Sunday, July 20, 2008

An Unauthorized Biography of the English Language, Part III

Well, I think I’ve put this off long enough, wouldn’t you say? So let’s dive right in. When we left off, English had just undergone a Gallic makeover wherein it soaked up words and lost some grammatical complexity. Although French influence had receded, the rapid changes to English were far from over. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the language evolved at a dizzying rate, launched into Early Modern English and beyond largely by one technological breakthrough, one phonological shift, and one literary genius.

At the time, English was far from a standardized language. There were scores of regional English dialects, often mutually unintelligible. Even within one dialect, there was no consensus on how words ought to be spelled or pronounced, and often the same writer would use different spellings and forms within the same paragraph. This tomfoolery was allowed to continue because the language lacked any stabilizing influence. Any written records had to be copied slowly and painstakingly by hand, and so were difficult and expensive to produce (as well as being prone to the usual human errors.) Widespread distribution of written material was ludicrously impractical, and dialect groups were largely isolated from one another. Then, in 1476, William Caxton established the first printing house in England.

The printing press was invented some thirty years before by Johannes Gutenberg, who developed the use of movable metal type and was the first to mass-produce printed items (most famously the Gutenberg Bible.) William Caxton was the first to apply the new technology to printing in English. Suddenly it was possible to make books available to more people, more quickly and at less cost than ever before—which meant more exposure for the printer’s dialect. There was an economic reason to standardize and refine spelling, too—ease of typesetting trumped variations in words, and it used less ink and caused less wear to do away with those poetic silent e’s and the like.

Now, this is not to say that English fell tidily into line all at once. Pronouns had yet to settle, with Middle English forms like hi (they), hem (them), his (its), and her (their) persisting into the 16th century (Bryson 62). –s and –en were still battling it out as the dominant plural form. Still, standardization was the wave of the future.

The trend toward standardization was not the only revolution Early Modern English had up its sleeve. Sometime during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a phonological change called the Great Vowel Shift began to occur. This was an eight-step process which affected the long vowels. While searching for help on how best to explain this, I found this handy website, which provides audio demonstrations of the changes which occurred in every step. Awesome! And this , from the same website, is a link to samples of spoken dialogue featuring pronunciation from Middle English to the mid-1700s (including a time when, apparently, all English speakers sounded Canadian.) This may, in fact, be the coolest thing I have ever heard. Check it out—it paints a better picture of this amazing change than I possibly could. (Well, in the space allotted, anyway.)

This just leaves the literary genius, and I bet you can guess who he is already. No discussion of Early Modern English would be complete without a discussion of Shakespeare, its most famous example. As Bryson says, "The changing structure of English allowed writers the freedom to express themselves in ways that had never existed before, and none took up this opportunity more liberally than Shakespeare, who happily and variously used nouns as verbs, as adverbs, as substantives, and as adjectives" (64). Shakespeare was perhaps our most enthusiastic player-with of language. He originated some 2,000 words and countless phrases we take for granted. Some examples (also taken from Bryson’s list): "the milk of human kindness," "one fell swoop," "foul play," "salad days," "play fast and loose," "into thin air," and so on and so forth. Some Shakespearean words (from a website with a more comprehensive list): eyeball, addiction, fashionable, arouse, mimic, cater, frugal, obscene, bet, bump, and others. Even without going into his merit as a writer, just for enriching the word-hoard modern English owes a great debt to him.

I anticipated only three installments of this history, but the rise of a modern and global English is its own tale, and deserves to be told as such. One of these days, I will write the fourth installment of this trilogy (tee hee.)