Paper on The History of English

The History of English
[T]he past is the compost of the future and its scholars, humble but
indispensable, are the earthworms, the scarabs, the moles, who recycle
the past to make the present both interesting and possible. But the past
is also an epitaph susceptible of infinite anagrams, a kaleidoscope that
reveals a new pattern to every new historian.
Dan Davin, The Salamander and the Fire
Some time between 6000 and 4000 b.c. there was spoken in the eastern part of
what is now Europe a language that is thought to have been the ancestor of
most (but not all) present-day European languages (see chapter 27). At a later date
some of the tribes belonging to this group began to move westward. The first group
relevant to the history of English are the Celts. This is not because modern English
is directly descended from Celtic but because the Celts occupied most of Britain.
Prior to the Celts there were Picts about whom we know little and about their
language even less. The Celts spoke a language that is the ancestor of contemporary
Irish, Gaelic, and Welsh. The Celts lived relatively undisturbed in Britain until the
year a.d. 43 when the Romans invaded and within a few years gained control of
what is now England. The north (Scotland) and west (Wales) of Britain remained
Celtic, as did Ireland, and those are the areas where Celtic languages remain today,
although spoken only by a minority of the populations.
The Romans ruled England for four centuries but apparently were less successful
in imposing their language than in other parts of Europe, such as what are
now France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Romania. In the early part of the fifth
century the Romans withdrew from Britain, leaving it defenseless. Not long after
this marauding Germanic tribes invaded Britain and soon occupied most of what
is now England and Scotland. They were the Angles, who gave their name to
England, and the Saxons.
The Angles and Saxons brought to Britain a West Germanic language which
is now known as Old English (or Anglo-Saxon). The Old English period lasted
until the middle of the eleventh century. In 1066 William of Normandy invaded
England to secure his claim to the throne, and his victory at the battle of Hastings,
among other things, changed the language of Britain again. Old English was a
Germanic language, similar in many ways to modern German. William and his
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The History of English 135
court spoke Norman French, a language descended from Latin. Modern English is
the result of the influence of Norman French on Old English.
During the two centuries immediately following the conquest, French was
spoken at court and among the upper classes, and to some extent by the middle
class. English, however, continued to be spoken by the lower classes, who were
much more numerous. By the beginning of the thirteenth century the upper classes
were becoming bilingual and gradually French lost ground to English. By the end
of the century the country was once again predominantly English-speaking. The
English that was spoken was, however, very different from Old English. The
changes that had taken place can be seen by comparing these different versions of
the same passage from the New Testament.
Matthew 13:24–30
Heofona rı¯cfie isgfi
eworden pæ¯m menngfi
elı¯cfi pe se¯ow go¯d sæ¯ d on his æcere. So¯plı¯cfie,
pa¯ pa¯ menn sle¯pon, pa¯ co¯m his fe¯onda sum, and oferse¯ow hit mid coccele onmiddan
pæ¯m hwæ¯ te, and fe¯rde panon. So¯plı¯cfie, pa¯ se¯o wyrt we¯ox, and pone wæstm
bro¯hte, pa¯ ætı¯wde se coccel hine. Pa¯ e¯odon pæs hla¯fordes pe¯owas and cwæ¯ don:
“Hla¯ford, hu¯, ne se¯owe pu¯ go¯d sæ¯ d on pı¯num æcere? Hwanon hæfde he¯ coccel?”
Pa¯ cwæp he¯: “Pæt dyde unhold mann.” Pa¯ cwe¯odon pa¯ peowas: “Wilt pu¯, we¯ ga¯p
and gadriap hı¯e?” Pa¯ cwæp he¯: “Nese: py¯læs gfi
e¯ pone hwæ¯ te a¯wyrtwalien, ponne
e¯ pone coccel gadriap. Læ¯ tap ægfiper weaxan op rı¯ptı¯man; and on pæm rı¯ptı¯man
icfi secge pæm rı¯perum: ‘Gadriap æ¯ rest pone coccel, and bindap sce¯afmæ¯ lum to¯
forbænenne; and gadriap pone hwæ¯ te into¯ mı¯num berne.’ ” [tenth century]
The kyngdom of heuenes is maad lijk to a man, that sewe good seed in his feld.
And whanne men slepten, his enemy cam, and sewe aboue taris in the myddil of
whete, and wente awei. But whanne the erbe was growed, and made fruyt, thanne
the taris apperiden. And the seruauntis of the hosebonde man camen, and seiden
to hym, Lord, whether hast thou not sowun good seed in thi feeld? where of thanne
hath it taris? And he seide to hem, An enemy hath do this thing. And the seruauntis
seiden to him, Wolt thou that we goon, and gaderen hem? And he seide, Nay, lest
perauenture gfi
e in gaderynge taris drawen vp with hem the whete bi the roote.
Suffre gfi
e hem bothe to wexe in to repyng tyme; and in the tyme of ripe corne Y
shal seie to the reperis, First gaderegfi
e to gidere the taris, and bynde hem to gidere
in kyntchis to be brent, but gadere gfi
e whete in to my berne. [fourteenth century]
He put to besijd an nother biword saieng, the kingdoom of heven is lijk a man
that soweth good seed in his feld, and whilest the men weer asleep his enmie cam
and sowed darnel among the middest of his corn and went his wais, and when the
blaad can vp, and the corn eared out, then the darnel appeared also. Then cam the
housholders servants to him and said, “Sir, did not yow soow good seed in yor
ground; from whens then hath it this darnel?”
He told them, “The enmie did this.”
“Wil iou then,” said the servants, “that we go and weed it out?”
“Nai,” quoth he, “leest in weeding the darnel, ye pluck vp also the corn. Let
booth grow togither vntil hervest, and in hervest tym I wil speek to the hervest
men, ‘gather first the dernel and bind it in the bundels that it might be burnt, and
bring the corn in to mi garner.’ ” [early sixteenth century]
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136 The Social Art
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened
unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy
came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade
was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants
of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in
thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done
this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
But he said, Nay: lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with
them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will
say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to
burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
[Authorised Version, early seventeenth century]
Jesus told them another parable: The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man sowed
good seed in his field. One night when everyone was asleep, an enemy came and
sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. When the plants grew and the
heads of grain began to form, then the weeds showed up the man’s servants came
to him and said, “Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the
weeds come from?” “It was some enemy who did this,” he answered. “Do you
want us to go and pull up the weeds?” they asked him. “No,” he answered, “because
as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with
them. Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest. Then I will
tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, tie them in bundles and burn
them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.”
[The Good News Bible, mid–twentieth century]
The tenth-century version is quite opaque to modern readers but there are a
few words that look familiar: is, on, his, and, he¯, we¯, and unto. These are indications
of a relationship with present-day English and their meanings have not changed.
Other words might be more familiar if spelled differently. Mann and menn would
look more familiar without the double consonant but the first menn would be confusing
because it is not the plural of man but the dative singular with the meaning
“to the man.” The bar over vowels indicates a long vowel, but this could have been
indicated by doubling the vowel so that good and sleepon come closer to their
modern equivalents, the latter being the past-tense plural of sleep. There are two
letters that are no longer used in English spelling: æ represents a sound that is
sometimes a and sometimes e in modern spelling, and p is th. So sæd can be
identified as seed, æcere as acre, and pæt as that. The spelling hw has become wh
so that hwæte is not so very far from wheat. Other spelling correspondences might
help the modern reader to identify heofena as heaven, se¯ow as sow, so¯plice as
soothly (“truly”), fe¯onda as fiend, we¯ox as wax (that is, “grow”), bro¯the as brought,
hu¯ as how, pı¯num as thine, hæfde as had, cwæp as quoth (“said”), dyde as did, pu¯
as thou, ga¯p as go, gadriap as gather, ge¯ as ye, lætap as let, ægper as either, ic
as I, secge as say, rı¯perum as (to the) reapers, bindap as bind, sce¯af as sheaf, and
berne as barn. Although the words may not have exactly the same meanings nowadays
(for example, fe¯onda means “enemy” rather than “fiend,” æcere means “field”
rather than “acre,” ægper means “both” rather than “either”), there are in fact quite
a few words in this passage that have survived into the present language. Some
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The History of English 137
such as wæstm, “fruit,” and pe¯owas, “servants,” have no direct descendants in modern
The fourteenth-century version is much more accessible. Although the spelling
is somewhat different, it is much easier to recognize most of the words. Only
knytchis (“bundles”) and brent (“burnt”) might cause problems. More importantly
the syntax is more familiar. Where the Old English version has Heofena rı¯ce is
geworden pæm menn gelı¯c (literally, “Heaven’s kingdom is become to the man
like”) the Middle English version has prepositional phrases such as the kyngdom
of hevenes and lijk to a man and the articles are familiar. Moreover, the word order
is more familiar. Instead of pa¯ ætı¯ewde se coccel hine (literally, “then appeared the
tare itself ”) we find thanne the taris apperiden, and pæt dyde unhold mann (literally,
“that did evil man”) becomes An enemy bath do this thing.
There are, however, many morphological differences from modern English.
The verbs slepten, apperiden, camen, seiden, goon, and the like are plural forms
in contrast to cam and seide, which are singular. There is also still a distinction
between thou (singular) and ge (plural). The third-person plural pronoun is hem.
Note also the verb forms hast and hath. There are also syntactic differences such
as wolt thou that we goon (compare do you want us to go in the contemporary
version), whanne the erbe was growed (not had grown), and in the middle of whete
with no definite article. Whether is used to introduce a simple question. Note also
that hosebonde does not mean “husband” in the modern sense but rather “householder.”
The early sixteenth-century version does not seem much more similar to
present-day English, but there is an important syntactic innovation. When the servants
ask Sir, did not you soow good seed in yor ground the use of did in questions
would not have been possible in the fourteenth century. There is no longer a distinction
between the singular and plural of verbs such as cam but the third-person
present ending remains -th in soweth and hath. Hem is now them. Both ye and yow
(iou) are used but without the distinction between subject (ge) and object (yow)
form that earlier existed. This passage also illustrates a sound change that has left
its mark differentially on British and American English. The word for “tare” is
spelled both darnel and dernel. In British English the word clerk rhymes with dark
but in American English with work. The name Clarke is derived from the occupation
and shows the British pronunciation. There is a corresponding difference
between the Epsom Derby in England and the Kentucky Derby in the United States.
In both countries the abbreviated form varsity retains the older pronunciation that
has been lost from university (compare varmint with vermin, two versions of “the
same word”). The passage also illustrates a more relaxed attitude toward variation
in spelling yow/ı¯ou, darnel/dernel than is common now in formal writing.
The Authorised Version is closer still to modern English but there are quite a
few differences, as can be seen by comparing it with the Good News version. Which
is used as the relative pronoun for a human being where modern English uses who.
The verb spring takes was as the auxiliary where modern English would have had
sprung. The servants use the forms thou and thy in addressing their master and he
uses ye in addressing them, where in the modern English version both use you.
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138 The Social Art
TABLE 26.1. Old English Pronouns
First Second Third
Singular Masc. Fem. Neut.
Nominative ic pu¯ he¯ he¯o hit
Genitive mı¯n pı¯n his hiere his
Dative me¯ pe¯ him hiere him
Accusative me¯ pe¯ hine hı¯e hit
Nominative wit git
Genitive uncer incer
Dative unc inc
Accusative unc inc
Nominative we¯ ge¯ hı¯e
Genitive u¯re e¯ower hiera
Dative u¯s e¯ow him
Accusative u¯s e¯ow hı¯e
The question Wilt thou then that we go? is Do you want us to go? in modern
English. There are still verb forms such as didst, hath, and wilt. There is quite a
difference in tone between then appeared the tares also and then the weeds showed
While some of the differences between the texts may be stylistic and others
simply in spelling, the various versions of the parable illustrate a number of changes
that have taken place in the language spoken in England over a period of about a
thousand years. Whether it is right to say that it is “the same language” is another
Old English was a highly inflected language. There were three genders of
nouns, and articles and adjectives had to agree in number. There were four cases
(nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative) and the article and the adjective also
had to be in the same case as the noun. Each of these distinctions was signaled by
a suffix. There were also different suffixes on the verbs for first, second, and third
person in the singular and for the plural. There were numerous classes of nouns
and verbs with different systems of inflectional endings. There were seven classes
of so-called strong verbs, which changed their main vowel to form the past tense
and past participle. This system survives in a fragmentary fashion in verbs such as
drive, drove, driven but it was much more extensive in Old English.
Old English also had a much more complex set of pronouns, including forms
for two people (dual) in the first and second persons (table 26.1). With, all this
morphological apparatus, word order in Old English could be much freer than it
is in modern English, which has only a few inflectional suffixes left. Norman French
had a much less extensive (and different) inflectional system. The role of the latter
in the development of Middle English is far from clear because already by the time
of the conquest there were signs that the Old English inflectional system was chang-
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The History of English 139
ing. Vowels in final unstressed syllables were being reduced to a single one, probably
something like the second vowel in fishes [@]. In Middle English the complexity
of the Old English inflectional system soon becomes reduced to just two:
the unstressed vowel [@] and [s]. Along with this simplication of the inflectional
system comes a loss of the agreement between nouns and articles and adjectives.
Relationships must now be signaled by word order, as in modern English.
The Middle English period is generally considered to have lasted from the end
of the eleventh century until the death of Chaucer in 1400. Chaucer’s contemporary
John Gower wrote poems in Latin, French, and English but Chaucer wrote only in
English. By Chaucer’s lifetime the form of English that was to develop into modern
Standard English had become established. Although there were still some major
changes to take place, Chaucer’s English seems quite familiar, particularly if we
modernize the spelling:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour.
(The Canterbury Tales, lines 1–4)
When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such liquor,
Of which virtue engendered is the flower.
During the Middle English period, many words were adopted from French and
many Old English words apparently dropped out of use: leod (people), cempa
(warrior), here (army), firen (crime), sibb (peace), lyft (air), wuldor (glory), wlite
(beauty), and miltsian (pity). Sometimes the Old English word survives along with
the new French word but with a slightly different meaning hearty/cordial, doom/
judgment, sheep/mutton, seethe/boil. However, as A. C. Baugh aptly pointed out
the most basic elements of the vocabulary came from Old English:
No matter what class of society he belonged to, the Englishman ate, drank, and
slept, so to speak, in English, worked and played, spoke and sang, walked, ran,
rode, leaped, and swam in the same language. The house he lived in, with its hall,
bower, rooms, windows, doors, floor, steps, gate, etc., remind us that his language
was basically Germanic. His meat and drink, bread, butter, fish, milk, cheese, salt,
pepper, wine, ale, and beer were inherited from pre-Conquest days, while he could
not refer to his head, arms, legs, feet, hands, eyes, ear, nose, mouth, or any common
part of his body without using English words for the purpose.
The changes in morphology that led to the reduction in the number of inflectional
suffixes came about during the Middle English period. Although scholars
are not agreed on the order and timing of the changes, it is clear that the loss of
inflections and greater dependence on the order of words had a mutually reinforcing
effect, since the loss of inflections made word order more important and the meaning
conveyed by word order made the inflections redundant. Prepositions also took
on some of the functions that had earlier been signaled by inflections. This can be
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140 The Social Art
seen in the so-called periphrastic genitive the kingdom of God versus the inflected
genitive God’s kingdom. In Old English there were only inflected genitives, but
during the Middle English period the periphrastic genitive was used with increasing
frequency. Up till the beginning of the thirteenth century, very few periphrastic
genitives were used. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, periphrastic genitives
were as common as inflected genitives and they became the dominant form
until the fifteenth century. Thus it is not surprising that in the fourteenth-century
version of the parable we find the seruauntis of the hosebonde man and in the
sixteenth-century version the householders servants (note that there is no apostrophe).
In present-day English the two genitives have taken on more specialized
functions with the periphrastic genitive more common with inanimate nouns (for
example, the leg of the table rather than the table’s leg) and the reverse with
animates (John’s leg rather than the leg of John). There are, however, many subtleties
in the use of both genitives, which signal a number of functions in addition
to possession.
Changes in syntax are less frequent, partly because there are fewer syntactic
constructions, but an obvious example in English is the development of the system
for asking questions and forming negatives when there is no auxiliary (see chapter
5). Until the Early Modern English period the auxiliaries do and did were not used
in questions and negatives. The present-day system began to emerge roughly during
Shakespeare’s lifetime and Shakespeare could use either form. For example, in
Macbeth Macduff says to Malcolm But fear not yet and then a few lines later he
says Yet do not fear. The doctor says of Lady Macbeth How came she by that
light? and shortly after he asks Do you mark that? Banquo asks Macbeth Why do
you start? and later in the play Macbeth asks Lennox Saw you the weird sisters?
These examples, and they are only a few of many, show that to Shakespeare both
forms were perfectly natural.
Another example is the development of the present progressive form of the
verb (for example, John is singing). Although possible examples of its use can be
found in Old English, the frequency of its occurrence has increased greatly over
the centuries.
The greatest changes, however, are in vocabulary. Every day new words are
being added to the language as new discoveries are made and new products created.
There are two major sources of new words. One is by borrowing words from
another language; the other is by creating new words, neologisms. English has
borrowed words from languages all over the world: cartoon, connossieur, dentist,
patrol, restaurant, routine, and syndicate from French; poodle and seminar from
German; chocolate, moose, racoon, skunk, toboggan, and tomato from North American
languages; barbecue, cannibal, canoe, hurricane, potato, and tobacco from
Caribbean languages; cayenne, jaguar, and quinine from South American languages;
bungalow, cashmere, china, cot, jungle, loot, and thug from the languages
of India; taboo and tattoo from Pacific languages. In examples like these, and they
are only a tiny sample, it is possible to see the reason for importing the words into
the language. Before Europeans made contact with the Americas, there was no
need for words such as potato, quinine, and tobacco because Europeans did not
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The History of English 141
have such things and consequently did not need words for them. New inventions
or practices also require new language so that we can talk about them. Sometimes
the name of the person responsible is used as in bowdlerize, boycott, mesmerize,
sandwich, and silhouette.
But languages do not only add new words they also lose old ones. The following
words were first used in the seventeenth century but they have not survived:
anacephalize, “sum up”; denunciate, “denounce”; deruncinate, “weed, eradicate”;
eximious, “excellent”; exolete, “faded”; suppeditate, “supply”; and temulent,
One of the most fascinating aspects of language change is how words may
change their meaning. Because we are fortunate in having written records of English
that go back to the eighth century, we can trace the history of many words
that have survived for more than a thousand years. This can be done most easily
by consulting the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, more commonly
known as the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED for short. This is one of
the great monuments of philological scholarship. The dictionary lists words giving
all their meanings and with citations of sentences in which they were used. It is
thus possible to find out when a word was first used in the writings that have
survived, what meaning it had then, and how its meaning has changed, if it has,
over the centuries. The dictionary also gives the etymology, that is, whether it is a
direct descendant of a word from an earlier stage of the language, or if it has been
borrowed from another language, or if has been created out of other words. Sometimes
the origin of a word is obscured by changes in the way it is pronounced so
that the components are hard to recognize. A good pair of examples are the words
lord and lady.
Prior to their arrival in Britain, the Angles and Saxons had formed part of the
West Germanic peoples who inhabited what is now Germany and the Low Countries.
The social organization was such that ordinary people required the protection
of a powerful leader. (The Old English poem The Wanderer tells the sad story of
a man who had lost his protector.) There is, however, no name for this powerful
individual that is found in all the Germanic lanuages. The Angles and Saxons, soon
after they arrived in Britain, used the term hla¯ford, which is the earlier form of the
present-day word lord. Hla¯ford, however, is a compound word, one of whose components
has become obscured. The two components are hla¯f “bread” (now pronounced
loaf) and weard “keeper or protector” (cognate with modern English
guard). So the Anglo-Saxon lord was the keeper of the bread. Even more interestingly
his wife was a hlæ¯ fdige from hla¯f and dı¯g- “to knead” (cognate with
Modern English dough). So the Anglo-Saxon lady and lord were respectively the
maker and keeper of the bread. This domestic note is absent from the corresponding
terms among the continental tribes where the emphasis was on the head of a band
of warriors or the leader of a drinking group.
Other indicators of past values are in the relationship between capital, fee, and
pecuniary, all of which are derived from words to do with domestic herds. Capital
is directly from Latin, but we also borrowed the word from Norman French as
cattle and from Parisian French as chattel (as a word for movable goods). Fee is
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142 The Social Art
from Old English feoh, which meant “cattle,” and pecuniary is from Latin pecus,
“a herd of cattle.” So we are not so very far from those societies where someone’s
wealth is counted in cows.
One of the characteristics that many English-speaking people pride themselves
on is their sense of humor. Humor is directly descended from Latin hu¯mo¯, “water,
liquid,” but probably few people would be pleased to be told they had a good sense
of water. Humor was used in the sense of “moisture” until the seventeenth century,
as in John Evelyn’s 1670 entry in his memoirs At Christmas last we could hardly
find humour enough in the ground to plant. More important for its modern meaning,
however, was its use to refer to the fluid or juice of an animal or plant. In medieval
physiology there were said to be four fluids: blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy
(black choler). From the dominance of one of these “humors” we get the labels
for certain kinds of moods or personalities: sanguine (compare French sang,
“blood”), phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholy. As the medieval view of physiology
faded, humor came to be used as referring to a temporary state of mind, a
mood or temper. From this it came to refer mainly to whimsical or capricious
moods, and finally by the end of the seventeenth century to “that quality of action,
speech, or writing which excites amusement” as the OED puts it.
The word complexion (from Latin com-, “together,” plus plectere, “plait,
twine”) orginally referred to a combination of “humors.” Those who were sanguine
were said to be “hot and moist,” those who were choleric to be “hot and dry,” and
so on. Complexion was then used to refer to the bodily habit, constitution, or
disposition of such an individual. Finally, by the middle of the sixteenth century it
began to refer to the natural color, texture, and appearance of the skin, especially
of the face, characteristic of one of those temperaments.
Other words preserve information about earlier cultures than the Anglo-Saxon
one. The word auspicious comes from the Latin auspicium, “divination,” from Latin
avis, “bird,” and specere, “see,” from the practice of looking for omens in the
entrails of a specially killed bird. The word candidate comes from Latin candidatus,
“one clothed in white,” from Latin candidus, “white,” because candidates seeking
political office in Rome went about in white. This going about also provides our
word ambition from Latin ambitio from Latin amb-, “about,” plus ı¯re, “go.” Those
who have been overawed by the subject of calculus might be somewhat reassured
to learn that it comes from a diminutive of Latin calx, “limestone,” because calculation
was done with small white stones. The modern word budget comes into
Middle English from Old French bougette, which is a diminutive of Old French
bouge from Latin bulga, “bag.” The word chapel comes from Old French chapelle
from Latin capella, “a little cloak,” because it was the room that contained a cloak,
which was the relic of a saint.
Some words have gone through many changes so that, for example, the connection
between infant and infantry may not be obvious. Infantry comes from Old
French infanterie from Italian infanteria from Italian infante, “child, boy, servant
of a knight.” As was pointed out in an earlier chapter infant comes from Latin
infans, “not speaking,” from Latin in-, “not,” plus fa¯rı¯, “to speak.” In Italian the
word took on the sense of “boy” and then as the knight’s boy, who would be one
of those on foot accompanying the knight, who was mounted on his horse.
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:14:03.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
The History of English 143
The word dog, which used to refer to one particular kind of dog has replaced
the more general term hound, which in its turn has become limited to a breed of
dog. The word knave has taken on a negative meaning although it once meant
“boy” (compare German Knabe). Silly, which once meant “innocent” and even
“blessed,” has taken on a pejorative sense, through the side of innocence that can
be considered ignorance. Nice, which is from Latin nescius, “ignorant,” meant “fastidious”
in Jane Austen’s time. But some words retain their original meaning in an
ironic way. Many academics, when they agree to attend a symposium, may not be
aware of its origin in the Greek symposion (from syn-, “with,” plus posis, “a drinking”),
but their behavior may suggest otherwise.
Sometimes words have entered the language from different sources giving rise
to what are called doublets, that is, words that have a common root though the
words may have taken on quite distinct meanings in English. An obvious example
is the pair shirt/skirt, where the former is the expected development from Old
English and the latter is from the northern form, influenced by Scandinavian. Many
doublets come from Latin directly or through French: fragile/frail, secure/sure,
pauper/poor, count/compute, hostel/hotel. These pairs are somewhat similar in
meaning, but it is harder to believe that catch from Norman French is from the
same word as chase from Parisian French. Of course, it is not only pairs of words
that come from a common origin. It is often illuminating to look in a good etymological
dictionary such as the OED or Eric Partridge’s Origins and see how
many familiar words are related: lie, layer, lair, lager, law, ledge, ledger, log, lees,
low, and litter (both in the sense of a bed and of trash).
Words can also change their function as with the adverb hopefully. At one time
the only use of hopefully was as an adverb of manner as, for example, in He opened
the envelope hopefully. In recent years hopefully has been used as a sentence adverb
as in Hopefully, he has heard the news, where instead of referring to “in a hopeful
manner” the sense is rather “it is to be hoped that.” This change of usage has
provoked great hostility among those who believe that the language at the time
they learned it was in a perfect state and should not change, but there are earlier
examples of this kind of change, for example, the adverb surely. Surely he knows
that does not mean that he knows it in a sure manner. It does not even mean that
I am sure that he knows it, but rather that I hope he does. The frequency with
which hopefully is used as a sentence adverb shows that there was a need for this
particular usage.
The ways in which the English language has evolved and continues to change
would require several volumes to describe, but it is important to remember that
strictly speaking languages do not change; it is people who begin to speak differently
from their predecessors. It also important to realize that not all changes are
in the direction of convergence. As we saw in chapter 16, there are many differences
in the kinds of language used (registers) at any one time, and some innovations
have the effect of increasing this variety. Geoffrey Hughes points out that in what
he calls “underground” American dialects there are many words familiar to a standard
speaker that are used with other than their traditional meanings: square, weird,
pad, soul, high, acid, grass, horse, camp, trip, bird, cool, sweet, hit, heat, fruit,
bread, cat, sick, and gross. Some of these new uses have become more widely
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:14:03.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
144 The Social Art
known, thanks mainly to the mass media, but there is always a time lag, and by
the time they come to the notice of standard speakers they have probably fallen
out of favor with the groups who initially used them. The process has been happening
for centuries, and works such as the OED provide a window on to the
world of the past and the concerns of earlier speakers of English, through the ways
in which writers have recorded usage. It is also possible to take the process further
back before the time of written records, as will be illustrated in the next chapter.
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:14:03.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.

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