The history of the English language – A syntactic primer

Okay, so the plan was to continue with Old English syntax today. Then I started writing and realised that there were so many things that I should explain before looking closer at Old English syntax.

So, today, we’re doing a syntactic primer!

I’ll use this post to introduce you to the topic of syntax, which is basically the order of words and phrases used to create a well-formed sentence in any given language.

By doing so, I hope that you’ll be prepared for next week when we’ll look at Old English syntax!

Okay, let’s get started.

There are many kinds of word-order arrangements. In modern English, you use SVO-order in your sentences, meaning that you put your subject first, your verb next and last your object. So, for example, “I like you“. Simple enough. This is a very common structure (estimated to be used by approximately one-third of the world’s current languages).

Ever seen Star Wars? Even if you haven’t, you probably know that Yoda tends to use a different kind of order to structure his sentences. This order is usually showing a preference for OSV – meaning that the object comes first, then the subject, and lastly, the verb: You I like. Unlike SVO, this is a very uncommon structure and is actually the rarest of all word orders by a significant margin. In a recent study by Hammarström (2016), in which 5252 languages were studied, only 0,3% had OSV-order, while 40,3% had SVO.

There are others too :
 OrderExampleExample of language
Subject-object-verbI you likeJapanese
Verb-subject-objectLike I youClassic Arabic
Verb-object-subjectLike you IMalagasy
Object-verb-subjectYou like IHixkaryana

Alright, so we’ve done a very basic overview of different word orders. There are two more things that we have to talk about: V2 and VF.

That is, Verb second and Verb final.

V2 is quite common in Germanic languages and works like this: a finite verb of a clause or sentence is placed in second position, with one single constituent preceding it. This constituent functions as the clause topic.

Please note that this does not necessarily mean that there is only one word preceding the verb, but one constituent (that is, a word or a group of words that function as a unit in a hierarchical structure). Anyway, V2 is still alive and well in many Germanic languages, for example in my native Swedish:

  1. Jag vet inte. I do not know
  2. Inte vet jag. Do not know I

Yeah, I know, the second example becomes extremely awkward in English but works just fine in Swedish1 . The point is, the verb vet (know) here does not change position, even though everything else does. Clearly, as you can see, that doesn’t work very well in English.

But it used to!

I just won’t tell you about how until next week.

Because we still have one more thing to deal with: VF.

Honestly, this pretty much means what you would expect it to: the verbs in a verb-final language almost always fall in final position. In German, for example, we see this happening in embedded clauses that follow a complementiser:

dass du so klug bist
that you so smart are
“that you are so smart”

Again, awkward in English.

But, again, it didn’t use to be! But we’ll get back to that too.

So, you know that Yoda’s language might not be all that odd (though rare)2 , that modern English generally use SVO word order3 , and that this wasn’t always the case.

I think that that is enough for us to dig into Old English next week. And, so, I leave you to mull things over until then. As always, if you want to know more, check out my references!

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References

Harald Hammarström. 2016. Linguistic diversity and language evolution. Journal of Language Evolution. 1: 1. pp. 19-29. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jole/lzw002

Adrienne Lafrance. 2015. An unusual way of speaking, Yoda has. Hmmm? The Atlantic. Find it here.

Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2018. Yoda’s syntax the Tribune analyzes; supply more details I will! Language Log. Find it here.

Beatrice Santorini & Anthony Kroch. 2007-. The syntax of natural language: An online introduction using the Trees program. Find it here. (I’ve primarily looked at Chapter 14 for this post).

Wikipedia. V2 word order. Find it here.

Wikipedia. Word order. Find it here.

If you’d like a more comprehensive primer to syntax, I personally like:

Andrew Carnie. 2013. Syntax: A generative introduction. 2nd ed. Malden; Oxford; Victoria: Blackwell Publishin Ltd.

Jim Miller. 2008. Introduction to English syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The History of the English language – Old English morphology

Having looked at the dialects of Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, let’s return to Old English again!

Today, let’s look at morphology.

But first, what is morphology, really?

Well, in linguistics, morphology is the study of words. Specifically, morphological studies look at how words are formed and analyse a word’s structure – studying, for example, stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

This may mean that you separate a word into its different morphemes to study how a word is constructed. Here is an example of how that might look, based on the word independently:

Created by Annie Yang (25 April 2017)
Got it? Great! Let’s move on to Old English morphology!

Now, when it comes to morphology, Old English is quite different from Modern English.

Being much closer in nature to Proto-Germanic than modern English is, Old English has a morphological system that is quite similar to its predecessor. If you want to have a modern language to compare with, Old English morphology might actually be closer to the system used in modern Icelandic than it is to modern English! (If you are unfamiliar with Icelandic, think a more conservative version of modern German).

What does that mean, though?

First, it means that Old English had retained five grammatical cases:

  1. Nominative
  2. Accusative
  3. Genitive
  4. Dative
  5. (Instrumental)

(The instrumental case is quite rare in Old English, so you could say that it really only retained four).

Three grammatical genders in nouns:

  1. Masculine
  2. Feminine
  3. Neuter

And two grammatical numbers:

  1. Singular
  2. Plural

In addition, Old English had dual pronouns, meaning pronouns that referred to, specifically, two people – no more, no less.

As you can probably see, this is quite different from what Modern English does.
If you can’t quite put your finger at exactly what is different…
  1. Modern English has retained the nominative, accusative and genitive case, but only in pronouns. So, we find differences in I/he (nominative), me/him (accusative), and mine/his (genitive), but not really anywhere else. In Old English, though, we would find a specific inflection following the nouns, verbs, etc. for this too (so a word like se cyning ‘the king’ in the nominative form becomes þæs cyninges ‘the king’s’ in the genitive and þǣm cyninge in the dative becomes ‘for/to the king’.
  2. English has not retained the grammatical genders (thank any almighty power that might be listening). This means that, unlike in German, there is no declension depending on whether the word is masculine, feminine or neuter (like the infamous German articles die, der, das).
  3. But, as I am sure you are already well aware, English has retained its grammatical numbers (singular and plural), though it has lost the dual function that Old English had.

A bit different, clearly.

To add to the above, Old English also separated between its verbs: all verbs were divided into the categories strong or weak.

Strong verbs formed the past tense by changing a vowel – like in sing, sang, sung, while weak verbs formed it by adding an ending – like walk – walked. As you can see, Modern English has retained some of this division though we nowadays call strong verbs that have retained this feature irregular verbs while weak verbs, interestingly, are referred to as regular verbs.

Sounds easy, right? Yeah, we’re not done.

In Old English, you see, the strong verbs were divided into seven (!) different classes, each depending on how the verb’s stem changed to show past tense. I will not go through them all here – it is simply a bit too much for this blog, but check out my sources if you want to know more.

Point is, that means that there were seven different ways a verb could change to indicate past tense + the weak verbs.

Now, the weak verbs also had classes. Three, to be specific. I won’t go through those either (trust me, it’s for your benefit because you’d be stuck here all day).

So, we have two main categories and ten sub-categories.
Woof.
That’s a lot to keep track of.

And that is not even considering the changing patterns of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, etc., etc., or the numbers, or context.

Gosh, and I keep getting stuck at concord in Modern English! (Swedish doesn’t use something equivalent to the s on verbs in third-person singular, and it is one of my more commonly made mistakes when writing in English).

Old English morphology is obviously very different from Modern English! And, although this is obviously just a very brief glance, I’m going to stop there. This is the very broad strokes of some of the major differences between Old English and Modern English, but we’ll explore more how it went from this:

Se cyning het hie feohtan ongean Peohtas

Extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, anno 449

to this:

The king commanded them to fight against [the] Picts

Translation of the extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, anno 449

next week, when we take a look at the changing system of Middle English morphology and experience the loss of many of the inherited morphological systems! Join me then!

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References

For this post, I’ve relied on my own previous studies of Old English Grammar by Alistair Campbell (1959); An introduction to Old English by Richard M. Hogg (2002) and Old English: A historical linguistic companion by Roger Lass (1994).

However, I’ll admit to having refreshed my knowledge of Old English morphology by having a look at Wikipedia, as well as comparing it with modern English morphology in the same place.

The text from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, both in Old English and in Modern, is retrieved from here.

The History of the English Language – Old English dialects

Welcome to a new series at the HLC!

I know that we’ve talked quite a bit about English and its history. (You’ll have to excuse me, but the topic is what I’ve studied for years after all.)

I also know that it’s been a bit disjointed. One week, we’ve been talking about English and the next week about something else entirely. That’s what happens when you’re several people working on the same thing (and it’s a good thing too!).

However, now, it’s just little old me. So, I’d thought we’d run through a standard little “course” on the topic and go through it a bit more systematically (don’t worry, we’ll do something similar with other languages following this one).

Originally, we were supposed to start with Old English phonology today, but, I went back and had a look at our previous posts of Old English. Doing so, I suddenly realised that we never really talked specifically about the Old English dialects.

So let’s do that! But first…

I think I need to give you a very brief reminder about what Old English actually is. As you know, English is usually divided into time periods (and if you want all of them at once, take a look at Rebekah’s earlier post here. Otherwise, get back to me next week when I’ll talk about Middle English).

Old English is the English language as it looked until roughly 1066. This is not from the very beginning of the world, so to speak, but from roughly the time that we start getting written records of English (ca. 450 AD – before that, we usually talk about “Proto-English”).

That’s it (for now).

Now, next step: when I say Old English, what I am actually saying is the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

But it was not the only Old English dialect.

I’ve shown you this map before in my Early Germanic Dialects series:

But, while I warned you about how Old English tends to equal the dialects of West Saxon, I didn’t actually say anything about the other dialects.

Let me fix that!

So. Old English had four commonly recognised dialects: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, and Northumbrian. Each of these dialects* was associated with an independent kingdom in the British Isles.

Of these dialects, we know most about West Saxon. However, the earliest surviving Old English materials are actually written in Northumbrian.

Spoken from the Humber (now in England) to the Firth of Forth (now in Scotland), the Northumbrian dialect is recorded in texts like Cædmon’s Hymn, a short poem composed between 658 and 680. It is the oldest surviving Old English poem and one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was, supposedly, composed by an illiterate cow-herder.

We also find surviving examples of Northumbrian in Bede’s Deathsong (a five-line poem that supposedly is the final words of the Venerable Bede), the runes on the Ruthwell Cross from the Dream of the Rood, the Leiden Riddle, and the famous mid-10th-century gloss of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Northumbria was, however, overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. As a result, most of the written records of the dialect have been lost.

The same is the case for Mercian.

The Mercian dialect was spoken as far east as the border of East Anglia, as far west as Offa’s Dyke (bordering Wales), as far north as Staffordshire and as far south as South Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire – basically, it was a pretty huge dialect.

But then came those pesky Vikings… And Mercian goes the same way as its sister dialect, Northumbrian. (The two dialects together are often talked about as Anglian.)

As with Northumbrian, we do have some surviving textual records of Mercian, but very few. These include the Old English martyrology, which contains 230 stories about the lives of saints and was probably compiled in Mercia – or by someone who wrote in the Mercian dialect anyway. We also have six hymns in the Vespasian Psalter that are written in Mercian, but that’s really pretty much it.

And then, we have Kentish.

Now, Kentish didn’t quite suffer the same fate as Mercian and Northumbrian. Despite that, according to Baugh and Cable, even less material from Kentish survives than from the other two dialects. We could speculate as to why, but that is an exercise in futility – it happens sometimes, unfortunately.

Kentish, as the name tells us, was spoken in the county of Kent. It was eventually submerged in the West Saxon dialect. Most of our surviving textual records are early law texts, for example from the Kentish kings Hlothere and Eadric. However, the surviving materials were late 12th century copies and studies have shown that they have been altered and “modernised”. That means, unfortunately, that little of what survives of the dialect is truly representative of the dialect itself.

And thus, we are left with West Saxon.

Originally spoken in the kingdom of Wessex, West Saxon is typically divided into two: Early West Saxon and Late West Saxon.

Now, Early West Saxon is the language used by Alfred the Great. Aside from keeping the Vikings at bay, Alfred avidly encouraged education. He even translated some things himself. However, this is not the dialect we mean when we say Old English.

What we mean is the Late West Saxon dialect – yes, I know this is getting confusing. But, following the Athewoldian language reform, started by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, Late West Saxon emerged. Some even argue that Late West Saxon is not a direct descendant of early West Saxon! This is the dialect we talk about when we say Old English.

We have quite a bit of surviving evidence from Late West Saxon – if I were to try to count them up, we’d probably be here ’til New Years. So I won’t. But I will say that this was the first standardised written language in England, sometimes referred to as the “Winchester standard” (as it was primarily used in and around the monastery at Winchester). This is the language that you find in evidence in the Old English poem Beowulf (though it is worth mentioning that you also find some Anglian features in the poem).

And those are our four Old English dialects!

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Next week, we’ll continue with something else tricky: the Middle English dialects. Join me then (if you dare)!

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*This post actually triggered a very interesting discussion – are the Old English dialects really dialects or languages? As you know by now, the separation between language and dialect is a tricky one (linguistically) (and if you can’t remember why, check out Lisa’s post on this topic here), but play with the thought for a bit: should the language/dialect of an independent kingdom be considered a dialect in this instance – or is it a language, regardless of the close similarity to another nearby kingdom’s language?

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References

On the dialect of Beowulf

On the Old English dialects (and links therein for each dialect) and this book by Ishtla Singh (primarily page 75).

On Kentish and its surviving texts (page 69)

Easy-peasy morphology: Reduplication

Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.

Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.

In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.

Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:

“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”

In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.

There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.

Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!

Notes

1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication.
2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?

Do you do ‘do’, or don’t you?

I’m sure you haven’t missed that Sabina recently started a series about the early Germanic languages on this blog? The series will continue in a couple of weeks (you can read the latest post here), but as a short recap: when we talk about the modern Germanic languages, these include English (and Scots), Dutch (and Flemish), German, Icelandic, Faroese, and the mainland Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish). These languages, of course, also have a plethora of dialectal variation under their belts1. Today, I’m gonna tell you about one particular grammatical feature that we find in only a couple of Germanic languages. You see, when it comes to the grammar of the modern Germanic languages, they’re all relatively similar, but one quirky trait sets the ones spoken on the British Isles apart from the rest: do-support.

Before we begin, I want to clarify my terminology: Do-support is a feature of syntax, which means that it’s to do with word order and agreement. The syntax concerns itself with what is grammatical in a descriptive way, not what we prefer in a prescriptive way2. So, when I say something is (un-)grammatical in this post, I mean that it is (dis-)allowed in the syntax.

So what is do-support?

Take a simple sentence like ‘I like cheese’. If a speaker of a non-English (or Scots) Germanic language were to turn that sentence into a question, it would look something like ‘Like you cheese?’, and in most Germanic varieties a (clearly deranged) person who is not fond of cheese would answer this with ‘No, I like not cheese’. In their frustration, the person who asked may shout ‘Eat not cheese then!’ at the deranged person.

But, those sentences look weird in English, both the question and the negative sentence. The weirdness does not only arise from the meaning of these sentence (who doesn’t like cheese?), but they’re, in fact, ungrammatical!

English, and most Scots dialects, require do-support in such sentences:

  • Do you like cheese?
  • No, I do not (or, don’t) like cheese.
  • Don’t eat cheese then!’

The above examples of do-support, interrogative (the question), negative declarative (the negated sentence), and negative imperative (the command) are unique to English and Scots, but there are other environments where do is used, and where we also may find it in other Germanic languages, such as:

  • Tag-questions: ‘You like cheese, don’t you/do you?’
  • Ellipsis: ‘I ate cheese yesterday, and Theo did (so) today’
  • Emphasis: ‘I do like cheese!’
  • Main verb use: ‘I did/am doing a school project on do-support

In all the examples above except for the emphasis and main verb usage, do is essentially meaningless; it doesn’t add any meaningful (semantic) information to the sentence. Therefore, we usually call it a “dummy” auxiliary, or simply dummy do.
(Auxiliary is the name for those little verbs, like do, is, and have, which come before other verbs in a sentence, such as in ‘she is eating cheese’ and ‘I have eaten cheese’)

English and Scots didn’t always have do-support, and sentences like ‘I like not cheese’ used to be completely grammatical. We start to see do-support appearing in English around the 15th century, and in the 16th century for Scots. As is the case with language change, do-support didn’t become the mandatory construction overnight; in both languages we see a period where sentences with and without do-support are used variably which lasts for centuries before do-support eventually wins out (in the 18th-19th century).

Interestingly, in this period of change we also see do-support in non-negated sentences which aren’t intended to be emphatic, looking like: ‘I do like cheese’. These constructions never fully catch on though, and the rise and fall of this affirmative declarative do has been called a “failed change”.

It’s ok, affirmative declarative do, you’ve still contributed greatly to do-support research!

Why did we start using do-support, though?

Well, we aren’t exactly sure yet, but there are theories. Many scholars believe that this is a so-called language-internal development, meaning that this feature developed in English without influence from another language. This is based on that do used to be a causative verb in English (like cause, and make in ‘I made Theo eat cheese’), which became used so frequently that it started to lose its causative meaning and finally became a dummy auxiliary. This process, where a word gradually loses its meaning and gains a purely grammatical function, is called grammaticalisation.

There have also been suggestions that it was contact with Welsh that introduced do-support into English, since Welsh had a similar structure. This account is often met with scepticism, one reason being that we see very little influence from any celtic language, Welsh included, on English and Scots grammar in general. However, new evidence is regularly brought forward to argue this account, and the origin of do-support is by no means a closed chapter in historical linguistics research.

What we do know is that do-support came about in the same time period when English started to use auxiliaries more overall – you may have noticed that, in English, we’re more likely to say ‘I am running to the shop’ than ‘I run to the shop’, the latter being more common for other Germanic languages. So, we can at least fairly safely say that the rise of do-support was part of a greater change of an increased use of auxiliaries overall.

The humble dummy do has baffled historical linguists for generations, and this particular HLC writer has been trying to understand do-support in English and Scots for the past few years, and will most likely continue to do so for a good while longer. Wish me luck!

Footnotes

1I’ve written about the complex matter of language vs. dialect before, here.

2In our very first post on this blog, Riccardo wrote about descriptivism and prescriptivism. Read it here for a recap!

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!

Footnotes
1This is actually a direct quote from this forum thread, read at your own risk: https://forums.digitalspy.com/discussion/1818966/is-american-english-in-fact-closer-to-true-english-than-british-english

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.


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

Notes

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.

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).

Notes
1 At least for now!

A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with

Lies your English teacher told you: You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

Hello and welcome to the third episode in our ongoing series on stuff about the English language people in positions of authority misled you into thinking was true! Last time, Lisa showed us why it is perfectly fine (and in some cases, even preferable!) to split an infinitive.

Today, I will tackle a “rule” that’s every bit as well-known as it is routinely disregarded: “you can’t end a sentence with a preposition”.

This rule is interesting, as far as prescriptive rules go, in that its is hardly ever observed in practice. We all end sentences with prepositions, and it’s no use denying it. But don’t worry: the grammar police will not come busting down your door just yet. The reason we do it is because it’s perfectly natural in English, and in many cases even unavoidable!

The process of ending sentences with prepositions is technically known as preposition stranding, or P-stranding, and it is fairly common amongst Germanic languages.

This phenomenon is due to something we in the biz call wh- movement. Let me explain quickly what it is.

When you turn a statement into a question, you unconsciously perform a series of operations that transform that statement. In the case of wh- questions (what?, who?, when? etc.), the steps you follow are these:

  1. Take the statement.
    The boy ate the apple.
  2. Turn the part you want to question into a wh- word.
    The boy ate what?
  3. Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence.
    What the boy ate?
  4. For a series of hellishly complicated reasons I won’t go into here, transform the verb into it’s do-supported form (i.e. with “do”).
    What the boy did eat?
  5. Invert the subject and the verb.
    What did the boy eat?

And Bob’s your uncle! Pretty insane that you do this all the time and don’t even realise it, huh?

The process is basically the same for relative clauses (i.e. “The apple (which) the boy ate”), except without steps 4 and 5 (because it’s not a question), and with an extra step where you copy the “questioned” part to the start of the sentence before turning it into the wh- word. So:

  1. The boy ate the apple.
  2. The apple the boy ate the apple.
  3. The apple the boy ate which.
  4. The apple which the boy ate.

What interests us is what happens when this process takes place in a sentence where the moved object (or constituent, to use the proper lingo) is preceded by a preposition.

  1. The boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  2. The girl the boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  3. The girl the boy went to the cinema with who(m).

And here we hit the point of contention. What should be done on step 4? Until the 18th century, the answer was easy: the most natural option was to move the wh- word and leave the preposition where it is. Stranded, if you like.

  1. The girl who(m) the boy went to the cinema with.

The same applied to questions (“Who(m) did the boy go to the cinema with?”). However, there was a second option, in which the wh- word dragged the preposition along with itself to the start of the sentence or clause, so that step 4 would look like

  1. The girl with who(m) the boy went to the cinema.

This particular construction is technically known as pied-piping, from the German fairy tale “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, where a magic piper freed the city of troublesome mice by playing his flute and mesmerising them into following him out. He applied the same procedure later to kidnap all the city’s children to punish the inhabitants for their ingratitude. Talk about overreacting.

This option, while always possible, was seen as rather cumbersome, and therefore dispreferred. Until the 18th century, when a sustained campaign by a number of intellectuals flipped the status of the two constructions in the public consciousness. What happened?

Well, as you might remember from many of our posts about the history of prescriptivism, people in the 18th and 19th century displayed an unhealty obsession over Latin. Since Latin was The Perfect Language™, each and every aspect of the English language that didn’t look like Latin was, of course, wrong and barbaric, and had to be eliminated. I’ll give you one guess as to what Latin didn’t do with its prepositions during wh- movement.

If you guessed “stranding them”, then congratulations! You guessed right.

In Latin (and all the languages which descend from it), only pied-piping is acceptable when applying wh- movement to a sentence with a preposition. Our example sentence in Latin would go like this (cum = with, quā = who(m)):

  1. Puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  2. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  3. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum quā īvit.
  4. Puella cum quā puer ad cinematographeum īvit.

Needless to say, the prescriptivist scholars twisted themselves into logic pretzels to justify why this should be true of English as well. Some just openly admitted that it was because English should be similar to Latin, others tried to be clever and argued that a “preposition” is called that because it goes before a word (pre- = before + position), and must have thought themselves exceedingly smart, notwithstanding the fact that the word “preposition” comes from Latin, where P-stranding is impossible, so of course they would call it that.

Some got caught in their own circular reasoning and inevitably found sentences in which preposition stranding is obligatory, giving rise to comically frustrated rants like the following, courtesy of one Philip Withers, from 1789:

“It may be said, it is absolutely unavoidable on particular occasions. v.g. The Stock was disposed OF BY private contract. But an elegant writer would rather vary the phrase, or exchange the verb than admit so awkward a concurrence of prepositions.”

A little tip, kids: if someone tells you he would rather avoid or ignore pieces of data that they dislike, or actively tells you to do so, they’re not a scientist. In the case of linguistics, you’ve spotted a prescriptivist! Mark it on your prescriptivist-spotting book and move on.

What of the writers that came before them and regularly stranded prepositions? Robert Lowth (a name you’ll become wearily familiar with by the end of this series) commented that they too were somehow universally speaking bad English, and a guy named John Dryden even went so far as to rewrite some of Shakespeare’s plays to remove some of the unsightly and atrocious “errors” he found in them, preposition stranding included.

Such are the lengths fanatism goes to.

Stay tuned for next time, when Rebekah will explain to you why a negative plus a negative doesn’t necessarily imply a positive.

 

To boldly split what no one should split: The infinitive.

Lies your English teacher told you: “Never split an infinitive!”

To start off this series of lies in the English classroom, Rebekah told us last week about a common misconception regarding vowel length. With this week’s post, I want to show you that similar misconceptions also apply to the level of something as fundamental as word order.

The title paraphrases what is probably one of the most recognisable examples of prescriptive ungrammaticality – taken from the title sequence of the original Star Trek series, the original sentence is: To boldly go where no man has gone before. In this sentence, to is the infinitive marker which “belongs to” the verb go. But lo! Alas! The intimacy of the infinitive marker and verb is boldly hindered by an intervening adverb: boldly! This, dear readers, is thus a clear example of a split infinitive.

Or rather, “To go boldly”1

Usually an infinitive is split with an adverb, as in to boldly go. This is one of the more recognisable prescriptive rules we learn in the classroom, but the fact is that in natural speech, and in writing, we split our infinitives all the time! There are even chapters in syntax textbooks dedicated to explaining how this works in English (it’s not straightforward though, so we’ll stay away from it for now).

In fact, sometimes not splitting the infinitive leads to serious changes in meaning. Consider the examples below, where the infinitive marker is underlined, the verb it belongs to is in bold and the adverb is in italics:

(a) Mary told John calmly to leave the room

(b) Mary told John to leave the room(,) calmly

(c) Mary told John to calmly leave the room

Say I want to construct a sentence which expresses a meaning where Mary, in any manner, calm or aggressive, tells John to leave the room but to do so in a calm manner. My two options to do this without splitting the infinitive is (a) and (b). However, (a) expresses more strongly that Mary was doing the telling in a calm way. (b) is ambiguous in writing, even if we add a comma (although a little less ambiguous without the comma, or what do you think?). The only example which completely unambiguously gives us the meaning of Mary asking John to do the leaving in a calm manner is (c), i.e. the example with the split infinitive.

This confusion in meaning, caused by not splitting infinitives, becomes even more apparent depending on what adverbs we use; negation is notorious for altering meaning depending on where we place it. Consider this article title: How not to raise a rapist2. Does the article describe bad methods in raising rapists? If we split the infinitive we get How to not raise a rapist and the meaning is much clearer – we do not want to raise rapists at all, not even using good rapist-raising methods. Based on the contents of the article, I think a split infinitive in the title would have been more appropriate.

So you see, splitting the infinitive is not only commonly done in the English language, but also sometimes actually necessary to truly get our meaning across. Although, even when it’s not necessary for the meaning, as in to boldly go, we do it anyway. Thus, the persistence of anti-infinitive-splitting smells like prescriptivism to me. In fact, this particular classroom lie seems like it’s being slowly accepted for what it is (a lie), and current English language grammars don’t generally object to it. The biggest problem today seems to be that some people feel very strongly about it. The Economist’s style guide phrases the problem eloquently3:

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

We will continue this little series of classroom lies in two weeks. Until then, start to slowly notice split infinitives around you until you start to actually go mad.

Footnotes

I’ve desperately searched the internet for an original source for this comic but, unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. If anyone knows it, do let me know and I will reference appropriately.

This very appropriate example came to my attention through the lecture slides presented by Prof. Nik Gisborne for the course LEL1A at the University of Edinburgh.

This quote is frequently cited in relation to the split infinitive, you can read more about their stance in the matter in this amusing post: https://www.economist.com/johnson/2012/03/30/gotta-split