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!

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References

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!

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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!

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References

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!

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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 – Modern English phonology

We’ve seen Old English. We’ve seen Middle English.

Our last installment of this little series is
Modern English phonology!

For ease of reference, let me remind you – in a slightly easier form than our previous tables – the Old and Middle English consonant inventories:

Old English
Middle English

There are quite a few changes, just between Old English and Middle English.

This is Modern English
 LabialDentalAlveolarPost-alveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmnŋ
Stopp bt d tʃ dʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs z ʃ ʒ(x)h
Approximantrjw
Laterall

There is a bit of a difference here – most noticeably, the addition of two consonants /ʒ/ and /w/, but the biggest difference between historical stages of the English language and the modern version is found in the vowels.

Let’s do a brief reminder.

So, in Old English, we have eight vowels: /i, e, æ, y, ø, ɑ, u, o/ and their long equivalents. In addition, we have three diphthongs: /iu̯, eo̯, æɑ̯/ and their long equivalents.

In Middle English, we still have eight short vowels: /i, e, a, y, ø, ə, u, o/ and their long equivalents (except for /ə/ which doesn’t have a long equivalent). However, in addition to these, we also find three new vowels that only exist as long vowels: /ɛː, œː, ɔː/. When it comes to diphthongs, Middle English had added another four by around the year 1400, giving a total of seven diphthongs: /ɛi, ɔi, ʊi, ɪu, ɛu, ɑu, ɔu/.

Okay, so there is a number of changes.

But what about Modern English?

Well….

In Modern English, we have fourteen vowels and eight diphthongs 1.

Goodness.

The Modern English vowels are: /ɪ, i:, e, e:, ɛ:, æ, ʊ, u:, ə, ʌ, ɜː, ɒ, ɔː, ɑː/. And its diphthongs are: /eɪ, əʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ, ɪə, eə, ʊə/. Additionally, Modern English also has some so-called triphthongs. Although minor in comparison to the monophthongs (single vowels) and diphthongs, they do exist and are: /eɪə, aɪə, ɔɪə, aʊə, əʊə/.

Wow, that’s a lot of vowels.

And I think that might be enough for you for one blog post. If you are intrigued to learn how we got from Middle English to Modern English, though, check out my notes below!

If not (no judgment here), I hope this was enlightening for you. Check back next week, when we’ll once again back up and look at Old English syntax!

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Notes and references

Want to learn more?

Start by checking out our previous blog post on the Great (English) Vowel Shift.

Already know all that?

Alright. In that case, here is what I would suggest:

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for both Old and Middle English, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and is a great book to have a look at if you’re interested in the phonological development of English).

Philip Carr. 2013. English phonetics and phonology. (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. (A pretty standard textbook that works well as an introduction to modern English phonology)

Heinz J. Giegerich. 1992. English Phonology: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press (Another, very informative, phonology textbook)

Want to go more deeply into phonological theory and haven’t read The sound patterns of English (Chomsky & Halle, 1968) yet? Start there – it’s a classic (but not for someone to read for leisure as it gets reasonably complex rather quickly).

For this post, I’ll admit to having taken the overview photos from Wikipedia. This is simply because they provide a slightly more condensed view than my previous tables.

For Modern English, I have taken a look at Wiki‘s condensed info but also at this article.

The history of the English language – Middle English phonology

Another Thursday, a new blog post!

Today, we keep working on HEL – the History of the English Language – and we have reached my favourite time period: Middle English! Today, we’re looking closer at specifically Middle English phonology, so, although it is my favourite time period, it is not necessarily my favourite topic – I am not a phonologist after all.

However, something interesting about Middle English is its spelling (hold your horses, I know we’re talking about phonology here, we’ll get there!).

You see, unlike modern English, where its current spelling system has given rise to memes such as this one:

But…

That’s right! English didn’t use to be like that at all! However, you might find the alternative way rather disappointing (and confusing… and hair-pulling lie-awake-at-night frustrating). But, hey, that’s all in a day’s work!

So, during most of the Middle English period, words were generally spelled according to how the writer would have pronounced them – or how they sounded to the writer if someone else said them, perhaps.

This all changed, of course, once standardisation started.

Standardisation followed rather naturally after printing became a thing, though things had been moving in that direction for a while.

The problem?
The Great Vowel Shift.

You see, the phonology of Middle English was, like most things Middle English, in a transitional period. A lot changed during a reasonably short amount of time (you’ll find that historical linguists have a very odd idea of what is “short” or “recent” – for me, 600 years (as in this case) is a reasonably short time, while “recently” may be anything from yesterday to thirty years ago. When you study really old things, your perception gets a bit skewed.)

Anyway, things were changing. Generally speaking, the Middle English consonant sound inventory isn’t all that different from Old English (which we saw last week):

 LabialDentalAlveolarPostalveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmn(ŋ)
Stopp bt dt͡ʃ d͡ʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs zʃ(ç)(x) h
Approximantrjw
Laterall

There are some differences, of course, but generally speaking, they look quite similar, don’t they? Here is the Old English one for comparison:

 LabialDentalAlveolarPost-alveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalm(n̥) n(ŋ)
Stopp bt dk g
Affricatetʃ (dʒ)
Fricativef (v)θ (ð)s (z)ʃ(ç)(x ɣ)h
Approximant(l̥) lj(ʍ) w
Trill(r̥) r

The vowels… that’s a different story.

To remind you, these are the Old English vowels:

 FrontBack
unroundedroundedunroundedrounded
Closei i:y y:u u:
Mide e:(ø ø:)o o:
Openæ æ:ɑ ɑ:

And these… are the Middle English vowels.

 FrontCentralBack
UnroundedRoundedUnroundedRounded
Closei i:(y y:)u u:
Close-mide e:(ø øː)(ə)o o:
Open-midɛː(œː)ɔː
Opena a:

Quite a different set, wouldn’t you say? First, we have a new distinction in the mid-vowels. Where Old English only had the distinction mid, Middle English had yet another: close-mid and open-mid. Note, however, that this affected only the long vowels – not the short ones.

Additionally, we see the addition of several “new” vowels – such as /ɛː/ and /ɔː/ – and the loss of /æ/. So, it’s different.

So, what has this to do with spelling?

Well, when the Great Vowel Shift (which I talk more about in an earlier post) came along (technically, it likely started beforehand, but writing takes a long time to catch up to changing pronunciation), spelling had already started to standardise.

But, the spelling became standardise words as they sounded before the vowel shift. As a result of this “disconnect” between orthography and pronunciation, we have a rather odd spelling system in English.

And it would come to change even more in Modern English, but that is the topic for next week! Join me then, and in the meantime:

(Have you checked out Steve the vagabond and silly linguist on Facebook? If not, you really should – the page is great!)

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References

For this particular post, I’ve really just checked out Wikipedia, which I used to model the tables.

For the rest, I’ve picked up a few things over the years of studying Middle English, some of it from these resources (which I highly recommend and, as last week, come with a small comment from me):

J.A. Burrow. Thorlac Turville-Petre. 2013. A book of Middle English. (3rd ed.) (I keep returning to this book, it gives a very interesting account of Middle English)

R.D. Fulk. 2012. An introduction to Middle English. (An easy overview, which currently graces my shelf as it provides easy access to some basic information that one occasionally needs to remind oneself of).

Simon Horobin. Jeremy J. Smith. 2002. An introduction to Middle English. (A thin volume that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used. Really, it gives a very easily-read and understood introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the Middle English language)

Roger Lass. 1999. Phonology and morphology. In Roger Lass (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English language. Vol. III. 1476-1776. (This chapter gives an excellent overview of some of the more dramatic changes in phonology that occurred during the Middle English period. It is really worth a read if you want to get more information).

Fernand Mossé. 2000. Handbook of Middle English. (A tad bit more complex but, as all of these resources, one that I keep returning to).

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for Old English last week, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and gives just as a wonderful account of Middle English as it does for Old English)

The history of the English language – Old English phonology

Welcome to a new year (and decade) with HLC!

I am very happy to be here with all of you, my dear followers, and I hope that HLC will continue to grow during this new decade! In order to do that, please let me know if there is anything you’re missing from the HLC and I will do my best to provide it!

In the meantime, while you contemplate what you would like to see more of here at the HLC, let’s get back to HEL!

Today, let’s have a look at Old English phonology!

As I am sure you know, the HLC has done some work on this before (like here), but today, let’s have a closer look, shall we?

First, two words of warning: First, Old English underwent a lot of changes. It’d be a very long blog post if I tried to cover them all! Therefore, this will merely provide a bit of an inkling, outlining the sound system of Old English. On the topic of phonological changes that Old English underwent, Wikipedia has an abundance of interesting information – do check it (and my other sources) out!

Second, Old English phonology is, of course, somewhat speculative. This is necessarily the case because, obviously, we can’t exactly ask the speakers of the language how they would pronounce this or that, or listen to recordings of speakers.

But (!) there is a relatively large corpus of the language (check out the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus, which consists of at least one copy of every surviving Old English text 1 – isn’t that remarkable?!). This means that we can look at orthography, which is deemed to be quite faithful to pronunciation, to draw some tentative conclusions about how words were pronounced.

Now, let’s start with something fairly simple: a consonant sound inventory of Old English, which looks something like this:

 LabialDentalAlveolarPost-alveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalm(n̥) n(ŋ)
Stopp bt dk g
Affricatetʃ (dʒ)
Fricativef (v)θ (ð)s (z)ʃ(ç)(x ɣ)h
Approximant(l̥) lj(ʍ) w
Trill(r̥) r

(Want to hear how they sound? Check out this amazing interactive IPA chart!)

Now, I won’t go into detail about allophonic variations and when they occur, simply because a blog post can only be so long. However, there are numerous, great books listed in my notes below if you want to take a closer peek at Old English phonology.

Alright, so we have the consonants. But what kind of vowels did Old English have?

Well, they had seven or eight vowels, depending on dialect:

 FrontBack
unroundedroundedunroundedrounded
Closei i:y y:u u:
Mide e:(ø ø:)o o:
Openæ æ:ɑ ɑ:

The front mid rounded vowel [ø] appears in the Northumbrian dialect (remember the Old English dialects?) but corresponds to [e] in late West Saxon, which is why it’s in parenthesis here in our table.

What about diphthongs, though? Surely, Old English had diphthongs!

It did! And here they are!
First elementShortLongSpelling (Old English)Spelling (modern)
Highiu̯iːu̯ioio, īo
Mideo̯eːo̯eoeo, ēo
Lowæɑ̯æːɑ̯eaea, ēa

*These are representative of the diphthongs that occur in the Anglian dialects of Old English – the high diphthongs io and īo had merged into eo and ēo in Late West Saxon.

And that is a very brief outline of the sound system of Old English!

Join me next week as we watch this vital part of a language change quite a bit in Middle English!

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Notes and references

If you want to have a closer look at Old English phonology (or Old English generally), there are a number of really great books for you. Here are some of my favorites, with my own thoughts on the source in parenthesis 2 !

Alistair Campbell. 1959. Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (This is a classic – you won’t be disappointed.)

Roger Lass. 1994. Old English: A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (I will personally always recommend pretty much anything written by Roger Lass. The works are always filled with great information, written in an engaging and interesting way.)

Bruce Mitchell & Fred Robinson. A guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. (A very good overview with a lot of information.)

Richard Hogg. 2002. An introduction to Old English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (A thin volume, with easy access to a lot of difficult matters!)

Richard Hogg. 1992. Chapter 3: Phonology and Morphology (in The Cambridge History of the English language, vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 67-168. (Again, just as above, easy access to a lot of information – definitely worth a read.)

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (This is one of my absolute favorites – I used it extensively for my master’s thesis and found it extremely useful, not just regarding Old English but generally about the phonology of English.)

The history of the English language – Modern English morphology

Welcome back! I hope everyone (who celebrates) had a lovely Christmas!

Let’s get back to morphology!

Today, we’re not really doing historical linguistics, because, today, we’re looking at Modern English morphology.

Although Modern English is usually further divided into Early Modern English and Late Modern English and, by some, also into Present-Day English, we’ll do a general overview of this entire period – which stretches from 1500 to present day.

Why?

Well, because, honestly, English morphology really hasn’t changed all that much since Middle English (that is not to say that it hasn’t changed at all, just that it hasn’t changed so much that it would add to your knowledge to divide it into its “typical” divisions).

Up to this point, we’ve mostly focused on inflectional morphology.

Inflectional morphology refers to something that is added to a word for grammatical reasons – like case, gender, number, etc.

In this, English really hasn’t changed all that much. Like in Middle English, Present-Day English has three cases: nominative, accusative, and genitive. In any other word than a pronoun, the genitive is expressed by the apostrophe (as in “My dog‘s toy“), while in pronouns, we see a bit more of a difference:

NominativeAccusativeGenitive
IMeMine
YouYouYours
HeHimHis
SheHerHers
ItItIts
WeUs Ours
TheyThemTheirs
WhoWhomWhose
This is not really all that different from Middle English.

In Middle English (as we talked about last week), the case system underwent a weakening and lost the distinctive dative case by the early Middle English period. And since then, this is pretty much the system that has been used.

Modern English has no real grammatical gender system left – that is, it has a system that is mostly based on natural gender. What that means is that it makes no difference to an English speaker whether a word is technically a masculine, feminine or neuter because there is no distinction between the forms (or their modifiers) anyway. Even dictionaries in English (like Merriam-Webster) do not attribute a gender to an English word.

Instead, the word, if necessary, coincides with the subject’s natural gender. That is, if you’re talking about a woman, you’ll say she, while, if you’re talking about a man, you’ll say he.

This is really not all that different from Middle English either.

Grammatical gender started to disappear from English during the Middle English period and by the late 14th century, it is pretty much gone (at least in London English). So, not all that different.

Last: technically, we have eight inflectional morphemes in modern English:

MorphemeFunctionAttaches toExample
'sGenitive (possessive)NounsThe child's book
(e)sPluralNounsThe books
The wishes
(e)dPast tenseVerbsBaked (from bake)
Played (from play)
-ingPresent participleVerbsI'm thinking
-en (also expressed by -ed, -d, -t, -n)Past participleVerbsThe boy taken to the hospital is getting better
-s Third person singularVerbsThe girl eats
-erComparativeAdjectivesHe is smarter than most boys his age
-estSuperlativeAdjectivesShe is the smartest girl in our class

Though we might also want to add -en as a possible way to show plural (i.e. oxen, children). Again, this is not very different from what we find in Middle English.

However, there is another form of morphology:
derivational morphology.

We haven’t really talked about derivational morphology (which is actually rather interesting since I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to account for a specific derivational morpheme).

Anyway, morphological derivation is the process by which you create a new word by taking an existing word and adding a prefix or a suffix to it. (There are a number of other affixes, such as infix and circumfix, but they are less commonly used.)

Basically, you take a word, like child. Then you add a suffix to your word; let’s add -hood – and, suddenly, you got childhood! (-hood and its sister suffix –head just happens to be the suffixes I’ve spent a loooong time looking into).

I haven’t really focused on this but derivational morphology has been an active part of English morphology since Old English, and thus, we find cildhad (childhood) in Old English.

And there you have it, a brief overview of modern English morphology! 

As you can see, in this very brief overview, there isn’t all that much that has changed from the Middle English period. That will soon change as we will, next week, start having a look at the development of English phonology! Check back then!

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References

For this post, I’ve had a look at:

The Dictionary of Old English

Morphemes in English

Gender in English

Morphological derivation

The history of the English language – Middle English morphology

Welcome back to HEL!
(History of the English Language –
and no, it is not intentionally close to H-E-double-hockey-sticks)

Last week, we did Old English morphology and, boy, that was a complex system! By comparison, Middle English morphology is easy.

The trickier (and perhaps more important) question might be:
why is it so easy?

First things first.

By the time we reach Middle English, we see a significant simplification of the complex Old English system.

While Old English had four distinct noun-endings for different cases (the nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative), Middle English had only two such patterns:

 Old English: SingularOld English: PluralMiddle English: SingularMiddle English: Plural
Nominativeenġelenglasengelengles
Accusative
Genitiveenglesenglaengleengle(n)/englem
Dativeengleenglumenglesengle

The distinctive dative case – ending in -um – was lost during the early Middle English period. The genitive, however, survived, though only the strong ‘s ending was in use (and, like most things Middle English, variously spelt).

The strong (e)s plural form of Old English survived even into Present-Day English, and even the weak form -en is still found in a few words (like children, oxen, brethren).

How about verbs?

Well, again, like most things Middle English, it is really hard to say anything that covers everything. You see, because there was no written standard, Middle English had so much variation that a word might be spelt differently even within one text, written by one author. It’d be like I suddenly started spelling the word “though” as þhou, or why not thawe or thaue. And then went back to though all of a sudden. You see the problem?

With that said, as a general rule, the first person singular of verbs tends to end in –e (ich here “I hear”), the second person in -(e)st (þou spekest “you speak”), and the third person in –or –eth (he comeþ/cometh) or –es (as today).

Again, general rules tend not to work well for Middle English and you should really not consider this a “rule” as such.

It’s more of a… guideline.

Alright, so, these changes may seem like pretty small changes, but it had a pretty massive effect on the language.

The simplification of morphology affected phonology, which affected orthography, which affected grammar, and round and round the wheel goes.

It’s kind of like the butterfly effect.

But why did it happen?

Well, we don’t really know. Perhaps a phonological weakening, causing the distinct forms of Old English to become less distinct, eventually causing a collapse of the system when people could no longer distinguish the forms? (I personally believe this theory)

Or, perhaps, the intense contact with Old Norse and/or Anglo-Norman led to Middle English becoming a creole? (We discuss that in more detail here)

What do you think?

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References

I have double-checked some things in this post to make sure that I remember correctly. This is primarily done using this page to check some morphological patterning as well as getting some examples from Wikipedia.

Additionally, although I haven’t used it for this particular post, I highly recommend An Introduction to Middle English (2002) by Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith and An Introduction to Middle English (2012) by R.D. Fulk (both of which grace my bookshelf) for those who wish to get a brief, but well-written, introduction to the Middle English language.

Enjoy!

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 – Modern English dialects

Our last little installment of dialects! I know that this is a historical linguistics’ blog, but, today, let’s talk about Modern English, shall we?

Before we can do that though, we need to talk about something else: the distinction between a dialect and an accent.

Up until now, I haven’t made this distinction because it hasn’t been truly necessary; you see, when talking about Middle English and Old English, the term dialect holds quite true. When it comes to modern English, however…

Not as much.

Although often used interchangeably, the terms dialect and accent actually refer to two different things in linguistics. So what is an accents and what is a dialect?

Well, an accent is one part of a dialect.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Alright, an accent refers to how people pronounce words, while a dialect is much more all-encompassing and includes pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

As I have been focusing on the England in this post, I’ll be focusing on the accents (commonly called dialects) in British English, but don’t fret! I’ll come back to other varieties of English (like American English) in a future post.

via GIPHY

Yeah, that was a bit creepy, but hey, what can I say – I am a horror-flick fan.

Anyway, the accents of (British) English!

Trudgill divided the accents of English into ten (!) different accent regions. In no particular order, with their accent name in parenthesis following, these are:

Accent regionAccent nameStrongest center
West MidlandsBrummieBirmingham
SouthwestWest CountryBristol/Plymouth
Northwest MidlandsManchesterManchester/Salford
NortheastGeordieNewcastle/Sunderland
MerseysideScouseLiverpool
Home CountiesLondon/EstuaryGreater London
East, North, and South MidlandsEast MidlandsLincoln
East AngliaEast Anglian (traditional)Norfolk/Suffolk
Central LancashireLancashire (traditional)Rossendale
Central and lower NorthYorkshireLeeds/Bradford

Trudgill divided the accents into these groups based on a simple sentence: very few cars made it up the path of the long hill.

Ignoring the function-words here (that is it, of, and the), Trudgill recorded the pronunciation of these eight words and noted the following:

Accent"y" in "very""ew" in "few""ar" in "cars""a" in "made""u" in "up""a" in "path""n" in "long""hill" in "hill"
Brummie/i//juː/[ɑː][ʌɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
West Country/ɪ//juː/[ɑːɹ][eɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[ɪl]
Manchester/ɪ//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Geordie/i//juː/[ɒː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[hɪl]
Scouse/i//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
London/Estuary/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ~æɪ]/ʌ//ɑː//ŋ/[ɪo]
East Midlands/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]
East Anglian/i//uː/[aː][æɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[(h)ɪl]
Lancashire/ɪ//juː/[aːɹ][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Yorkshire/i//juː/[äː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]

In addition to these features, the absence or presence of the so-called trap-bath split was also recorded (under the feature path). The trap-bath split is a vowel split by which some words come to be pronounced with a long /ɑ:/, mostly in the southern English accents, and short /a/ in the northern ones. If you are unsure of how that would sound, check out the sound examples at the Pronunciation Studio.

Using this fairly simple sentence, it was possible to discern some general patterns of accent “boundaries”, thus creating the accent-boundaries of modern (British) English! Using the results, it was then possible to divide the country into six major dialect areas:

  • Scots (which Lisa talked about here and here)
  • Northern dialects
  • Western Central (Midlands)
  • Eastern Central (Midlands)
  • Southwestern dialects
  • Southeastern dialects

Isn’t that quite amazing? (and, as usual, a bit ridiculously oversimplified)

However, there is one accent that I haven’t mentioned yet:
Received Pronunciation, or RP.

Also known as Received Pronunciation, the Queen’s English, BBC English, Standard British pronunciation or Southern British pronunciation, RP is a highly prestigious “standard” accent in Britain. However, very few British English speakers actually speak RP: Trudgill estimated only about 3% in 1974. This has since been questioned but the highest “guestimates” appear to be 10% – which is really not a very high number any way.

And there you have it – the British English dialects!

I hope you enjoyed that little tidbit, but check out the references if you want to learn more – because, naturally, I can’t go through all of the details here (nor, if I am frank, do I know them) and there is a lot more to learn!

Join me next week when we go back in history again, and take a look at Old English morphology! Until then!

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References

If you want to learn more about the difference between dialects and accents (and dialects generally), check out this OED blog post.

Wikipedia’s entry for the English dialects (*cough* accents *cough*) is quite informative and well-worth a look (and I’ll admit to having largely reproduced the table from theirs, with some adjustments).

On a more formal level, Trudgill’s study was reported by Ossi Ihalainen in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 5, where you can read more about the study. Or go straight to the source, which in this case is The dialects of England by Peter Trudgill (1990).

I’ve also had a brief look at Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (2013) Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects.