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The History of the English Language 101: Historical Linguistics and Language History


Foreword


Looking at the past is an important step towards understanding the future. To comprehend English in the 21st century, one must examine its historical journey and the factors shaping its current state and usage. This series delves into the socio-historical background of the English language and explores how its evolution has responded to the changing communicative needs of its speakers across centuries. Providing a comprehensive overview, the series traces the historical trajectory into Old (OE), Middle (ME), Early-Modern (EModE), Modern (ModE), and Present-day English (PDE). Today English is the world language par excellence. To understand why, one must delve into its roots, examining its state 1500 years ago, tracking grammar shifts, exploring vocabulary expansion, and investigating the factors that have made English a global lingua franca. In examining the past to illuminate the present, this series unveils the cultural landscape influencing present-day English and the literature composed over centuries, providing a basis for thoughtful hypotheses on what the future might hold in store.


This 101 series is divided into six articles including:


  1. The History of the English Language 101: Historical Linguistics and Language History

  2. The History of the English Language 101: Old English

  3. The History of the English Language 101: Middle English

  4. The History of the English Language 101: Early Modern English

  5. The History of the English Language 101: Modern English

  6. The History of the English Language 101: Present-Day English


The History of the English Language 101: Historical Linguistics and Language History


Historical Linguistics

Historical linguistics, often referred to as diachronic linguistics, is the study of language change. Its focal points encompass a variety of aspects, including:

  • accounting for observed changes in specific languages;

  • piecing together the origins of languages and establishing their affiliations, categorising them into language families (a domain known as comparative linguistics);

  • formulating theories regarding the mechanisms and motivations behind language changes;

  • outlining the history of speech communities;

  • investigating the historical roots of words, commonly known as etymology (Trask, 1996).


Diachronic and Synchronic Linguistics

Adjacent to the diachronic linguistics previously outlined stands the discipline’s investigation of synchronic linguistics. Synchronic linguistics, in stark contrast to its diachronic counterpart, focuses on the descriptive analysis of a language at a specific point in time, be it past or present (OED, 1989). This approach is concerned with the language’s current state rather than its historical evolution. Conversely, diachronic linguistics, as previously elucidated, delves into the historical development of languages, tracing their trajectories over time. This dichotomy between synchronic and diachronic perspectives underscores the breadth of linguistic inquiry, encompassing both the static snapshot of a language and its dynamic historical evolution.



Figure 1: Synchronic and diachronic study of language (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).

Challenges of Data Situation

An essential consideration to understanding the English language history concerns the challenges posed by the data situation and the language sources available from different periods. These sources encompass a wide array of texts, including chronicles, parliamentary minutes, correspondences, poems, plays, novels, newspapers, and other forms of written records. However, delving into these sources presents inherent difficulties. Prior to the 8th century, there was a scarcity of texts in English. The language was not taught at that time, thus there were not many grammar books. The absence of sound recordings until the 20th century also leads to ambiguity regarding spoken language usage. Moreover, the accessibility of writing and reading was limited to certain groups of society, such as monks, clergy, university-trained clerks, nobility, and merchants who used written language for record-keeping, learning, business, and judicial purposes. This exclusivity persisted until the Early Modern English period, depriving a significant portion of the population of literacy skills (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).



Additionally, the textual landscape exhibits considerable variation in terms of regional distribution and content types, ranging from religious texts to legal documents, poetry, and scientific writings. External factors, such as wars, fires, floods, and pandemics like the Black Death, further complicated the preservation of linguistic sources. These events led to the destruction of existing texts and influenced linguistic developments through societal and political changes. Migration in particular played a pivotal role, fostering language mixture and borrowing from the different linguistic communities that converged. The study of English language history thereby does not solely rely on textual analysis but also necessitates an understanding of the broader socio-political context and the impact of external events on language evolution (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).


Comparative Linguistics: The Language Tree

Transitioning to comparative linguistics and the reconstruction of languages on the structural level of the language tree, English emerges as a prominent member of the Germanic language family. The evolution of Germanic from its parent Indo-European progenitor is characterised by several features. One notable aspect is the presence of a vocabulary rich in cognates unique to Germanic languages, setting them apart from other linguistic branches. Moreover, a distinct phonological pattern is marked by a fixed stress on the first syllable, in contrast to the free stress system prevalent in Indo-European. This phonetic evolution is accompanied by a simplification of verbal tense and aspect, reducing it to a system primarily featuring present and past tense inflections. Weak verbs in Germanic languages adopt a dental or alveolar past tense suffix, typically manifesting as the consonants ‘t’ or ‘d’. Furthermore, the declension of adjectives follows a systematic pattern, characterized by the interplay between strong and weak forms. A significant phonological shift, known as the First Consonant Shift or Grimm’s Law, further distinguishes Germanic languages, contributing to their phonetic divergence from Indo-European roots (Langlotz, 2008). The foundation of Germanic languages, laid by various historical communities such as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Vikings, forms the bedrock of English linguistic heritage. However, the linguistic landscape of English is not static, with subsequent influences stemming from events such as the Norman Conquest of 1066, introducing French elements into the language. Additionally, ongoing language contact continues to shape and enrich the English lexicon, reflecting the dynamic interplay between diverse linguistic influences across epochs (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).



Figure 3: Proto-Indo-European Language Tree (Lynch, 2020).


Causes and Mechanisms of Language Change

The language is a dynamic concept, constantly and gradually changing. Nevertheless, it is hard to recognize the ongoing change. There are two distinct viewpoints concerning the causes and mechanisms behind language change. One perspective suggests that change is essentially unmotivated, random, and akin to the capricious shifts observed in fashion trends, but patterns are often the same in different languages (some sort of motivation). The opposing view posits that language change is always functionally motivated, driven by the expressive needs of speakers, although some changes cannot be explained functionally (Brinton and Arnovick, 2011). Both views agree on recognising two types of change: internal and external. These two factors coexist and interact with each other and are often difficult to distinguish (Brinton and Arnovick, 2011).


Internal Factors

Internally, language change is influenced by a multitude of factors, including:

  • ease of articulation, with linguistic alterations stemming from difficulties in pronunciation, leading to the dropping of certain endings or modifications in phonological patterns;

  • perceptual clarity;

  • phonological symmetry;

  • universal tendencies, which manifest across geographical spaces, with lexical items transitioning into grammatical markers;

  • efficiency or transparency;

  • spelling pronunciation;

  • hypercorrection, where the prestige of some language forms have an effect on the choice on some form of the language;

  • overgeneralisation;

  • analogy such as in the past tense forms like “feed” and “fed”, that drive new verbs with their forms;

  • renewal according to which euphemistic forms need new connotations as they become taboos;

  • reanalysis: single prepositional phrase that becomes a single phrase; etc (Brinton and Arnovick, 2011).


Internal change can also be observed on a phonological level, in assimilation, “con-” + “plete” into “complete” where bilabial plosive becomes bilabial nasal; dissimilation, as in “pilgrim” from Latin “peregrinos”; loss of a sound, as the silent “k” in “knit”; metathesis where two sounds swop the order in which they were pronounced; and in vowels (diphthongisation, monophthongisation) and consonants changes. On the morphological level, change is evident in the reduction of possibilities for plural endings to the “-s” paradigm, visible in the Middle English period; and in the grammaticalisation, highlighting the shift from more lexical into more grammatical, followed by the need for more grammar as in “I’m gonna” (Brinton and Arnovick, 2011).



Change in semantics happens chiefly because of weakening, strengthening, euphemism (give positive connotation), cultural and social change. Those changes are: generalisation (where something very specific becomes something very general: “crisis” was formerly a turning point of a disease); specialisation (use of formerly more general term, “meat” was formerly “food”); hypernym to name more specific object, a widespread word becomes something very specific; pejoration (“poison” used to mean a drink but now it means something worse); and amelioration (“success” was formerly “result”: a word that means something better than it used to) (Brinton and Arnovick, 2011; Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).


The English Vocabulary

A main aspect of English that changed significantly over time is its vocabulary. It is impossible to accurately note the total number of words in the total vocabulary of OE or ME or EModE. Still, we know that approximately OE had 35 000 words, that ME had 45 000 and that EModE had 125 000. What we certainly know is that English vocabulary was influenced by Scandinavian Language (OE), by Latin (through the centuries) and by French (after the Norman conquest) (Crystal, 2003). The English lexicon expands through various processes, including borrowing loanwords from other languages. Borrowings come in different forms: calquing, which are loan translation, junk or phrases or idioms that are longer concepts (multimorphemic words) translated word for word into English, for example from original Latin into OE as “Spiritus Sanctus” into “Halig Gast” and “omnipotens” into “eallmihtig”; semantic loan where an existing word takes an additional or new meaning and doublets which means several words for the same concept. Latin borrowings played a significant role in different historical phases, from Pre-Britain to Roman Colonisation to Christianisation, introducing words related to the semantic fields of plants, animals, agriculture, and religion, among others (Baugh & Cable, 2013).


Figure 5: Title page from the second edition of the Dictionary (Johnson,1755).

From Celtic there is almost none due to the nature of contact: the Anglo-Saxons conquered the Celts or forced them into exile, leaving so little opportunity for Celtic to be borrowed in OE. There were instead borrowings from Scandinavia (different borrowing processes): the Old Norse (ON) word replaces the OE one, as in the example of ON “taka” for “take” instead of the OE “niman” (German), both words retained, one of which northern dialect as in ON “kirky” and OE “circe”. Scots “kirk” and today “church” retained with different meanings (doublets) as in shirt and skirt (Brinton & Arnovick, 2011, p. 167). But there are also internal factors that contributed to forming the vocabulary we have today. We have also processes of word formation as compounding (that was very typical in OE like in German today), for instance, “godspel”: from “god-good” and “spel-tidings”. Essentially, it is two free morphemes that are bunched together and compounded; amalgamated compounds as in “midwife” from “mid-with” and “wif-wife”; metamorphic compounds as in “banhus” from “bone” and “house”. Other word formations are prefixation, productive formation: there are lost prefixes: ge-, no longer productive in PDE as in “ingang” (entrance), “upgang” (rising). Prefixation is then a more common process in Present-Day English.


In the ME lexicon important was the influence of French: Norman French was the maternal language of the Norman conquerors and it continued to be the first language of the aristocracy and royalty of England through the 12th-14th centuries (Baugh & Cable, 2013). French words that came into English are words from administrative, legal and polite discourse (since common people probably did not speak French), such as “authority”, “empire”, “parliament” and “advocate”, but also many others from other fields as “abbot”, “clergy” (religion), “dinner” (food), “army”, “enemy” (military), “anatomy” and “geometry” (science), and more. Thirty per cent of the PDE vocabulary is estimated to be of Romance origin (languages that evolved from Latin) (Burrow and Turville-Petre, 1992)


The following table shows the influence of French on English vocabulary throughout the ages. As the highlighted part shows, the French loanwords intake increased in the 14th century, when the Norman conquest took place and the French legal system had fully been established.



Figure 6: The influence of French: French loanwords intake (Baugh & Cable, 1993).

Early Modern English is characterised by a lexicon expansion: the EModE vocabulary strongly increased between 1475 and 1700 because of large influxes of loanwords from French, Latin and Greek (not without adverse reactions like the Inkhorn Controversy that complained about the obscurity and affectation of such new ‘inkhorn terms’) (Nevalainen, 2006). Latin and Greek borrowings examples are “encyclopaedia” and “phenomena”. Loanwords also came from other languages that entered English in that period (“piano” and “flamingo”), because of the effects of Imperialism travelling, exploration and commerce that brought new concepts needing new words to express them. New words were also formed through derivation formation exploiting new productive affixes (con- and -ary). During the Renaissance, there were many new publications due to the interest in classical languages and developing fields of science, medicine, and arts, which led to the already cited need for new words, such as “pendulum” and “vertebra”. Among these publications, there were many classic translations from Aristotle and Plato, English translations of writers of European languages dealing with many different domains, and Bible translations (among which, the remarkable King James Bible). Another great source of new words is Shakespeare, who coined ca. 20.000 new common expressions (“cruel to be kind”, Hamlet) and words (“eyeball”, “juiced”) (Kemmer, 2005). Overall, English vocabulary evolves through a combination of external borrowings and internal word formation processes, resulting in a rich and diverse lexicon (Crystal, 1988).


External Factors

Externally, language change is influenced by factors connected to community or society using a particular language that causes variation such as contact-induced language change (when speakers of different languages interact, resulting in the cross of linguistic concepts); extreme language mixture leading to pidgins (language used by people of different cultures to communicate with each other), creoles (due to colonisation), and bilingual mixed languages (as Krio spoken in Sierra Leone or the British imperialism in West Africa were a Lingua Franca was needed for the commerce of the 19th century) (Brinton and Arnovick, 2011). In general, extreme language mixture takes place in settings where there is prolonged contact between languages, which are often under pressure. Another factor causing change is language death, which occurs when a spoken language fades over time, sometimes as a result of genocide. Today it is an important issue as smaller isolated communities seek interactions with a wider world, consequentially adapting their language. The result is the loss of a particular language (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).


Social prestige might also play a role and influence external change. In relation to prestige, people tend to use formal language to situate themselves in higher ranks of society, adapting their speech in imitation of the ones they admire, moving towards favoured accents or dialects. They tend to form their own identities and avoid dialects with lower prestige: embracing the standard to avoid less than prestigious dialects. Borrowings over time illustrate the adaptive nature of language, as new concepts or objects are introduced, necessitating the adoption of foreign terms. For instance, architectural features that did not exist in a culture before, borrow the name from the original language. Examples are: “garage” (French), “kiosk” (Turkish) and “sofa” (Arabic). Other instances include words like "ballot" from Italian, "banshee" from Scots Gaelic, and “goulash” from Hungarian reflecting the influence of external languages on English vocabulary (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).



Figure 7: Some examples of borrowings over time (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).


Finally, English changes in itself but also because of the geographical mixing of different languages (Africa) or because of isolation (America, Australia). There are also changes related to different areas where English is used. For example, the English used in media is different from the one used in education. Changes are important for the periodisation of the English language and understanding of its history. External and internal causes interact, and it is hard to keep them apart, as they coexist and merge, often leading to simultaneous change. One cannot predict nor foresee them, it is a constant dynamic process (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).


English in Contact with Other Languages

The English language has been in contact with many other languages generating a change in it. The most important language contact happened due to migration. Different populations with their respective languages, invading Britain or migrating in, brought along their languages. Getting in contact with those languages, English changed and developed over time mixing and borrowing foreign words. The most influential contacts were with Norman, Scandinavian, French and Roman people who in different periods migrated to Britain.

 

During the OE Period, the language spoken in Britain was influenced by external historical factors. Angles, Saxons, Judes, French and Scandinavian were peoples that influenced the development of English during that period (Brinton & Arnovick, 2011). After the Roman Empire collapsed, Germanic tribes migrated to England refusing the Roman culture and developing distinct dialects from the continental Germanic languages. The Migration Age led to the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy that invaded and destroyed the Celtic communities whose language thus hardly had any influence on English. Contrariwise, Latin remained important even after the Roman's withdrawal as it was the Language of the Church, the institutions of education, science, law, and culture. Latin and West-Saxon languages were the High languages opposed to the masses’ everyday speaking OE dialects. Old Norse (Scandinavian) came into contact with Old English and resulted in impacts as an “adstratum” on English.



Figure 8: The Kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy (Bartholomew, 2011).

 

A second wave of Germanic migration is brought about by Viking settlements on the British Island. The King of the Anglo-Saxons, King Alfred, successfully defended Wessex and aimed at creating one nation, promoting one single English dialect. The Danelaw peace followed the England partitioning between Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians: in the 10th century with Danes and English mixing peacefully, the Scandinavian influence emerged in many place names, in the ending of names in -by, and surnames in -son. Yet, sometimes both English and Scandinavian words survived as in “sick” and “ill”, displaying the long peaceful coexistence of both cultures. The Scandinavian language influenced English also through the replacement of words like OE “niman” with ON “taka” (take) and the adoption of function words.

 

The Norman invasion (1066) aroused the French influence. The Normans replaced the Anglo-Saxon nobility becoming the ruling class, dominating the court and establishing their influence. Norman French became the language of the court and landowning classes. The Norman introduced the feudal system, redrawn the legal system, conducting it in French, and dominated education and the Church. By the end of ME, English was heavily influenced by two languages from the continent: Norman French (early), with direct contact in daily interaction with speakers of English, and Central French (late), influencing the language through literature. The coexistence of the two led to the emergence of doublets as “calange” (Norman French) and “challenge” (Parisian French).



Figure 9: The Norman Invasion 1066 (Locher & Leimgruber, 2020).

 

The English language developed a "mixed" vocabulary, borrowing from Latin and French, with the consequent emergence of synonyms. In the long term, the Norman invasion influenced English without entirely replacing it but rather enriching the lexicon in several domains of vocabulary (administration, law, culture, science, architecture) and influencing ongoing language change processes as the loss of inflection and increasing importance of word order and prepositions.

 

After 1330, the French influence gradually declined. English raised as the official language of the law and gradually became the language of written works and grammar schools, positioning itself as a language worthy of being written down. The idea of England as a nation required its own language to be understood by all English people. Thus, the French language lost its importance and fewer people spoke it.

Instead, Latin remained a constant influence throughout the whole history of English, influencing the language of learning institutions and the Church.

 

In the EM Period, we witness a larger influx of Latin and Greek borrowings and neologisms. New sea routes opened the expansion to English, and British imperialism (17th-19th century) led to borrowings from languages around the world. The new concepts acquired around the world or from the rediscovery of classical authors needed to be named with new words.  This need was required in all areas of life and brought to the expansion of the lexicon.


Renaissance and classical period of English literature led to a cultural change in which many words and concepts were borrowed from classical authors such as Plutarch, Cicero and Aristotle. The translation of their literary works into English spread classical education across the country. However, introducing loanwords from Latin and learned languages led to a scholarly dispute, labelled as “the inkhorn controversy”. On one hand, the learned terms were seen as obscure and affected. On the other, the scientific discoveries needed new vocabulary to fill potential gaps, seeing positively the process of borrowing from other continental languages or Latin. The flood of English translations encompassed French, German, Italian and Spanish too, dealing with warfare, medicine, navigation, etc.

 


Figure 10: Language situation at the end of its period (Langlotz, 2008).

Colonial Influence


English underwent an economic change too, influenced by the colonial expansion to America, Africa and India; the new discoveries and trade; the nationalism that saw the consolidation of the English state and a new understanding of the country. Travelling, exploration, commerce, and discoveries of exotic places led to a mind expansion, knowing more about the world, and borrowing thus new linguistic items with the consequent expansion of the vocabulary. Generally, the EME experienced a large influx of loanwords from Latin, French, Greek and other languages that entered English between 1475 and 1700.

 

Finally, up to PD, English in contact with other languages created new dialects, mixing with local languages. Through African, American, Asian and New Zealand colonisation, English, imposed in education, became an official language in many countries with the consequent global spread of English. English, growing into being a universal language, came in contact with several different cultures becoming an international lingua franca used by people of different cultures to communicate. English embeds the culture of the country in which it is used, enabling speakers to share ideas and culture with others. Influences of other languages reinforce English, accommodating and focusing, leading to the emergence of characteristic non-native features.


Figure 11: The British Empire To 1914 (Penguin, 2003).

Conclusion

In conclusion, delving into the historical evolution of the English language unveils a fascinating narrative of adaptation, assimilation, and transformation. From its origins in the migrations of Germanic tribes to the far-reaching impact of colonial expansion, English has continually evolved, absorbing influences from diverse languages and cultures.


The journey through English's past highlights the intricate interplay between internal linguistic dynamics and external historical forces. Internal factors, such as phonological shifts, morphological changes, and semantic evolution, interact with external influences like migration patterns, trade routes, and colonial encounters. This dynamic interplay has led to a gradual expansion of English vocabulary, incorporating loanwords from languages such as Latin, French, and Norse, among others.


Moreover, the challenges posed by the data situation underscore the importance of examining a wide array of textual sources and considering broader socio-political contexts. From the scarcity of early texts to the impact of historical events like wars and pandemics, understanding the context in which English evolved provides invaluable insights into its development.


Today, English stands as a global lingua franca, enabling communication and cultural exchange on an unprecedented scale. Its rich and diverse lexicon reflects centuries of linguistic borrowing, adaptation, and innovation. By exploring its historical trajectory, one gains a deeper appreciation for the cultural landscape and linguistic diversity that continue to shape present-day English and inform its future evolution.





References

Baugh, Albert C., & Cable, Thomas. (2013). A History of the English Language (6th Rev. ed.). London: Routledge.


Brinton, Laurel, & Arnovick, Leslie K. (2011). The English language. A linguistic history (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford Press.


Burrow, John A., & Turville-Petre, Thorlac. (1992). A book of Middle English. Oxford: Blackwell.


Crystal, David. (1988). The English language. London: Penguin.


Crystal, David (2003). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press.


Kemmer, Suzanne. (2005). A brief history of English, with chronology. Words in English. Retrieved January 13, 2009, from http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words04/history/paternoster.html


Langlotz, Andreas. (2008). BA online course on historical linguistics. eHistLing. University of Basel and Lausanne.


Locher, Miriam, & Leimgruber, Jakob. (2020). The History of the English Language. Paper presented at the University of Basel, Department of English Linguistics. From an unpublished text of a lecture by courtesy of the author Locher, Miriam.


Lohöfer, Astrid. (2007). Histroy of English. Retrieved January 21, 2009.

OED, Oxford English Dictionary. (1989). Retrieved from www.oed.com


Nevalainen, Terttu. (2006). An Introduction to Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Trask, Robert L. (1996). Historical linguistics. London: Arnold.

 

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