Tracing the Development of English Language

19 September 2016 – Osman Bedel –

Language History and change over a period of time

Before the Anglo-Saxons went to live in Britain, there were Germanic tribes’ invaders living in the fifth and sixth centuries, and they were known for speaking Germanic which later merged with other Scandinavian languages and with the English language later (Prøysen). By the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, the Old English writings started to appear, although there are regional variations. By 9th century, ‘Alfred the Great’ came to regard this as the ‘English’ language that can be regarded as a language that people can accept. The Saxons who came later than the Angles again added some more English dialects to the language, and although these old languages are similar to the modern English, there are many words that remain similar (Baugh & Cable; Gelderen). By the 10th century, the West Saxon dialect became the official language of Britain, and the first Old English has been traced to this period. This dialect is written in Runic alphabet and being different from the modern English, it has its own pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and the spellings, since there were no dictionaries or grammars, or lexicographers at that time. The coming of the Normans in 1066 brought the French language, and English relegated as the second language, and latter gain its prominence again only after the end of the Hundred Years War between the English and the French (1337-1453) (Prøysen).

The revolution in usage of English came with the introduction of William Caxton’s printing press in 1470s, since many English texts became available during this time. As many as 50,000 words (Prøysen) were there in English language during this time, and it began to double slowly in the process. The need for spelling and understanding also came up during this time, and as many as 1400 to 1800 of the words used in modern English are traced to this period (Prøysen). By mid-16th century, William Bullokar published Pamphlet for Grammar and Robert Cawdrey’s published the Alphabetical Table respectively (Gelderen; Prøysen), while by early 17th century, Ben Johnson produced grammar manuscript (1616). By the Elizabethan time, there were people like Shakespeare who were inventing words and enriching the use of English language. For example, many of the modern English words are traced back to his usage like adding suffix as -ly (vastly), or with new words like steepy, plumpy, and brisky. Shakespeare in fact is attested to have invented more than 850 words; others like Nashe coined 800 new words; Spenser 500 words; and Sidney 400 words (Prøysen).

By the 17th century, people were moving towards stabilizing the English language, and the English Royal Society addressed the issue and set up committee to improve English in 1664. Added to such effort, there were people like Daniel Defoe’s On Academics (1697), who tried to redefine the standard of the English language. There were also people like Jonathan Swift who correct, improve, and ascertain the English language through his work Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (Prøysen), and Samuel Johnson with Dictionary in 1755, that stabilized the word-meanings and spellings in the language. During the same time, the American-born Lexicographer Noah Webster came with the Dissertations on the English Language (1789) that shows that English language came to be improved from other countries as well (Fisher). He also wrote the first American dictionary (1828) that contained 70,000 words. Since dictionary alone is not enough, spellings and grammar were later improved on by Lindsay Murray in 1795. By 20th century, there were new forms of standardization like emphasizing on ‘pronunciation’, and Daniel Jones in 1917 was once such person that came up with the Public School Pronunciation which were taught in respectable schools like Eton, Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge (Baugh & Cable; Prøysen). Thus, through time, the English language came to change and improve, and legislators, science and technology has come to spread and change more rapidly in contemporary age.

Need and scope of study

It is true that the standard Modern English language used by the people was not established within a day, months, or years, but it was a result of all time, efforts, people, skills, and management combined. Since the embarking of the usage of English language in the Anglo-Saxon period, the language has come a long way. Various changes in terms of lexicography, sematic, morphology, syntax, and phonology has since then been introduced, changed, and improved. Language normally changes and improves in order to accommodate more words and names as per the changes brought about by social, cultural, norms, and geographical changes. Although language is a tool through people communicate and work, starting from sounds, signs, and symbols to that of forming complete and complex language sentences and grammatical rules, less studies has been carried out in research field. Keeping the importance that the standard English language embodies, the paper looks into how time, forces, and technologies are bringing rapid changes to language usage and application.

The aims and objectives of this study are to look into the changes in English language from Old, Middle, to Modern period; to trace the changes through lexicographical, semantical, morphological, syntactic, and phonological changes and to look into how such changes are conditioned by social, cultural, regional, and institutional systems that brings out changes in all language aspects such as verb, vowel, consonants and such others.

Periodization of English Language

The standardization of the English makes the English language to become acceptable language has undergone three period of stages: Old English (450 to 11 C.E.), Middle English (1100 to 1500 C.E.) and Modern English (1500 to present). Throughout this time, the language has changed and evolved owing to many syntagmatic, paradigmatic and social changes that gives emphasis to pronunciation, and other aspects like verb, vowel, consonants and such others. The modern English got standardized for the first time in 15th or 16th centuries, and during this time, conventions of grammar and expression were all controlled by all governmental establishments, institutions, bureaucrats, men of letters, teachers or educators and publishers. London later became a thriving zone for growing the English language owing to many influences like the growing importance of the Midland area of England, and the influences of important writers. Since London was and still is an influential political and commercial centre of England, the place was the seat of the court and various administrative system, making the Standard English almost the history of London itself (Brown & Berrian; Ager). This however has come to slowly change in contemporary era, where many social customs, regional influence, and technologies are changing the English language, thereby bringing in new words and style of pronunciation like jungle, chinook, totem, etc. Such influences have therefore significantly contributed in the evolution of the English language.

Changes in English language

For many years, English language has come to be changed in its style and speaking bringing the lexical change through conversion and univerbation. This conversion comes as formal process, while univerbation comes as structural shift in the language. Such structural change includes the usage of dōm, meaning decree or judgment in modern day usage (Hickey).

Lexical changes come as a result of stylistic tendency in writing as well as in speaking, which affects colloquialism as well as formal usage. Lexical changes also happen because of inertia where there is a need to maintain new words since the original one disappeared like penna > pen (Sánchez). The coming of science and technology has only hastened such growth as well. For instance, the word bug has come to mean both insects and computer language. Euphemism, metaphor, and personification all brings lexical changes. Semantic changes bring in no new creation, but forms on the old words and metaphors. For instance, beam is termed as ‘ray of light’ or ‘log of a tree’, or peach is now known as ‘attractive’. Other semantic changes include the usage of horn into ‘musical instrument’ and hoover into ‘vacuum cleaner’, etc. (Carstairs-Mccarthy; Roberts & Roussou).

Morphological changes deal with both syntactic and phonological changes. This morphology refers to the “area of grammar concerned with the structure of words and with relationships between words involving the morphemes that compose them” (Grzega & Sch: p. 16). It comes from the Greek word morphe, meaning ‘form’ and ‘shape’. Phonological structure and syntax like division into sounds, syllables, and even rhythm are all brought about by such morphological changes.

In such changes of forms and shapes many words are used as both verbs and nouns like convict, protest, conflict, rebel, import, project, and so on. From modern day perspective, all such changes have come to fit in the needs and requirements of the people. In old and the middle period, the English language conformed with Dutch or German, but has since changed. For instance, modern language “He thanked God” was read and written as “he God thanked”, or “Then his eyes were put out” was read and written as “then stuck him someone the eyes out” (Kroch). Thus, insufficiency and change in time and needs bring in such morphological, syntactic and phonological changes.

Conclusions and Discussions

It is a fact that linguistics people will always lay importance on various aspects of correctness in language making, speaking, and writings, which brings the change and development in the language. There has been emphasis on pronunciation, grammatical structures, spellings, in order to bring the required changes, making them to form standard language through lexicographical, semantical, morphological, syntactic, and phonological changes in order to bring in the acceptable language within the society. Such changes in language has all been conditioned by social, cultural, regional, and institutional systems that bring out changes in all language aspects, and from modern day perspective, all such changes have come to realize the needs and requirements of the people. The standard of English language in modern days are rapidly changing at much faster pace owing to the pressure from time, forces, and technological changes that makes people to easily use language and apply it within a short period of time across the world.



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 “History of English Language and Tracing the Development of English Language.” International Journal of Humanities and Applied Sciences Vol. 5, No. 2, 2016. ISSN 2277-4386, 2016 Paris, France