers began to settle permanently. According to Bede they belonged to three tribes, Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They are now generally referred to as the Anglo- Saxons and their language English. Eventually they conquered the whole of what is now England, and English replaced the Celtic language spoken by the mass of the population." [2] The first evidence of English come from the Anglo- Saxon poetry and prose of the 7th Century that outlines the characteristic features of Old English. English that was then used fall into four different dialects namely Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish. A major cultural development in Old English was the initiative taken by King Alfred of Wessex (871- 899) to translate Latin texts into English. Most of the texts written during that period is written West Saxon. The following in the West Saxon version of the Cædmon's (the first named English poet) hymn:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,

now let us praise the heavenly-kingdom's protector

meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc,

the creator's might and his purpose

weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,

the work of the glorious-father as he every wonder

ece drihten, or onstealde.

the eternal lord the beginning established

He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum

He fi rst created for the children of men

heofon to hrofe, halig scyp pend;

heaven as a roof the holy creator

þa middangeard moncynnes weard,

then middle-earth the protector of mankind

ece drihten, æfter teode

eternal lord later created

fi rum foldan, frea ælmihtig.

for men the world the lord almighty

Before the Anglo- Saxons came to England, they had borrowed some Latin words: wine (Latin vinum), street (Latin strata), mile (Latin mille (passum), "thousand (paces)"), pan (Latin panna), wall (Latin vallum). Once they had arrived, the Anglo-Saxons were not talking much to the resident Celts - more often, killing them - and, as rulers, were certainly not speaking Briton. Hence only a few loanwords from Celtic languages entered English at this time. Bin and druid are a couple of examples that have made it to Modern English; others were borrowed and later lost. Lots of British place names are Celtic, though: Avon, Thames, Wight, etc. Though we don't know much about the religion of the Anglo- Saxons, the names of their gods Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Frig/ Freya are still enshrined in our days of the week as Tiw's day (Tuesday), Woden's day (Wednesday), Thor's day (Thursday), Freya's day (Friday) respectively.

What differentiated old English from Modern English is the sound system. The consonant clusters in Old English have been simplified in later forms of the language. The initial cluster fn-, as in the word fnastian ("sneeze"), has become sn-. Initial hw- (as in hwæt) has become wh- ("what"). Initial hl- (as in hlud) has become simply l- ("loud"). Initial hr- (hring) has become r- ("ring")

One of the major developments in this period is the Winchester vocabulary. Beginning with two works which probably originated in the 940s and which are attributed to one of the principal proponents of the Benedictine reform, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (963-84), a group of texts shows a pronounced tendency in a number of semantic fields to prefer certain words, the "Winchester words," to their synonyms. Standard Old English refers to the phonological and morphological forms of Late West Saxon, occurring in a regularized orthography in manuscripts dating from the late tenth to the early twelfth century, and originating in all parts of England, not only the West Saxon dialect area.

"The English speakers were themselves subjected to further raids from across the North Sea, this time from Danes. The first raids date from 797, and eventually the Danes conquered a large part of England north and east of a line stretching from Chester to the Thames. At the time of King Alfred, only the land south and west of this line remained in Anglo-Saxon hands. The Danish invasion and subsequent settlement had a considerable influence on the English language, and many words were borrowed into English, especially into the dialects of the north." [3] The Danes remained in power until they were overthrown by the Wessex rulers in the 954. under the king of Wessex the England was given the modern name. from then on writers had referred to the angelcynn ('Angle-kin'), englaland ('land of the Angles'). Edgar, nephew and successor of Eadred, issued coinage bearing the name and title Adgar rex Anglorum ('Edgar, king of the English'). And above all the Wessex dialect became the standard form of English for

Some of the borrowings from Old Norse during this period include aloft, anger, bag, bang, club, die, flat, gift, husband, ill, knife, leg, outlaw, sky, skin, skill, until, cut. Apart from the above mentioned content words, English also borrowed function words from Old Norse. "The third person plural pronouns in Old English began with an /h/, not with//. OE masculine subject pronoun he, its object variant hine, its indirect object variant him and its possessive variant his. Similarly, it had a feminine subject pronoun heo, a feminine object pronoun hiere (the source of ModE her), and a feminine possessive hie. All the Old English third person plural pronouns also began with /h/ as in hi, heora and hem. The reason we now have they, them, their, instead, is because the original Old English third person plural pronouns were replaced wholesale by their Old Norse counterparts, which began with the interdental fricative //. The old form hem survives in the weak form 'em. Similarly, on the way to ME, the feminine singular subject form heo was replaced by the Old Norse she, although English kept the object form her." [4] "Unlike the other Germanic languages (except Old Norse), Old English had voiced and unvoiced interdental consonants (the sounds represented by the Modern English spelling th). These were represented by the letters þ (called "thorn") and ð (called "edth") taken from the older Germanic runic system of writing. Such sounds did not exist in Latin or the Romance languages, and thus Anglo-Saxon scribes had to borrow letter forms from the runic alphabet in order to represent such sounds not available in the Roman alphabet (other sounds that distinguished Old English from Latin were the æ, or "æsch," a sound akin to the vowel in the modern American pronunciation of "cat," and the sound of the w, often written with a runic letter known as a "wynn")." [5] 

This difference in the pattern of borrowings helps us in understanding the contact between Norse speakers and English speakers and English speakers and Latin, French or Celtic speakers. "Latin and Celtic borrowings, before the Norse came, were limited pretty much to things the English didn't have words for: place names and religious concepts, that is, to borrow content words for novel concepts. English just took what it needed in those cases. The Old Norse borrowings, on the other hand, seem to reflect a history of two similar languages intermingling, trading everyday terms and function words because both languages were in use by people in everyday contexts. Because many of the Danish settlers intermarried with the English, Old Norse and Old English both became household languages, used in an often bilingual environment." [6] 

Middle English (1066 - 1485): "After the Norman conquest (William the Conqueror) in 1066, French became the spoken language of the aristocracy in England, while Latin was adopted as the main written language. English was still spoken by the lower orders of society, but the old written tradition eventually collapsed, and few English written records survive for 200 years after about 1150. French remained in use for 300 years, until it was gradually replaced by English after the middle of the fourteenth century. The kind of English that emerged, however, was strongly influenced by French, and contained a large number of French words and expressions. The French influence can be seen in the language of Chaucer, who died in 1400." [7] 

"The French borrowings include words from government - parliament, minister, territory, counsellor, council, people, power; from finance - treasure; from titles - duke, sovereign, royal, monarch, prince, count, princess, principality, baron, baroness, noble; from the military - sergeant, peace, battle, admiral, captain, lieutenant; from the law - judge, jurisdiction, advocate, jury, court, law, prison, crime, accuse; from the arts - tragedy, comedy, ballad, artist, critic, dance; from medicine - surgeon; from cuisine - dinner, supper, sauce; from the Church - religion. In fact, the very words government, finance, military, law, art, medicine, and cuisine are themselves all borrowings from French during this period. Some other examples of general borrowings from Norman French include gentle, blame, catch, mercy, puny, mountain, lunatic, vinegar, mustard, salad." [8] "The class distinction between French people and English at this time is often illustrated with the following list of French-origin/English origin word pairs:

Meat Animal

beef cow

veal calf

mutton sheep

pork pig

venison deer

The words for the meats come to us from the French-speaking people who got to eat it; the words for the animals come to us from the English-speaking people who had to raise them. Most languages use the same name for both the meat and the animal, as English does with chicken and lamb." [9] 

Apart from individual words, a number of collocations and expressions were borrowed from French. A couple of them are worth noting prefer I 'oreille ('to lend an ear'); sans faille ('without fail'). The prototypically English expression as Shakespeare's lend me your ears has its origins in French.

This period saw the completion of an important change in English: the almost total loss of the rich inflectional system (person, number, gender, tense, mood, aspect) that is so characteristic of most Germanic languages. The 3rd person singular -eth ending and the 2nd person singular -est ending hung around in religious texts for a while. In the space of 200 years, English went from being a highly inflected language with relatively flexible word order to being an almost completely isolating language with quite fixed subject-verb-object word order.

The radical propaganda of the reign of James I the Normans set out to destroy the English language but resulted in the revival of written English. The re-emergence of English can be traced back to 1258 at the time of the Barons' revolt. The struggle mainly concerned the arbitrary exercise of royal power, but a particular issue was the appointment of Frenchmen to prominent positions in church and state. [10] The development of a new middle class of manufacturers, traders and merchants was another reason for the re- emergence of English. From the 1380s the London guilds began to use English for their records rather than Latin that was used till then. It was the economic growth of these middle class that led to the development of towns and later the prominence of London and the dialect used in London as the preferred one. During the earlier decades of the fifteenth century, a new London dialect was cultivated at Chancery for the production of governmental documents. The introduction of printing in England in the 1470s by Caxton helped in the standardising English language that mainly used the London Dialect. Written texts became much more widely available than before. Some of the major aspects of the Chancery English was the preference given to the Northern form -ly, rather than the Midlands form-lich, for the adverbial ending; the ending -s, instead of -eth, for the ending of the third person singular of verbs and the preservation of historical forms in writing even in the face of changes in pronunciation (for example, spellings such as high, ought, slaughter, right, though, and nought)

Early Modern English (1485 - 1660): This time period saw an unprecedented growth of English language. The number of English speakers doubled. New words and neologisms came into the language as a result of the development of science and other areas of learning. The first monolingual dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall, was published in 1604 to explain difficult words in plain English. The Renaissance was a period of renewed interest in classical Greek and Roman culture, and the huge collection of learning they had amassed. It is from about this time that scholars began to write in English instead of Latin, and as a result many Latin words were borrowed into English. English literature flourished at the end of the sixteenth century, the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616). The Authorized Version of the English Bible was published in 1611. [11] English orthography was stnadardised by 1595.

"Chaucer's English," does not simply connote the details of London Middle English of the later fourteenth century but the personal transformation of those details into an imaginative, linguistic space. Nowhere is that transformation more brilliantly accomplished than in the famous opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.


The expansion of English as the language of the religion was another important development in the modern age. A large number of terms such as Jehovah, Passover, scapegoat, and atonement and phrases such as my brother's keeper (Genesis 4), the salt of the earth (Matthew 5), and a law unto themselves (Romans 2) (McGrath 2001: 75, 79) came into the language as a result of Tyndale's translation of the Bible in 1520's. The following excerpt comes from the King James Bible.

7 Marueile not that I saide vnto

thee, Ye must be borne againe.

8 The winde bloweth where it listeth,

and thou hearest the sound thereof,

but canst not tel whence it commeth,

and whither it goeth: So is euery one

that is borne of the Spirit.

(The New Testament; John 3:7-8)

During this period a large number of Greek and Latin words were introduced to English. They were mostly technical terms to refer to concept that English didn't have name for. These words were often called "Inkhorn Terms'. Some of the inkhorn terms that were borrowed or coined during this period and are still used are: expend, celebrate, extol, clemency, relinquish, contemplate, dexterity, refine, savage, education, dedicate, obscurity, intimate, insinuate, explicate, inclination, politician, idiom, function, asterisk, asteroid, disaster. "There had been borrowing from faraway languages during the Middle English period, due to importation of new commodities: cinnamon (Hebrew), musk (Persian), lemon (Arabic), silk (Chinese), pepper, sugar, indigo, ginger, sandal (Hindi), and damask (from Damascus) are a few examples. Because ships from Spain and Portugal were world travellers, bringing back commodities from all around the world, English acquired some words from other, non-European languages via Spanish and Portuguese, which had borrowed them first: yam, cocoa, canoe, hammock, hurricane, potato, maize, tobacco, chocolate, tomato, banana, avocado." [12] The end of the Middle English period is set, again symbolically, in 1485 when the Wars of the Roses concluded with the ascension of the fi rst Tudor king, Henry VII. Henry was also the first Welshman to assume the English throne.

Modern British English (1660 - the present): The "Modern Standard English can be traced to about the time of Chaucer, but was for a long time variable in spelling, in the use of words, and in the details of English grammar. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, there was considerable interest in fixing the language, and in 1712 Jonathan Swift proposed the setting up of an Academy to do this. By default, however, it was left to scholars to decide on what should be included in Standard English. Johnson's dictionary of 1755 did much to standardize spellings and fix the meanings of words. Several grammars were produced, among the more influential being Lowth's grammar of 1762. From the 1760s there was increasing interest in fixing a standard of English pronunciation, which resulted in a tradition of pronouncing dictionaries, of which the most influential was Walker's dictionary of 1791. It was not until the present century that a standard pronunciation was described in detail. This is Daniel Jones's Received pronunciation, which was adopted by the BBC in the 1920s as a standard for broadcasting." [13] 

"In the late nineteenth century, the geographically nonlocalized variety of English spoken by the educated men and women across Britain was dubbed Received Pronunciation (RP). Virtually a class dialect, RP rapidly gained recognition and assumed the voice of authority when it was adopted by the BBC." [14] The main aim of Standardization was thus to provide a single (and ultimately fixed), national accent for all speakers. Despite all these efforts accent has continued to function as a complex signifier of identity - social, geographical, and cultural. RP nonetheless remained the common reference model in dictionaries and in the teaching of English as a foreign language.

"During this period, the different Englishes of the different English colonies began to diverge somewhat. The English in India brought home several Hindi words: curry, bungalow, chintz, dungaree, punch, mongoose, cash, pajamas, cot, pagoda, tattoo, polo, loot, juggernaut, also sahib, rupee, coolie. English speakers in America were interacting with the indigenous population, and borrowing words for the new places, animals and plants they encountered: oppossum, raccoon, skunk, squash, hickory, tamarack, pecan, moccassin, succotash, toboggan, coyote, totem, woodchuck, quahog, Mohawk, Ohio, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Connecticut. But in neither India nor America did the cultures interact in such a way that the English speakers borrowed large quantities of words. The invaders had the upper hand, so like the Romans and Anglo-Saxons in Celtic Britain, the Vikings in England and the first generation of Norman French in England, the conquerors spoke their own language and disdained to learn more than a necessary handful of words from the languages of the subjugated natives." [15]