The History of the English Language
by Seth Lerer

Note: this site is not giving legal advice, simply organizing information from various classes and texts. If you need legal advice consult your lawyer.

The History of the English Language

36 enthusiastic lectures in three groups introduce "the student to the history of the English language, from its origins as a dialect of the Germanic-speaking peoples, through the literary and cultural documents of its 1500-year span, to the state of American speech in the present day.

... [and] a set of larger social concerns about language use, variety, and change: the relationship between spelling and pronunciation;

... the ways in which English coins or borrows new words.

... how we describe and characterize language change over time; how we can accurately describe changes in pronunciation, and, thus, discover earlier pronunciation habits.

... Some of the approaches of this course will touch on linguistics".

The History of the English Language: Part 1

Part 1 focuses "on the development of Old English, precursor of the modern tongue we speak today." Shows how "English ... survived several centuries of inferior social status before it became, at the close of the Middle Ages, the primary language of the British Isles."

  1. Introduction of the Study of Language.
  2. The Historical Study of Language: Methods and Approaches.
  3. The Prehistory of English: The Indo-European Context.
  4. Reconstructing Meaning and Sound.
  5. Words and Worlds: Historical Linguistics and the Study of Culture.
  6. The Beginnings of English.
  7. Old English: The Anglo-Saxon World View.
  8. Changing Language: Did the Normans Really Conquer English?.
  9. Conquering Language: What Did the Normans Do to English?.
  10. Chaucer's English.
  11. Dialect Jokes and Literary Representation in Middle English.
  12. A Multilingual World: Medieval Attitudes toward Language Change and Variation.

Part 2 focuses "on the flowering of English as it enters its early modern phase."

  1. The Return of English as a Standard.
  2. How We Speak: The Great Vowel Shift and the Making of Modern English.
  3. What We Say: The Expanding English Vocabulary.
  4. The Shape of Modern English: Changes in Syntax and Grammar.
  5. Renaissance Attitudes toward Teaching English.
  6. The Language of Shakespeare (Part 1): Drama, Grammar, and Pronunciation.
  7. The Language of Shakespeare (Part 2): Poetry, Sound, and Sense.
  8. The Bible in English.
  9. Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary.
  10. New Standards in English.
  11. Semantic Change: Dictionaries and the Histories of Words.
  12. Values and Words in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.

Part 3 explores how English develops outside Britain, and reviews the ideas of modern linguistics, from "the hypothesis that language is nothing more than a cultural construct" to "the idea that language capability is deeply embedded in the human being" concluding with a reassessment of English "from its development as a small regional language to a medium of communication used around the world".

  1. The Beginnings of American English.
  2. Making the American Language: From Noah Webster to H.L. Mencken.
  3. The Rhetoric of Independence from Jefferson to Lincoln.
  4. The Language of the American Self.
  5. American Regionalism.
  6. American Dialects in Literature.
  7. The Impact of African-American English.
  8. An Anglophone World.
  9. The Language of Science: The Changing Nature of Twentieth-Century English.
  10. The Science of Language: The Study of Language in the Twentieth Century.
  11. Modern Linguistics and the Politics of Language Study.
  12. Conclusions and Provocations.

Lectures:

Some key quotations and highlights.

1. Introduction of the Study of Language

2. The Historical Study of Language: Methods and Approaches

Introduces linguistic tools:

  1. articulatory phonetics.
  2. sociolinguistics.
  3. comparative philology.
four areas of language change:
  1. pronunciation.
  2. grammar and morphology.
  3. semantic change (meaning).
  4. attitudes toward language change.
and four myths of language:
  1. the myth of universality.
  2. the myth of simplicity.
  3. the myth of teleology.
  4. the myth of gradualism.
"What is the evidence for language change? We must establish relationships between speech and writing; people spoke before they wrote; individuals speak before they write; language is not writing."

3. The Prehistory of English: The Indo-European Context

Examines features of surviving Indo-European (IE) languages, the discovery of their relationships, and some cognates, including:

  1. William Jones, at the end of the eighteenth century, noticed the similarity of words for king or ruler in Celtic (rix), German (reich), Latin (rex), and Sanskrit (raj).
  2. Jones observed that forms of the verb "to be" and other grammatical structures were shared in different languages.
  3. Jones subscribed to the the myth of decay by proposing that these apparently related languages descended from Sanskrit.
  4. Nineteen-century scholars investigated relationships among languages and proposed empirical sound laws (such as Grimm's Law) describing their heritage from earlier forms of those languages

Words found in IE languages that are not from the IE family give clues about the words and the peoples that the IE peoples interacted with and absorbed.

4. Reconstructing Meaning and Sound

Classification of Indo-European (IE) languages into:

  1. The western or centrum (Latin for hundred) languages.
  2. The eastern or satem (old Persian for hundred) languages.

Other ways of linking the languages including high inflection with eight noun cases; grammatical gender for nouns; etc.

  1. Jones observed that forms of the verb "to be" and other grammatical structures were shared in different languages.
  2. Jones subscribed to the the myth of decay by proposing that these apparently related languages descended from Sanskrit.
  3. Nineteen-century scholars investigated relationships among languages and proposed empirical sound laws (such as Grimm's Law) describing their heritage from earlier forms of those languages.

5. Words and Worlds: Historical Linguistics and the Study of Culture

  1. Identifies important IE cognates that are reflected in Modern English words. Areas include religion, law, exchange and reciprocal gift giving, agriculture.
  2. Key features of the poetic and literary systems of IE languages.

6. The Beginnings of English

Defines Old English, starting from the group of people arriving on the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries.

7. Old English: The Anglo-Saxon World View

Word borrowings found in Old English:

  1. Continental. Words borrowed in first century C.E., before Old English split from the Germanic languages. Word from the old Latin for warfare, trade, food, architecture, and politics.
  2. Insular. Words borrowed during Anglo-Saxon settlement:

Word creation (especially nouns) by:

  1. Determinative compound. Bring together two normally independent words. Called kennings when done metaphorically.
  2. Repetitive compound. Bring together two words that are very similar or mutually reinforcing. Example: holtwudu (wood-wood, forest).
  3. Noun-adjective formation. Example: goldhroden (gold adorned) which is probably seen today as the name of the flower goldenrod.
  4. Prefix formation. As in Modern English, Old English: had many pronoun-related prefixes that changed word meaning.

Caedmon's Hymn (composed between 657 and 680) is the earliest Old English: verse: alliterative, oral, formulaic. Translates Christian concepts into the older vocabulary of the Old Norse creation myth and culture.

8. Changing Language: Did the Normans Really Conquer English?

Major changes from Old English to Middle English in noun case, adjective, and verb endings as well as the loss of grammatical gender.

Unproved theories of the changes have been proposed based on stress, form, and function.

9. Conquering Language: What Did the Normans Do to English?

When two languages (such as English and French) are in contact:

  1. Words are borrowed if the donor language has greater prestige in the field of the borrowed word, e.g. government, cookery.
  2. Words are borrowed if the receiving language has a gap for a thing or concept present in the donor language. English tends to welcome such loan words.
  3. Variation of stress in the donor language led to stress variations in Middle English.

Borrowings came from Norman French in 11th and 12th centuries: in religion terms, social and political terms, and architecture.

Borrowings came from Parisian and central French in 13th and 14th centuries: in administration and high culture.

England was trilingual for several centuries:

  1. French: for administration, culture, courtiership.
  2. Latin: for church, education, philosophy.
  3. Middle English popular expression and personal expression.

10. Chaucer's English

Chaucer's main work, Canterbury Tales, written Middle English, particularly as used the East Midlands:

  1. Uses new words from the Latin and the French lexicons.
  2. Relies also on Old English resources.
  3. Partly uses the inflection of Old English and partly uses the uninflection of Middle English.

11. Dialect Jokes and Literary Representation in Middle English

Dialects of Middle English.

12. A Multilingual World: Medieval Attitudes toward Language Change and Variation

Before the Norman Conquest, scribes of Old English were aware of the different dialects. West Saxon was a prestige dialect. Aethelwold (d.984), bishop of Winchester, had pupils learn in Old English and in Latin.

Dialect problems increased after the Conquest, with the introduction of French, the new prestige language.

The History of the English Language: Part 2

13. The Return of English as a Standard

  1. English had not disappeared when French became the official language of court and commerce after the Norman Conquest and when Latin remained the official language of church and education. Official uses of English returned in the second half of the 13th century. In the 15th century, English again predominated as the official language.
  2. By the end of the 15th century, French had declined in number of people that spoke it and in its prestige.
  3. Rise of Chancery English.
  4. Caxton introduced printing to England.

14. How We Speak: The Great Vowel Shift and the Making of Modern English

The Great Vowel Shift, from the mid-15th century to the mid-16th century (though to a small extent continuing into the 18th century), provides the key marker of the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Written documents give evidence for The Great Vowel Shift through variations of spelling.

15. What We Say: The Expanding English Vocabulary

In 1500-1700:

  1. English borrowed vocabulary from experimental science, technology, and scholarship.
  2. New words were coined from Greek and Latin. Often they were polysyllabic and called "inkhorn" terms.
  3. Exploration of new lands brought new words from other languages.
  4. New words and old words were often changed in meaning.
  5. Multiple meanings were sometimes created through polysemy, when words sometimes changed meaning, particularly when a literal words were used in different contexts as metaphors.

16. The Shape of Modern English: Changes in Syntax and Grammar

In 1500-1700, changes included:

  1. Increased use (extension in function) of the verb "do".
  2. Increase (extension in function) in verbs and nouns with "ing" ending.
  3. Creation of a subjunctive mood in English comparable to that in the Latin.

17. Renaissance Attitudes toward Teaching English

Response by 16th and 17th-century educators to the standardization of English, its spelling, and the essence or "genius" of the language.

18. The Language of Shakespeare (Part 1): Drama, Grammar, and Pronunciation

A text from William Shakespeare's "Richard III" is a basis for discussions of pronunciation and grammar that he uses. Some of the glory of Shakespeare's work may in part be due to the rich transitional status of English. He uses older grammatical forms: multiple negatives and comparisons; distinctive use of third-person neuter pronouns; use of thou and your forms of second-person pronoun to signal information about class and status as well as number; etc. He uses new vocabulary, particularly from commerce and trade, and often in metaphorical ways.

19. The Language of Shakespeare (Part 2): Poetry, Sound, and Sense

A text from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is compared in the currently preferred form and in the "bad" Quarto form. Possibly the "bad" Quarto form, which seems more colloquial and similar to daily speech, represents a simplified version of the new and strange Shakespearean language that was difficult to remember.

20. The Bible in English

Compares a portion of the Prodigal Son story in Matthew 17:13-15 from:

  1. 10th-century Old English version from the Late West Saxon.
  2. 1380s translation made under supervision of John Wycliffe.
  3. 1526 publication by William Tyndale.
  4. 1611 publication of the King James version, prepared by scholars under commission by King James I of England.

21. Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary

17th and 18th centuries showed a rise of lexicography. The Dictionary of Samuel Johnson culminates a century of growth and change in English vocabulary. In 1755, Johnson realized that his goal was "not to form but to register the language" and he produced "an ideal of discovering what had proved to be the most generally durable or characteristic quality in things and then to profit by using that quality as a standard or working basis". Johnson's innovations include:

  1. First dictionary for the general reader (rather than the specialist).
  2. Limited to select about 40,000 words in common usage.
  3. Used aphoristic definitions and jokes.

Johnson's achievements include:

  1. Regularization of spelling.
  2. Codification and sanction of some pronunciations.
  3. Broadening of every-day vocabulary.
  4. Established reliance on literature for standards of linguistic usage.
  5. Helped reduce the use of slang and colloquialisms in polite speech.

22. New Standards in English

The debate between those promoting prescription and those promoting description.

23. Semantic Change: Dictionaries and the Histories of Words

  1. Reviews how selected words have been defined in dictionaries, to study the ways that words change meaning.
  2. Reviews how other words are influenced by "the politics of lexicography and the judgmentalism of the modern dictionary".

24. Values and Words in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Includes events leading to the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The History of the English Language: Part 3

25. The Beginnings of American English

  1. Patterns of early American settlement; their relationships to the origins of American dialects.
  2. Key differences between pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of British and American English as they differentiate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  3. Mixed attitudes toward American English: many British patronized it or disparaged it; Noah Webster (1758-1834) published American Dictionary (1828), which defined and codified American English.

26. Making the American Language: From Noah Webster to H.L. Mencken

  1. Noah Webster ("an American Johnson") advocated the American language as uniquely reflecting the American experience.
  2. H.L. Mencken claimed that American English has "impatient disregard to grammatical, syntactical, and phonological rules and precedent".

27. The Rhetoric of Independence from Jefferson to Lincoln

  1. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence "is the verbal enactment of Jefferson's ideals of language [Homer, Old English, Ossian] and political representation".
  2. Lincoln was self-educated and was influenced heavily by Shakespeare and the King James Bible. He "brought new words to the American idiom" and "maintained a poetics of prose, a sense of the formal structure of public speech".

28. The Language of the American Self

  1. Frederick Douglass: while drawing on the Bible and Shakespeare, Douglass "offered evidence for the nature of African-American vernacular English in the nineteenth century ... Much as in Caedmon, there is a strong sense of oral, public poetry."
  2. Walt Whitman: "an omnivorous view of American language".
  3. Herman Melville: an "elevated literary rhetoric" based in part on the Bible and Shakespeare.

29. American Regionalism

  1. In the mid-nineteenth century, American English had become "regional and dialectical".

30. American Dialects in Literature

  1. Eye dialects were used.
  2. Mark Twain: one of the more "conscientious" recorders of different dialects.
  3. Joel Chandler Harris: use of African-American dialect especially in his Uncle Remus stories.
  4. Sarah Orne Jewett represented the Eastern New England dialect.
  5. Majorie Kinnan Rawlings: "Florida 'cracker' speech

31. The Impact of African-American English

  1. Creole.
  2. Pidgin.
  3. African-American English (AAE) "has a verbal structure that is less tense-based [place in time] than aspect-based" [duration in time].
  4. Like earlier forms of English, AAE can us multiple negatives for cumulated effect.
  5. AAE vocabulary: some words indicate derivations from African and from Creole languages.

32. An Anglophone World

  1. Australia.
  2. South Africa.
  3. India. Authors mentioned include Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie.

33. The Language of Science: The Changing Nature of Twentieth-Century English

  1. Science and technology: nuclear physics, cosmology, computers.
  2. "Hello" from the telephone.
  3. Freudian and other psychologies.
  4. Eponymy: "the making of words after individuals' names".

34. The Science of Language: The Study of Language in the Twentieth Century

  1. Edward Sapir.
  2. Benjamin Lee Whorf.

35. Modern Linguistics and the Politics of Language Study

  1. Chomsky developed transformational grammar.

36. Conclusions and Provocations

Reviews the course.