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.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Baboon

It’s Tuesday, which means a new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is baboon!
Image result for baboon
A yellow baboon, Tanzania

A primate classified as a type of Old World Ape – which is an interesting English term for Cercopithecidae, a family of primates with 24 genera and 138 species – this word came to English around 1400 as babewyn (or something similar – we all know how unpredictable Middle English spelling is).

Borrowed from French (either Anglo-Norman French or Middle French or why not both?), this word remains in modern French as babouin from Old French baboin, this word actually meant something like “foolish or stupid person” around the early 13th century. It could also refer to a grotesque figure or monster in architecture – that is, a gargoyle.

Image result for gargoyle

Around the mid-13th century (in French that is), it came to also mean what we would identify as a baboon today. And then, like many other French words, it made its way over to the English vocabulary.

And that’s the story of baboon!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Babe

Welcome back to the HLC!

It’s Tuesday and that means another Fun Etymology! Today’s word is babe!

Nowadays, this word is often superseded by the form baby, which is actually the diminutive form of babe. Baby was used figuratively from the 1520s. The slang baby, referring to an attractive young woman, didn’t actually occur until around 1915.

Anyway, back to babe.

From the late 14th century, this word means infant or young child of either sex. The word itself is a shortened form of baban, from early 13th century.

Its etymology is uncertain, but, much like babble from last week, it is likely imitative of baby talk.

You see, the combination ba is considered one of the easiest ones to pronounce. If you have kids, you’ll probably recognise that children tend to begin talking by combining the vowel a with some consonant. Specifically, this is usually the labial or dental consonants.

The result?
“Words” like ba, ma, pa, ta, da.

And that is pretty much what we know about babe!

An interesting side-note, though, is that, in some languages, similar words mean something along the lines with old woman. In Russian, for example, babushka means grandmother. Whether that has any relation or not, I’ll leave unsaid (though Etymonline appears to suggest that this might be the case).

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Babble

As promised, your weekly Fun Etymology remains!

Today’s word is babble.

Recorded from the mid-thirteenth century, this verb refers to the practice of uttering words indistinctly or talking “baby-talk”.

Similar words are found in other Western European languages (such as Swedish babbla, Old French babillier) which are attested from roughly the same time (though some are likely borrowed from other languages). Though one might wonder if the name Babel might be related, there is no such evidence. However, the OED notes that the perceived connection may have come to affect the sense of the word.

The word is likely imitative of baby-talk. According to the OED, the syllable /ba/, which is often used by babies in early vocalisation, came to be seen as typical of childish speech. It then combined with the suffix –le, a verbal formation from Old English –lian and from Proto-Germanic *-ilôjan, with a frequentative1  or, sometimes, a diminutive2 effect.

And suddenly, we have babble!

It is recorded with the meaning “to talk excessively” from around 1500.

But let’s not forget that there is also a noun! The noun babble, meaning “idle talk, foolish or incoherent talk”, is, however, derived from the verb and therefore follows the same etymology. It is recorded from around the 16th century.

And that’s our Fun Etymology for today!

An announcement

It’s Thursday and I know that means a new post.

However, having thought about it rather thoroughly, I’ve decided to step it down a notch.

Unfortunately, looking at my schedule, I’ve been forced to realise that I’ll be having significantly less time on my hands for the foreseeable future.

Therefore, at this start of a new month, I’ve decided to publish new blog posts every other week rather than every week.

Not to worry, Fun Etymology and Patron Saint will continue as usual!

I hope that you’ll continue down this road of mysteries with me in the future and join me next week when I’ll be back with our longed-for post on Middle English syntax!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Baa

It’s Tuesday and time for another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is a little bit different from our normal words as it doesn’t have an etymology as such.

Today’s word is baa!

Okay, perhaps we could discuss the term word here, but let’s not get into that discussion. Baa is an onomatopoeic word, meaning that it is a word that mimics the sound that it describes – in this case, the sound that a sheep makes.

It is attested from around 1580 as both a verb and a noun, but it is likely even older than that. Prior to its description of how a sheep sounds, it is recorded to have been the name for a child’s toy sheep!

Similar words are found in other languages, of course, though slightly different (in Swedish, for example, it is ), depending on how that language (or, rather, its speakers) perceives the sound itself.

And that is really all we can say about baa (though I do find it quite intriguing that a toy sheep was common enough for there to have been a dedicated name for it)!

Karl Luick – Patron Saint of February 2020

It’s a new month! Time for yet another of our monumental people in the linguistic field! Today, I want to introduce you to Karl Luick!

Luick was born on the 27th of January, 1865, in a town called Floridsdorf, which is now the 21st district of Vienna. Although later moving around quite a bit, he got all of his degrees from the University of Vienna, specialising in English.

Luick was, and remains to this day, a monumental name in the field of historical phonology. His Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache was published in two volumes and remains, in its 1964 edition, a key text in historical phonology.

Another key text of Luick’s is the earlier publication Untersuchungen zur englischen Lautgeschichte, which was published as early as 1896. In this publication, Luick focused on the Great Vowel Shift and developed a tentative hypothesis, now called the push chain hypothesis.

Some background first.

Middle English /u:/ diphthongised, eventually becoming modern /au/, in large portions of England. However, it had not done so in Scotland and parts of the north.

Noticing this, Luick suggested that there must be some kind of causal relationship between the non-diphthongisation of /u:/ in those northern areas and the fronting of /o:/, which had previously occurred in the northern dialects.

As a result, the push-chain hypothesis suggests that lower vowels basically raised and push the higher vowels out of their place – thus forcing the highest vowels to lower and diphthongise. 1 As the northern dialects no longer had /o:/ in its original place, it couldn’t raise and push /u:/ to diphthongise!

Although Luick never pursued this idea further, 2, it became quite famous and a discussion about whether the Great Vowel Shift was indeed a push chain or a drag chain3.

Regardless of whether you believe in the push or drag chain (or have no preference), I believe we can all agree with Bauer, who once stated that:

Luick always had fresh insights, some of them of almost revolutionary potential[.]

Gero Bauer (1985: 10)

and as a brief acknowledgment of the amazing work done by this linguist, he is the HLC’s Patron Saint of February 2020!

Want to learn more about Luick? Check out my references and footnotes below!



As my German, unfortunately, is not good enough to read Luick’s own works (don’t worry – I’m working on it!), I have relied on:

Dieter Kastovsky/Gero Bauer. (eds.). 1985. Luick revisited. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen (particularly the introduction for this post).

If your German is better than mine though, you can find volume 1 of Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache here and volume 2 here. You can also find Untersuchungen zur englischen Lautgeschichte here.

I’ve also had a look at Wikipedia’s page on Karl Luick.


Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abaft

Another Tuesday = another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abaft!

Slightly unusual in modern English (estimated by the OED to occur between 0.1 to 1.0 times per million words, nowadays mostly used in nautical terminology), this word, in its current form, is recorded from the late 16th century.

However, before that, we still see it in slightly different forms.

A native Germanic word, abaft comes from Middle English on baft, meaning “back, behind, to the rear”, from Old English on bæftan. Today, it refers to something toward the back of a ship (or at least something farther back than you currently are).

As I am sure you remember, I’ve previously talked about the element a- when it occurs in words such as these, to mean something like “on, in, into”, which indeed also appears to be true here1.

But what about baft?

Well, baft is actually a compound of two other words: be, meaning ‘by’, and æftan, meaning ‘aft’.

Old English be is Germanic too. From Proto-Germanic *bi and PIE *bhi, it came to be used as an adverb during Middle English, meaning “near” or “close at hand”.

Old English æftan is slightly more tricky. Although all the Germanic languages appear to have a similar word, the ultimate origin remains disputed.

We know that æftan shows a derivative form with a Germanic adverbial suffix. We also know that it is from the Germanic base of Gothic afta, but then… Things kinda stop.

It might be a suffixed form of the Indo-European base of an ancient Greek word (ἐπί), and might thus be the only non-Germanic element of abaft, but that remains disputed.

And that is our Fun Etymology for today!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abacus

Welcome back to HLC! Another Tuesday, and, as always, here I am with a new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abacus!

But first, what in the world is an abacus?

Well, an abacus is a simple device for calculating something. It consists of a frame with wires attached to each side and several beads that you can slide back and forth. You’ll probably recognise it when you see it, so here it is:

Image result for abacus meaning

However, originally, it referred to a type of drawing board, which was covered with dust or sand. On this board, mathematical equations or calculations could be traced and then erased. The word abacus didn’t actually refer to the kind of beaded frame you see above until around the seventeenth century (or potentially even later) in English.

But what about the word itself? Where does that come from?

As we’ve been on this trip for a while now, I am guessing that you can probably tell that abacus is not likely to be a native English word.

And, if so, you’re absolutely right!

The word abacus came to English around the late fourteenth century (then referring to the sand/dust board mentioned above). It was derived directly from the Latin word abacus. This, in turn, came from Greek abax (which in genitive form became abakos).

The Greek word, though, is of uncertain etymology. It might be derived from a Semitic source, such as Phoenician or Hebrew abaq, which literally means dust.

This might be derived from the Semitic root a-b-q, meaning to fly off. However, its origin has been questioned by some etymologists.

So, in the end, as many times before, we know it came to English from Latin and to Latin from Greek and there… the trail turns rather chilly.

But that is the life of a historical linguist! Join me on Thursday when we take a closer look at Old English syntax (or, if you prefer, next week when we look at the origins of the word abaft)!

See you then!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aback

It’s time for another Fun Etymology!

This week’s word is aback!

A contraction of Old English on bæc, meaning “backward, behind, at or on the back”, this word can be divided into two: a- and –back.

As is clear from its origins, a-, in this context a prefix, originated as a separate preposition: on. This is quite a common change, from Old English on to a, actually. Other words that share this origin are, for example, aloud, along and abroad. In this form, it is a word inherited from Germanic.

However, it might be easily confused with some words with Latin origin, such as accursed or afford. This a-, however, is a shortened version of Latin ad, meaning “to, toward”. In some other words, like abound, it might be easy to think that it should be divided as a- + bound, but it is actually from Latin ab- + undare.

Clearly, one needs to be slightly careful when determining where the a- in a specific construction comes from.

When it comes to back, it comes from Proto-Germanic *bako-(m), which has no known connections outside of the Germanic languages. It might come from a word related to spine or shoulder 1 though.

The word aback, in its current form, appears around the early 13th century, then meaning “toward the rear”. Nowadays, it mainly survives in the construction taken aback. This construction originally referred to something very specific: when a sea-going vessel’s square sails are flattened against the masts and stops the forward motion of the vessel due to a sudden change in wind.

Today, it is mostly used in its figurative sense: “suddenly or unexpectedly checked or disappointed”. This is a relatively late innovation and showed up for the first time around 1792.

And there you have it – the story of aback!

Join me again next week, as we take a closer look at abacus! See you then!