American English – The language of Shakespeare?

Hello my dear Anglophones!

I’m going to create some generic internet banter for you:

Person 1
– Look here at the differences between American English and British English, crazy stuff! (with the addition of some image or list)

Person 2
– *Something along the lines of*:

Person 3
– *Something along the lines of*:

Person 4, referring to the ‘u’-spellings in British English (colour, favour, etc.):

Then, usually, person 5 comes along with something like:

Person 5, let’s call them Taylor, has read somewhere that the American English accent shares more features with English as it was spoken in the 17th century, when America was settled by the British, and therefore argues that American English is more purely English than British English is. Taylor’s British friend, Leslie, may also join the conversation with something like “America retained the language we gave them, and we changed ours.”1

In this post, I will try to unpack this argument:
Is American English really a preserved Early Modern English accent?2

Firstly, however, I want to stress that one big flaw to this argument is that American English being more similar to an older version of English doesn’t mean it’s any better or purer than another English variety – languages change and evolve organically and inevitably. (We have written several posts on the subject of prescriptivism, resistance to language change, and the idea that some varieties are better than others, for example here, here and here.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the matter at hand. The main argument for why American English would be more like an early form of English is that it is modelled on the language of the first English-speaking settlers, which in the 17th century would be Early Modern English (EModE, i.e., the language of Shakespeare). In fact, there is some truth in that features of EModE are found in American English, while they’ve changed in (Southern) British English, such as:

  • Pronouncing /r/ in coda position, i.e. in words like farm and bar.
    This feature is called rhoticity, if an accent pronounces these /r/’s it is called a rhotic accent.
  • Pronouncing the /a/ in bath the same as the /a/ in trap, rather than pronouncing it like the /a/ in father which is what we usually associate with British English.
  • Using gotten as a past participle, as in “Leslie has gotten carried away with their argumentation”.
  • Some vocabulary, such as fall (meaning autumn), or mad (meaning angry).
  • The <u>-less spelling of color-like words.

So far Taylor does seem to have a strong case, but, of course, things are never this simple. Famously, immigration to America did not stop after the 17th century (shocker, I know), and as the British English language continued to evolve, newer versions of that language will have reached the shores of America as spoken by hundreds of thousands of British settlers. Furthermore, great numbers of English-speaking migrants were from Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of the British islands which did not speak the version of British English which we associate with the Queen and BBC (we call this accent RP, for Received Pronunciation). Even though the RP accent remained prestigious for some time in America, waves of speakers of other English varieties would soon have outnumbered the few who still aimed to retain this way of speaking. Finally, of course: Taylor not only (seemingly) assumes here that British English is one uniform variety, but also that American English would have no variation – a crucial flaw especially when we talk about phonetics and phonology.

If we look at rhoticity, for example, English accents from Ireland, Scotland and the South-West of England are traditionally rhotic. Some of these accents also traditionally pronounce the /a/ in bath and trap the same. Where settlers from these regions arrived in great numbers, the speech in those regions would have naturally shifted towards the accents of the majority of speakers. Furthermore, there are accents of American English that are not traditionally rhotic, like the New England accent, and various other accents across the East and South-East, such as in New York, Virginia and Georgia. This is to do with which accents were spoken by the larger numbers of settlers there; e.g., large numbers of settlers from the South-East of England, where the accents are non-rhotic, would have impacted the speech of these regions.

Finally, while the /a/ in bath and trap is pronounced the same in American English, it is not the same vowel as is used for these words in, for example, Northern British English. You see, American English went through its very own sound changes, one of these is the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which affected such vowels as the mentioned /a/ so that it became pronounced more ‘ey-a’ in words such as man, bath, have, and so on. Also, let’s not forget that American English also carries influences from all the other languages that have played a part, to a lesser or larger extent, in settling the North American continent from Early Modern times until today, including but not limited to: French, Italian, Spanish, German, Slavic languages, Chinese, Yiddish, Arabic, Scandinavian languages, and Native American languages.

In sum, while American English has some retention of features from EModE which have changed in British English, the flaws of Taylor’s, and Leslie’s, argument are many:

  • Older isn’t necessarily better
  • Large numbers of English speakers of various dialects migrated to America during centuries after the original settlers, their speech making up the beautiful blend we find today’s American English accents.
  • British English was not the only language involved in the making of American English!
  • British English is varied, some accents still retain the features which are said to be evidence of American English being more “original”, such as rhoticity and pronouncing the /a/ in ‘trap’ and ‘bath’ the same. American English is also varied, and the most dominant input variety in different regions can still be heard in the regional American accents, such as the lack of rhoticity in some Eastern and Southern dialects.
    In sum: Let’s not assume that a language is uniform.
  • American English underwent their very own changes, which makes it just as innovative as British English.
  • No living language is static, Leslie, so your argument that American English never changed is severely flawed.

So the next time you encounter some Taylors or Leslies online, you’ll know what to say! And, of course, let’s not forget what the speakers of both British and American English have in common in these discussions – for example, forgetting that these are not the only types of English in the world.

More on this in a future blog post!

1This is actually a direct quote from this forum thread, read at your own risk:

2A lot of the material used for this post is based on Dr. Claire Cowie’s material for the course LEL2C: English in Time and Space at the University of Edinburgh.

Der, das, die….. I give up!

Welcome back to the HLC!

Did you enjoy last week’s book review? We sure did, so we understand that you’re now occupied with your very own copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, but just in case you do find some time: remember that we promised you a discussion on grammatical and natural gender systems in our post on gender-neutral pronouns two weeks ago? Well, we always keep our promises! Before getting deep into that particular discussion though, let’s first establish something about what we mean when we say gender.

When talking about gender in linguistic study, we’re often talking about a category of inflection. Inflection, in turn, is the modification of a word to express grammatical categories – like gender (but also tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, and mood – let’s not go there right now). The grammatical category gender includes three subcategories (or classes), typically described as masculine, feminine and neuter. A language that uses grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily need to use all three however: in Swedish, for example, you find only two: common (which includes both masculine and feminine, which have merged together to become one) and neuter. Anyway, in a language which inflects for gender, i.e. a language that uses a grammatical gender system, every single noun must belong to one of the gender classes of that language (though a few, a very few, may belong to more than one class). The grammatical category is thus reflected in the behaviour of the words that belong to the subcategory, or the article which belongs to that subcategory. Easy, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Let’s use an example. In German, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Each noun in the German language belongs to one of these genders but it is not necessarily the same as the expected gender of the referent. For example, ‘Mädchen’, meaning ‘girl’ in German, is a grammatically neuter, not feminine. While you can’t see that on the noun itself, when taking definite form Mädchen always occurs with the article das, which is the neuter definite article in German, while ‘Junge’, meaning ‘boy’, always occurs with the masculine article der (but then, so does ‘table’).

In a grammatical gender system, the gender of the noun itself is thus not always readily evident. This has often lead people, even those whose job it is to study language, to assume that the gender is arbitrarily assigned and native speakers simply remember it, noun by noun. However, do you know how many nouns the, for example, German language has? We don’t, but we bet you that it’s quite a lot. Yet, native speakers rarely make a mistake when it comes to using the right gender. Is it probable, or even the least bit likely, that a native speaker simply ‘remembers’ the correct gender of all these nouns?

Nah, not really. But how does it work then? Well, like many other things, we don’t know exactly! Corbett has suggested a number of factors that play in when it comes to gender assignment. Among these, we find meaning and form to be the most important ones. Form can further be divided into two types: morphological and phonological. If a language doesn’t assign gender on the basis of these criteria, the gender of a noun might also be based on mythological association, concept association, or marking of important property.

Woof, that got complicated real fast, right? Let’s sum it up by saying that there are really three main ways by which a noun gets its gender: based on (1) semantic criteria – the meaning of the noun decides its gender; (2) morphological criteria – the form of the noun decides its gender; and (3) so-called lexical criteria – the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender, sometimes due to historical reasons.

Now that we know that, we can move on to natural gender systems.

In a natural gender system, a noun is ascribed to the gender that would be expected based on the word itself. That is, a woman is female, a man is male. On the basis of that, you might expect one of the languages to use natural gender to be English, which of course is true. Unlike most of the Germanic languages, English has shrugged off the yoke of grammatical gender (which is just one of the ‘oddities’ of the English language), but it certainly isn’t the only one! As we’ve already said: in Swedish, for example, you’ll find only two genders: common and neuter; in Dutch, there can be either three or two genders depending on geographical area and speaker!

It might be easy to think that a language that uses grammatical gender cannot have natural gender, or the other way around if you prefer. That, however, is not quite true: the two aren’t mutually exclusive! Spanish, for example, uses a grammatical gender system, yet adjectives and nouns are sometimes inflected for natural gender, that is: el pequeño niño the little boy’ but la pequeña niña ‘the little girl’!  

As you can clearly see, grammatical and natural gender is not an easy thing to explain!


We’ve made an honest attempt at trying to explain these two topics in a way that (hopefully) makes sense to you! If you want to read more about this, though, we suggest our primary source for this post:

Corbett, Greville G. 2012 [1991]. Gender. Online ed. Cambridge University Press. doi:

If you want to check out other accounts, you might enjoy Jenny Audring’s section on Gender in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, found here.

Questions, thoughts, amazingly inspired outbursts? Let us know!

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

And now for something a little different! This week, we’re bringing you a book review. As in other fields, the volume of literature on the subject of linguistics can be daunting. (That’s volume-the-amount, not volume-a-book-in-a-series.) We’re not going to tell you how to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot more to explore about language than we can cover on a humble blog like ours (though we’re sure going to try!). With our reviews, which we’re going to start sneaking in from time to time, we hope we’ll be able to share what you absolutely must check out and what you shouldn’t waste your time on.

To kick things off, I recently listened to John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, read by the author (also available in print, but infinitely harder to consume while commuting in America—I recommend the format that works best for you).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of works written on linguistics: those written by linguists for linguists, and those written for the general public, i.e. pop linguistics1 (a merely categorical label that is by no means derogatory). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is the latter.

Like many linguistic books written for a broader audience, OMBT tells the history of English. As a peopled narrative full of kings, revolutions, dusty manuscripts, and Vikings, it’s a much more accessible topic than, say, syntactic theory, which perhaps explains and excuses the greater percentage of mainstream publications devoted to the history of English. While OMBT is another addition to this delightful genre, it does a few things that set it apart from the crowd (I mean, even beyond its snappy title).

First, McWhorter explicitly eschews telling an etymological history, both because there are many works on the subject and because boiling the story of a language down to a series of lexical vignettes paints an incomplete picture. Instead, he tackles the much harder task of explaining the evolution of some uniquely English grammatical features, such as our dependence on the word ‘do’ when forming questions and negative statements. To make his points, McWhorter must explain some basic syntax, how the constructions work in English, and how they work in other languages. Admittedly, I am at an unfair advantage for understanding such discussions, but even so, the examples felt well-chosen, and the explanations should be accessible even to casual readers.

OMBT is also notable for its tone. Where many books present their facts and call it a day, McWhorter invites the reader a little into the world of academia. He doesn’t just state his assertions; he explains the prevailing opinions and then proceeds to argue his side, authoritatively stating his conclusions. (Oh, yes, indeed. We don’t know everything about linguistics yet, including about the development of English. We’re still hashing out the whereto’s and the whyfor’s.) One of the main points he argues for is the influence of language contact over internal factors in syntactic changes that took place in English. For linguists, it should be an interesting read on alternate theories. For non-linguists (our own darling wuggles), it’s a thought-provoking place to start. I would warn against taking either the author’s views or the prevailing views he fairly lays out as immutable gospel; rather, think of this as a jumping off point to investigate more and draw your own conclusions.2 While this is a book that could be enjoyed for its own sake, the tone seems to invite further discussion.

My general impression of this book is a favorable one, but there are some quirks I find a bit perplexing. While I love the tone of discussion and debate, it’s a curious choice for a book written for the mass public rather than a paper for a conference of like-minded language enthusiasts. Was the goal really to spark thought (as I generously concluded above), or is the book a soap box to draw innocent bystanders over to one side of an argument they didn’t know anybody was having?

I also found myself wishing that the topic of the book was more tightly focused. The first two thirds of the book explore syntactic changes and argue for the influence of language contact. Now, obviously not all changes in a language can be explained by a single force (just as not all problems are nails, and they can’t all be solved with a hammer), but I was still taken aback when the last two chapters jumped to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Grimm’s Law, respectively. McWhorter does use these topics to make some interesting points and observations, but their inclusion at all came as an odd surprise given the talking points and goals laid out in the introduction. Don’t be put off, though. The inclusion of Sapir, Whorf, and Grimm doesn’t truly hinder the book’s broader mission, and their chapters are worthy reads both in their own right and in the grander scheme of the rest of the text.

It’s not the one book I wish was required reading for humanity. It’s probably not even the first book on linguistics or English I would recommend, but I truly, deeply enjoyed OMBT, and I think you might, too. 3


1 Like our blog.
2I’ve been working with fifth graders lately (10-year-olds). Does it show?
3You know, since you’re at least interested enough in the topic to be reading this blog.

Gender neutral pronouns – yay or nay?

‘Gender-neutral pronouns, do they exist?’ you might be saying to yourself at home, in front of whatever device you’re reading this on.

Well, yes. Of course they do. In many languages. In English, you have two: it and one. However, it isn’t really used to describe a person, right? Kinda disrespectful since it traditionally is used on a non-human entity – tables, chairs, pets (and, admittingly, some even dislike the use of it for pets, present writer included), etc. You could use one but it doesn’t really work in certain constructions and might seem a bit formal, wouldn’t you say?

Now, though we could make a list of languages that do have gender-neutral pronouns referring to human beings, that requires us to get into a discussion on grammatical versus natural gender. We don’t want to do that just yet (you’ll have to wait for two weeks! The horror!), and so, we will focus on the Germanic languages, in which it is quite uncommon. As far as we know, only one of the Germanic languages has a recognised, widely used, gender neutral third person pronoun: Swedish!

A couple of years back (and I’m now talking from personal experience since I am Swedish and remember this quite well), around 2010 to be specific, a new pronoun started to make its way into books, magazines and newspaper articles: hen, a pronoun used when the gender of the person is unknown or if it is not relevant or desired to specify the gender of the person. (The gendered pronouns in Swedish are han, ‘he’, and hon, ‘she’)

The pronoun raised a massive debate, and a good number of jokes, both in Sweden and abroad. The main objections to it, in Sweden, seemed to be that it was not necessary, nor desired. However, despite a rather massive resistance, this little word stuck around – and how it grew! In 2014, the language periodical Språktidningen concluded that hen had grown from occurring once for every 13,000 uses of han/hon in 2011, to occuring once for every 300 hon/han in 2013. That’s a pretty massive upswing and in 2014, hen was included in Svenska Akademiens Ordlista – pretty much the Swedish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Where does this idea of hen come from, you might wonder? Well, it certainly wasn’t a new idea: it had been proposed as a gender-neutral pronoun in 1966 and then again in 1994 but it didn’t stick – perhaps because we weren’t ready for it. While we could do a long section on gender equality, I think we’ll stick with the linguistic side of things and, in this, the addition of hen is a big thing! You see, pronouns are often considered an integral part of the grammar of a language and they rarely change – or, as the linguists say, they are a closed word class.

Think of language like an onion with multiple layers: when you peel an onion, the first couple of layers are going to be bendy and soft, right? You can twist them this way or that and it’s fine. This is the ‘open class’ vocabulary of the language, the parts of language that can easily change: we might borrow from other languages, some words might fall into disuse or completely change their meaning, etc.

However, the closer to the ‘core’ of the onion you get, the stiffer the layer. Try twisting one of the inner layers of an onion and it is more likely to break into bits in your hand than bend. This is the grammar of the language, and it is here, in this stiff, unyielding part that you’ll find pronouns (remember how we said that the borrowing of they, them and their was so fascinating because of the integral part pronouns play in a language’s grammar?)

So, adding, changing, removing… All of these things tend to be (very) uncommon in the pronoun-category of a language. In Swedish, the pronoun han (he) goes all the way back to Proto-Norse, spoken around the 2nd to 8th centuries, and hon (she) goes all the way back to Proto-Germanic! During all this time, the pronouns remained pretty much the same in Swedish (spelling changed a little bit – han used to be spelt hann, for example).

The word hen itself is often referred to as a Swedish equivalent of the Finnish pronoun hän, which is also a gender-neutral pronoun. In Swedish, the word can have a different meaning too (though very few people know it since it is pretty much extinct), equivalent to the Swedish word brynsten, meaning ‘whetstone’ (you can see why most people wouldn’t know it?).

Why are we going on and on about these pronouns you might ask? Well, it was really to lead us here: you see, like we’ve said, pronouns rarely change. Generally speaking, we don’t add to them, we don’t change them, we don’t ‘delete’ one. Yet, Swedish did exactly that: it added one – and what makes this addition all the more remarkable is that this was a deliberate addition to the language! And in terms of language development and change, that is spectacular.

Can you imagine? About 2500 years of, pretty much, unchanged pronouns and then, in 2010, Swedes deliberately decided to add one – and the Swedish language, eventually, came to include yet another pronoun! In case you were ever in doubt, this is rather clear evidence that the speakers control what a language includes, not the other way around (thus kind of putting the whole idea of ‘there is a right way to use language’ on rather thin ice, wouldn’t you say?). Isn’t that just amazing?

There has been debate on whether other Germanic languages will follow suit, though that has not really happened (yet).

Tell us what you think – gender-neutral pronouns: yay or nay?

The plural with a singular referent?

Hallo to our lovely followers and friends!

Today, we’re gonna chat for a bit about the third person plural (?) pronoun ‘they’!

This pronoun appears when the antecedent (in this case, the human entity) of the pronoun is indeterminate, meaning that you simply don’t know if you should use he or she (or it might simply be irrelevant), or, as a more recent addition, when the person you are referring to does not wish to be referred to by their gender.

The latter addition has seen some critique during the last few years, for reasons that we won’t go into here because they have nothing whatsoever to do with language, but the thing is, this pronoun has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for centuries!

Most style guides that we’ve encountered still consider it to be less-than-standard in formal use – even though a study by Baranowski in 2002 (check it out here) showed that they was more likely to be used than the prescribed he (or she for that matter)..

In case you are wondering what we’re talking about, have you ever heard someone say something like:

“Someone left their keys at the reception.”  

Note that ‘someone’ is singular, that is, it refers to one individual. Yet, the following pronoun their is, of course, the standard plural form. Now, even though grammars, handbooks and style guides may have, and some perhaps still do, condemn the use, singular they has a long history in English.

The whole thing started in late Middle English, the OED (sense 2) traces singular they as far back as to 1375, when it was used in the medieval romance The Romance of William of Palerne. One might think that this was informal use, it’s fiction after all, however, it was also used in Wycliffe’s bible:

“Eche on in þer craft ys wijs”, (‘their’ is explained by the Middle English Dictionary (1c. sense (a)) which roughly translates into “Each one in their craft is wise”

And they has been popular ever since: Chaucer, Caxton, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Defoe, Byron… all of these well-recognized authors have used singular they. So what’s the problem, right?! Well, as we’ve seen previously on this blog, just because authors that we hail for their craft today used a particular form does not mean that it isn’t fair game for prescriptivism.

The earliest known explicit recommendation to use generic he rather than they is found in A New Grammar by Ann Fisher, published in 1745. Fisher stated that “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says”. Nineteenth-century grammarians picked this up and insisted that he was the correct use due to a little something we call number agreement or concord disagreement (that is, she runs, not *she run). Furthermore, these later grammarians also insisted that the alternative “he or she” was clumsy, a practice that became widely adopted for a long time (and, we might add, can still be found in a good number of papers/articles, books, etc. written in formal English). Today, though, the practice to refer to he when you actually mean anyone, is often considered somewhat sexist.

As a result of the (still) ongoing discussion about generic they, and the nowadays inappropriate use of generic he, this has raised some discussions about a gender-neutral pronoun in English and some attempts have been made (the first one as early as in 1792!) but, so far, English lacks one.

Actually, pretty much all Germanic languages do. Except one: Swedish! Tag along with us next time and read more about the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen, a fairly new addition to the Swedish vocabulary but one that is, trust the Swedish speakers of this little blog, gaining influence fast! See you then!

Want to know more? Check out the OED’s brief history of singular ‘they’ here

If you’re interested in anything else in this post, please do check out our sources by following the hyperlinks in the text! If there’s anything else, don’t hesitate to holler!

They, them and their(s) – the non-English pronouns

Hello friends!

We’re back! Isn’t that awesome?!

Today, we’re going to make an assertion that you may not like: you know the third person plural pronouns in English, i.e. they, them and their(s)?

Well (you’re gonna hate us): they aren’t English.

Okay, so that may not be exactly true. Let’s say: they weren’t English to begin with.

It’s actually a rather amazing evidence of borrowing – in this case, English borrowed from a little language called Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings.

You might be sitting at home thinking that we’re talking absolute BS right now, pronouns are rarely borrowed from other languages because they are so integral in the language’s grammar, right? (Okay, you might not have known that, but now you do!) Bear with us and let’s have a look at the same pronouns in all modern languages that we know comes from Old Norse: Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish!


Shockingly similar, don’t you think?

Well, perhaps not so shockingly. After all, they all come from the same thing: the Old Norse plural pronouns.

Why, exactly, English decided to borrow these are somewhat lost in the mysteries of time. Old English, of course, already had the plural pronoun hīe, so why borrow?

Well, while we are still not sure exactly how this borrowing took place, Old English and Old Norse were in close contact for centuries in the area of densest viking settlement (the Danelaw), so forms like these were likely borrowed between the two languages to make communication easier. It might also be that the Old English plural pronoun had grown too similar to the singular pronouns (m.), hit (n.) and hēo (f.) in pronunciation that it started to become an issue. Both of these explanations are possible.

What we do know though: English borrowed a lot from Old Norse, probably more than most native-English speakers realize. As a matter of fact, some of the most common words in English are Norse in origin (for example, egg; knife; skirt; eye; sister, and so on). The nordic languages (except for Icelandic) are making up for it though and borrows extensively from English today (in Sweden, we even have commercials at bus stops using English terminology). So don’t feel bad about it, English, buuut…

Tune in next week when we’ll keep going at it with the English pronoun they – is it always a plural pronoun?

Can’t wait? Check out the etymology of they, them and their in the meantime! 

See you next week!

Ye Olde Poste of Ye New Year

Welcome one and all to the Historical Linguist Channel – 2019 edition!

This is our very first post of the year! Isn’t that wonderful – a new year of language fun!

Today, we’ll be visiting merry old England and “ye olde” – specifically, we’ll be looking at one little word there: “ye”.

You’ve probably seen it around, right? On pubs, restaurants, mills… The list can go on. But what if we told you, that this “ye” is based on a centuries-old confusion of two letters?

It’s true! The “ye” of “ye olde”, used to suggest a ‘merry, old time, showed up during the late 18th century and  hails from a scribal abbreviation used during Middle English and early Modern English.

However, let us be clear: the scribal abbreviation was not (as far as we know) pronounced “ye”. In fact, it was actually pronounced as…

“the”! Not as much fun as you expected? And now, you’re probably sitting there, wondering how the h*ck that happened, right? Well, during Middle English, and for a little while during early Modern English, English had a letter called thorn. Thorn was originally a rune, pronounced as either a voiceless or voiced dental fricative, that is [θ] or [ð]. Today, you find these sounds in words like “thing” (British English [θɪŋ]) and “the” (British English [ðə]). In writing, though, it looked like this: þ.

Now, for a rather long period of time, in cursive writing, it was common for scribes to write  “the” by using thorn with an <e> placed above it, like this:

Okay, so you know that this is actually a thorn with an <e> above it, so you know that this is a “the”. But see the very thin line at the top of the thorn below the <e>? This line is not always visible in the manuscripts: perhaps it was sometimes not written or perhaps time has taken it from us. Point is: occasionally, it may be exceedingly difficult to determine whether a letter is a thorn or a y. And someone kinda messed up and said that this, this little abbreviation, is spelled “ye” in modern English, and the mistake stuck!

So do like the HLC and smile a bit the next time you pass a “ye olde pub”, knowing that they have decided to print a huge spelling mistake on their wall.

Enjoy the knowledge and welcome back to the HLC!

Who told the first lie?

Hello there, faithful followers!

As you may have noticed, we have recently been running a bit of a series, called ‘Lies your English teacher told you’. Our ‘lies’ have included the prescriptive ideas such as (1) you should never split an infinitive; (2) you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition; and (3) two double negatives becomes a positive (in English). We’ve also taken a look at the ‘lies’ told to those taught English as a second, or foreign, language.

Now, dear friends, we have reached the conclusion of this little series and we will end it with a bang! It’s time, or rather overdue, that the truth behind these little stories be unveiled… Today, we will therefore unveil the original ‘villain’, if you will (though, of course, none of them were really villainous, just very determined) and tell you the truth of who told the very first lie.

Starting off, let’s say a few words about a man that might often be recognized as the first source of (most) of the grammar-lies told by your English teachers: Robert Lowth, a bishop of the Church of England and an Oxford professor of Poetry.

Robert Lowth, after RE Pine.jpg

Bishop Robert Lowth

Lowth is more commonly known as the illustrious author of the extremely influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762. The traditional story goes that Lowth, prompted by the absence of a simple grammar textbook to the English language, set out to remedy the situation by creating a grammar handbook which “established him as the first of a long line of usage commentators who judge the English language in addition to describing it”, according to Wikipedia. As a result, Lowth became the virtual poster-boy (poster-man?) for the rise of prescriptivism and a fascinating amount of prescriptivist ‘rules’ are attributed to Lowth’s writ – including the ‘lies’ mentioned in today’s post. The image of Lowth as a stern bishop with strict ideas about the use of the English language and its grammar may, however, not be well-deserved. So let’s take a look at three ‘rules’ and see who told the first lie.

Let’s start with: you should never split an infinitive. While often attributed to Lowth, this particular ‘rule’ doesn’t gain prominence until nearly 41 years later, in 1803 when John Comly, in his English Grammar Made Easy to the Teacher and Pupil, notes:

“An adverb should not be placed between a verb of the infinitive mood and the preposition to which governs it; as Patiently to wait — not To patiently wait.1

A large number of authorities agreed with Comly and, in 1864, Henry Alford popularized the ‘rule’ (although Alford never stated it as such). Though a good number of other authorities, among them Goold Brown, Otto Jespersen, and H.W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, disagreed with the rule, it was common-place by 1907 when the Fowler brothers note:  

“The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.” 2

Of course, to split an infinitive is quite common in English today; most famously in Star Trek, of course, and we doubt that most English-speakers would hesitate to boldly go against this 19th century prescriptivist rule.

Now, let’s deal with out second ‘rule’: don’t end a sentence with a preposition. This neat little idea comes from a rather fanatic conviction that English syntax (sentence structure) should conform to that of Latin syntax, where the ‘problem’ of ending a sentence with a preposition is a lot less likely to arise due to the morphological complexity of the Latin language. But, of course, English is not Latin.

Still, in 1672, dramatist John Dryden decided to criticize Ben Jonson for placing a preposition at the end of a sentence rather than before the noun/pronoun to which it belonged (see what we did there? We could have said: … the noun/pronoun which it belonged to, but  the rule is way too ingrained and we automatically changed it to a style that cannot be deemed anything but overly formal for a blog). Anyway.

The idea stuck and Lowth’s grammar enforced it. Despite his added note that the fanaticism about Latin was an issue in English, the rule hung around and the ‘lie’, while certainly not as strictly enforced as it used to be, is still alive and well (but not(!) possible to attribute to Lowth).

Last: two double negatives becomes a positive (in English). First: no, they don’t. Or at least not necessarily. In the history of English, multiple negators in one sentence or clause were common and, no, they do not indicate a positive. Instead, they often emphasize the negative factor, an effect commonly called emphatic negation or negative concord, and the idea that multiple negators did anything but form emphatic negation didn’t show up until 1762. Recognise the year? Yes, indeed, this particular rule was first observed by Robert Lowth in his grammar book, in which it is stated (as noted in the Oxford Dictionaries Blog):

“Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative.”

So, indeed, this one rule out of three could be attributed to Lowth. However, it is worth noting that Lowth’s original intention with his handbook was not to prescribe rules to the English language: it was to provide his son, who was about to start school, with an easy, accessible aid to his study.

So, why have we been going on and on about Lowth in this post? Well, first, because we feel it is rather unfair to judge Lowth as the poster-boy for prescriptivism when his intentions were nowhere close to regulating the English language, but, more importantly, to tell you, our faithful readers, that history has a tendency to change during the course of time. Someone whose intentions were something completely different can, 250 years later, become a ‘villain’; a ‘rule’ that is firmly in place today may not have been there 50 years ago (and yes, indeed, sometimes language does change that fast); and last, any study of historical matter, be it within history; archeology; anthropology or historical linguistics, must take this into account. We must be aware, and practice that awareness, onto all our studies, readings and conclusions, because a lie told by those who we reckon should know the truth might be well-meaning but, in the end, it is still a lie.


Sources and references

Credits to Wikipedia for the picture of Lowth; find it right here

1 This quote is actually taken from Comly’s 1811 book A New Spelling Book, page 192, which you can find here. When it comes to the 1803 edition, we have trusted Merriam-Websters usage notes, which you can find here.

2 We’ve used The King’s English, second edition, to confirm this quote, which occurs also on Wikipedia. The book is published in 1908 and this particular quote is found on page 319, or, right here.

In regards to ending a sentence with a preposition, our source is the Oxford Dictionaries Blog on the topic, found here.

Regarding the double negative becoming positive, our source remains the Oxford Dictionaries Blog on that particular topic, found here.

Lies your English teacher told you – Second language edition

Hi there! Remember how we go on and on about prescriptivism, and how these weird language norms are stressed in classrooms despite them having no basis in how we actually speak?
Well, language attitudes and norms do not only affect native English speakers, but also interferes with the way English is taught as a second language.

If you’ve read my posts about Standardisation and Bad English, you will be familiar with the idea that some varieties of English are perceived to be better than others – standard British English is usually considered particularly desirable. When I started learning English, 15-20 years ago (gulp!), it was still the norm in Swedish schools to teach this variety. This lead to some interesting prescriptive teaching: Being brought up in Sweden, where foreign-language tv and films are subtitled rather than dubbed, we primary-schoolers were already quite proficient in American English lexicon and expressions. However, we were taught that some of the things we had learned were not correct, for example that we should say flat instead of apartment or trousers instead of pants (although, we did not know yet that the latter meant underwear in British English). We were given these British words not to use as an alternative, but to use instead of the American words we already had a comfortable grasp of. This even stretched to pronunciations; instead of pronouncing the weekdays in the, for us, intuitive way, ending with a diphthong, as in Monday (/mʌnd/), we were told to use the, now quite archaic, RP pronunciation Mondi’ (‘mʌndi’).

Image source.

Some other things taught could be plainly wrong. A friend from Germany was told to not use constructions like “I’ll give you the book” but always use the construction with a preposition “I’ll give the book to you”. This is, of course, bonkers: the first construction is a double object construction, perfectly grammatical and frequently used in English! In fact, double object constructions have been a feature of English going back to the time when nouns still had cases and could go just about anywhere in the sentence.

Another friend from Hong Kong (where English is actually an official language and many are bilingual), recalls being told in English class that you must not use the expression ‘long time no see’ as it is “Chinglish” and therefore not proper. Of course this expression is well established in English, even if its origin is likely to be a mapping of English words onto some Chinese variety1:

好久 = long time
不 = no
见 = see1

This example shows some of the problematic attitudes towards post-colonial English varieties, and how these attitudes can even be internalised by the speakers themselves; the fact that this expression has its origins in Chinese overshadows how fixed the expression is in standard English, so much so that this English teacher wanted their students to distance themselves from it. In general, post-colonial English varieties such as Chinese or Indian English do not have the same status as, for example, British or Australian English, and this is often due to mere ignorance: linguistic innovations in such varieties are often seen as imperfections, features of foreign accents, because many do not understand that they are spoken as a first language.

Image source.

Even if American English is much more accepted in Swedish schools today, the idea that one form of English is more appropriate to be taught still remains. Sure, there is a point in teaching one style of English when it comes to formal writing, but this is a much later stage in most people’s English education. Teaching English-learning children that certain forms of English are wrong, despite that they’ve heard them being used and already have acquired them, might affect their confidence in speaking English – and may have more severe confidence effects for those who speak a post-colonial English variety as a first language. As always, prescriptivism disallows variation, and thus makes languages way more boring.


1The expression first appears in American English.

2Thanks Riccardo for providing the Mandarin translation! The mapping works on Cantonese as well, and it is unclear which language is the origin.

Don’t never use no double negatives

Multiple negation? I ain’t never heard nothing about that!

“Two negatives make a positive,” your friend may primly reply to such a statement. Even if you’re not exactly fond of math, you surely remember enough to acknowledge the wisdom and veracity of such sound logic.

But the funny thing about languages? They have a logic all their own, and it doesn’t always play by the same rules as our conscious minds.

Take, for example, this phenomenon of the double negative. Like the other formal, prescriptive rules we’ve been exploring with this series, the distaste for double negatives is relatively new to English.

Back in Old and Middle English (roughly AD 1000-1450), English wasn’t particularly fussed about multiple elements of negation in a sentence. If anything, they were used for emphasis, to drive home the negation. This trick of negatives supporting each other (rather than canceling each other out) is called negative concord. Far from being frowned upon, some languages crave it. Spanish, for example, regularly crams several negation words into a single sentence without a second thought:

¡No toques nada!
‘Don’t touch anything!’

This isn’t merely the preferred method of negation. In languages like Spanish and French, negative concord isn’t for emphasis; it’s mandatory. That’s just how they express negation.

The idea that two negatives grammatically make a positive in English was first recorded in the 1700s along with most of the other prescriptive rules. Unlike the other rules, there is some evidence to suggest that negative concord was naturally beginning to disappear in mainstream varieties of English even before the early grammarians codified the rule. This really isn’t too surprising. Languages like to change, and among the other moving parts they scramble around, they commonly go through phases of double negation (we linguists know this as Jespersen’s Cycle).

Math has naught to do with language, but it’s certainly true that in our Modern English, double negatives have the potential to leave a lot of ambiguity. Do they cancel? Do they intensify each other? It’s all about that context. This is one rule that might be here to stay1 (at least in formal English).

1 At least for now!