How and why has English changed over time?

In this brief introduction to the subject, I will show how we can look at the history of a language in two main ways: externally – where, why and by whom the language was used; the political and social factors causing change – and internally – the pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and written appearance of the language; the motivations for change arising from the structure of the language itself.

I will structure my discussion around the conventional division of the history of English into three main periods: Old, Middle and Modern English.

The Old English (OE) period can be regarded as starting around AD 450, with the arrival of West Germanic settlers (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) in southern Britain. They brought with them dialects closely related to the continental language varieties which would produce modern German, Dutch and Frisian.

This Germanic basis for English can be seen in much of our everyday vocabulary – compare heart (OE heorte), come (OE cuman) and old (OE eald) with German Herz, kommen and alt.

Many grammatical features also date back to this time: irregular verbs such as drink ~ drank ~ drunk (OE drincan ~ dranc ~ (ge)druncen) parallel German trinken ~ trank ~ getrunken. Similarly, many OE pronunciations are preserved in modern spellings e.g. knight (OE cniht, German Knecht), in which k would have been pronounced and gh sounded like ch in Scots loch.

Anglo-Saxon Church carving St. Mary and St. Hardulph Church. Breedon on the Hill [Image: Walwyn under CC-BY-NC licence] Creative commons image Credit: Walwyn via Flickr
Anglo-Saxon Church carving St. Mary and St. Hardulph Church. Breedon on the Hill [Image: Walwyn under CC-BY-NC licence]

OE, also called Anglo-Saxon, was not heavily influenced by the Celtic languages spoken by the native inhabitants of the British Isles, borrowing only a few words (e.g. brock, tor) associated with local wildlife and geography (but many place and river names e.g. Dover, Avon). However, Latin, introduced to Britain by the Romans, and reinforced in its influence by the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity during the 7th century, had a significant impact, providing both vocabulary (e.g. master, mass, school) and the basis for the writing system.

OE was mostly written using the Latin alphabet, supplemented by a few Germanic runic letters to represent sounds not found in Latin e.g. þ, which represented the th sounds in thin or this. (A relic of þ survives as y in modern signs like Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.)

The later Viking settlements in many parts of the
British Isles also resulted in substantial borrowing of basic vocabulary: sky, get and they derive from Old Norse.

An example of Old English text can be seen in the Start of Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf (manuscript c.1000 AD)

Norse influence may also have contributed to an important grammatical change, which mainly occurred in English between the 11th and 14th centuries, and which marked the transition to Middle English (ME) (conventionally dated c.1100-1500). OE had indicated many grammatical categories and relationships by attaching inflections (endings) to word roots, in a similar way to Latin or German.

Thus, in the OE clause wolde guman findan ‘he wanted to find the man’, the –e on wolde indicates a 3rd person singular subject: ‘he wanted’; the –n on guman indicates that ‘the man’ is the object, not the subject of the verb; and the –an on findan indicates an infinitive: ‘to find’.

In ME, changes in the pronunciation of unstressed syllables, mainly occurring at the ends of words, caused most inflections to merge indistinguishably, or be dropped altogether. This inflectional breakdown could have created ambiguity (e.g. wanted man find), but speakers compensated by using more rigid word order (subject – verb – object, usually), among other strategies.

Another important feature of the early ME period was the influence of Norman (and later, central) French, following the Norman conquest of 1066. French dominance and prestige in such contexts as the royal court, law, the church and education encouraged extensive borrowing of vocabulary e.g. French words for farmed animals pork, beef and mutton (modern French porc, bœuf and mouton) were adopted alongside native words swine, cow and sheep.

A pig feeding in the New Forest [Image: BinaryApe under CC-BY licence] Creative commons image Credit: BinaryApe via Flickr
Who are you calling pork? Pig in the New Forest [Image: BinaryApe under CC-BY licence]

The borrowed words came to signify only the meat of these animals, mainly eaten by wealthier French speakers, whereas the words inherited from OE came to refer only to the living animals. Norman scribes also influenced the way English was written, respelling words using conventions from French; thus OE îs became ice, cwçn became queen. However, by the 14th and 15th centuries, French influence in Britain had begun to wane, being replaced for many purposes by English.

An example of Middle English text can be seen in the start of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (manuscript early 15th century)

Modern English (ModE) can be regarded externally as starting with the introduction of printing. Caxton’s selection of an East Midlands/London variety of English for the first printed books at the end of the 15th century contributed to the development of a standardised variety of the language, with fixed spelling and punctuation conventions and accepted vocabulary and grammatical forms.

The perception of this standard variety as correct, ‘good’ English was also supported by attempts at codification, notably Johnson’s dictionary and many prescriptive grammars of the 18th century. The vocabulary of English was consciously elaborated as it came to be used for an increasing variety of purposes, including translations of classical works rediscovered in the Renaissance, a burgeoning creative literature, and the description of new scientific activities. Thousands of words were borrowed from Latin and Greek in this period e.g. education, metamorphosis, critic, conscious.

An internal feature which characterised the movement towards ModE was the Great Vowel Shift – an important series of linked pronunciation changes which mainly took place between the 15th and 17th centuries. In ME, the sound system had contained broadly corresponding series of long and short vowels, represented in writing by the same letters.

For instance, the vowel in caas ‘case’ was simply a longer version of the vowel in blak ‘black’; similarly mete ‘meat’ (long vowel) and hell (short vowel), or fine (long) and pit (short). In early ModE, people began to pronounce the long vowels differently from the corresponding short vowels: long e ended up sounding like long i, leaving a gap in the sound system; this was filled by shifting the pronunciation of long a to sound like long e, and so on.

These changes were not reflected in ModE spelling, already largely fixed by standardisation, adding to the disparity between pronunciation and writing which differentiates English today from most other European languages.

An example of early Modern English can be seen in the start of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, First Folio (printed 1623)

In the present day, English is used in many parts of the world, as a first, second or foreign language, having been carried from its country of origin by former colonial and imperial activity, the slave trade, and recently, economic, cultural and educational prestige.

It continues to change at all linguistic levels, in both standard and non-standard varieties, in response to external influences (e.g. modern communications technologies; contact with other world languages) and pressures internal to the language system (e.g. the continuing impulse towards an efficient, symmetrical sound-system; the avoidance of grammatical ambiguity).

We need not fear or resist such change, though many people do, since the processes operating now are comparable to those which have operated throughout the observable and reconstructable history of English, and indeed of all other languages.