Evolution of the English Language

Posted April 22, 2010 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Linguistics / 16 Comments

Recently I wrote an entry about pop culture destroying literature and in one comment it was mentioned the beautiful language the classics were written in. This got me thinking; why did the English language have to evolve?

I did some research on the topic, beginning with the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons’ language was already a blend of dialects from West Germanic tribes. Add some dialects from the Norse, Frisian and the Dutch and you start to see the English language form. Now skipping all the history lessons of basically everyone invading England and leaving their make on the English language, you begin to form what is now known as Old English.

This is where it begins to get tricky and hard to follow, so stick with me while I try to explain the old English to modern English transition. From what I can tell Old English pronounced P, b, t, d, m, n, l, and r as we do today but rarely use letters like k, q, v, x, and z, then you have non-modern letters like thorn (þ) and eth (ð).

The period between 1150 and 1475, there were three major dialects of Middle English; Northern (Northumberland), Midlands (Mercia) and Southern (Wessex). From what I can work out, Modern English was like a major merger between the three dialects.

This began the basics of what we call the Modern English language. One of the biggest reasons behind the evolution of language is pronunciation. Words were pronounced vastly different in a lot of cases to their modern pronunciation. Over the years it continued to evolve with influences from Latin, Greek, French, etc. Later on during conflicts with the French, the English dropped the letter u in words ending –our. Though the English picked this practice back up later, the Americans never did (this is why Americans can’t spell).

The 19th Century is where I would have liked the evolution of the English language to stop, but unfortunately it continues. Now the English language has come to a point of dropping letters for ‘IM English’. I hope this won’t be the next evolution in English, but it looks like it is moving that way.

I would love to know what others think of the Evolution of the English Language, as well as what I may have missed.

For more information about the history of the English language in America, a friend recommended a book called Made in America by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson’s book explores the history of the English language in the United States and the evolution of American culture.

16 responses to “Evolution of the English Language

  1. I think 19th Century English is a pleasure to read, but can you imagine have to speak in that style. I suppose it was normal for them. And i guess there would probably be a different speaking style than the way they right to some extent.
    However, feel free to talk to me like you are from 19th Century England.

  2. Good afternoon, Mary! Shall we have some tea? Oh yes, We shall most certainly need tea. Winston? Get us some tea. Right, well. What brings me the pleasure of your company, Mary?

  3. Tammi Kibler

    I read several books on this topic about four years ago. I would have enjoyed having someone with which to discuss the Great Vowel Shift (when bear stopped rhyming with dear, I believe.)

    Americans can’t spell?

    I am not sure how spelling will survive txt spk. Despite a national pronunciation in the US promoted by the media, regional dialects persist. I am fascinated by the way English is spoken elsewhere. In India, for example. Somehow language evolves and no one can stop it.

  4. While studying German, I’ve also been (as a side affect) learning more about the history of English. For example, I hadn’t been aware that we’d once also had genders and capitalized all nouns.

    Great post!

  5. English is such an amalgamation of languages, from Latin and Greek, Norse, French, and so on, it’s a wonder we ever learned to use it at all 🙂 I once ran across the most fascinating chart on io9 of languages and what evolved from what, but I haven’t been able to find it again. Languages have always fascinated me.

    Small tidbit: In Old English, Y was pronounced like TH, thus Ye Olde Inn was pronounced like The Old Inn. I’m a total geek, I love that stuff.

  6. Heh 😉

    Is spelling as bad in other countries as it is in the U.S.? I find it particularly galling to read news articles online and find error after error. It’s incredible that people who are getting paid to write are such poor spellers. Can they not even run a spell checker? The mind reels.

  7. I’m really bad at proofreading, thankfully I know a few decent editors (not real editors) who check my work.

    But it is interesting to see how the U.S. want to be different to the rest of the world and spell words like colour differently, or using alternate spelling at times like tidbit/titbit. Also removing words like fortnight.

    But I think all countries are bad at spelling. The spell checker is making people lazy

  8. Shirezu

    That’s partly correct about ‘ye’ DigitalDame. It depended on it’s context. When used in a sentence such as ‘Hear ye, hear ye’ it was pronounced with a ‘y’.

    The reason for the incorrect spelling of ‘the’ originally was because the character used for ‘th’ was ‘þ’. Medieval presses did not use that character and substituted it with ‘y’.

  9. cheerlubber

    Interesting article. I’ve been getting into languages recently and I’m probably going to go into linguistics for my major. I need to write a research paper soon and I’m going to do it on how the English language has evolved due to the democratization of information and technology and whatnot. Aside from the “Made in America” book that Chazz mentioned, I’m very interested in which books/sources all you commentors got your information from. Could you suggest some for me, please?

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