Saturday, January 27, 2007

Consolidation and Expansion: the English Language, 1450 to 1750

The period of growth in the English language which lasted from around 1450 to 1750 is commonly known as Early Modern English. In this period the language which we now speak and call ‘English’ became more recognisable in its modern form, it became standardised to a good degree, and it consolidated itself as the national tongue of Britain.

Moreover, as Britain grew in commercial terms and acquired colonies overseas, the language entered a truly expansionist phase. The language was thus exported along with various goods and commodities to the Americas and to Australia, where it became permanent residents. It also found itself in India, where it enjoyed a brief spell in the saddle before being booted out along with its owners. Firm traces of its presence there, however, still remain, and some people argue in favour of accepting ‘Indian English’ as a valid and exotic variant to its more commonplace brothers, British and American English.

In fact, this period of around 300 years was such an active and energetic phase for the language that it would be very difficult to summarise its achievements and misfortunes in a single chapter, let alone one article. So, this month I’ll just try and limit myself to giving the outline of what I hope to look at over the coming few weeks. For those of you who will be hanging around the UAE for the coming few months, I hope to be able to provide you with something edifying to digest, and perhaps even teach you something you didn’t know about the language you speak.

So, where to begin? Many linguistic historians like to draw a line between the internal changes that a language undergoes, and the external forces that help to forge other transformations. Examples of the former would be the so-called Great Vowel Shift, which occurred in Britain during the 15th and 16th centuries. In this case, the vowel sound in a word such as ‘cow’ would have been pronounced to rhyme with ‘you’ and ‘coo’. However, by the beginning of the 1600s it was being spoken more like its present form, rhyming with ‘now’. Other examples are the long vowel sound in ‘sweet’, moving from ‘wet’ to ‘wheat’, which could have led to some mirth and confusion during the time of the changeover - did you mean ‘sweat’ or ‘sweet’, my lord?

External forces are truly the man-made ones, such as the colonisation mentioned above. Often, it is these phenomena that go on to cause unforeseen changes and developments in the linguistic process. For example, to continue the theme of colonisation, the slave trade carried black speakers of African tongues to the Caribbean and America, where they had to adapt their languages in order to communicate with those around them. As a result, many types of different ‘creole’ languages emerged, typically in the West Indies. We can see the results of this even in present day Britain, where many black youngsters prefer to adopt the styles and tones of Jamaican slang to the orthodox version of English offered in schools.

Then again, there is the ‘Great Men’ approach to linguistic history, which argues that the efforts of the great and (perhaps not so) good have done most to forge long-standing changes in the language. The names which immediately spring to mind during this period are those two distinguished Williams, Caxton and Shakespeare. So renowned are they held to be, that I feel no need to mention their achievements.

So this is what I promise for the coming few blog entries: a peek at some of the direct linguistic achievements of some of our most celebrated Englishmen, a glimpse at the changes our language experienced as it came to resemble the English that we recognise today, and also a look at the social and economic circumstances which influenced our tongue’s progress.

Can you possibly wait...?

1 comment:

J-Chee said...

hye englishteacher365, how have you been? no entries for 2008 yet? looking forward to it :) ur blog is really interesting for english language students anywhere in the world. Do write more.. :) take care, CHEERS~