“There is a clear line of descent from Old English to the English of the present day, in sounds, spelling, grammar and vocabulary. ” How far can this view of the history of the English language be justified? Old, Middle and Modern English donate time periods that start and end with momentous social, cultural or political events which signal change that in turn helps shape the English Language: Subsequently each time period develops its own phonologic, morphological and syntactic style.
I shall try to highlight a broad range of language characteristics when investigating the time line, comparing and contrasting each era’s language make up, showing how why and to what extent English changed. The Anglo Saxons’ gradual invasion of Britain in the seventh century led to “kingdoms” being established, from which several dialects emerged adapted to suit the Germanic tongue. The West Saxon dialect became the dominant “Old English” including only a few native Celtic words.
In writing, some Runic characters were used like i?? (thorn), that preceded the modern th cluster, and characters to show sound elongation for example [? ] after seo? and the over-score in i?? a. Crystal’s example (“The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language” 2004 P20), arranged below shows some differences between Old and modern English: The woman saw the man; seo? cwen geseah i?? one guman. The man saw the woman; se guma geseah i?? a cwen. The woman saw the man; Pone guman geseah seo? cwen
As in Latin, the Old English inflectional system gave “greater freedom of word-order than modern English”, Barber (“The English Language; a historical introduction” 2003 P118). In the first clause, the nominative feminine case seo? becomes accusative i?? a in the second clause and the nominative masculine se in the second clause becomes accusative i?? one in the first with the inflected noun ending changing from guma to guman. “Pone guman geseah seo? cwen” would also have the same meaning as the first clause as the noun markers pone and seo? show which is the subject and direct object.
With the accusative case, pone guman, the direct object can be placed directly before the transitive verb, unlike modern English where there is no separate accusative or dative cases, just an “object” case which usually comes after the verb giving us the familiar “subject, verb, object” pattern. The Old English inflectional case structure gives the reader no confusion as to the subject of the sentence and therefore who is doing what to whom. This contrasts with sixteenth century English and the “relative fluidity of its grammar” (Graddol, Leith ; Swann P144).
Shakespeare’s “play” on words creates comic effect, an example being Sonnet 105 (P144): “Let not my loue… as an Idoll show”; idoll being the noun and show the verb, but the reader or listener may be tricked into thinking idoll was in fact the adjective of the show. The poets of this time exploited ambiguity that was growing in the English Language to convey a message which style modern English finds difficult to match. “One of the central functions of grammer is to indicate how the words in a sentence are related to each other in meaning. ” Graddol, Cheshire & Swann P72).
In modern and middle English changing word order, effects the syntactic relationships between words, which is key to convey meaning in a sentence: In Old English morphology is more important when conveying a change in meaning as using a case system of inflecting nouns means that words could be moved within sentences without altering meaning. However, the effect of altering word structure to convey different meaning in English throughout the whole time line should not be overlooked. The Viking invasions of the eighth century enlarged vocabulary but regionalized English as “Danelaw” ruled the North Eastern half of England.
Typical Norse introductions were sk as in “sky”, are as in the verb “to be”, pronouns they, them and their and the 3rd person present tense singular “s” verb endings, for example, adding an /s/ to the verb love (as in he or she loves). We can see compound words develop in Old, middle and modern English, for example the suffix /nesse/ from Old English suggests a meaning of “arrangement”, whereas French affixes /pre/ and /tion/ originated from Middle English, as do /-lich/ and /-liche/ a predecessor to /-ly/, making the adjective and adverbial endings we see today.