History of English; The Media and English


There are various ways of studying language: a linear route which covers historical development through time, known as diachronic, and a synchronic route which aims to study the complexities involved in how languages actually work (Shetter, 2002, Page 1). This synchronic route can be studied in two ways: written language and language that is relayed in the form of speech, known as phonology, the latter being one area affected during language change. Orthography also alters over time and there is also a pronounced effect on lexis, semantics, and orthography. Evolving language has its roots in various factors, notwithstanding both internal and external history (Leith, 1996). Linguistics, grammar and vocabulary are directly attributable to the effects of internal history whilst it could be possible to ascribe the socio-linguistic aspects of language to the external exigencies of history.

It is important to note that English was not a unified language initially, but the result of the Germanic influence from various Teutonic dialects. The original language spoken on the British Islands was Brittonic and there are differing opinions as to whether Brittonic became incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon language or not (Collingwood and Myers, 1936, Page 318) with research continuing to be divided as to the reason for this. The language spoken by the indigenous Britons at the time the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in Britain was a form of Celtic, known as Brittonic.

This essay traces the development of English along a diachronic route whilst investigating the effects of the media synchronically. It begins with a discussion on Old English then investigates lexical diffusion and the Great Vowel Change, both the results of developments in society as towns begin to develop. The essay then focuses on contemporary English and the effect the media has had on its development, clearly showing in the process that, rather than having a detrimental effect on English, it has ultimately provided the tool for its survival and ultimately for its development as a lingua franca.

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Development of Old English

“…the breakdown of inflections owes as much to processes of contact between speakers of different languages as it does to pressures of a purely internal kind” (Leith, 1996, Page 120).

As the inflectional change became integrated into contemporary usage, switch referenced utterances evolved into articles, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns, with no set order to a sentence, i.e. any word could occupy any position without altering the context of the utterance prior to the general acceptance of grammatical devices (Coates, 2004).

It has been suggested that from about AD 597 Christian missionaries arrived in Britain and contributed their Latin to the evolving English language, providing around 450 words into common usage (Crystal, 2003), whilst some parts of Britain were subject to Danelaw until around the early part of the 11th Century with many Danish words passing into northern English dialects especially, and providing an influence for many diectics, such as they, them, and their, together with the verb ‘to be’ correlating with ‘are’. Additional influences were associated with the arrival of the French in 1066 and became absorbed into the English language over the next few hundred years and continued to evolve through trade with other nations from the 16th Century onwards, incorporating innumerable new words from countries such as Africa, India, Australia and the Americas through the development of the Commonwealth.

Lexical Diffusion

“Some linguists argue that the Old English inflectional system was inefficient and was, therefore, as the linguist Roger Lass has argued, ‘ripe for re-modelling’. Speakers themselves start to regularise the paradigms.deleting endings.” (Leith, David, 1996, Page 118).

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From the end of the 12th Century Guilds came to be formed as trade flourished with the result that the styles of both lexis and orthography changed to meet the need, together with punctuation which developed in accordance with particular requirements for business documents and, as a result, Old English began to give way to a new form of language, the Middle English which was characterised, amongst other things by differences in intonation and stress on the language’s phonology leading to the Great Vowel Shift which occurred over a period of time from around 1400 to 1700, pronunciation becoming almost comparable with the vowels of today. The changes in pronunciation coincide with the growth in towns and cities and the gradual change in focus from the countryside, with an influx of different dialects from places such as Norfolk and the North towards London, with a corresponding unification of pronunciation, described as lexical diffusion (Chambers and Trudghill, 1991, Chapter 7).

Significantly, the introduction of the printing press coincided with this influx, a situation described as “destined to revolutionise the availability of information in civilised society. The political and educational consequences of this new technology will be profound” (Harris and Taylor, 1996, pp. 1 – 69). This perception, perhaps was related to the need to provide a standardised dialect in order to print books and Caxton chose the dialect prevalent in London near the location of his printing press, coinciding with the cultural and sociological moves towards a more secular society.

“Most of the hobgoblins of contemporary prescriptive grammar (don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads” (Pinker, 1994, p. 374).

Following the Reformation and England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church Latin fell out of favour and learning came to be conducted in a standardised form of English with prescriptive grammar developing to reflect the prestige of the great Classical scholars. Language learning became dependent upon the teaching of grammar in a deductive manner, heavily reliant on the use of grammatical rules realised through translation, with prescriptive grammars based on the rules of Latin (Pinker, 1994, p. 374) which did not always fit too well with the more amorphous usage of English, an example being the concept of the ‘split infinitive’ from the Latin which was carried over into English until the last few years. Pinker suggests that “the very fact that they. [prescriptive rules]..have to be drilled shows that they are alien to the natural workings of the language system” (Pinker, 1994, p. 372).

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