Tuesday, May 03, 2011

History of English

I went back to the library looking for a book on the history of English. I've seen some references to the case system of Old English and the language I speak has only the slightest remnants of that. I was interested in what they looked like and when and how we lost most of it. I was looking for something with a readable style, but not too simplistic, that had tables showing the old forms, and that would fit easily in my bookbag. Seeing as I was looking for information on events that happened about a hundred years ago, I wasn't too concerned when the date on the spine of A History of the English Language by Albert C. Baugh was 1957, and its title page indicated that it was the second edition of a 1935 work. I really didn't expect the last fifty to seventy-five years to have brought with them any shocking revelations about the past participle of strong verbs, so I picked that one.

The author sets the scene for the drama of English history.

"English is the mother tongue of nations whose combined political influence, economic soundness, commercial activity, social well-being, and scientific and cultural contributions to civilization give impressive support to its numerical precedence."

It's a little amusing how secure he is about this position for English, and while it's still the dominant world language, there are nations that prefer other languages on the ascendancy in some of those dimensions. Later in the book I discover he's an advocate of an English-based world language. It's odd to see someone so interested in language who declares, "How much pleasanter travel would be if we didn't have to contend with the inconveniences of a foreign language." For me the two chief joys of travel are of the tongue: food and language. But Albert and I can disagree on that. I guess he doesn't have little time travel fantasies as he studies the old word forms, wondering if he would be able to express himself intelligibly and understand the locals, should he be whisked back to Saxon times.

Here's the present tense conjugation of a couple of Old English verbs.

'to be''to drive'
ic eomic drīfe
ðū eartðū drīfst
hē ishē drīfð
wē sindonwē drīfað
gē sindongē drīfað
hīe sindonhīe drīfað

Yup, that's English. I'll see if I can find the verb "to fly" for you later. I'm pretty sure it wasn't transitive, though. There were actually two more nominative personal pronouns, but this book doesn't fit them into the table to show which verb conjugations they took. They were wit 'we two' and git 'you two'. I don't know why my language's ancestor needed these specific pronouns, but they each had alternate forms for genitive, dative and accusative. As did all the others. So in fifteen hundred years, English has gone from twenty-four different pronouns means 'you' or 'your' to just those two. There was a subject pronoun ye and an object pronoun you in the 16th century, but they were both pronounced the same way, so merged to be just you. This is my idea of fun.

It's interesting reading about the issues of England as a French/English bilingual nation, because that's what Canada is, and there are similar issues. Robert of Gloucester wrote of the two languages in 1300, "Ac wel me wot our to conne boþe wel it is,/Vor þe more þat a mon can þe more wurþe he is." ("But men well know it is well to know both,/For the more that a man knows, the more worth he is.") Curiously, the greatest infusion of French into English occurred not in the years between the 1066 invasion and the 13th century dissolution of ties between England and Normandy, but in the subsequent two hundred years as the children of the French nobility stopped learning French as a native language and English gradually regained its position as the language of the land. A large bilingual population shifting from doing business in French to business in English transferred vocabulary between the languages. I wonder if a similar thing is true for English vocabulary going into French-Canadian. Was there a lower rate of borrowing into French between the battle of the Plains of Abraham and the passing of the Official Languages Act than since?

I find that I have three conflicting responses to the incredible changeability of my language. Firstly I want to change it to my whim, to somehow leave a mark; secondly I want to stop it from losing all its old features; and thirdly I want to be a witness to the effects of language change, against which I realize I am completely powerless. And I love the fact that each of the first two impulses can be described as "fixing" the language. Fixing as in repairing and fixing as in fixing in place. I love it when a word can be its own opposite.

It also makes you realize that has never ever been a correct, proper way of speaking or writing from which the current language has devolved. There have always been some things that are more complicated and some that are less. For example, we used to have three genders of noun and full declensions for them all but sound changes that made the endings indistinct made us lose all but the genitive, which ended in s, like stonis 'of the stone.' People started interpreting things like "the cats paw" as a contraction of "the cat his paw" so writing it as "the cat's weight," even though that interpretation made no sense at all for things like "the woman's beauty." The move became more than just a spelling change when the apostrophe-s broke loose to attach to entire phrases, e.g. "the King of England's crown." It doesn't take long for the way a few influential people do it to become the way most people do it and thus the way it is done. Spelling and pronunciation do not need to adhere to any outside rules, the way piloting has to occur within the laws of physics. This shows that the people who put so much effort into defending the possessive apostrophe against the ignorant, are defending the result of earlier ignorance.

There's more. Despite all those pronouns, until almost 1600 the possessive pronoun for neuter was the same as for male: his. As English no longer had grammatical gender, people started to think that didn't sound right and by the fourteenth century, some people started avoiding it, with expressions like "nine cubits was the length thereof" instead of "... was his length." People started using the nominative pronoun, "We enjoin thee .. that there thou leave it, Without more mercy, to it own protection" or the article "growing of the own accord." Nouns at that point already had the genitive ending in 's, and at some point toward the end of the sixteenth century, it's began coming into use. Yes, with an apostrophe. It took a hundred years for his to become an archaism, and two hundred for its to gain its present apostrophe-less form. All of this makes it pretty difficult to get huffy about where people put their apostrophes, doesn't it? Does for me, anyway.

When I write something, I may reword it several times, trying to find the most concise interesting way to say it. Now as I consider the huge upheavals that the language has undergone, it makes me realize that anything I write has an expiring window of accessibility. No matter how clearly I write my thoughts today, in another time my words will become marked, ungrammatical, obscure, and then unintelligible. I laugh when I turn a page in the book and find the same idea from a poet named Waller, "But who can hope his lines should long/Last in a daily changing tongue?" So I'm doomed to obscurity, and unoriginal to boot.

This book turned out to be heavier on political history and less thorough on stages of the language than I expected. I had a few more odds and ends to discuss from it, but I'm trying to be done with the linguistics posts.

I have one question for the Americans. On page 435, Baugh states that the educated American pronunciation of figure ends in a "yer" sound, like the beginning of yearn, and that a pronunciation like "figger" sounds hick to an American. Is this true, or was this just an early 20th century fad? When I say "figure" it rhymes perfectly with "bigger."


Brandon said...

Being an American, I think that the "figger" pronunciation sounds hick or improper. I would say the proper pronunciation is "fig-yer". However, that's not to say that the "figger" pronunciation isn't prevalent, or that I don't use it myself sometimes.

Wayne Conrad said...

The "fig-ger" pronunciation sounds normal to me. I can't recall hearing "fig-yer," but that could just be my brain replacing the sounds people actually make with some other sound it likes better. Brains do that. Now I want to ask everyone I know--many of whom are degreed--to pronounce it.

To the author's charge that I sound like a hick, I reply that he is pretentious.

hawk205 said...

I agree with Jez but then i am influenced by my northern education. Where does Wayne Conrad come from? Figger sounds rural southern to me

John Lennerton said...

I'm in the fig-yer camp, but I suspect, as hawk205 alludes, that it has more to do with regional accents and dialects than it does with "proper" pronunciation.

Lord knows we New Englanders can make some odd sounding noises when we talk.

Wayne Conrad said...

Born and raised in Washington state; been in Arizona since '85. There is now a fair amount of "South" in my accent, and there's always been much "rural" in it.

DataPilot said...

I've lived in rural Oregon most of my life, so there's a little bit of "southern" pronunciation in my speech. But I can honestly say that I don't know anyone who would say "fig-ger" instead of "fig-yer". Maybe they would in the movies, but not in real life.

At least not around these parts.

townmouse said...

A the risk of getting caught in your spam trap again, you may enjoy (if you haven't discovered it already) Lynneguist's blog Separated by a common language.It's mainly about the differences between British and American English (she's an American linguist living in England) but it can get into some quite technical linguistic detail about pronunciation and the like, especially in the comments

Timo Kiravuo said...

You might be even more entertained if you knew Scandinavian languages, as Old English is strongly influenced by Old Norwegian. As a Finn, Swedish is my third language and I find Old English easier to understand if I think about it as Swedish instead of English.

Foggy said...

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United States of America and Canada: three nations separated by a common language. One could add New Zealand and Australia to the mix.

Why do Americans insist on saying "foilage" but spell the word correctly as "foliage"? Dons protective head gear - again - and runs for cover...

cockney steve said...

Following on from "Foggy".- the "Septics" have "aloominum" Aircraft, -us "Limeys" have " al -yoo-min-yum"

even regionally, there's a wide disparity in the local pronunciations and ,indeed, in the normal everyday vocabulary.

I'd defy a "Cockney " to immediately understand a Geordie,or either to understand a Glaswegian, yet less than 300 miles seperate them.

The ear does become attuned, but then there are the local colloquialisms to master!

Sue said...

I love learning new things, and I must say that these linguistics posts are fascinating. Of course I can't speak for all Americans, but I say fig-yer. American dialect specialists: note that I was trained to speak with a Midwest accent and now live in New England.

D.B. said...

Being both English (by birth) and American (by choice), I find anything to do with language and pronunciation irresistible. I had to change how I pronounce my first name to the American style, just to be understood - and isn't being understood the entire purpose of speech?

So I use both "figger" and "fig-yer", and don't look done on either use, just as I find either one to be "bettah" or "betturr" based on the receiver. Or receivah.

Devil In The Drain said...

Raised in NYC, living in New England, never heard "figger" in my life. I thought it only existed in Hootin' Holler.

Also, I like the linguistics posts.

A Squared said...

Why do Americans insist on saying "foilage" but spell the word correctly as "foliage"?

Don't know where you came up with this, but in almost a half century of conversing in American English, I have never heard a single person pronounce that word as "foyalage" or any other pronunciation suggested by "foilage". It has always, without exception, been pronounces Fo-Lee-age or fol-yage, both of which seem reasonable interpretations of the spelling "foliage"

John Lennerton said...

A Squared,

I've heard foilage. Not often, but often enough that I knew to what Foggy referred.

There seem to be a class of words in English that some people have problems with: "nuclear" is another I've heard mangled.

Having a lot of fun on this thread, not only with the original post but with all of the responses.

Aviatrix said...

I find it funny that I never noticed this from American movies and TV. Do you say figyer for "figure it out yourself," "see figure two" and "she has a good figure"?

Devil In The Drain said...

Do you say figyer for "figure it out yourself," "see figure two" and "she has a good figure"?

Yup, /fIgjɜr/ for all of the above. I've lived in NYC, Philadelphia, Nashville, Boston, and Western MA, and except for Nashville (which I don't remember well) I am confident that I have never heard /fIgɜr/.

(P.S. IPA practice provided as a public service. :-))

A Squared said...

I've heard foilage. Not often, but often enough that I knew to what Foggy referred.

I have no doubt that if one looks hard enough, one can find people mis-pronouncing it, as you can many words in many countries. That doesn't however, mean that this is the "American" way of pronouncing it, as Foggy is suggesting.

Aviatrix said...

I honestly never noticed the figyer pronunciation before, but it is obvious and now glaring on ABC coverage of figure skating. I'm trying to find a contrastive example of a Canadian saying it, but since the compulsory figures were removed from Olympic figure skating after the 1988 Winter Games, it's hard to find people saying the word "figure" much. There are definitely some Canadians who say figyer, too, but when I ask my friends to "name the sort of skating they do with jumps and stuff at the Olympics" I hear figger, and they confirm that the word rhymes perfectly with bigger. But onto the next blog post.

John Lennerton said...

I have no doubt that if one looks hard enough, one can find people mis-pronouncing it, as you can many words in many countries. That doesn't however, mean that this is the "American" way of pronouncing it, as Foggy is suggesting.