From the original Greek, meaning 'I like big donuts'
October 4, 2008 4:36 PM   Subscribe

A Brief History of English, with Chronology by Suzanne Kemmer is one of many articles at Words in English, a website designed as "a resource for those who want to learn more about this fascinating language – its history as a language, the origins of its words, and its current modern characteristics."
posted by blue_beetle (37 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm no language scholar, but as a native speaker I suspect that English is fairly unique in may respects. Thanks!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:23 PM on October 4, 2008


Reading about the Great Vowel Shift always makes me wonder: how on earth do they know how English was pronounced before 1600? I doubt any podcasts are extant.
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:35 PM on October 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Useful in translations.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 5:42 PM on October 4, 2008


Back in college, I took a course on the history of the English language. From this class I got two of my most favorite anecdotes evar:

1) English has a lot more words to describe animals than other languages. For instance, many languages only have the word for chicken, but English has both the word, "chicken," to describe the animal as it lives in the barn, and the word, "poultry," for the animal as a tasty meal. The same is true for cows (beef), pigs (pork), and so on. You may wonder, why is this?

The answer is the Normandy Invasion! All these Frenchies came over and became the powerful elite. When the French would have their fancy-schmansy meals, they would write the menus in their native tongue of course. So, the English, who wanted to emulate the powerful French, would use those same French words when writing their menus. The English words were still used when just talking about the animals (say, while out in the barn), but the French words became more commonly associated with the meals where the animals were eaten. Fascinating!

2) Know the stupid rule that you can't split an infinitive? Or why you can't put a preposition at the end of a sentence? Why, you might ask?

Well, long ago, there weren't any codified rules to English. You just did what you did, no one cared. But then, enraptured by the concepts of the Enlightenment, some British dudes decided that there must be codified rules for English grammar. So they decided to make some grammar pamphlets. But, with this goal in mind, what rules of grammar would they accept? Well... They all believed that Adam and Eve had spoken the perfect language while in the Garden of Eden... And they all believed that all languages since then have been perversions of that first, perfect language. This meant that the older a language was, the closer it was to perfect. So, while making the rules of English grammar, it was clearly better to adopt the rules of grammar from Latin, since Latin was older and therefore better. In Latin, it's impossible to split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. So, those rules were just forced, in an ill-fitting way, onto English grammar. And we live with that silliness to this day.


....Or, at least, these are things my professor taught me. I'm willing to trust her.

I only have one other anecdote I love to tell, beyond these two (it's about carrots!). I really love telling them, given how cool they are.
posted by Ms. Saint at 5:49 PM on October 4, 2008 [5 favorites]


AwkwardPause: I've been told that a lot of it has to do with how they thought words rhymed back then. Look at poetry, see what people thought worked as a rhyme, and that gives you some idea of how they pronounced it all.
posted by Ms. Saint at 5:51 PM on October 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ah! Well that makes sense, I guess.
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:55 PM on October 4, 2008


(Uh, above, I'm pretty sure I didn't mean "the Normandy Invasion." I was excited, my words flew out of me too fast to be, you know, accurate.)
posted by Ms. Saint at 6:00 PM on October 4, 2008


I find it odd that so few people in the general public realise how amazingly different spoken English was in the US and the UK as little as 200 years ago. Bill Bryson wrote a very good book on this subject: The Mother Tongue.

I also find very few people who will believe my assertions that some modern Appalachian dialects are quite similar to an old dialect of British English.
posted by chuckdarwin at 6:16 PM on October 4, 2008


AwkwardPause: "Reading about the Great Vowel Shift always makes me wonder: how on earth do they know how English was pronounced before 1600? I doubt any podcasts are extant."

Comparative/Historical Linguistics deals with this directly. You can learn a lot by studying written texts, but there are many other ways to figure out the sound inventory as well as the patterns and alternations (phonology)...even for languages of the oral traditions (no orthography system).

Language is rule-governed. There are explanations for just about every feature of language, at every level, from the phonological to morphological to syntactic, semantic, and even the sociolinguistic. Therefore you can study patterns in the language as it stands today, pick out the deviations from the patterns, and research what caused the change. Was there an outside influence? A borrowed word? Are these oddities just relics from a previous complexity in the language?

For example, if you know from history that the French and English had much contact during a certain period of time, you can bet that those languages had influence on each other. Words will be borrowed into the language, and usually done in a way that does not violate the sound constraints of the language. "Mele Kalikimaka" in Hawaiian is a borrowing of "Merry Christmas" (Hawaiian didn't have [r,s,t], or consonant clusters). This tells you a lot about what is 'allowed' sound-wise in Hawaiian. You can try to apply this logic to other words, and start to develop a mapping of the sound system of a the language for a certain area at a certain time. (It's not as simple as I've made it sound, but you can get the general idea.)

Another example, from English. Plurals of words such as mouse, goose, foot actually make sense, when you examine them in the context of a bigger system called 'case markings' that English used to have. The sound alternations between mouse/mice, goose/geese, foot/feet also have a certain logic to them that correlates with a map of vowels that is somewhat similar to musical scales, in a sense. When we look at words of this class, and we find another variation or a gap (a word doesn't sound today in the plural like we'd expect it to, according to the other words in the class like it that DO behave 'properly') we can posit several reasons...one of those reasons sometimes being that the particular sound in question did once behave 'properly' but underwent another change after a certain point in time, but before we know it as we do today.

All that, summarized: there are rules on top of rules to explain every phonological feature of language. We look at today's language, and other languages that influenced it, and start tracking down reasons for things that don't behave as expected. Sometimes in doing that, we discover sounds or rules that must have existed in the language, and those rules changed things, and led us to where we are today.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:46 PM on October 4, 2008 [7 favorites]


I think its interesting to note, and I didn't see explicitly stated in the article link, is that the English spelling system was mostly solidified just before the language underwent its greatest and most mysterious sound change of all, The Great Vowel Shift. This is the equivalent of finally finishing archiving your entire hard drive on a Syquest, only to discover that everybody else decided to start using Zip disks, and eventually CDs and DVDs. Souch is lefe.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:58 PM on October 4, 2008 [5 favorites]


Hey, nice find. Thanks for posting it (here's to not boring you with my lit/english degree stories on a Saturday night *drinks beer*).
posted by sleepy pete at 8:49 PM on October 4, 2008


I also find very few people who will believe my assertions that some modern Appalachian dialects are quite similar to an old dialect of British English.

I don't mean to be a dick, chuckdarwin, but that's because those assertions are wrongety wrong. Sorry.
posted by No-sword at 8:54 PM on October 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hrm ... I'll wait for languagehat's take on all this.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:47 PM on October 4, 2008


Neat post.
posted by bardic at 12:36 AM on October 5, 2008


My hovercraft is full of eels.
posted by DreamerFi at 1:12 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


English: the new Proto Indo European.
posted by DenOfSizer at 1:29 AM on October 5, 2008


Curious that the site mentions Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but not Tyndale (who wrote most of the KJB and is responsible for about as many quoted lines -- if not more -- than Mr. Shakespeare).
But the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong but to the one who has the best PR.
posted by CCBC at 1:46 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


1) English has a lot more words to describe animals than other languages. For instance, many languages only have the word for chicken, but English has both the word, "chicken," to describe the animal as it lives in the barn, and the word, "poultry," for the animal as a tasty meal. The same is true for cows (beef), pigs (pork), and so on. You may wonder, why is this?

The answer is the Normandy Invasion! All these Frenchies came over and became the powerful elite. When the French would have their fancy-schmansy meals, they would write the menus in their native tongue of course. So, the English, who wanted to emulate the powerful French, would use those same French words when writing their menus. The English words were still used when just talking about the animals (say, while out in the barn), but the French words became more commonly associated with the meals where the animals were eaten. Fascinating!


This is quite overstated. English has a very rich dual vocabulary due first to its root Germanic stock and later to the Norman invasion . . . but it's certainly not alone in this regard, and it extends far beyond animal words. Look at the Germanic / Latinate pairings of "get" / "receive" or "give" / "donate" and you can see a similar split, with the Latinate words generally having a more "fancy-schmansy" meaning. (And common sense should tell you that not a lot of English peasants were going out to restaurants with menus . . . at best, a member of the lower class might take simple food - whatever was offered - at an inn. And very few of these people would have even been able to read.)

Right now, I'm in Romania, where there exists a similar duality between the "root" Latinate words and another layer of Slavic words. (Along with borrowings from many others, just like in English.) So they have a word for love, "amor" from Latin, as well as "iubire" and "dragoste" from Slavic sources. And while in English there is an animal / food split in words ("sheep" / "lamb"), it's worth noting that in Romanian, there are many more words referring to different varieties of the same animal, as well as much more common use of terms which exist in English but aren't used so much, such as "ewe." In common speech, English seems pretty deprived of animal words compared to Bosnian or Romanian, from what I perceive.

2) Know the stupid rule that you can't split an infinitive? Or why you can't put a preposition at the end of a sentence? Why, you might ask?

Well, long ago, there weren't any codified rules to English. You just did what you did, no one cared. But then, enraptured by the concepts of the Enlightenment, some British dudes decided that there must be codified rules for English grammar. So they decided to make some grammar pamphlets. But, with this goal in mind, what rules of grammar would they accept? Well... They all believed that Adam and Eve had spoken the perfect language while in the Garden of Eden... And they all believed that all languages since then have been perversions of that first, perfect language. This meant that the older a language was, the closer it was to perfect. So, while making the rules of English grammar, it was clearly better to adopt the rules of grammar from Latin, since Latin was older and therefore better. In Latin, it's impossible to split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. So, those rules were just forced, in an ill-fitting way, onto English grammar. And we live with that silliness to this day.


That's true about various aspects of alien grammar being superimposed on English by a few odd fellows. But the reality is that an English-speaker today would be stupefied by the complexity of the grammar in (say) Old English. Sure, word order had a different kind of flexibility, but this was because words were highly inflected - a noun had a different form as a subject than it did as a direct object (remnants still exist, that's why there is a difference between "he" and "him" - but imagine that, plus additional forms, for every word.) Verbs were more complex in their conjugations, they had odd (to us) concepts such as "strong" and "weak" nouns, and there were lots of irregularities . . . a word like "day" might have half a dozen or more different forms. Adjectives had to match the noun forms, like in French or Romanian today, but with more options. There was a "dual" form in addition to singular and plural. English now is a much more analytic language, and I reckon it's fair to say that it's easier for a foreigner to string some words together and hope to be understood today than it would have been eleven hundred years ago. There are many ways to analyze this, but English has always had "codified rules" and from many points of view, they were much more strict long ago than in the modern age.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:05 AM on October 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


For any MeFite who desires a more detailed tour of the evolution of the English as she is spoken, I recommend The Stories of English by the redoubtable David Crystal. "Stories" is rigorous but fascinating. It is not quick read for the beach by any means, but it rewards the serious student.
posted by rdone at 2:09 AM on October 5, 2008


Appalachian English does contain quite a few archaisms which are also found in Chaucer and Shakespeare: holp, afeard, learn (meaning `teach’). More than anything, however, the myth does no harm, and may even be useful because it helps outsiders appreciate these mountain folk, and not disdain them as mere hillbillies.

Cheers for the link, No-sword
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:59 AM on October 5, 2008


My hovercraft is full of eels.

I will not read this thread. It is scratched.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:15 AM on October 5, 2008


Another fun area of proliferation of terms is that of color terms, i.e., terms that are used to describe discrete colors.

English is one of the top (if I remember correctly, THE top) for the sheer number of words that describe colors ...

One of the early works on this, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969)(Wikipedia link, 'cause I'm feeling lazy) (ISBN 1-57586-162-3 ...WorldCat search) is a book by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay.
posted by aldus_manutius at 7:12 AM on October 5, 2008


I will not read this thread. It is scratched.

Drop your panties, sir Arthur, I can not wait 'till lunchtime!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:51 AM on October 5, 2008


Reading about the Great Vowel Shift always makes me wonder: how on earth do they know how English was pronounced before 1600? I doubt any podcasts are extant.
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:35 PM on October 4 [+] [!]


iamkimiam's answer is excellent - but to add a non-linguist's observation: even in seventeenth century texts (after spelling was largely, but not completely, standardized), you can read the sounds of the language in the variation of the spelling, especially in texts by less educated people (such as probate inventories). I have seen "kitchen" spelled "chichen", for instance, or the name "Fox" being spelled "Vox" (in the SW of Eng, where earlier v's had replaced f's). Non-standard spelling, rhymes - and the more complex analysis of rules and borrowing explained by iamkimiam above - go a long way to helping scholars recreate even silent historic languages.
posted by jb at 8:51 AM on October 5, 2008


(I saw a pin or an LJ icon somewhere that says "English: A language that beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary." It always makes me giggle. Because IT'S TRUE.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:51 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


(I saw a pin or an LJ icon somewhere that says "English: A language that beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary." It always makes me giggle. Because IT'S TRUE.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:51 AM on October 5 [+] [!]


Yes, that is true - I didn't realise how borrow-happy English is until I learned how it hadn't always been so (borrowings rarer in the Old English period), or how other languages preferred new coinings or translating component parts (making calques) to simply out-and-out borrowing like English. I like calques because they often sound cool (like the German fernsprecher, or "far speaker" which is way better sounding than "telephone"), but I think English is richer for all the new words that borrowing brings in.
posted by jb at 9:35 AM on October 5, 2008


Dee Xtrovert, I was only talking specifically about the words poultry, beef, pork, and similar food-animal words. I find the history of those particular words fascinating, that's it. You're right that it'd be laughable to suggest that all the complexity of the English language comes from French.

(And common sense should tell you that not a lot of English peasants were going out to restaurants with menus . . . at best, a member of the lower class might take simple food - whatever was offered - at an inn. And very few of these people would have even been able to read.)

Now, what I didn't emphasize was the time between when the French first came over and when there were English-speakers in a position to want to make 'fancy-schmancy' menus for themselves. It was only when some English-speakers were able to, you know, stop being peasants and have enough money to want to put on some nice meals that they started emulating the rich. I just left that complexity out of my quick little retelling for the sake of ease of explanation.

If you can prove that this story is not the correct history of these specific words, then I'll accept that. But, like I said, I like this story, so I won't give it up without solid evidence that my professor was lying to me.

English has always had "codified rules" and from many points of view, they were much more strict long ago than in the modern age.

No, it didn't. You're right, that the grammar of Old English is fairly complex and that I (a modern English speaker) found it a little creepy. However, there was an extremely long period of time when there were no written rules about how to speak. Heck, there was also a really long time when there was almost no written English in any form, at all. While there have always been rules governing the way that people spoke, there wasn't any written list you could turn to that would tell you whether your usage, say, was right or wrong. In other words, there has always been a descriptive grammar. What I'm talking about is prescriptive grammar--the idea that there are good ways to create sentences in English and bad ways. And, again, I was only talking about two specific rules -- don't end a sentence with a preposition and don't split an infinitive. These rules were never a part of the descriptive grammar of English language until some guys decided there needed to be some prescriptive rules to English. And that's how it came to be.

Again, if you can prove to me I'm wrong, I'll accept that I was taught falsehoods. Until then, I like these stories, and I have reason to believe my professor was telling me the truth.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:42 AM on October 5, 2008


Years ago, as an American exchange student in Denmark, I discovered the important role that Danes played in English history and language. It was a really cool experience to be sitting in a Danish library with this dusty old book and learning about all these connections between this new culture and language and my own. In the year that I was there, I learned Danish well enough to fake-out someone on the phone who didn't know that I was amerikansk, and 30 years later, I can still hang with friends for an evening and keep up pretty well.

Years later, I had a similar experience to the Danish library moment, while listening to a bunch of bagpipers in an Edinburgh castle courtyard. I recognized the the connection to the Appalachian old time music that I had begun to learn as I picked up the claw-hammer banjo.
posted by BarryP at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2008


(I saw a pin or an LJ icon somewhere that says "English: A language that beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary." It always makes me giggle. Because IT'S TRUE.)

You're thinking of this quote:
“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” - James D. Nicoll
posted by deanc at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


Nice site, if a little too summary to be really useful. For those who want to know more, I don't know the Crystal book that's been recommended, but he's a good and sensible scholar, so I'm sure it's worth reading. Myself, I use Barbara Strang's A History of English (1970, repr. 1991), which is still considered top-notch; if you want something more recent, A History of the English Language (Cambridge UP, 2006) looks good.

The timeline on the site is useful, if a little scattershot, but the first item is just silly:
ca. 3000 B.C.
(or 6000 B.C?)

Proto-Indo-European spoken in Baltic area.
(or Anatolia?)
It sounds like a joke: "The murder was either committed by a short, deaf woman in the parlor... or by a giant Norseman in Manchuria!" What they should have said is that we have no idea when or where PIE was spoken, but guesses range from blah to blah.

Now, what I didn't emphasize was the time between when the French first came over and when there were English-speakers in a position to want to make 'fancy-schmancy' menus for themselves. It was only when some English-speakers were able to, you know, stop being peasants and have enough money to want to put on some nice meals that they started emulating the rich.

Again, if you can prove to me I'm wrong, I'll accept that I was taught falsehoods. Until then, I like these stories, and I have reason to believe my professor was telling me the truth.


Ms. Saint: I'm not sure why you're so belligerent about this, but it's not a matter of your professor being a lying liar, it's that either your memory or your professor has distorted and exaggerated the facts. The Norman thing is basically true, but it's not about menus and "emulating the rich," it's that the local peasants herded live animals they by and large couldn't afford to eat, and the prepared flesh was served to French-speaking overlords. The details of how each particular item entered the vocabulary are different, but it's fun to tell just-so stories about them; the most famous one (from which yours ultimately derives) is from the first chapter of Ivanhoe:
"The swine turned Normans to my comfort!''
quoth Gurth; "expound that to me, Wamba, for
my brain is too dull, and my mind too vexed, to
read riddles.''

"Why, how call you those grunting brutes running
about on their four legs?'' demanded Wamba.

"Swine, fool, swine,'' said the herd, "every fool knows that.''

"And swine is good Saxon,'' said the Jester; "but how call
you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered,
and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?''

"Pork,'' answered the swine-herd.

"I am very glad every fool knows that too,'' said
Wamba, "and pork, I think, is good Norman-French;
and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge
of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name;
but becomes a Norman, and is called pork,
when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among
the nobles what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?''

"It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba,
however it got into thy fool's pate.''

"Nay, I can tell you more,'' said Wamba, in the
same tone; ``there is old Alderman Ox continues
to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the
charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes
Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives
before the worshipful jaws that are destined to
consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur
de Veau in the like manner; he is Saxon when
he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name
when he becomes matter of enjoyment.''
As for the infinitive thing, your story is probably wrong. The Wikipedia article, which is quite good, points out that though plenty of people have claimed that it was banned on the basis of Latin, "none of the prescriptivists who began the split-infinitive controversy mentioned Latin in this connection. Of the writers cited here (and the many others consulted) who ascribe the split-infinitive prohibition to Latinism, none cite a source, and as Bailey says, this ascription may be 'folklore'." Nobody's stopping you from telling your stories, but you might want to preface them by saying that you enjoy them but don't vouch for their accuracy.
posted by languagehat at 12:10 PM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure why you're so belligerent about this

WAR!...huh...good God y'all,
What is it good for?
posted by lukemeister at 12:42 PM on October 5, 2008


Heh. You took first-year Latin, didn't you? Bellum gerere comes up a lot.
posted by languagehat at 1:00 PM on October 5, 2008


Oh, I didn't mean to sound belligerent. Sorry if I did. I was just in a rush. What Dee Xtrovert said made it sound like I hadn't fully explained what I meant originally, or was easily misinterpreted -- I certainly never meant to imply that all English words originated from the Norman Invasion. I didn't want to look like a doofus.

I keep referring back to my teacher because, given how that's the only source I have for any of this info at all. So, basically, that was my attempt to say that I can't really vouch for the accuracy of these stories, other than by saying that someone who was presented as an expert to me told me them. And since another person who's presented as an expert to me is telling me that they're kinda full of shit, there goes that!
posted by Ms. Saint at 1:48 PM on October 5, 2008


Heh. You took first-year Latin, didn't you?

Smattering of Spanish, French, and Portuguese. I wish I had taken Latin and Greek.
posted by lukemeister at 1:51 PM on October 5, 2008


Also, the Origins and Development of the English Language is quite an excellent reference.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:44 PM on October 5, 2008


Also, not to add to the debunking pile-on, but the whole 'different words for pig vs. pork' thing is a pretty common one in a lot of languages. It has less to do with outside influences or word borrowing, and more to do with a the taboo-ness of conflating the concept of 2-and-4-legged living animals with the meat we cram in our maws. We create euphemisms for things when we want a sort of distance between a connotation that would imply something unintended (faux swears, clinical words for body parts, politically correct terminology, need for respect/deference, etc. are most obvious examples of this).

I would love to hear about the carrots, Ms. Saint. I promise I will not try to disprove it!
posted by iamkimiam at 5:00 PM on October 5, 2008


English is a strange language in that it is one of the few Germanic languages that gained a foothold outside of their original areas. After the fall of Rome, Germanic people held power in France, Spain and Italy, yet they kept Latin. One theory I heard was that before the Anglo Saxon invasion their was a plague that hit England, so the population speaking Latin or British Gaelic was actually largely replaced, by the invaders.

I read about most of this in Empires of the Word, an awesome book about the histories of various world languages.
posted by afu at 12:07 AM on October 7, 2008


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