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.
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."