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In the beginning, life was simple and life forms were non-complex. Communication between these life forms was also simple, spoken communication and languages did not exist. As life evolved, and Homo sapiens began roaming the Earth, the need for spoken communication became necessary and languages were born. Join me in an exploration of how the English language came to be, and how it has evolved over time.
. The Roman Empire controlled England for centuries; however, by the early 400’s the Irish, Britons, and Anglo Saxons invaded and began settling England for themselves. Though each of these tribes had their own language, their dialects were close enough for them to understand each other. The language that developed from this inter-twining of tribes became known as Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Later, during the 800’s, with the arrival of the Vikings, two things happened to this Old English language. The first was that many Old Norse words were added, and the second, was the complex conjugations began to decline as people disagreed about which ones to use. The alphabet of the Old English language did not use the letters “k, q, v, x or z, and the pronunciations of some of the letters changed depending upon what letters were near them. Vowels were easy with the short vowels “a, e, i, o” being pronounced pretty much the same, as they are today, the exception was the vowel “u”, and its pronunciation was more like the pronunciation of the word “book” today. The long vowels were often marked with an accent mark and have a completely different pronunciation from the long vowels sounds we recognize today. Along with short and long vowels, the Old English language included three double vowels, each with short and long versions.
In 1066, the French-Normans under the rule of William the Conqueror invaded England bringing political change and their French-Norse language, which they made the official language of the monarchy and elite. However, due to the daily need to communicate with the English peasant class, the common language became English. Prior to the Norman invasion, Latin had only a minor influence on the English language, but afterwards there was an influx of Anglo-Norman words added to the English language. There was a split between original Germanic words used by the common class and the Norman words used by the elite for everyday items. “Beef” and “cow” are an example of the split in words used by the elite versus the peasants, as “beef” was often eaten by the elite, while “cows” were tended by the peasants. “Beef” has its roots in Anglo-Norman while “cow” comes from Germanic roots. Many legal terms are also derived from Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. Sometimes, French words replaced Old English words completely, while other times French and Old English combined creating new words. It is important to understand that Middle English was not the only language spoken during this period in England; Scots, Cornish and Welsh were also spoken and differ from Middle English. This accounts for the significant differences in dialects from each of the above areas versus the dialect spoken in London. Sometime in the 12th century, the French Influence in England began to fade and a number of writers began writing in the vernacular language rather than French, Latin or Greek. The 14th century produced the most notable vernacular writer of the time, Geoffrey Chaucer the author of The Canterbury Tales. Since then, the English language has been absorbing vocabulary from many languages around the world. English steadily adds the creation of new words and new uses for old words by the sub-cultures of the English-speaking world.
Until the 16th century, French remained to be the literary language and Latin the scholarly language of Europe. The evolution of Middle English into Early Modern English began during the Renaissance in the 16th century when a renewed interest in education sparked across England and most of Europe. As a result of the growing interest in the writings of antiquity many Latin and Greek words were introduced into the English language. Along with the introduction of new words into the English language a shift of vowels, changes to some consonants and grammar were also part of the evolution of English at this time. As more literary works began to be written, the need for the stabilizing the spelling of words became important. One of the earliest attempts at stabilizing the spelling of words came in 1582 with the book Elementarie, by Richard Mulcaster. Some of the principles he established include the removal of all unnecessary letters, adding letters to words to indicate correct pronunciation and the use of a final silent “e” to mark long vowels distinguishing them from short vowels. Mulcaster also established other principles, but these three are the most significant. Many spelling concepts within the English language exist simply because some Norman scribe first spelled an English word using the phonetic principles of his own native language. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the spelling conventions for many words in the English language have been determined by referring to their original forms as a guide; resulting in an unusual combination of old and modern practices. Many of the spellings, including the “silent letters” of words that we use today were established in the first printed books, and have remained that way because it would have been unfeasible to change printed texts after distribution. By the 17th century, it became abundantly clear that assistance was required for writers to gain a clear understanding of the meanings of words and their spelling. One of the first books to offer such assistance was A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey. It was intended to only define difficult and unusual words in the English language that were derived from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French languages. This book contained approximately 2500 words with an interpretation of the meaning. The first book to actually call itself a dictionary though, was The English Dictionarie; published in 1623 by Henry Cockeram. This book was a two part work claiming to be able to not only help readers with the understanding of the difficult to understand writings of some authors, but also to attain speedily “an elegant perfection of the English tongue” in reading, writing and speaking. The first part of Cockeram’s book contained brief definitions of words that may have been important to the 17th century elite who may have wanted to leave an educated impression on those they spoke with. Many of his words, were ambiguous contrivances cobbled together from bits and pieces of Latin, and were therefore amusingly inventive; however lacked clear understanding. While the second part of his book reversed the process, listing everyday words, following them with his inventive version of meanings meant to show people how to turn simple statements into more impressive complicated ones. Fortunately, this allure to the obscure finally ended.
The 18th century once again brought changes to the English language. These evolutionary changes were brought on by two major events; the first was the ascent of the British Empire and the British Industrial Revolution. The ascent of the British Empire introduced the English language to the world; and the new discoveries in the industrial and scientific fields introduced new words into the English language. The classic languages did not support words like oxygen, nuclear, protein or vaccine, therefore Late Modern English relied heavily on Latin and Greek for the creation of these new words. Late Modern English is the form of English that has lasted through to the 21st century, continuing to add new words every few years, as generations of people start using them. A perfect example of 21st century evolution in English today, is the use of SMS language to replace complete words while using the newest technology of cellular phones and computer chat rooms in the internet. SMS English is the use of acronyms to state either a whole word or a grouping of words to relay a message. It is a form of the English language that was used during the time of the telegraph, and although using it to relay a message within a text message may be faster and easier, it does not follow any standard rules for grammar or spelling or even which acronyms are word specific. Some have claimed that the use of SMS English is wrecking the English language, and from what I have heard and read in my college rhetoric classes, I tend to agree. However, with the addition of at least one SMS “word” in the English dictionary recently, it appears that the increased use of this dialect is at hand.
What evolutionary change could be next after that of SMS? Could the English language evolve from SMS to more technical forms like that of fax machines? Can you imagine walking into a classroom or down the street and listening to people use beeps and slurs to communicate? One thing we do know for sure is that change and evolution is inevitable, and the changes on the horizon will come just as we learn what “OMG” and “LOL” are meant to convey.
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