Whither English?: Language Shifts with Cultural Changes

By Waters, Jen | The World and I, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Whither English?: Language Shifts with Cultural Changes


Waters, Jen, The World and I


Jen Waters is a writer with The Washington Times.

The English of today may not be the English of tomorrow. The nature of language is that it's always changing, says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University. "If today you go to a play of Shakespeare, there is a chunk of vocabulary and grammar you're not going to understand, but you can sort of make your way through it," she says. "You ignore the things you don't understand. It's what we do when we're trying to understand language."

The English language is a progressively altered form of the languages spoken in previous generations, all the way back to the origin of language itself--and English continues to evolve.

The language has an attested history of about 13 centuries, says professor Jay Jasanoff, chairman of the department of linguistics at Harvard University. He holds a doctorate in linguistics. "There are written records of it from about 700 A.D.," he says, "but the English of that period was as different from modern English as a foreign language. And the English of 700 A.D., of course, was descended from the prehistoric English of 600 A.D., which was descended from the prehistoric English of 500 A.D., and so on."

In about 449, the British Isles were invaded by a group of Germanic tribes that didn't speak the same language. As time passed, French became the biggest contributor to the English vocabulary, other than native English, namely because England was invaded by the French- speaking Normans in the eleventh century, Jasanoff says. English, like other European languages, also has words borrowed from Latin and Greek roots.

In fact, Old English, dating from about 700, had inflections (changes in the form of words to indicate grammatical relationships), says Baron, who also has a doctorate in linguistics. It had nominative, accusative and genitive word endings, similar to modern German. It also had masculine, feminine and neuter endings.

Baron says she is not sure why the inflections disappeared in English. She hypothesizes that people who spoke different languages and were trying to speak to one another dropped them to simplify communication. "English used to allow for free word order because of the endings," she says. "By the time Chaucer was writing his Canterbury Tales, at the end of the fourteenth century, English was losing a lot of its inflections. By the time Shakespeare was writing, even more were gone. Today, we only have the relics of inflections. "

To put it into categories, English progressed from Old English to Middle English (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) to Early Modern English (Shakespeare) to Modern English.

Pronunciation and vocabulary are the two areas of language in which variations are more readily noticeable over long stretches of time, says Anca Nemoianu, a professor of linguistics at Catholic University with a doctorate in linguistics.

Starting in the end of the fifteenth century, the way people pronounced vowels began to change, creating a passage from Middle English to Modern English. In academic circles, this progression is frequently called "the great vowel shift."

More noticeable than sound change is the continuous influx of new vocabulary, Nemoianu says.

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