This Language, A River
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This Language, A River

A History of English

K. Aaron Smith, Susan M. Kim

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eBook - ePub

This Language, A River

A History of English

K. Aaron Smith, Susan M. Kim

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About This Book

This Language, A River is an introduction to the history of English that recognizes multiple varieties of the language in both current and historical contexts. Developed over years of undergraduate teaching, the book helps students both to grasp traditional histories of English and to extend and complicate those histories.

Exercises throughout provide opportunities for puzzling out concepts, committing terms and data to memory, and applying ideas. A comprehensive glossary and up-to-date bibliographies help to guide further study.

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A rather large industry has developed around a desire to slow or even halt changes in the English language, but such an enterprise is impossible. As long as a language is spoken by living human speakers, like all things humans do in a social context, it will change over time. The only languages that can be said to be no longer changing are dead languages, languages that no longer have living native speakers. Even some dead languages change, however, if they continue to have cultural importance beyond their status as living languages. Even into the present day, Latin is used in certain official capacities, and while no one now speaks Latin as a native language, even in the limited contexts in which it is now used, Latin is still changing. For example, in 2003 the Vatican released a new Latin dictionary in which motorcycle was listed as birota automataria levis. We can be certain that no one was speaking Latin as a native language when the first motorcycle was produced.


Historians of a language trace changes in that language across time. To do so they must consider the language both synchronically and diachronically. Synchronic approaches to describing a language involve description and analysis of the language at a single moment in time. An example of a synchronic statement about English is the following:
In Present-Day English (PDE), the future is expressed with will + verb. For example, in the sentence I study, the action occurs at the present time. But when the verb is combined with will, in I will study, the action will occur in the future.
Synchronic should not be understood to mean “at a moment in the present time.” It simply means at a single time, present or past. The following is also a synchronic statement, here concerning a single moment of time in the past:
In early Old English (OE), the future was expressed with the present tense form, together with a future adverb like tomorrow or in a context in which a future inference was strongly available. For example iċ leorniġe means I study in OE. The same form, leorniġe, however, may be translated into PDE as will study if it occurs in a context that suggests the future, as in tomergen iċ leorniġe, (tomorrow I will study).
Synchronic statements are descriptions or analyses of language at a specific point in time. That point in time may be narrowly or broadly conceived (a specific year, or a period of the language that may have lasted centuries), but it is a single and specific point. Any history must include synchronic data and analysis. But as a history, it must also link synchronic descriptions or analyses across time. Diachronic approaches link synchronic descriptions or analyses. An example of a diachronic statement about English might link the two synchronic statements we provided above:
Between early OE and PDE, a future periphrasis (multiple-word construction) with “will” emerged and became increasingly obligatory in future contexts. For example, OE iċ leorniġe > PDE I will study.
A history of a language may certainly be presented as a series of synchronic and diachronic descriptions and analyses. But while it is essential to attempt to understand what happened, it is just as important to ask why it happened, what motivated the changes. If, as you were reading the examples above, you were asking yourself why: “Why did a future periphrasis with will emerge?” or “Why didn’t one exist in early Old English?” or “Where did the will in that periphrasis come from?” or “Why does the Old English have leorniġe while the PDE has study—where did the word study come from?” then you were already asking about the motivations for language change.


We can divide the motivations for language change into two broad categories. Later in this discussion, we will complicate this division slightly. But for now, we will consider one kind of motivation for language change to be internal, and the other external. Internal motivations for language change have to do with the ways that languages, all languages, work. We call them internal because they are internal to language: they are not about the lives—social, cultural, or political—of their speakers so much as about what speakers do with language.
For example, the future auxiliary (or helping verb) will comes from the OE verb willan, which meant to want, to desire. So originally when a speaker of early OE used the verb will, as in Iċ wille leornian, the sentence meant I want to study. Such statements about future desires carry with them an implication of future intention. Such implications may become conventionalized as the intended meaning, at which time we can say that the use of will is about future intention, as in I will see you in my office at noon. Another important step in the development of will as a future marker was that the part of the meaning of will involving intention also gave rise to a meaning involving prediction; if someone intends to do something or intends for something to happen, he or she is essentially making a prediction about the future. Consequently, certain statements with will have the meaning of future prediction, as in He will be here soon.
While it may be tempting to impute conscious effort to such an orderly and explainable change, to do so would be misleading. Strictly speaking, the OE verb willan became a future auxiliary because of certain natural forces within the language itself (although, like all changes, this change is certainly propelled by the fact that language is used by speakers). Notice how desire, intention, prediction and futurity were always part of the meaning of will, but over time, different parts of those meanings came into focus. Only our ability to go back and retrace the steps of that refocusing gives that change the appearance of orderly and conscious change. To speakers at any given moment in the history of a language, language is simply being used for communication. While the unconscious choices of those speakers follow certain principles and show patterns of change over time, those same speakers are not generally aware of the changes they are enacting.
How do we know though that the change from willan to will is due to natural forces within the language? Why couldn’t we hypothesize that for some reason English speakers became more interested in the future and therefore developed a future auxiliary verb? Three things make any such account based on conscious decision or need highly unlikely.
First, grammatical development of the kind just described rarely occurs consciously. Yes, grammarians write books that attempt to tell us how we should use grammar, but those attempts at prescribing conscious grammatical usage are largely unsuccessful in the face of natural, subconscious changes. Many present-day grammar books still discuss the use of who versus whom, for example, yet very few English speakers observe or understand the difference. The distinction between who and whom promises to continue to fade, much to the chagrin of many grammarians. As we will discuss later, the loss of the distinction between who and whom is part of a larger set of changes that have been occurring in English for more than a thousand years. No matter how powerful a given user of English might be, he or she is unlikely to be able to counteract the tendencies of a thousand years of language change.
Second, it is not true in any sense that speakers of OE did not have a way to talk about the future before the development of will into a future auxiliary. In a famous OE poem, “Deor,” for example, the narrator predicts over and over again that the hardships of the present time will pass. Only a narrator with a clear concept of the future could do so. The OE prognostic texts, perhaps even more clearly, include techniques for predicting the future, an activity only possible if a clear concept of the future exists.
Third, the development of a verb meaning desire into a future marker is not unique to the English language. In fact, very similar developments can be shown in a number of other languages, among them Italian, Danish, Inuit, Buli, Nimboran, Bongu, Dakota, and Tok Pisin.1 The apparent universal availability of this change in such a broad array of human languages suggests strongly that it is related to commonalities of language use and cognition among humans generally, and not just about the use of English or the English experience.
Students of English may be tempted to think of English as special or dear. And in some respects it may be. But from a linguistic standpoint, internal changes like the development of future will indicate that English is similar to at least some of the 6,000–7,000 or so other languages of the world.
But language change is also motivated by dynamics specific to the lives of its speakers. External motivations for language change have to do with those dynamics. External motivations include pressures like the prestige of one dialect over another, or economic advantage or imposition, as in the global spread of English during and after the colonial period, or language contact, as now exists between Spanish and English in the American Southwest, or political domination, as was the case during the Middle English (ME) period.
Probably the most dramatic, most catastrophic from some perspectives, most exciting from others, external event in the history of English is the Norman Conquest. The Norman Conquest occurred in the year 1066. The Normans, who successfully conquered England, did not speak English. They spoke a dialect of Old French. Consequently, for generations after the Norman Conquest, the ruling class in England spoke not English but a dialect of French. For several hundred years after that, French dominated high culture in England. French was the language of royal courts, but also of courts of law. While Latin remained the language of the Church, in the generations after the Conquest increasingly powerful ecclesiastical positions, and hence also educational positions, in England were held by speakers of French.
Not surprisingly, the lexicon (the set of non-grammatical words) in English expanded dramatically in both size and nature during the four hundred years after the Conquest to include as many as 10,000 borrowings from various French dialects. And not surprisingly, these borrowings very often reflect the social relations between speakers of French and speakers of English in England. One of the most famous of these examples is the introduction of a number of words like beef and poultry, words for meats that came to exist in English alongside the words for the animals from which the meat comes. Speakers in many languages of the world identify meat by the name of the animal, as in Spanish carne de cerdo, literally “meat of the pig.” The borrowing of French words for meat gives English an interesting set in which the word for the animal is the retained native word from Old English but the word for the meat of that animal is a borrowed French word. So, for example:
From French Native
beef cow
pork swine
poultry chicken
venison deer
The borrowings from French are not words for things that simply did not exist in England before the Normans conquered it. These borrowings, or changes in the lexicon of the language, are motivated not by internal dynamics, but by external pressures. They reflect the social domains in which English and French were used. Farming and tending animals remained a job of the conquered classes, the English, and so the names of the animals persisted in English. Activities more closely associated with or conceived of as part of high culture, fell within the domains of French and so the terms used for the meats were often borrowed from French.
If we return to our example with leorniġe and will study, and the question “Why does the OE have leorniġe while the PDE has study—where did the word study come from?” we might, given this context, propose an external motivation: that study as a verb might have entered into English from French during the period after the Conquest when speakers of French dominated high culture and when speakers of French were likely to have occupied positions of authority in the Church, and hence also in the educational institutions. In fact, study as a verb does come into English at exactly this period. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest written occurrence of the word study in a text from around 1300: He lynede adoun νpon his boc, þo he ne miȝte studie nomore. “He leaned down upon his book because he could not study anymore.”2
Of course, leorniġe has not disappeared from English. Certainly people both learned and studied in England before the Conquest. The introduction of the borrowed word study into the lexicon of English does not reflect the need for a term for a new concept. Rather, it reflects the social relations between speakers of French and speakers of English in the period after the Conquest.
As we noted above, we must slightly complicate the distinction between internal and external motivations for language change. We divide the motivations for...

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Citation styles for This Language, A River
APA 6 Citation
Smith, A., & Kim, S. (2017). This Language, A River ([edition unavailable]). Broadview Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Smith, Aaron, and Susan Kim. (2017) 2017. This Language, A River. [Edition unavailable]. Broadview Press.
Harvard Citation
Smith, A. and Kim, S. (2017) This Language, A River. [edition unavailable]. Broadview Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Smith, Aaron, and Susan Kim. This Language, A River. [edition unavailable]. Broadview Press, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.