Is English a creole?

Hi all!

By now, I figure most of you have noticed that when a post shows up at the HLC about the development of the English language in particular, I show up. Today is no exception to the rule (though there will be some in the future)!

Anyway, it’s safe to say that England has been invaded a lot during the last couple of… well, centuries. All this invading and being invaded by non-native people had a tremendous effect on most things English, the English language among them.

This is, of course, nothing new. I’ve previously discussed the question of whether English is a Romance language, but today, we’re going to jump into something different, namely, the question of whether English is a creole.

In order to do that, I’ll first need to say a few words about what a creole actually is, and we’re going to do the basic definition here: a creole is a pidgin with native speakers.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Right, so a pidgin is a form of language that develops between two groups of people who don’t speak the same language but still needed to understand each other for one reason or another.

Typically, in the formation of a pidgin, you have a substrate language and a superstrate language. The substrate is the ‘source’ language. This language is, usually for political reasons, abandoned for the more prestigious superstrate language.

But not completely. Instead, the pidgin becomes a sort of mix, taking characteristics of both the substrate and the superstrate to create a ‘new’ language. A rather distinct characteristic of this new language is that it is typically less grammatically complex than both the sub- and the superstrate language. Another distinct characteristic is that it has no native speakers since it’s in the process of being created by native speakers of two different languages.

But, it can get native speakers. When a new generation is born to pidgin-speaking parents, and the new generation acquires the pidgin as their native tongue, the pidgin ceases to be a pidgin and becomes a creole. So, a creole is a pidgin with native speakers. Typically, a creole becomes more grammatically complex, developing into a new language that is a mix of the two languages that created the pidgin.

But enough of that. Question is: is English a creole?

Well, there are reasons to assume so:

There is a distinct difference between Old English and Middle English, the primary one being a dramatic discrepancy in grammatical complexity, with Middle English being far simpler. As we now know, this is one of the primary features of a pidgin.

There were also politically stronger languages at play during the relevant time periods that just might have affected Old English so much that it was largely abandoned in favour of the other language.

First came the Vikings…

*1

One often thinks about murder and plunder when thinking about the Vikings, but a bunch of them settled in Britain around the 9th century (see Danelaw) and likely had almost daily contact with Old English speakers. This created the perfect environment for borrowing between the two languages.

But see, Old Norse, at least in the Danelaw area, was the politically stronger language. Some people claim that this is the cause of the extreme differences we see when Old English transitions into Middle English.

One of the main arguments for Old Norse as the superstrate is a particular borrowing that stands out. Though English borrowed plenty of words from Old Norse, for example common words like egg, knife, sky, sick, wrong, etc., it also borrowed the third person plural pronouns: they, them, their (compare Swedish de, dem, deras).

This is odd. Why, you ask? Well, pronouns are typically at what we might call the ‘core’ of a language. They are rarely borrowed because they are so ingrained in the language that there is no need to take them from another.

The borrowing of the pronouns from Old Norse implies a deep influence on the English language. Combined with all other things that English borrowed from Old Norse and the grammatical simplification of Middle English, this has led some linguists to claim that English is actually an Old Norse/Old English-based creole.  

We’ll discuss that a bit more in a sec.

After the Vikings, the Brits thought they could, you know, relax, take a deep breath, enjoy a lazy Sunday speaking English…

And then came the French…

*2

Now, here, there’s no doubt that French was the dominant language in Britain for quite some time. The enormous amounts of lexical items that were borrowed from French indicate a period of prolonged, intense contact between the two languages and, again, the grammatical simplification of Middle English in comparison to Old English might be reason enough to claim that Middle English is a creole of Old English and Old French.

And a good number of linguists2 have, indeed, said exactly that. This is known as the Middle English creole hypothesis and it remains a debated topic (though less so than it has been historically).

‘But, Sabina,’ you might ask, ‘I thought you were going to tell me if English is a creole?!’

Well, sorry, but the fact is that I can’t. This one is every linguist (or enthusiast) for themselves. I can’t say that English is not a creole, nor can I say that it is one. What I can say is that I, personally, don’t believe it to be a creole.

And now, I’ll try to tell you why.

It is true that Middle English, and subsequently modern English, is significantly less grammatically complex than Old English. That’s a well-evidenced fact. However, that simplification was already happening before French came into the picture, and even before Old Norse.

In fact, the simplification is often attributed to a reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa (good thing Rebekah covered all of this, isn’t it?) which led to the previously complex paradigms becoming less distinct from each other. Might not have anything to do with language contact at all. Or it might.

The borrowing of Old Norse pronouns is, indeed, unusual, but not unheard of, and studies have shown that the effect of Old Norse on English may not be as significant and widespread as it was believed.

When it comes to French, while an intriguing hypothesis which is well-worth pursuing for leisurely interests, extensive borrowing is not sufficient evidence to claim that a creole has been created. Extensive borrowing occurs all the time among languages in long, intense contact.

*3

Combined with the fact that we have evidence of grammatical simplification before both Old Norse and French came to play a significant role in English, and the trouble we stumble onto when considering the question of when English was ever a pidgin, I personally find both creolization hypotheses unlikely.

However, I encourage you to send us a message and tell us what you think: is English a creole?

Tune in next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the Transatlantic accent!

Sources and references

Most famously Patricia Poussa’s work ‘The evolution of early Standard English: the creolization hypothesis’ (1982).

Most famously Charles-James N. Bailey and Karl Maroldt “The French lineage of English” (1977). The interested reader may also wish to take a look at Dalton-Puffer’s (1995) interesting discussion on the phenomenon in the chapter ‘Middle English is a creole and its opposite: On the value of plausible speculation’ of Fisiak’s (1995) book Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions

Credits to the creators of the pictures herein used. They have been found on the following pages:

*1: https://quotesgram.com/img/funny-viking-quotes/1373665/

*2 https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f7/6d/3d/f76d3dad4183d34f8d0669a433684df5.jpg

*3 Credits to James Nicoll, no URL offered since the domain has since expired.

It’s all Greek to me!

 

Or, How No Language is Any More (or Less) Difficult than Any Other

Lessons I learned from Latin

How did Latin speakers remember which case a word goes in, and its form, as they spoke? We probably all wondered about this question at some time or another. I remember studying Latin in middle school (it’s mandatory in Italy) and being absolutely baffled at the thought that such a byzantine language could have been spoken fluently at some time in the past as I struggled to learn by heart dozens of declension tables as well as lists of environments which required the presence of some case or another (and even longer lists of exceptions to those lists!). The Romans must have been geniuses with prodigious memories who would probably find Italian a ridiculously simple and unsophisticated language to learn.

Then one day, in high school, I stumbled upon a textbook which used a different method to teach Latin from the one I was used to: it taught it as a living language. No more declension tables, no more long lists of baroque rules, no more grand examples of complicated rhetorical stylings; instead, it had everyday dialogues, going from simpler to more complex, and bite-sized grammar sections. Suddenly, Latin became easy: with the help of a dictionary, I could read and write in it with a reasonable degree of proficiency (which, alas, I’ve largely lost).

Had I become a genius? Did I start seeing my native Italian as a boorish, simplified version of the language of Rome? Absolutely not. All that changed was the way the language had been taught to me. That was the day I learned that no language is any more difficult than any other. Also, everything’s easier when you learn it as a baby, and the Romans spoke Latin since they were born, no declension tables necessary.

Latin is by no means the only language to be considered particularly difficult: we’ve all heard how difficult it is to learn Chinese, with all those ideographs[1] to learn, and with words being so ambiguous and whatnot; or Finnish, which has 15 cases and innumerable verbal inflections. Also, it’s a national pastime for everyone[2] to regard their language as the most complex to learn for foreigners, because that makes you feel oh-so-intelligent.

The idea that some languages are inherently more complex than others is, unsurprisingly, another legacy of the dastardly Victorians and their colonialist obsession with ethnocentric nationalism.

It was, of course, in the interest of Eurocentric racists to paint foreign languages as being either primitively simple and unsophisticated, or bizarrely and unnecessarily complicated (damned if you do, damned if you don’t). If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read our post on phonaesthetics a few weeks ago, where we found out that the same reasoning was applied to how a language sounds.

Those Victorians… never happy until they’ve enslaved, massacred or culturally neutered someone different from them. Bless their little hearts.

Scientists estimate that a greater-than-average amount of moustache-twirling went into the making of this linguistic prejudice

My task today is showing you how this is not really true at all, and how your failure to realise your dream of learning Ahkwesásne Mohawk is more due to a lack of proper learning materials rather than any difficulty inherent in the language itself.

It all depends on your point of view

So, am I saying that all languages are equally simple in all their aspects? Well, no. While all languages are more or less equally complex, how that complexity is distributed changes from language to language. For example, while it is undeniably true that Finnish is far more morphologically complex than English, phonologically speaking English makes it look like toddler babbling.

Amazingly, although complexity might be distributed differently from language to language, overall the different parts balance out to make languages more or less as complex as each other. We don’t really know how this happens: various mechanisms have been proposed, but they all have fatal flaws. It is one of the great mysteries of linguistics.[3]

“But why do I find French so difficult, Riccardo?” you scream through a haze of tears as you once again fail to understand how the past subjunctive is of any use in any language ever. Well, the answer is that how difficult a language is to learn for you depends on your first language. Specifically, the more similar two languages are in their distribution of complexity, the easier it is for speakers of each to learn the other. If the languages are related, then it becomes even easier.[4] So, Mandarin Chinese might well be very difficult to learn for an English speaker, due to its very simple morphology, rigid syntactic structure and tonal phonology; but, say, a Tibetan speaker would find it much easier to learn than English, because the two languages are distantly related, and therefore have similar structure.

The moral of the story

And so, once again, we come to the end of a post having dispelled another widespread linguistic misconception.

Even though these myths might seem rather innocuous, they have real and sometimes very serious consequences. The idea that some languages are more or less complex or difficult to learn than others has, over the centuries, been used to justify nationalist, racist, and xenophobic sentiments which have ultimately resulted in suffering and sometimes even genocide.

What we need to do with languages is learn them, share them, preserve them, and speak them, not pitting them against each other in a competition over which is the best, most “logical”, most difficult or better-sounding one.

So enjoy the amazing diversity of human languages, people!

Stay tuned for next week, when Sabina will answer the old question: is English really three languages stacked upon each other wearing a trenchcoat?

  1. They’re not actually ideographs, they’re logographs, but that’s a topic for another post.
  2. Except for English speakers, who, for various reasons, have convinced themselves that their language is stupid, unsophisticated, illogical and boring. More on this in a future post.
  3. It is important to note that this rule does not apply to pidgins and (young) creoles, due to the way they were formed, as pointed out by John McWhorter (2011). These languages truly are simpler than all others. This, however, does NOT make them any more “primitive” or “less expressive”.
  4. Paradoxically, if two languages are TOO closely related, it becomes slightly more difficult for their speakers to learn the other, because they tend to over-rely on the similarities and end up tripping up on the differences.

A wanty ken wit Scots is (a want ye tae show me)

This post marks the second part of my series on Scots. In the first part, I briefly outlined the history and present-day status of Scots. If you want a quick catch-up on the history but don’t feel like more reading, I recommend this video by the Angus McIntosh Centre – also available in Scots!

Hello, my lads and lassies! (Sorry, will never do that again.)

Today’s post is about the differences between Scots and English. Rather than give you a lengthy list of all the ways in which Scots differs from English, I will give you some examples and point out keys to identifying some of the more recognisable features of Scots – both historically and today. Consider this your handy guide to recognising the Scots language1.

As this is the Historical Linguist Channel, I will begin by showing you how to recognise Scots in older texts. If this is not your cup of tea, keep reading, there is something for you further down.

Historical Scots

As you may remember from my previous post, Older Scots was quite clearly distinct from English2. When we want to determine whether a piece of historical text is Scots, there are certain features we can look for. I’ll give you an example of this, using lines from a 15th century Scots poem, The buke of the Howlat (lit. ‘The book of the Owl)3.

One straightforward way to find the Scots features of this poem is to look at the spelling, and spelling can to some extent also give us clues about Scots pronunciation4. As an example, see the following line:

To luke out on day lycht
To look out on day light

Here, the <gh>5 spelling in light corresponds to <ch> in lycht. This spelling represents the sound that you might recognise from the ending of the word loch, meaning ‘lake’ (you know, where Nessie lives). If you want to be more technical, this is a voiceless velar fricative: [x]. This sound is still used in many varieties of Scots today.

This next example has more Scots features for us to unpack:

“Quhy is my face”, qȝ6 ye fle, “faʃʃonit ʃo foule,
“Why is my face”, quoth (said) the wretch, “shaped (cf. fashioned) so foully,

The strange long ‘s’, <ʃ>, is believed to sometimes represents the iconic Sean Connery pronunciation of /s/7. The first word begins with <quh->, and the correlating English spelling is <wh->; variations of <qu(h)-> are very typical Older Scots spellings, which only started to disappear in the 16th century once there was more influence from English in Scots writing. Then it was gradually replaced by the English <wh->. We are not quite sure whether this spelling also reflects a certain pronunciation, like /kw/8.

Finally, the spelling of certain word endings can also highlight features of Scots grammar. For example, the word faʃʃonit above, ending in <-it>. This is a suffix which marks past participles and adjectives, and its English equivalent is <-ed>, as in ‘I am old-fashioned’. In The buke of the Howlat we also find a typically Scots <-is> ending marking plural, as in foulis (‘fowls’; English plurals are commonly either marked by <-s> or <-es>). Present tense verbs are also marked with the <-is> ending in Older Scots: where we in English would have he sings, Scots has he singis.

Knowing about these historically Scots features helps us understand the relevance of certain features in modern Scots. It can, for example, help us figure out where certain pronunciations or word orders come from. I’ve so far used terminology which hints that some of these features have changed or disappeared. The influence by English over Scots starting in the 16th century, which I mentioned above, is commonly referred to the anglicisation of Scots (read more about the historical context for this in my last post), and it caused some decline of uniquely Scots features – especially in writing. However, as we shall see below, while some features were lost and some changed, Scots is a survivor and the modern language still uses versions of many distinctive features of Older Scots  as well as modern innovations.

Present-Day Scots

In my last post, I explained the complicated status of Scots in modern Scotland, and hinted about how much variation there is between speakers and regions as well as within the speech of one individual. Scots is not as present in formal writing as it was in its heyday, however Wee Windaes and similar sites give good example of what Scots looks like in such contexts – have a look and see how much you can understand, and where Scots differs from what you’re used to reading.

We also find plenty of good examples of modern, colloquial “Scotticisms”9 in writing, mixed  with some English. A good source of this: Scottish twitter! Reader discretion is advised; the following tweet reproductions contain strong language.

Exhibit A:

Note that the c-word is used very lightly in Scotland, sometimes even replaceable with ‘mate’.

The Scots feature I want to pick out specifically from this tweet is negation: Dinny is used where we would expect don’t if it had been written in only English. This is probably one of the most recognisable Present-Day Scots features, and -ny, or -nae, can be added to most auxiliary verbs where English would have n’t: dinny, hasny, cannae, and so on. This tweeter also uses the instead of to in “the jail” – this is something I’ve noticed Scots speakers do a lot, even saying ‘the day’ rather than ‘today’.

Exhibit B:

This tweeter not only puts into words what we all feel sometimes when we think about the state of the world, but also gives us some more excellent examples of Scotticisms. Here, I want to bring attention to the word yersel (‘yourself’), used twice. A typically Scots pronunciation feature is to not pronounce /f/ in words like self, and here we see it reflected in spelling.

Finally, Exhibit C: The iMessage conversation extract below is attached to a tweet by @jordanjonesxo.

Diverting your attention from the foul language, notice how hink is used for ‘think’. This is, as you would expect by now, reflecting a Scots pronunciation: /h/ where English has /θ/.

I haven’t mentioned all of the Scots features in these tweets – I’m sure you’re able to identify some without my help. Other features that we often see in this form of writing is aw where we expect ‘all’ and fae where we expect ‘from’. The former is an example of Scots “l-vocalisation”, meaning that /l/ is not pronounced at the end of words. The latter is simply the Scots word for ‘from’ – fae, ken (‘know’), wee (‘little’), bairn (‘child’) and mind (‘remember’) are only a few examples of Scots words which are very commonly used in Scots speech today even when mixed with English.

If you have seen or read Trainspotting, written by Irvine Welsh, I’m sure you will be familiar with the above as well as other Scotticisms. The extract below is from the sequel, Porno. See how many Scotticisms, or words and spellings you wouldn’t expect from an English text10, you can find yersells! (Pro tip: It helps to read out loud when you’re not sure what’s going on.)

Welsh, Irvine, “Porno”, Published by Jonathan Cape, 2002, p. 350.

Let us know what you found, tell us your favourite Scots word, and ask us any questions about this post – either by commenting here or on Facebook, or by emailing us (adding Lisa to the subject line will lead it straight to me).

If you now, after all this reading of Scots, want to get a good example of what it sounds like, here are some links (some repeated from earlier in the post):

The Angus McIntosh Centre’s video on the origin of Scots, in Scots.

Listen to the Buke of the Howlat (to the left on the page).

Doric Scots, contrasted with English.

Some more examples of Scots words.

 

Next week, Riccardo will bust the myth that some languages are just essentially harder to learn than others. Nay!, says we at the HLC.

Bye!

Footnotes

1Bear in mind that some of the features I bring up here are not uniform for all varieties of Scots.

2However, we also want to remember that Scots developed from a variety spoken in the North-East of England, and so some of the features described here can sometimes be found in documents from there as well. As always, we need to bear in mind that the boundaries of a “language” is not determined by national borders – see my previous post on languages and dialects.

3This analysis is based on previous work by Dr. Rhona Alcorn, Daisy Smith, Maddi Morcillo Berrueta and myself for the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes website. You can find the complete version here. At Wee Windaes, you can also listen to the poem being read in Scots.

4If you’re particularly interested in mapping sounds to spelling in Scots, I recommend reading about the FITS project.

5This spelling in English used to represent the same [x] sound which is no longer a part of the English phonemic inventory.

6Abbreviations are common in old manuscripts, just imagine writing a whole book by hand! This particular one correlates to some form of ‘quoth’, as seen in the translation.

7The way Sean Connery pronounces his s’s is actually a (mainly Glaswegian) Scots pronunciation feature, which is mostly used by men.
Reference: Stuart-Smith, J., Timmins, C. and Tweedie, F., 2007. ‘Talkin’ Jockney’?: variation and change in Glaswegian accent. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 11(2). 221-260.

8Suggested in: Lass, R. & M. Laing. 2016. Q is for WHAT, WHEN, WHERE: The ’q’ spellings for OE hw-. Folia Linguistica Historica 37, 61–110.

9I believe this term was coined by A.J. Aitken, if I’m not mistaken.

10Not everything here is straightforwardly Scots, rather a representation of Scottish English, but as I’ve repeated many times by now: It’s complicated!

Phonaesthetics, or “The Phrenology of Language”

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: French is a beautiful, romantic language; Italian sounds like music; Spanish is passionate and primal; Japanese is aggressive; Polish is melancholic; and German is a guttural, ugly, unpronounceable mess (Ha! Tricked you! You couldn’t stop me because I’ve written all of this down way before now. Your cries and frantic gesticulations were for naught.)

We’ve all heard these judgements (and many others) repeated multiple times over the course of our lives; not only in idle conversation, but also in movies, books, comics, and other popular media. There’s even a series of memes dedicated to mocking how German sounds in relation to other European languages:

“Ich liebe dich” is a perfectly fine and non-threatening way of expressing affection towards another human being

What you might not know is that this phenomenon has a technical name in linguistics: phonaesthetics.[1]

Phonaesthetics, in short, is the hypothesis that languages are objectively more or less beautiful or pleasant depending on various parameters, such as vowel to consonant ratio, presence or absence of certain sounds etc., and, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a gigantic mountain of male bovine excrement.

Pictured: phonaesthetics

Let me explain why:

A bit of history

Like so many other terrible ideas, phonaesthetics goes way back in human history. In fact, it may have been with us since the very beginning.

The ancient Greeks, for example, deemed their language the most perfect and beautiful and thought all other languages ugly and ungainly. To them, these foreign languages all sounded like strings of unpleasant sounds: a mocking imitation of how they sounded to the Greeks, “barbarbarbar”, is where we got our word “barbarian” from.

In the raging (…ly racist) 19th century, phonaesthetics took off as a way to justify the rampant prejudice white Europeans had against all ethnicities different from their own.

The European elite of the time arbitrarily decided that Latin was the most beautiful language that ever existed, and that the aesthetics of all languages would be measured against it. That’s why Romance languages such as Italian or French, which descended from Latin[2], are still considered particularly beautiful.

Thanks to this convenient measuring stick, European languages were painted as euphonious ( ‘pleasant sounding’), splendid monuments of linguistic accomplishment, while extra-European languages were invariably described as cacophonous (‘unpleasant sounding’), barely understandable masses of noise. This period is when the common prejudice that Arabic is a harsh and unpleasant language arose, a prejudice that is easily dispelled once you hear a mu’adhin chant passages from the Qur’an from the top of a minaret.

Another tool in the racist’s toolbox, very similar to phonaesthetics, and invented right around the turn of the 19th century, was phrenology, or racial-biology, the pseudoscience which alleged to be able to discern a person’s intelligence and personality from the shape of their head. To the surprise of no one, intelligence, grace and other positive characteristics were all associated with the typical form of a European white male skull, while all other shapes indicated shortcomings in various neurological functions. What a pleasant surprise that must have been for the European white male inventors of this technique![3] Phrenology was eventually abandoned and widely condemned, but phonaesthetics, unfortunately, wasn’t, and it’s amazingly prevalent even today.

To see how prevalent this century-old model of linguistic beauty is in popular culture, a very good example are Tolkien’s invented languages. For all their amazing virtues, Tolkien’s novels are not exactly known for featuring particularly nuanced moral actors: the good guys might have some (usually redeemable) flaws, but the bad guys are just bad, period.

Here’s a brief passage in Quenya, the noblest of all Elven languages:

Ai! Laurië lantar lassi súrinen,

Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier

Mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva

[…]

Notice the high vowel-to-consonant ratio, the prevalence of liquid (“l”, “r”), fricative (“s”, “v”) and nasal (“n”, “m”) sounds, all characteristic of Latinate languages.

Now, here’s a passage in the language of the Orcs:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul

Ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul

See any differences? The vowel-to-consonant ratio is almost reversed, and most syllables end with a consonant. Also, notice the rather un-Latinate consonant combinations (“zg”, “thr”), and the predominance of stops (“d”, “g”, “b”, “k”). It is likely that you never thought about what makes Elvish so “beautiful” and “melodious”, and Orcish (or Klingon, for that matter), so harsh and unpleasant: these prejudices are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice they’re present.

So why is phonaesthetics “wrong”?

Well, the reason is actually very simple: beauty is subjective and cannot be scientifically defined. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Not this beholder.
Image copyright: Wizards of the Coast

What one finds “beautiful” is subject to change both in space and in time. If you think German’s relatively low vowel-to-consonant ratio is “harsh”, then you have yet to meet Nuxálk.

Welcome to phonaesthetic hell.

Speaking of German, it is actually a very good example of how these supposedly “objective” and “common sense” criteria of phonetic beauty can change with time, sometimes even abruptly. You see, in the 19th century, German was considered a very beautiful language, on par with Italian or French. A wealth of amazing prose and poetry was written in it: it was probably the main language of Romantic literature. It was also the second language of opera, after Italian, and was routinely described as melodious, elegant and logical.

Then the Nazis came.

Nazis: always ruining everything.

Suddenly, Germans were the bad guys. No longer the pillars of European intellectual culture, their language became painted as harsh, aggressive, unfriendly and cold, and suddenly every Hollywood villain and mad scientist acquired a German accent.

So, what’s the takeaway from this long and rambling rant?

No language is more, or less, beautiful than any other language. All languages have literature, poetry, song and various other ways to beautifully use their sounds for artistic purposes, and the idea that some are better at this than others is a relic from a prejudiced era better left behind. So next time you feel tempted to mock German for how harsh and unpleasant it sounds, stop and think that maybe this is not actually what you think, and that you’ve been programmed by a century of social prejudice into thinking so.

And read some Goethe, you’ll like it.

Stay tuned for next week, when the amazing Rebekah will bring you on the third leg of our lightning trip through Phonphon!

  1. Phonaesthetics also has a different meaning, which is the study of how certain combinations of sounds evoke specific meanings in a given language. Although this form of phonaesthetics has its problems, too, it is not what I’m talking about in this post, so keep that in mind as we go forward.
  2. See our post on language families here.
  3. First the men assumed that the female skull was smaller than the male, and this was obviously a sign of their inferior intelligence. Later, however, they found that the female skull was larger, so they came up with the idea that this meant females were closer to children, and thus the male was still more intelligent! – Lisa

The Scots Leid – The Scots Language

I am very excited to share this post with you, and have been looking forward to it since the dawn of the HLC. Why? This post marks the first part of a mini-series which will tell you the story of the Scots language, its historical and present day status and linguistic elements, while introducing concepts such as language standardisation and the idea of “debased English”. For now, let’s start with a general overview of what Scots is and where it came from. As any essay-boosting student would, I will start with a quote:

“Up until the end of the 18th century largely the entire Scottish population spoke Gaelic […] During the 19th century the English language further dominated the area. It was the language of the church and schools. Essentially all contacts outside of the villages was in English.”

The quote above comes from a language sciences textbook by a Swedish author1 (the translation is my own). I’m gonna leave it with you for now, and by the end of this post it will hopefully become clear why the statements above are not only problematic, but also plainly wrong!

So, what do we mean when we talk about the Scots language? When hearing the name, some assume it’s another name for Scottish Gaelic (usually pronounced Gallic) , others that it’s a name for the variety spoken in Scotland which is “essentially English” with some lexical differences. As I will probably write about Scots again outside of this blog series (I may be a one-trick pony), I figured it was appropriate to outline as simple as possible (it’s not in any way simple) what the Scots language is, isn’t, and what it has been. I am not going to give any absolute answers, because they can be somewhat political, but will try to keep this series nice and diplomatic, and highly linguistic2.

How far back to begin? I think it is best for everyone if I leave pre-Celtic out of this. I can even do without outlining what we know of the Picts, right? I think we should start in the Dark Ages, when the Gaels, also called the Scotti, migrated to Scotland from Ireland. This people and their language, an ancestor variety to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, dominated Scotland for quite some time. In the Middle Ages, there was a shift to a variety referred to as Inglis, deriving from Northumbrian Old English. Inglis was not called so for very long, but soon became Scottis (in the early 16th century) and finally Scots. Scots became the common language of the Scottish lowlands (and northern islands, but slightly later), while Gaelic remained the language of the highlands.

Map of Scotland, 1595. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland3.

The shift from Gaelic to Inglis/Scots began in the Scottish burghs established in Southern Scotland in the 12th century (hint: Edin-burgh). These burghs became  melting pots for various languages, and the main contributors were locally spoken Northumbrian/Anglian (i.e. varieties of Old-Middle English), Northumbrian/Anglian from south of the English border, Anglo-Norman, Gaelic, Scandinavianised English from the previous Danelaw area, and Flemish spoken by merchants from the continent. All of these lovely ingredients came together to form the tasty casserole we call Older Scots. Now, Scots periodisation is not a done deal, and I will tactfully avoid the issue by referring to everything Scots between 1100 and 1700 as Older Scots. I’ll have to refer you to the footnotes4 for more information about this, we need to stay on the ball.

After this rather lengthy intro, we now arrive at the core of what I want to be known by the end of this post: Scots was a historically distinct variety, spoken in the Scottish lowlands, which was used for all functions and purposes for several centuries; it was the language of literature, parliament, legal texts etc., etc. Essentially, Scots and English were two distinct varieties, and recognised as such! It was not until the late 16th century that things started to change. First, strike one, during the Scottish Reformation (1540) the bible was only available in English, making English the language of religion. Then, strike two, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of Scotland and England after the death of Elizabeth I – this event is called the Union of the Crowns (1603) – which made English the language of the royal court.

King James the VI of Scotland and I of England and Scotland.5

The third strike came in 1707, the Union of Parliaments, when Scotland became part of the United Kingdom and thus English became the language of parliament. By this time, Scots lost its status as a language for formal use, and essentially became degraded, in the public view, to a vernacular, “uneducated” dialect used by the working class and rural populations. The final blow came with the Education Act of 1872, which required only English to be spoken and taught in schools6.  

Does this mean that Scots is gone? Of course not, but the status of Scots as a language is a complicated issue. To properly explain what present-day Scots is we would need to dive back into the debate of what constitutes a language. In recent decades, Scots has received a lot of attention and activism; many Scots speakers want to see their variety receiving official language status, they want justification for the marginalisation of their language and some seek standardisation of Scots. What complicates this matter is that spoken Scots is used by different people from different geographical areas and demographic groups, without a unifying standard variety for several centuries, so it has become a highly mixed variety with very different dialects and sociolects under its spectra. If we were to attempt standardisation, would the urban Glasgow speech “win”, or the rural Aberdeenshire Scots? Or, would we construct a standard like what was done with Basque? Further, it has become increasingly difficult to determine where Scots ends and Scottish English (i.e. English with a Scottish accent) begins, especially since most speakers mix their speech with elements from both varieties and change their speech depending on context.

We can now establish that the quote from the Swedish textbook is problematic mainly because (i). Gaelic was not the language of all of Scotland before 1700, and (ii). It’s controversial to claim that Gaelic was overtaken by English, rather than Scots (and that this happened as late as the 19th century). Finally, I recommend all to visit the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes website for more information about Scots literary history in particular, and to get a better idea of what Scots looks and sounds like (the whole website is in Scots). I have tried very hard to not make this too lengthy and too specific, and I hope I did not lose any essential details in the process. While this post was mostly meant as a general overview of the history and terminology surrounding Scots, the next post in the series will be dedicated to the linguistic distinctions between Scots and English.

To be continued.

Footnotes

1I will leave this author anonymous – it is not my place to shame anyone, this person cited someone else and this may not be their area of expertise.

2I want to give a huge shout out and many thanks to the people teaching the Scots courses at the University of Edinburgh who taught me all of this stuff: Dr Rhona Alcorn, Dr Joanna Kopaczyk, Dr Warren Maguire and Dr Benjamin Molineaux. Anything uncited is credited to their lectures, I owe it all to them!

3Accessed at: http://maps.nls.uk/index.html
Copyright terms: http://maps.nls.uk/copyright.html

4A.J. Aitken (i.e. the forefather of modern Scots linguistics, one might say (and this one does say)) is responsible for the traditional periodisation used. However, Joanna Kopazcyk makes very good points regarding why this periodisation is not ideal, and I’ll refer you to her article for those arguments:
Kopaczyk, J. (2013). Rethinking the traditional periodisation of the scots language. In R. M. Millar and J. Cruickshank (Eds.), After the Storm: Papers from the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster. University of Aberdeen.

5Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/use-this-image.php?mkey=mw03416

6This act, of course, also had severe effects for Scottish Gaelic.

Speaking in Tongues: a Brief History of Conlanging

 

Introduction

 

Up until now, we at the HLC have mainly written about languages that evolved naturally out in the vast and scary place we call the real world, descending from parent languages, which descended from even older parent languages, which presumably descended from the grunts and shrieks our simian ancestors used to brag to each other about their poo-flinging prowess.

However, not all languages have evolved naturally. Some, believe it or not, have been partly or wholly created out of whole cloth by people such as hobbyists, writers, philosophers or logicians. These are called artificial languages, or conlangs (short for constructed languages), and they go waaaaay back.

Now you might be objecting: “but aren’t all languages human-created?”

Well, yes, they are. But there’s a difference between natural languages (or natlangs) and conlangs: while natural languages evolve more or less spontaneously over a span of millennia through their use in a wide community, conlangs are wholly and deliberately manufactured (and sometimes evolved) by one or more people over the course of months, or at most decades.

No hominid sat at a table (or a rock formation resembling a table) in prehistoric times and deliberately decided to create a communication system which went beyond simple mating calls and poo-flinging calls; language evolved naturally out of whatever was before it through means that are still not very clear.

Or maybe they did, and we’re all speaking the descendants of some genius hominid’s conlang. Who knows?

2. The First Age of Conlangs: 12th to 17th Centuries

Anyway, nobody knows how far back the history of language invention goes, but it’s pretty probable that the first such artificial languages were created for religious or ritual purposes, to have a secret language only the priests knew with which they could communicate with the gods. Why do we think that? Because the first artificial language ever passed down to us is just such a language: it was called Lingua Ignota, and was invented in the 12th century by St. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess and Christian mystic. Very little of her creation has trickled down through the centuries, but we know that she used this language to pray and to talk to the other nuns in her abbey. Her being the first known conlanger, as well as an actual Catholic Saint, earned her the moniker of Patron Saint of Conlanging.

Other mystical or magical conlangs came into existence during the 15th and 17th centuries, such as Enochian, created by the famous English occultist John Dee, who claimed it was the language of the angels. Very few actual complete conlangs have reached us from this very early period, and no one actually knows whether St. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota truly was the first conlang or, as it’s more likely, others existed before hers which simply didn’t survive the ages.

3. The Second Age of Conlangs: 18th to 19th Centuries

The second chapter in the history of conlanging began in the 18th century, when a guy named John Wilkins published his book entitled Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language. In this book, he proposed a language which would divide all of human thought in discrete categories, each represented by a different sound, which could be combined to form words. His ultimate goal was to create a maximally efficient and understandable language which could be used to communicate with all of humankind. It was the first auxiliary language, or auxlang, a conlang whose noble goal is facilitating communication between different cultures, as well as being culturally and linguistically neutral. In an era of unceasing nationalistic struggle, these utopic goals attracted the attention of numerous scholars of the Age of Enlightenment.

His efforts didn’t lead to much, but his ideas exploded in the 19th century, giving birth to what can only be called an auxiliary language craze, which saw the creation of numerous languages aimed at facilitating communication between different cultures, such as Volapük (a strange mishmash of various European languages), Solresol (a language meant to be sung or played on an instrument as well as spoken), and what is arguably the most famous conlang of all, Esperanto, created by Polish optician L. Zamenhof in 1887, and which holds the distinction of being the only conlang so far to have acquired native speakers. Esperanto spawned innumerable variants and imitators, some of which are still being created today.

Ultimately, though, the great auxiliary language experiment did not succeed. Unfortunately, the very concept of an auxiliary language presents some insurmountable difficulties which make its successful application all but impossible.

Another kind of conlang which originated in this period was the engineered language, or engelang. Engelangs are conlangs created by linguists or philosophers with the goal of exploring aspects of language or human thought, sort of like “linguistic labs”, so to speak. Some of the most famous engelangs include Lojban, whose goal is creating a language which obeys the rules of formal logic; Ithkuil, a monument of engelanging created by John Quijada, whose goal was creating a language which could convey the most information with the greatest degree of clarity and economy of space (it has 92 cases!!); and Toki Pona, created by Sonja Lang, a cuddly language which tries to encapsulate human thought in just 120 words.

4. The Golden Age of Conlangs: mid-20th Century to Present

The third and ongoing chapter in the history of language invention began in the 20th century, with the rise of artistic languages, or artlangs. For the first time in history, conlangs were created with no particular goal in mind, but as a means of artistic expression. The most famous creator of such languages was English linguist and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, the Mozart of conlanging, who I hope needs no introduction. He started conlanging as a child, and called creating artificial languages his “secret vice”. His conlanging work is monumental: he created multiple languages, which he then artificially evolved to create numerous language families, each comprised of a dozen languages or so. This magnificent handiwork is so complex that there are actual linguists specialising in the study of his languages, and scholarly periodicals published regularly about them.

Another famous artistic language is Klingon, created for the Star Trek television series by Mark Okrand, probably the second best known conlang after Esperanto.

But it’s with the premiere of the TV series and cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones in 2011, which prominently features conlangs created by professional conlanger David J. Peterson, that the conlanging world truly exploded. Where once conlangers were numbered in the dozens, now they are hundreds, with forums and Facebook groups dedicated to this peculiar hobby.

This explosion of interest, together with the publication of conlanging manuals and the spread of conlanging websites on the Internet, has given the current period the name of Golden Age of Conlanging.

So, boys and girls, this is the history of conlanging. Unlike the history of natural language, this is a history of human invention and ingenuity.

Maybe the next chapter of the history of conlanging could be written by some of you guys.

Stay tuned for next week, when the astonishing Lisa will bring tae ye the historie o the Scots Leid.

Is English a Romance language? On language families and relationships

Today, I’m going to talk about language families! When I say this, I believe that most of you will have, on some level, an intuitive hunch about what I mean. If we were to compare a couple of common words found in, for example, Spanish and Italian, we would find that they are often very similar or, in some cases, even identical. Take a look:

Spanish Italian English translation
vivir vivere live
boca bocca mouth
tu you


Similarly, if we were to look at Swedish, Danish and Norwegian:

Swedish Danish Norwegian English translation
leva leve leve live
mun mund munn mouth
du du du you


You see the similarities? Now, why is that, you might wonder. Well, because they are related!

In the linguistic world, related languages are languages that have so much in common that we cannot claim that it is merely due to extensive contact and/or borrowing. These languages, we say, are so similar that there can be no other reasonable explanation than that they descend from a common source: a mother language, as it were. In the case of Spanish and Italian, the mother is Latin, while in the case of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, the language is Old Norse.

Now, it would be convenient if it stopped there, wouldn’t it? But, of course, it doesn’t. Like any family, the mother also has a mother and other relatives, like siblings and cousins. Old Norse, for example, has its own sisters: Old High German, Old Frisian, Old English, etc., which all share the same mother: Proto-Germanic. This is the Germanic language family.

Spanish and Italian also have sisters: French, Portuguese, Romanian, etc., and their common mother is Latin. This is the Romance language family, deriving from Vulgar Latin. But, of course, Latin has its own sisters, for example Umbrian and Oscan, and together with its sisters, Latin forms the Italic language family.

Does it feel a bit confusing? Well, that’s understandable and I’m going to kick it up a notch by adding that the Italic language family, with languages like Spanish and Italian, and the Germanic language family, with languages like Swedish and Danish, actually have the same mother: Proto-Indo-European (or just Indo-European).

The mother in this case is veeeery old, and we actually don’t have any kind of evidence of how it looked! Indo-European is a reconstructed language, more commonly known as a proto-language (as you may have noticed, we call the mother of the Germanic family Proto-Germanic, meaning that it is also a reconstructed language). It has never been heard, never been recorded and no one speaks it. Then how the heck do we know anything about it, right? Well, that has to do with something called the comparative method, which we’ll explain in another post.  

Like human families, language families can be represented in the form of a family tree:*

Clear? Well, hate to tell you this, but this is an extremely simplified version using only examples from these two subfamilies. The “real” Indo-European language family tree looks somewhat more like this:1

You’re kinda hating me right now, aren’t you?


As you can see by the tree above, some languages that you might never expect are actually related. Let’s take as an example Standardised Hindi and German. Here are some common words in both languages:

German Hindi English translation
Mädchen लड़की (ladakee) girl
Hallo नमस्ते (namaste) hello
Hunger भूख (bhookh) hunger


Looking at these words, it is unlikely that you would draw the conclusion that the two languages are related. Looking at the language tree, however, you can see that linguists have concluded they are. Now, you’re probably staring at your screen going “whaaaat?” but, indeed, they are both descendants of Indo-European and are therefore related.

While Indo-European is clearly a large group of languages, it is not the only one (or even the largest). Looking a bit closer at the Indo-European language family, you will notice that languages such as Mandarin and Finnish are not included. These belong to other families, in this case the Sino-Tibetan and Finno-Ugric (or Uralic, depending on your definition) language families respectively.

All in all, there are approximately 130 language families in the world today. Some are related, some are not, just like we are. The largest family is the Niger-Congo language family, having (as recorded in 2009) 1,532 languages belonging to it. (Indo-European comes in a poor 4th place with approximately 439 languages.)2

So, looking at languages is kinda like looking at your own family tree: every mother will have a mother (or father, if you want, but traditionally, linguists call them mothers and daughters). Some branches will have siblings, cousins, second cousins and so on. Some will look nothing like their relatives (or, well, little anyway) and some will be strikingly similar. That’s just the way families work, right?

So, now, we’ve reached a point where I can answer the question in the title: Is English a Romance language?

While this is a much-debated question (do a google search and see for yourself), the simple answer is: no, it’s not. At least, not to a linguist. Now, you might be sitting at home, getting more and more confused because a lot of English vocabulary can be traced back to Latin (the word ‘vocabulary’ being one of those words, actually).

But when linguists say that a language is a Romance language, we are referring to the relationship illustrated in the tree structure, i.e. the language has Latin as its mother. English, then, despite having borrowed a substantial part of its vocabulary from Latin (and later from the Latin language French), it is not in itself a daughter of Latin. English is a daughter of Proto-Germanic, thus, it is a Germanic language.

However, Latin and Proto-Germanic are both daughters of Indo-European. Latin and English are therefore clearly related, but the relationship is more like that of a beloved aunt rather than a mother (if, you know, the beloved aunt refused to recognise you as a person unless you imitated her).

At the end of the day, languages are like any other family: some relationships are strong, some are weak, some are close, some are not.

Tune in next week when Riccardo will delve into another branch of language families: constructed languages.

Notes and sources

*The structure employed here, showing languages as families in family trees, has long been criticized for simply not showing a lot of information like contact-situations, dialect continuums and when the languages were spoken. It has, however, been used to show the beginning student that some languages are related to each other and how they are related in a way that is easy and comprehensible. The Historical Linguist Channel does, however, recognise this criticism and would be happy to discuss it in a separate post or through personal communication.  

1Provided by Ancient History Encyclopedia (Published on 19th of January, 2013).  https://www.ancient.eu/image/1028/

2Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/16. (Family index is reached through http://www.ethnologue.com/16/family_index/).

Happy Holidays from the HLC

We here at the Historical Linguist Channel would like to wish you happy holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, or nothing at all this time of year, whether your New Year comes with 1 January or the first new moon, we hope the rest of December treats you right.

We’re going to pause the semi-serious linguistics for a few weeks to spend time with our loved ones. We’ll be back 4 January with Phonology 101 and more, and in the meantime, Fun Etymology Tuesdays will continue uninterrupted over on our Facebook page.

As our gift to you, here’s a topical story from the history of English:

Once upon a time (let’s call it 1536), a poor guy named William Tyndale was executed for heresy after a merry chase across Europe that abruptly came to an end when he was betrayed in Belgium. His crime? Translating the Bible into English.

The charge of heresy was completely silly and unfair for several reasons:

  1. The Bible was already available in most of the other major languages of Europe.
  2. Two years later, King Henry VIII, the very same who had so adamantly insisted that Tyndale be apprehended, authorized an official English translation of the Bible; it drew heavily from Tyndale’s translation, as did the famous translation later commissioned by King James I.
  3. The Bible had been translated into English before, some of it probably translated by King Alfred himself. (That would be Alfred the Great. And he was. Great. At least, I think so (Hi, this is Rebekah).) Of course, this was before-before—before William and his Norman-French clerics and his Norman-French nobles and their beardless Norman culture.1 (I don’t actually have any beef with William the Conqueror. The dude was a beast, and honestly? England was kind of a mess when he showed up. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the Anglo-Saxons were having a grand old time running around translating the Bible and handing it out to everybody long before Henry VIII got all snippy and execution-y just because William Tyndale called him out on the fact that annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t exactly copacetic vis-a-vis scripture.)

Old English glosses and translations of the Bible were mostly based on the Vulgate Latin Bible. Many of the translations were incomplete, but one translated passage tells a little story you may have heard before:

*

Soþlice2 on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam Casere Augusto
Truly3 in those days happened a command from that Caesar Augustus

þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod.
that all the circle of the world was to be described.

Þeos tomearcodnes wæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino
This census first happened by that governor of Syria Cirinus

and ealle hig eoden and syndrie ferdon on hyra ceastre.
and they all went and separately traveled into their city.

Ða ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareth
Then traveled Joseph from Galilee out of that city Nazareth 

on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides seo is genemned Bethleem
into the Judean city of David which is named Bethlehem

forþam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede.
because he was of David’s house and family.

He ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs and wæs geeacnod.
He traveled with Mary who was married to him and was pregnant.

*

It’s Luke 2, the account of Christ’s birth, in the language of the Anglo-Saxons. A translation of a translation, from Ancient Greek to Latin to Old English. The language tells as much of a story as the words do. For example, they call the world a circle because that’s what they thought it was: a flat disk. In some ways, it’s impossible to separate our language from our culture, or our culture from our language. Our languages convey things that, like music or art, are sometimes a little bit untranslatable (which is how your friendly neighborhood linguists got into a discussion the other day about whether certain Disney songs are better in English or Swedish).

Do you have any Christmas or Hanukkah or Saturnalia (or whatever) stories you’d like to share with us? Any stories or songs that just don’t sound right if you try to translate them? We’d love to hear from you! Comment or send us an email or message in the language of your choice (even if you suspect we don’t speak it).

See you in January!

Notes

1There’s a fantastic lecture series available on audiobook called 1066: The Year That Changed Everything if you’re interested in learning more about the Norman Conquest.

2Modern transcriptions of Old English texts usually include diacritics to indicate vowel length and certain consonant pronunciations. I’m going to ask you to cut me a break on leaving these out here because a. It’s Christmas, b. This isn’t a formal publication, and c. The diacritics are, generally, a modern convention not found in the original manuscripts anyway.

3This is my own translation into ModE. Some of the phrasing may sound a little funny because I’ve gone for something between a gloss and a full translation to give you a sense of the original.

Old English ain’t Shakespeare (feat. Dinosaurs)

Yes, hello. Rebekah, 26, American. I can hardly contain myself, so let’s just get straight to it:

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite things was the part of the dictionary where it tells you the history of the word. “And Latin bos begat Old French boef, and Old French boef begat English beef.”1 (Okay, that’s not how they phrase it. Also, this area of study is called etymology.) Then, my senior year in high school, while I was applying to colleges, I learned you could actually major in that. Somehow, I had never heard of linguistics before.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to linguistics than just where words come from. There’s how the words fit together to form sentences, and there’s the 7,000+ languages in the world and how they’re alike and how they’re not, and there’s all these crazy sounds our mouths can make to combine in a billion different ways and become human speech.

I was taking a class on the history of English when I had my eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room, have-we-met-before, do-you-think-this-is-destiny moment. I was doing the assigned reading on Old English, and it was all about Saxons and the Danelaw and Alfred the Great and scops, and something about it all reverberated in the marrow of my bones. It was like hearing a song I’d forgotten a long time ago. A thousand-odd years of history collapsed in on itself, and I could feel the blood of my Anglo-Saxon forebears humming through me. (Too much? Too much. Moving on.)

It was only when I went to share this indescribable feeling with everyone I met that I realized I had a problem. The conversation went like this:

Me: I love Old English! *heart eyes, preparing to gush*
Them: Oh, that’s cool. So you like Shakespeare?
Me: *wilting and dying inside*

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Shakespeare. But here’s a super cool linguistic fun fact: Shakespeare’s language, and the language of the King James Bible, and the language of all those other historic sources inspiring your friendly local Renaissance festival players, that’s a little something we linguists like to call “Early Modern English.”

The periods of English

Let’s talk about dinosaurs. Everybody loves dinosaurs, right? Between the chicken nuggets, the tee shirts, and movies like The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park, most people know the names of at least two or three, and they probably have a favorite. (Mine’s triceratops, if you’re wondering.)

Dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic Era, a 186-million-year period of geological time further subdivided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods.2 I’m about to painfully rewrite your childhood, so sorry in advance. Littlefoot, lovable hero of The Land Before Time, was either a brontosaurus or an apatosaurus. These titanic, long-necked herbivores lived in the Late Jurassic. Cera, Littlefoot’s triceratops best friend, would have lived during the Late Cretaceous—some 77 million years later. As long-distance, time-traveling romances go, it’s arguably a little more problematic than The Lake House. Not least because dinosaurs didn’t have mailboxes.

I know what you’re thinking: “Great, Rebekah. That’s just great. Friendship over. Before I delete your number, what does this have to do with linguistics? Are you trying to tell me dinosaurs spoke English?”

As appealing as it is to imagine all our favorite dinosaurs living together as one big happy family, 186 million years is a long time for everything to stay the same. Likewise, as easy as it is to think that English is English, always has been and always will be, languages grow and evolve, too. (Sabina talked about this a little last week.) No matter how different they became, though, from the time they emerged in the Late Triassic until they disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs were still dinosaurs. It’s kind of the same with languages.

A lot of the dinosaur species people are most familiar with—triceratops, hadrosaurs, velociraptors, and Tyrannosaurus rex, to name a few—lived during the last period, the Cretaceous (yep, Jurassic Park is a bit of a misnomer). This was the period of greatest dinosaur diversity. The latest period of English is called Modern English, and it’s the one you’re probably most familiar with. It started in roughly the late 1400s and runs up to the present. This, too, is a period of impressive diversity, with distinct varieties of English spoken around the world, from Australia to Canada, from India to England, and everywhere in between. As far as literature goes, a lot of the famous English-language works considered part of the Western canon were written during this time, including the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and many others. There are also contemporary works like those of Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, and Dr. Seuss—all those books, magazines, and newspapers filling up your local library (if you happen to live in an English-speaking country).

Of course, no matter how awesome it would be to see a rap battle between Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, even the casual reader will flag their writing as seeming like not quite the same language. As mentioned earlier, Modern English can be separated into Early and Late, with the divide being marked at about 1800. Period distinctions like this are the result of shifts in grammar, pronunciation, and word stock throughout the language, though the specific dates often coincide with historical events that had a widespread impact on culture. (Like the mass extinction events that separate the different periods of the Mesozoic Era. But somewhat less catastrophic.) In the case of Modern English, the starting point is often cited as 1476, the year William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. The ability to mass produce written materials would have a profound effect on literacy and the dissemination of linguistic features. In 1776, the American colonies declared independence from England. Some consider the American Revolution the start of Late Modern English and a period of globalization for the language, as over the following decades the British continued to spread their language, colonizing places like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India.

As useful as dates like these can be for roughly marking linguistic time, languages unfortunately don’t work like that. The line between one stage of English and another isn’t as clear cut as turning over a page of your Gregorian calendar on January 1st and magically finding yourself in a new year. Linguistic shockwaves and subtle nudges take time to spread. A great example of this is Middle English.

On our timeline, Middle English is our Jurassic period. During the Jurassic, dinosaurs began to flourish. They hadn’t yet reached the height of diversity of the Cretaceous, but there are still some Jurassic species everybody recognizes, like the stegosaurus or aforementioned sauropods like the brontosaurus. There’s at least one big Middle English name you’ll recognize, too: Geoffrey Chaucer. If you’ve read just one work that predates the Modern English period, I’d bet good money it was some portion of Chaucer’s seminal Canterbury Tales. See? You knew there was English older than Shakespeare’s, even if you didn’t know you knew it. The Canterbury Tales begins:

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;3

It might look a little odd and incomprehensible, but with just a little elbow grease, most people can puzzle Chaucer out. (It helps to read it out loud.)

Chaucer died in 1400, and his language was that of the latter end of Middle English. Works from Early Middle English are rare, but one very important one is the Peterborough Chronicle, a historical record periodically updated with the important events of each year up to 1154. It only takes a little squinting to recognize Chaucer’s language as an earlier form of English, but the Peterborough Chronicle starts to look like it was written in a different language entirely. If Chaucer was writing in a kind of pre-Shakespeare, the Peterborough Chronicle was written in a kind of post-Anglo-Saxon, two ends of a transitionary continuum. Due to the nature of the Peterborough Chronicle itself, we can watch the language gradually change in the time between entries.

And so, we come at last to true Old English. The Triassic period, I guess? (Look, I can only push this metaphor so far.) The transition from Old to Middle English is traditionally marked by the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. William the Conqueror became William I, and he repopulated the court and the clergy with French-speaking Normans. The sovereignty of French men, French culture, and the French language had a profound effect on English, explaining the rather Romance sound of the language today. Strip that influence away, go back to England between AD 500 and AD 1000, and you’ll find the very Germanic origins of the language we call English. The most famous of all the surviving Old English works is the epic poem Beowulf. It begins like this:

Hwæt we Gar-Dene     in geardagum,
þeodcyninga     þrym gefrunon,
hu þa æþelingas     ellen fremedon.4

It reads something along the lines of:

Lo, we of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,
learned by inquiry of the kings of the people,
how those princes did valor.

This was the language of the Germanic tribes who migrated to Britain and displaced the Celts, the peoples who would become the Anglo-Saxons. The Beowulf poem began as part of an oral tradition and was later written down. In style and content, it’s somewhat like the Norse Eddas, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the Anglo-Saxons shared a Germanic heritage with the Vikings and continued to have contact with them after settling Britain (both friendly and not so friendly). Old English manuscripts show a people transitioning from paganism to Christianity, a warlike people with an awful lot of synonyms for “sword” and “kill,” but also a cultured people with a sophisticated poetic meter and a penchant for alliteration. Shakespeare was a long way down the road.

Back to the future

The story of English is far from over. It’s still being written all around us. As I said, language is in constant flux, and it can be hard to know when to say, “Hang on a second. I think we’ve stumbled into a new stage of English!” Linguists today are even starting to distinguish the most current English, the one we’re speaking right now (and tweeting at each other and scribbling down on post-it notes and dropping in beats in epic rap battles), with the appellation Present Day English, leaving Shakespeare and Dickens and all the rest a little farther in the past.

Don’t think this phenomenon is unique to English. Other languages have gone through some incredible changes, too. Old French boef eventually became French boeuf, and really, French is just grown up Latin, just like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and all the other Romance languages. (Language families are a subject for another day.) And language, all language, is going to go right on changing as our cultures and our communication needs go right on changing. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, “Language finds a way.”

Next week with Lisa: As hard as it is to say when a language has entered a new stage of its evolution, one of the most complicated questions facing linguists is the problem of where to draw the distinction between a language and a dialect. What makes something a separate language rather than just a variety of another? When do we say a dialect has diverged enough from its parent language to be considered a language in its own right?

Bibliography

There are many wonderful works covering the history of English. For specific dates and details mentioned here, I referenced:
Algeo, John & Thomas Pyles. 2005. The origins and development of the English language, 5th edn. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

1Oxford English Dictionary Online

2General information about dinosaurs was found on Wikipedia & from the article “Learn about the different dinosaur periods” at ThoughtCo.

3The prologue to The Canterbury Tales at Bartleby.com

4Mitchell, Bruce & Fred C. Robinson. 2012. A guide to Old English, 8th edn. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.