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8.5: Stages of English

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    8.4.1 Stages of English, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Let's start talking a little bit about why English is so weird—okay, not exactly weird, but you get the point. When we talk about why English has a very different setup, one of the big areas has to do with the vowels. We tend to say that vowels change but not radically over the course of the history of the language. English does not follow that rule; in fact, it's one of the perfect examples of not following that rule, and that is the Great Vowel Shift. Yet, a lot of that has to do with how English came to be in the first place, so let's talk about the various stages of English, what that means, and specifically get a little bit into the Great Vowel Shift.

    When we're talking about English, we're talking about Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. Despite what you might think when you try to read Shakespeare, that's actually Modern English. Before that, if you want to know what English used to sound like before the Norman invasion, read Beowulf. Beowulf is Old English; in fact, Beowulf, when you look at it, it is very similar to Old High German, which is, if you will, the parents or ancestor to Modern German. It is not easy to read at all; in fact, if you know German you might pick up some words, maybe, but, honestly, not much it's very, very difficult to read. Old English has a full case system, it is highly complex with how it combines its terminology, it is very synthetic and realistically, very fusional. Everything changes in 1066, and if you know the history of the British Isles, you know what happens: William the Conqueror leaves Normandy, which is the northern part of France; the Normans spoke Old French—although interestingly, they were genetically more Viking than French—so they brought Norman French to the Court. This meant that every part of the upper half of English society or British society, if you were in middle class or higher you were learning and you were speaking French. You would be bilingual, especially in the middle classes, in both Norman French and the English that was being spoken. However, there's a big change that happens; if you were to read, for example, The Canterbury Tales, that is Middle English—in fact, in the middle of Middle English. It really encapsulates what happens when you have two mildly, but not really, related languages pushed together and combining. If you think back to sociolinguistics, when we talked about languages in contact, we talked about of lingua franca that goes to a pidgin that goes to a creole. There are a number of researchers and linguists who say that Middle English shows a number of examples of creolization:

    • The case system reduces drastically;
    • The vowels change;
    • The word order becomes stricter; and,
    • The language becomes less synthetical and little more analytical in how we combine our morphology and syntax.

    If you were to compare a page of The Canterbury Tales to a page of Beowulf, they would be different, miles apart. That is why there is a thought that maybe this stage of English is a kind of creolization. Personally, I’m not going to entirely subscribe to that theory; it is an interesting theory, and I like pieces of it, but I think there's plenty of evidence to the contrary of that. Suffice it to say that there are certain major changes that happened with Middle English. Notice that's only a 400-year period, yet there is approximately 600 years of Old English. OE was a pretty stable language—not is not 100%, but pretty stable, you can see it through the history. That 400 years of Middle English is raucous; there are a number of changes happening. By the time you get to the Elizabethan era, now you're talking Shakespeare; this is Modern English. Modern English is usually set at 1500 CE, to say that that is when you start seeing a language that resembles the modern English language: there's no case system anymore. Word order fully replaced everything in the syntax. Shakespeare's difficulty is legendary, and I will not say that it's not a difficult thing to process and read—in part, it's because he moved stuff around to make sure he had the right rhythm, the iambic pentameter. However, if you were to read a document written in Elizabethan English prose, you would get a large chunk of it; you may not get everything, and in the last almost 500 years there's been some changes, but realistically it's pretty close. It's also about at that point that you start getting much more dialectical spread—clearly, if we think about the history of England and, right around that time is when you start getting this concept of Great Britain, in addition to colonization of the world (first of the Americas, and then throughout the world). One of the things that we see with respect to human language is that as we colonize, there's more stabilization in certain realms with respect to language, and that probably is tied into the stabilization of Early Modern English. When we talk about Early Modern English, we're talking about think Shakespeare. When we're talking about Late Modern English, which is 1700 CE and beyond, now we're talking more modern stuff; think Charles Dickens, which is difficult at times to read, in part that's because of what Victorian prose was like. Yet, the syntax, semantics, and morphology hasn't changed much from the time of Shakespeare. There have been changes—specifically, with respect to semantics, of course, but pronunciation of the vowels has changed, as well as the consonants. It's not that different.

    What you're going to hear below are examples of all four really of these stages and you'll hear the difference between them. It's also really important to remember with respect to English, we have heavily borrowed from the Romance family. I tend to say Italic family because Latin is in there; Latin is the parent of the Romance languages, but it is not itself a Romance language. It is an Italic language, so one step up, therefore I tend to say either from Romance or Italic origin. It started really with 1066 CE, the Normans coming in and taking over the English court, but it continues through all the way into the Renaissance and beyond. For example, the language of science is frequently Latin; by that I mean when we create a scientific term, we're using either Latin or Greek as a root. There's been a lot that has been borrowed in, and not just to English, but to all of the Indo-European languages. This goes beyond and into technology as it goes forward. Note that, if you take the 1000 most common words in English, 30% of it are Latinate or Italic or Romance. This is only the lexicon; remember what I said a couple of sections ago that when we reconstruct the language and we try to classify it within the realms of what family it's in. We're going to look at syntax and morphology more than the sounds, and especially more than the lexicon.

    When we look at the syntax and morphology of English, it is Germanic; the only thing we don't do anymore really is case—we're the only ones that don't, although Dutch has a reduced case system—and we don't switch the word order of subordinate clauses. If you go to learn another Germanic language, you'll know that if you have an embedded clause, the word order switch becomes SOV, that the verb is at the end. English stop doing that by Modern English, and it was already starting to phase out in Middle English.

    When we're talking about the waves of migration, this is just a quick map to show you this.

    Germanic Migration into the British Isles

    With respect to the origins of Old English, we really have three main waves: we have the Saxons and the Angles, and they are predominantly the first groups to come over. The Jutes came over and went into southern England, to what is now considered southern and southeast England. If you know anything about the various dialects of England, you'll notice that the dialects of Wessex have certain examples that we do not see in the rest of England, and that predominantly is the influence of the Jutes. What's not represented here are the Vikings and, as I said, the Vikings came from what we now call Scandinavia: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. They raided all of the British Isles, such that it's not only Old English that got affected. The Celtic languages—Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish—all were severely affected by those raids. We have now seen in the last 150 years more archaeological evidence that suggest that while many of the Vikings raided and then went back, but many others stayed. The more they stayed, the more Old Norse mixed with the local language, whether it was Anglo-Saxon, which is frequently another term for Old English, or Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic or Old Manx, all of them have various aspects that were brought in by those Old Norse speaking Vikings.

    Just to prove to you that English really is a Germanic language—and I know you may not always believe it but it's the truth–think back when we classify languages, and we look at the core lexicon or vocabulary: the numbers 1-10 and other basic, core vocabulary. I have examples: man, hand, foot, bring, summer. These are core vocabulary about people, body parts, basic verbs (to go, to come, to bring, to be if it’s existing, to eat, to drink), and phenomenon that are shared, such as flora and fauna that are shared (summer, in this case seasons. having to do with whether, basic terms for like flower or anything like that). If we look at these examples, the term for man in Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish or Norwegian, you have: /mæn, man, manʔ, man/. It's pretty much the same as ‘man’ or the vowel has changed, but nothing else. The word for hand: /hant, hɔʔ, hand/, .so pretty much the same across the board. Danish is just going to have a lot more glottal stops, even though Danish is technically a dialect of the Swedish/Norwegian. There's some big changes for phonetically for Danish, as compared to Swedish/Norwegian. Foot: /vu:t, fu:s, foðʔ, fo:t/. Bring: /breŋe, brɪŋə, breŋə, briŋa/. It’s the same term, right? Summer: /zo:mer, zomer, sɔmər, sɔmar/. In fact, near where I live—I’m at the southwest corner of San Jose—and up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you have Solvang, which is a Swedish community and Midsomar is a big festival in June. For comparisons, these are all Germanic languages, and here's Turkish down here; very clearly not a Germanic language, very much not an Indo-European language either. The word for 'hand' is /adam/--yes, Adam as in Adam and Eve, more on that another time—/el/ for ‘hand’, /ayak/ for ‘foot’, /getir/ for ‘bring’, /yaz/ for ‘summer’. It’s very different.

    As I said, English has changed over time. This is a copy of The Lord's Prayer.

    Lord's Prayer in various stages of English

    Anybody who's a Christian knows this prayer, although you might have a different version of it, but you get the same idea. Even most non-Christians are aware of this prayer. The Late Modern English is from a few generations ago:

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Our father who art in heaven, blessed to be your name. May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Do not lead us to temptation, but deliver us from evil

    If you are Christian in any way, or if you were brought up as Christian, you know that prayer, and it’s one of the first prayers that Christians learn. This is the King James version, so this is 1611.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Our father, which art in heaven, hallowed by thy Name. Thy kyndgdome come. Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heauen. Gius vs this day our daily bread. And forgiue vs our debts, as we forgiue our debters. And leade vs not into temptation, but deliuer vs from euill.

    Notice I modified my pronunciation a little bit. I’m okay at Elizabethan English, although not great; there's better examples and I’ll give you some examples of that. OK, some spelling changes, but you see that that's pretty much the same poem, that you can read it. I am not going to read Middle English or Old English; I’m going to give you those links below. Just look and compare; even Early Modern English from 1611 to the Wycliffe’s Version, which is 14th century, so 300 years before. Notice that the Late Modern English version was probably written around 1940. Three hundred years before that, it’s pretty much the same. But 300 years before that? The language is very different. And then 400 years before that? It’s even more different.

    One real quick note: this letter that looks like a ‘p’ but with an extra extension up? That is called thorn, and that letter is the voiceless interdental fricative, the sound [θ]. You will see in the Old English a letter that looks familiar, at least with respect to IPA. This is edth, right? It’s the 'd' that has that cross, that's kind of written on a slant, and has that cross through the upright. Edth is the voiced interdental fricative, just like an international phonetic alphabet. Play those recordings and listen to them, read along with them. Listen to the amazingly different sounds.

    The biggest change…are the vowels. Let's talk the Great Vowel Shift! This is going to explain a whole lot of weirdness, as it were, with respect to English. As I said, most of the time, vowels can change, but not that much. And then you have English…. This is the vowel system that we have in Old English: /a:, e:, i:, o:, u:/ as long vowels; they could also be short vowels but those didn't change as much. We're going to focus on the long vowels because the Great Vowel Shift is predominantly in these long vowels. What happens between here and over here in step one, which is the beginning of what we call Middle English, around 1100 CE, you basically get an up and out movement. Think of the trapezoid of vowels, and the movement goes up and out. The long [a:] moves up and out to become long [ɛ:] and long [ɔ:]. [e:] and [o:] more or less stay the same, but now we don't just have [i:] and [u:] as long, we also have diphthongs. Now we go from a five-vowel system to seven. Do you see where this is going? A few more generations of up and out and we get what you see in step two. You start having a little bit more change, a firming of the sequence; notice there's no long low vowel. There is [e:, o:, i:, u:], and then [aj]. This is what we’re hearing right around 1500 CE, in the Elizabethan era. Then, one more change up and out, so that for long vowels in Late Modern English, by the time you get to 1700, they have firmed up to what we have now.

    This is going to explain a whole lot with respect to the spelling system of Modern English. The spelling system is archaic, meaning it is trapped in time. It reflects a pronunciation that we have not had in many hundreds of years; realistically, it is a lot closer to what Old English really sounded like. For example, bite, beet, beat, made, foal, fool, foul, that is how we pronounce those lexicons. Yet, the vowels like beet and beat are said exactly the same, but they're written totally different. Why? Because we have the Great Vowel Shift.

    • Bite really was said originally as beat, and then [bi:t] went to [bəjt] and then went to [bajt].
    • Beet, as in the root vegetable, was really sad as [be:t]; that's why it's written with two e's is because it was a long [e:], and the [e:] when [i:] and then shortened to [i].
    • Beat was really pronounced as [bɛ:t]. Clearly, there was a difference, but that difference merged over time; that's Great Vowel Shift.
    • Made—ever wondered what the heck that silent ‘e’ is in English? It represents the fact that in Old English, that was a schwa sound and it got deleted pretty early.

    You can see how this goes.

    When we say, “English is weird,” it is true, at least from a bystander’s point of view. We can explain all of that so-called weirdness, and the reality is there's a reason for these changes. The Great Vowel Shift happens because there's a radical shift in the population. Could these changes have happened on their own, if the Normans never came over and if Angles, Saxons and Jutes with some Vikings around continued in the British Isles? Sure, it's possible. But what we know to be true is that when you have big clashes of language contact, such that there is now a superstratum and substratum set of languages, any changes that might have occurred normally get accelerated hugely. It's possible that that could have happened, but probably got accelerated during that Middle English period. It is one of the most fascinating aspects to the history of the English language.

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