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!



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.


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

The history of the English language – Middle English syntax

It’s Thursday and that means more of the History of the English Language! Today, we deal with Middle English syntax!

So, remember how we talked about Old English syntax in our last post? Well, a lot happens in the shift from Old English to Middle English.

As you know by now, English morphology changed quite a bit in this “shift” too. Particularly important for Middle English syntax was the weakening inflections on words. In Old English, the function of nouns, for example, was rather clear. If it was a nominative, it was the subject – accusative the object and so on. But, with the loss of these endings, a lot suddenly became rather ambiguous.

Suddenly, word order became quite important!

First, while Old English tended toward using V2 word order in main clauses and VF in sub-clauses, Middle English tends to be very similar to Present-Day English word order.

However, Modern English word order is quite.. rigid. It has to be, really, because the word order is what tells you about the subject and the object in a sentence. There is a world of difference between Jack ate the fish and The fish ate Jack, isn’t there?

But Middle English is a bit.. more flexible.

Typically, the verb is found in second position, preceded by the subject and followed by the object (that is, a typical SVO order). We find the same in Present-Day English (such as in John likes football).

Although the standard word order of Middle English is therefore rather similar to what we find in English today, we do see a few differences.

The V2 constraint (that we saw in Old English) continues to be quite common during the Middle English period. It had a sharp decline in use by 1600 and is today virtually extinct in English.

SOV was also still in use during Middle English, but it now became rather unusual. In the late Middle English period, it appears to have become very rare (though still occasionally occurring).

Except for these two, we also find that Middle English makes use of VSO order in questions and commands:

Gyf ye the chyld any thyng?
Give you the child any thing?
Bring ye the horse
Bring you the horse1

OSV and OVS are still found when emphasising the object:

This boke I haue mad and wretyn
This book I have made and written
Clothis have they none
Clothes have they none2

So there are still a few differences.

The changes in word order actually had a significant effect on the development of the English language. For example, an expressed subject became increasingly obligatory in Middle English and the so-called dummy it came to be used more and more (that is, It seems to me…). But subject-less constructions still occurred quite frequently (which is something to keep in mind when reading Middle English).

Generally, though, we are moving increasingly toward Present-Day English. As a result, it is my personal belief that most speakers of English today can likely read Middle English with some focused attention (syntactically speaking anyway – I won’t make promises about orthography).

Want to see if you can?

Check out this interlinear translation of some of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and test yourself!

(Let me know how it goes, will ya?)

Join me for a look into modern English syntax on February 27!

Until then, enjoy our Fun Etymologies!



Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable. 2002. A history of the English language. London: Routledge.

Carol Percy. n.d. ME Syntax. Find it here.

Elly van Gelderen. 2016. Old, Middle, and Early Modern Morphology and Syntax through texts. Find it here.

Olga Fisher. 1992. Syntax. In Norman Blake (ed.). The Cambridge history of the English language. Volume II: 1066-1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 207-408.

Olga Fischer. Ans van Kemenade. Willem Koopman. Wim van der Wurff. 2000. The syntax of early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robert Stanton. Middle English Syntax and Vocabulary – a PPT-presentation “Middle English Syntax and Vocabulary”.

The history of the English language – Old English syntax

Okay! We’ve done Old English morphology. We’ve done a bit of a syntactic primer.

Let’s get down to business and discuss Old English syntax!

Now, a word of warning: Old English syntax is rather complex. I won’t go into too much detail in my post, because this is not what this blog aims to do. However, I will, as always, provide you with my references and some further reading for those who are interested at the end of this post. I am also always open to questions, comments, queries and anything of the like – just give me a shout, either here on the blog, on Facebook, on Twitter @histlingchannel, or why not send me an email?

Right, that’s all I have to say on that topic, except… Enjoy!

Old English differs from the English that we are nowadays using in many ways. One of these things is in its syntax.

Being a significantly more morphologically inflected language than modern English, Old English syntax was more flexible than what we find today.

If we were to simplify matters, we could say that the general tendency in Old English main clauses is to show V2 order. As you might remember from last week, this means that the verb follows one constituent, regardless of what that constituent is. However, Old English word order appears quite free even from that restraint, which led some scholars to think that it was a free word order language1.

This may or may not be true – I won’t get into that debate here.

What I can say is that Old English often tended towards a V2 order in main clauses.

When I was reading up on things for this post, a lot of sources (usually in the framing of a class) from various universities ended up discussing Old English as an SVO-language. However, according to Kroch, while the subject-tensed.verb-object order was the most common word order in Old English, they were not SVO-sentences. They were merely V2-sentences, where the first element happened to be the subject.

At the same time, although this might have been a general tendency and the most common word order, it is not always consistent2, which of course leads to more discussion on the word order of main clauses in Old English.

Clearly, there are some things still to be worked out…
But, hey, what about subordinate clauses?

Well, here, the VF (Verb-Final) word order is the norm. This means that the finite verb comes at the very end of the sentence – like what you see in Dutch and German today.

Okay, great! We know something about Old English word order! Yay!


Yeah… except….

Old English consistently breaks these conventions. It allows, unlike modern German and Dutch, for V2 order in embedded clauses starting with a complementiser and, in the epic poem Beowulf, for example, subordinate clauses employing a V2 order can be found, as can main clauses with VF order. And, for that matter, V3 and V4 order!

So, what am I saying here? That we really know nothing about Old English word order?
Not quite.

We know that SVO is the most common order in Old English main clauses. We also know that subordinate clauses in Old English tend to be VF.

We also know that this topic requires more study before we can say anything “for sure” (or, at least, as sure as one ever is in studying historical linguistics).

But, for you, I hope that this little brief glance into Old English syntax was enlightening! I know I enjoyed reading through the accounts that I used for this post and I hope that you will too!

Join me again next week as we take a look at the continued development of English syntax in Middle English!



Anthony Kroch & Ann Taylor. 1996. Verb movement in Old and Middle English: Dialect variation and language contact. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Check it out here! (I’ve looked primarily at Chapter 3)

Benjamin Bruening. 2016. Old English Verb-Second-ish in a Typology of Verb-Second. Draft, Nov. 9. Check it out here.

Bettelou Los. 2015. A historical syntax of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Graeme Davis. 2006. Comparative syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic. Bern: Peter Lang.

Kristin Bech. 2012. Word Order, Information Structure, and Discourse Relations. In Anneli Meurman-Solin, Maria Jose Lopez-Couso, and Bettelou Los (eds.). Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of English. Oxford Scholarship Online. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199860210.003.0004, or check it out here.

Linda van Bergen. 2015. Pronouns and word order in Old English. 2nd ed. New York & London: Routledge.

Old English grammar

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!



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.

Early Germanic Dialects: Old English

And EGD is back! Today, we’re going to be talking about something close to my own heart: English! This is Early Germanic Dialects thought, so, naturally, we won’t be talking about modern English, but, Old English.

Now, before we start, let’s make one thing very clear: Shakespeare is not Old English. Nope, nope, not even close. In fact, some native speakers of English (and I’ve experimented on this with friends), don’t even recognise Old English as English. Let’s compare, just so you can see the differences. These are the first two lines of the epic poem Beowulf:

Old EnglishModern English
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore
of those clan-kings heard
of their glory

A bit different, wouldn’t you say? And now, of course, you’re wondering how it went from that to this? Well, that’s a different story (but we’ve told it in bits and pieces before).

Let’s today simply focus on Old English, shall we?

Right, so as per usual, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson!

As you might know, while English is today the dominant language of the British Isles, this was certainly not always the case. In fact, the tribes that we eventually consider “English” were all invaders or immigrants: Saxons, Angles and (maybe) Jutes! The native population of the British Isles were, the stories tell us, treated rather horridly – primarily thanks to the Celtic king, Vortigern, who ruled there during the mid-fifth century, who made a really bad call.

You see, Vortigern had a problem: the Picts and Scots kept attacking him and he simply couldn’t deal with these vicious barbarians on his own! So, he called in reinforcements! That means, he invited Saxons to come over to deal with the problem.

And they did. Then, I suppose, they were chatting amongst themselves, and with their buddies who were already living there, and thought “wait… If he can’t deal with these people… How would he possibly be able to deal with all of us?”. After, I imagine, a bit of snickering and laughing, they went off and told Vortigern – pleased with himself after the Picts and Scots had been pushed back – that they weren’t intending to leave. I imagine that left him less pleased.

It is actually from this period in time (or somewhat later), around the year 500, that we get the legendary myth of King Arthur. During this time, a great battle was fought at someplace called Mount Badon (which we can’t really place), and the British people succeeded in stopping the Anglo-Saxon expansion for a little while, and they may (possibly, maybe, we don’t really know) have been led by a king called Arthur (kinda little historical evidence for one of the most widespread myths out there, right?). Despite this success, a great deal of southern Britain was in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by the year 600, and the areas under British rule had been reduced to distant corners of the west, such as Wales and Cornwall. What we end up with, is a geographical division that looks something like this:

Now, naturally, when people come together in close quarters and multiple leader-types, what follows is about 300 years of squabble about the ‘overlordship’ of this green area. Then… Then, they had other things to worry about – the Vikings had arrived.

But we’re not gonna talk about that today, so check it out here if you want!

So, the Vikings arrived, and this led to a long war. Eventually, King Alfred the Great of Wessex forced the Vikings to peace-talks (mostly because he kept beating them, though he might have been pretty much the only Anglo-Saxon king who could boast about that), and the Danelaw was formed.

The descendents of Alfred managed to keep things pretty smooth for a while. Specifically, until 978, when King Edward was murdered. Enter: Æthelred the Unready (and no, that is not a nickname that history added: his own contemporaries called him unræd, loosely translated as ‘ill counsel’). Basically, he did most things wrong (even attempting to order the death of all Danes in the country). The, probably, largest mistake that Ætheldred did though, was the decision to kill the sister of King Swein of Denmark.

Bildresultat för swein of denmark
King Swein (or Sweyn) Forkbeard from a 13th century miniature (pic from Wikipedia)

Riled Vikings? Really, that’s a bad idea.

And in 1013, Æthelred was shown just how much of a bad idea that was, when a pissed-off Viking army landed on his beaches. The army of Danes met little resistance and Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy. However, Swein died just a couple of months after that, and Æthelred returned to England – only to be re-invaded by Canute the Great, son of Swein, in 1015. Æthelred eventually died in 1016, and his oldest surviving son Edmund died soon after, leaving Canute the ruler of England.  

Canute’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Hardecanute, ruled after his death, until 1042, when the son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy (Hardecanute’s adoptive heir) Edward took the throne, which he held onto until his death in 1066. And we all know what happened after that… Enter the Norman invasion. Though Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was acclaimed king after Edward, he held the throne for only nine months before he fell at the Battle of Hastings, thus putting a bloody end to the (fairly bloody) Anglo-Saxon state.

Alright, let’s talk language!

Though we have a number of surviving texts from Old English (a lot more than many other of the EGDs that we’ve been talking about), a lot is, of course, lost to us. What does survive, and what we really mean when we say “Old English”, is the late West Saxon dialect. The reason for that is simple: most surviving texts are written in that dialect. But, when studying Old English, it’s worth keeping this in mind: we’re not (necessarily) talking about a unified language; we’re talking about a dialect that happens to be primary in the surviving materials.

Anyway, first, as per usual, let’s look at some phonology!

Most letters of the Old English alphabet are fairly uncomplicated for a speaker of modern English. Some, however, have surprises in store.

One of those letters is the letter <g>. This letter is pronounced as in modern English ‘good’ only when it follows [ŋ] or when it’s doubled:

cyning ‘king’
frogga ‘frog’

Before the front vowels i and e, after them at the end of a syllable, and also in a few instances where <j> or <i> originally followed but has since disappeared, <g> is pronounced like the first consonant in modern ‘yes’. Before back vowels, though, <g> was pronounced [g].

Elsewhere, <g> is pronounced as a back fricative (remember Rebekah’s phonology lesson on consonants?), unless it is a sequence of <cg>, in which case it is pronounced as the first sound in modern English ‘giant’.

Another sequence that has a surprise in store is the letter sequence <sc>. Although a modern English speaker might expect that <c> here actually corresponds to [sk], it doesn’t. Instead, it would have been pronounced something like [ʃ], that is, the first sound in modern English ‘ship’ (as, indeed, also Old English scip).

Last, in this part, we have the letter <h>. While seemingly simple enough, <h> is pronounced [h] only in initial position and before vowels:

her ‘here’

But before consonants, and when occurring in word-final position, <h> is pronounced as [x], a sound today found in German nacht or Scottish loch:

feohtan ‘fight’, here pronounced with [x].

In the vowels, Old English shows a number of changes that are not found in the languages discussed so far in our little EGD series. For example:

Like most other Germanic languages (except Gothic), Old English originally changed the vowel [æː] into [aː], yet under most circumstances (though especially before w), it changes back to æ:

Old EnglishGothicModern English
frǣtonfrêtun'ate' (pl.)

Similarly, in most cases, the change of short [a] (which usually also changes into [æ]) systematically fails to take place when <a> is followed by a single consonant, plus <a>, <o>, or <u>:

gæt (sg.)butgatu (pl.)'gate'
dæg (sg.)butdaga (dat. sg.)'day'

Except before nasal consonants, where long and short <a> instead becomes long and short <o>:

Old English GothicModern English

Now, something rather interesting before we move on: in Old English, we find evidence of a process known as assibilation. This process, which is shared only with Old Frisian of the Germanic dialects, means that the stops k and g becomes [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively. This process is also the one responsible for correspondences like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the assibilated Old English form, while skirt is borrowed from Old Norse, which did not undergo this process, and thus retains a hard [k] sound. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, I’m going to break tradition a bit and not really talk about morphology. Instead, I want to say a few words on syntax, that is, word order. Why? Because the syntax of Old English is not quite the same as the syntax of modern English. In fact, it’s rather markedly different.

Most notably, Old English is significantly more inflected than modern English: it inflected for five grammatical classes, two grammatical numbers and three grammatical genders, much like modern German. While this may be frustrating to students of the language, it did mean that reliance on word order was significantly less than it is today because the morphological form would tell you who was the subject, object, etc. This means that Old English word order was a bit less rigid than in modern English (in which, it is the only thing that shows you that there is a difference between the dog bit the man and the man bit the dog).

Generally speaking, the standard rule for Old English is that it has a verb-second word order, that is, the finite verb takes the second position in the sentence regardless of what comes before it. So it really doesn’t matter if the first element is the subject or the object, the verb holds its second position (in which case, the declension of the words become important for understanding the sentence correctly).

However, this holds true only for main clauses. In subclauses, Old English is (generally speaking) verb-final, that is, the verb winds up at the end of the sentence. Students of modern German (such as myself in fact), may recognise this kind of word order.

On the topic of syntax, I would like to wrap this post up with a cautionary note.

If you’re reading Old English poetry (and sometimes even when you’re reading prose): chuck these ‘rules’ of Old English syntax out the window. They won’t do you any good: in Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order while verb-second is often found in subordinate clauses. So heads-up!

Right, that’s all I had for today, though, obviously, this is a very small appetizer in a huuuge buffet. If you’d like to learn more, we, as always, refer you to Robinson’s great book but, to be quite honest, the chapter on Old English is quite dense and even I had to refer a couple of times to Wikipedia and other sources just to make things clear. However, it is a good starting point so do enjoy!


As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

For this post, we’ve also taken a look at:

The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here



Etymologiæ (where you can find the original version of the map we’ve used here)

For the last picture, we’ve used the one found here

Our thanks to Kristin Bech for valuable comments on Old English syntax and the pronunciation of <g> on our Facebook-page. The HLC always welcome comments and we have updated the post accordingly.

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!


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!

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.

Too much linguistics, too little time

Hello, it’s me, Lisa, again. I just couldn’t stay away! This week, I have been given the challenging task of outlining the subfields of linguistics1. The most common responses I get when I tell people I study linguistics are variations of “What is that?” and  “What can you do with that?”. This leads me to explain extremely broadly what linguistics is (eh, er, uhm, the science of languages? Like, how they work and where they come from…. But I don’t actually learn a language! I just study them. One language or lots of them. Sort of.), and then I describe various professions you can have from studying linguistics. What all of those professions have in common is that I can do none of them, since they are related to subfields of linguistics that I haven’t specialised in (looking at you forensic and applied linguistics). My own specialties, historical linguistics and syntax, lead to nothing but long days in the library and crippling student debt, but let’s not dwell on that.

Linguistics is a minefield of subdisciplines. To set the scene, look at this very confusing mind-map I made:

Now ignore that mind-map because it does you no good. It’s highly subjective and inconclusive.  However, it does demonstrate how although these subfields are distinct, they end up intersecting quite a lot. At some point in their career, linguists need to use knowledge from several areas, no matter what their specialty. To not wear you out completely, I’m focusing here on the core areas of linguistics: Phonetics and phonology (PhonPhon for short2), syntax,  morphology, and semantics. I will also briefly talk about Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics3.

Right, let’s do this.

Phonetics and Phonology

Let’s start with the most recognisable and fundamental component of spoken language: sounds!

The phonetics part of phonetics and phonology is kind of the natural sciences, physics and biology, of linguistics. In phonetics, we describe speech production by analysing sound waves, vocal fold vibrations and the position of the anatomical elements of the mouth and throat. We use cool latinate terms, like alveolar and labiodental, to formally describe sounds, like voiced alveolar fricative (= the sound /z/ in zoo). The known possible sounds speakers can produce in the languages of the world are described by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which Rebekah will tell you all about next week4.

The phonology part of phonetics and phonology concerns itself with how these phonetic sounds organise into systems and how they’re used in languages. In a way, phonetics gives the material for phonology to build a language’s sound rule system. Phonology figures out, for example, what sounds can go together and what syllables are possible. All humans with a well-functioning vocal apparatus are able to produce the same sounds, yet different languages have different sound inventories; for example, English has a sound /θ/, the sound spelled <th> as in thing, while Swedish does not. Phonology maps these inventories and explains the rules and mechanisms behind them, looking both within one language and comparatively between languages.

Speaking of Rebekah, she summarised the difference between Phonetics and Phonology far more eloquently than I could so I’ll quote her: “Phonetics is the concrete, physical manifestation of speech sounds, and phonology is kind of the abstract side of it, how we conceptualize and store those sounds in our mind.”

Syntax (and morphology, you can come too)

Begin where I are doing to syntax explained?

Why this madness!, you may exclaim, post reading the above sentence. That, friends, is what it looks like to break syntax rules; the sentence above has a weird word order and the wrong inflections on the verbs. The same sentence obeying the rules would be: Where do I begin to explain syntax?

Syntax is one of my favourite things in the world, up there with cats and OLW Cheez Doodles. The syntax of a language is the rule system which organises word-like elements into clause structures based on the grammatical information that comes with each element. In plain English: Syntax creates sentences that look and sound right to us. This doesn’t only affect word order, but also agreement patterns (syntax rules make sure we say I sing, she sings and not I sings, she sing), and how we express semantic roles5. Syntax is kind of like the maths of linguistics; it involves a lot of problem solving and neat solutions with the aim of being as universal and objective as possible. The rules of syntax are not sensitive to prescriptive norms – the syntax of a language is a product of the language people actually produce and not what they should produce.

Morphology is, roughly, the study of word-formation. Morphology takes the smallest units of meaningful information (morphemes), puts them together if necessary, and gives them to syntax so that syntax can do its thing (much like how phonetics provides material for phonology, morphology provides material for syntax). A morpheme can be an independent word, like the preposition in, but it can also be the -ed at the end of waited, telling us that the event happened in the past. This is contrasting phonology, which deals with units which are not necessarily informative; the ‘ed’ in Edinburgh is a phonological unit, a syllable, but it gives us no grammatical information and is therefore not a morpheme. Languages can have very different types of morphological systems. English tends to separate informative units into multiple words, whereas languages like Swahili can express whole sentences in one word. Riccardo will discuss this in more detail in a few weeks.

Semantics (with a pinch of pragmatics)

Semantics is the study of meaning (she said, vaguely). When phonetics and phonology has taken care of the sounds and morphology and syntax have created phrases and sentences from those sounds, semantics takes over to make sense of it all – what does a word mean and what does a sentence mean and how does that interact with and/or influence the way we think? Let’s attempt an elevator pitch for semantics: Semantics discusses the relationship between words, phrases and sentences, and the meanings they denote; it concerns itself with the relationship between linguistic elements and the world in which they exist. (Have you got a headache yet?).

If phonetics is the physics/biology of linguistics and syntax is the maths, Semantics is the philosophy of linguistics, both theoretical and formal. In my three years of studying semantics, we went from discussing whether a sentence like The King of France is bald is true or false (considering there is no king of France in the real world), to translating phrases and words into logical denotation ( andVP = λP[λQ[λx[P(x) ∧ Q(x)]]] ), to discussing universal patterns in linguistics where semantics and syntax meet and the different methods languages use to adhere to these patterns, for example how Mandarin counts “uncountable” nouns.

Pragmatics follows semantics in that it is also a study of meaning, but pragmatics concerns the way we interpret utterances. It is much more concerned with discourse, language in actual use and language subtexts. For example, pragmatics can describe the mechanisms involved when we interpret the sentence ‘it’s cold in here’ to mean ‘can you close the window?’.

Sociolinguistics and historical linguistics

Sociolinguistics has given me about 80% of my worthy dinner table conversations about linguistics. It is the study of the way language interacts with society, identity, communities and other social aspects of our world, and it also includes the study of geographical dialects (dialectology). Sociolinguistics is essentially the study of language variation and change within the above areas, both at a specific point in time (synchronically) and across a period of time (diachronically); my post last week, as well as Riccardo’s and Sabina’s posts in the weeks before, dealt with issues relevant for sociolinguistics.

When studying the HLC’s speciality historical linguistics, which involves the historical variation and change of language(s), we often need to consider sociolinguistics as a factor in why a certain historical language change has taken place or why we see a variation in the linguistic phenomenon we’re investigating. We also often need to consider several other fields of linguistics in order to understand a phenomenon, which can play out something like this:

  • Is this strange spelling variation found in this 16th century letter because it was pronounced differently (phonetics, phonology), and if so, was it because of a dialectal difference (sociolinguistics)? Or, does this spelling actually indicate a different function of the word (morphology, semantics)?
  • What caused this strange word order change starting in the 14th century? Did it start within the syntax itself, triggered by an earlier different change, or did it arise from a method of trying to focus the reader’s attention on something specific in the clause (information structure, pragmatics)? Did that word order arise because this language was in contact with speakers of another language which had that word order (sociolinguistics, typology)?

To summarise, phonetics and phonology gives us sounds and organises them. The sounds become morphemes which are put into the syntax. The syntactic output is then interpreted through semantics and pragmatics. Finally, the external context in which this all takes place and is interpreted is dealt with by sociolinguistics. Makes sense?

There is so much more to say about each of these subfields; it’s hard to do any of them justice in such a brief format! However, the point of this post was to give you a foundation to stand on when we go into these topics more in-depth in the future. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to know more about, you can always comment or email, or have a look at some of the literature I mention in the footnotes. Next week, Rebekah will give us some background on the IPA – one of the most important tools for any linguist. Thanks for reading!



1I had to bring out the whole arsenal of introductory textbooks to use as inspiration for this post. Titles include but are not limited to: Beginning Linguistics by Laurie Bauer; A Practical introduction to Phonetics by J.C. Catford; A Historical Syntax of English by Bettelou Los; What is Morphology? By Mark Aronoff and Kristen Fudeman; Meaning: A slim guide to Semantics by Paul Elborne; Pragmatics by Yan Huang; and Introducing Sociolinguistics by Miriam Meyerhoff. I also consulted old lecture notes from my undergraduate studies at the University of York.

2This is of course not an official term, just a nickname used by students.

3We’ll hopefully get back to some of the others another time. For now, if you are interested, a description of most of the subfields is available from a quick google search of each of the names you find in the mind map.

4If you want a sneak peek, you can play around with this interactive IPA chart where clicking a sound on the chart will give you its pronunciation.

5This is more visible in languages that have an active case system. English has lost case on all proper nouns, but we can still see the remains of the English case system on pronouns (hehimhis).