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From Old English to Modern English

From Old English to Modern English

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03/18/2014

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From Old English to Modern English
How and why has English changed over time? In this brief introductionto the subject, I will show how we can look at the history of alanguage in two main ways:
externally
– where, why and by whomthe language was used; the political and social factors causing changeand
internally
the pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary andwritten appearance of the language; the motivations for change arisingfrom the structure of the language itself. I will structure my discussionaround the conventional division of the history of English into threemain periods: Old, Middle and Modern English.The
Old English
(OE) period can be regarded as starting around AD450, with the arrival of West Germanic settlers (Angles, Saxons andJutes) in southern Britain. They brought with them dialects closelyrelated to the continental language varieties which would producemodern German, Dutch and Frisian. This Germanic basis for Englishcan 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 thistime: 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 spellingse.g.
knight 
(OE
cniht 
, German
Knecht 
), in which
would have beenpronounced and
gh
sounded like
ch
in Scots
loch
.OE, also called Anglo-Saxon, was not heavily influenced by the Celticlanguages spoken by the native inhabitants of the British Isles,borrowing only a few words (e.g.
brock 
,
tor 
) associated with localwildlife and geography (but many place and river names e.g.
Dover 
,
 Avon
). However, Latin, introduced to Britain by the Romans, andreinforced in its influence by the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons toChristianity during the 7
th
century, had a significant impact, providingboth vocabulary (e.g.
master 
,
mass
,
school 
) and the basis for thewriting system. OE was mostly written using the Latin alphabet,supplemented by a few Germanic runic letters to represent sounds notfound in Latin e.g.
 þ
, which represented the
th
sounds in
thin
or
this
.(A relic of 
 þ
survives as
in modern signs like
Ye Olde Tea Shoppe
.)The later Viking settlements in many parts of the British Isles alsoresulted 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
(manuscript c.1000 AD)Norse influence may also have contributed to an importantgrammatical change, which mainly occurred in English between the11
th
and 14
th
centuries, and which marked the transition to
MiddleEnglish
(ME) (conventionally dated c.1100-1500). OE had indicatedmany grammatical categories and relationships by attaching inflections(endings) to word roots, in a similar way to Latin or German. Thus, inthe OE clause
wolde guman findan
‘he wanted to find the man’, the –
e
on
wolde
indicates a 3
rd
person singular subject: ‘he wanted’; the –
n
on
guman
indicates that ‘the man’ is the object, not the subject of theverb; and the –
an
on
findan
indicates an infinitive: ‘to find’. In ME,changes in the pronunciation of unstressed syllables, mainly occurringat the ends of words, caused most inflections to mergeindistinguishably, or be dropped altogether. This inflectionalbreakdown could have created ambiguity (e.g.
wanted man find 
), butspeakers 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 royalcourt, law, the church and education encouraged extensive borrowingof vocabulary e.g. French words for farmed animals
 pork 
,
beef 
and
mutton
(modern French
 porc 
,
bœuf 
and
mouton
) were adoptedalongside native words
swine
,
cow 
and
sheep
. The borrowed wordscame to signify only the meat of these animals, mainly eaten bywealthier French speakers, whereas the words inherited from OE cameto refer only to the living animals. Norman scribes also influenced theway English was written, respelling words using conventions fromFrench; thus OE
īs
became
ice,
 
cwēn
became
queen
. However, by the14
th
and 15
th
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
(manuscript early 15
th
century)
Modern English
(ModE) can be regarded externally as starting withthe introduction of printing. Caxtons selection of an EastMidlands/London variety of English for the first printed books at theend of the 15
th
century contributed to the development of astandardised variety of the language, with fixed spelling andpunctuation conventions and accepted vocabulary and grammatical
 
forms. The perception of this standard variety as correct, ‘good’ English was also supported by attempts at codification, notablyJohnson’s dictionary and many prescriptive grammars of the 18
th
century. The vocabulary of English was consciously elaborated as itcame to be used for an increasing variety of purposes, includingtranslations of classical works rediscovered in the Renaissance, aburgeoning creative literature, and the description of new scientificactivities. Thousands of words were borrowed from Latin and Greek inthis period e.g.
education
,
metamorphosis
,
critic 
,
conscious
.An internal feature which characterised the movement towards ModEwas the Great Vowel Shift an important series of linkedpronunciation changes which mainly took place between the 15
th
and17
th
centuries. In ME, the sound system had contained broadlycorresponding series of long and short vowels, represented in writingby the same letters. For instance, the vowel in
caas
‘casewas simplya longer version of the vowel in
blak 
‘black’; similarly
mete
‘meat’ (long vowel) and
hell 
(short vowel), or
fine
(long) and
 pit 
(short). Inearly ModE, people began to pronounce the long vowels differentlyfrom the corresponding short vowels: long
e
ended up sounding likelong
, leaving a gap in the sound system; this was filled by shiftingthe pronunciation of long
a
to sound like long
e
, and so on. Thesechanges were not reflected in ModE spelling, already largely fixed bystandardisation, adding to the disparity between pronunciation andwriting which differentiates English today from most other Europeanlanguages.An example of early Modern English can be seen in the
(printed 1623)
In the present day, English is used in many parts of the world, as afirst, second or foreign language, having been carried from its countryof origin by former colonial and imperial activity, the slave trade, andrecently, economic, cultural and educational prestige. It continues tochange at all linguistic levels, in both standard and non-standardvarieties, in response to external influences (e.g. moderncommunications technologies; contact with other world languages) andpressures internal to the language system (e.g. the continuing impulsetowards 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 arecomparable to those which have operated throughout the observableand reconstructable history of English, and indeed of all otherlanguages.
 

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