History of the English language – Modern English syntax

And I’m back!

This every-other-week-stuff is still a bit odd to me, but I imagine I get used to not talking to you in this format every week. (I hope – if not, I’ll simply have to find more time – perhaps one can sleep less….)

Anyway! Today, let’s have a look at Modern English syntax!

This is actually going to be a rather short post.

Why? Well… there really isn’t that much change going on during this period. (At least not in the brief glance that I offer here).

That’s not to say that there weren’t changes between 16th century English and Present-day English, of course. Simply that “the structure of the language was gradually established so that eighteenth-century standard written English closely resembles the present-day language”1.

Basically, there’s not much to talk about in regard to changes in English syntax after the 18th century, because it is, at that point, pretty much the same as in Present-Day English. (Not, perhaps, identical, but still.)

Therefore, while I normally separate between early, late and Present-day English, I won’t make that distinction today.

So now we know that!
Let’s get on to the actual syntax, shall we?

Okay, so, the earlier part of the Modern English period varied quite a bit more than what it does today. That isn’t surprising really, standardisation wasn’t completely done for a while and Middle English is the period of variation. Following immediately after, it makes sense that we see more variation than we do today.

Anyway, the most important thing, perhaps, is that we see patterns that started during Middle English become more regular and, eventually, the “rule”.

Subject-verb word order thus becomes more and more common. Later during the Modern English period, this, of course, becomes even more common and it is today the most common word-order of declarative clauses:

  1. I saw you.

We also see a higher degree of regularisation in the so-called do-constructions – especially in questions and negations:

  1. Did you see me?
  2. I did not.

And so on. As you can see, this hasn’t changed all that much.

Speaking of questions, we see something called subject-auxiliary inversion and where appropriate – fronting of a wh-element. What does that mean? Well, basically, the former means that we put the auxiliary before the subject in questions, like:

  1. Has Simon been here lately?

while the second means that we put a wh-word (like what, who, where, etc.) before the rest, so:

  1. What did she say?

This doesn’t normally happen in subordinate clauses, so, instead, we get:

  1. I asked what she said.

As I’ve focused on basic word order in my previous posts on English syntax, I…. really don’t have anything else to say.

So.. there you have it?

No, really, I hope you enjoyed this very small insight into Modern English syntax or perhaps more the fact that basic English word order hasn’t really changed all that much since the Middle English period.

In the next post, I’ll wrap up the HEL series and then…
We will start a new adventure!
Join me then!

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References

For this post, I’ve had a look at:

Matti Rissanen. 1999. Syntax. In Roger Lass (ed). The Cambridge History of the English language. Volume III: 1476-1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

and

David Denison. 1998. Syntax. In Suzanne Romaine (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English language. Volume IV: 1776-1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  1. Quote from Matti Rissanen in The Cambridge History of the English language (1999: 187).

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