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The nature of language; Overview of Course Material

Language is BIOLOGICAL The human capacity for language is biologically based and is unique--that includes both the neural organization of the brain and the mechanical organization of the vocal cords and vocal tract.

Language is CULTURAL Probably the least controversial statement in this course; to a great extent language is culture and vice versa.

Language is ARBITRARY There is no relation between words and the things they represent. This claim is easily demonstrated by looking at very common words: English "dog" is Spanish "perro" is French "chien"; English "bed" is Spanish "cama" is French "lit" . . . there is no way a human can look at a dog or a bed and know what "the word" for the object is. Still less then, are there necessary signs for abstract and highly variable concepts.

Language is GENERATIVE There are an infinite number of possible sentences. Yet we understand new sentences that we hear; and we constantly produce new sentences.

Language is UNIVERSAL All cognitively normal children acquire a language, early and relatively effortlessly.

Language tends to CHANGE Paradox: if communication is important, isn't consistency an absolute value?

Language is HISTORICAL We speak the way we speak today because of series of historical accidents and contingencies .

Language is VARIABLE at any given moment. Each of us speaks a different variety of a language (or languages). Each community speaks a different dialect, and people speak many different dialects depending on the social situation.


Spoken language is different from writing. Speech and writing involve different parts of the brain.

For most of linguistic history, we know only the history of written language. Spoken language predates written language historically. In fact, writing systems developed--probably--only three times spontaneously (in China, Sumeria, and in Mayan culture). Spoken language predates written language in individual development--no developmentally normal child fails to acquire language, but people must be taught to read and write.

Written language is much more stable than spoken, especially in societies that have technologies of printing but have not yet developed technologies of mass aural media. So our written language became standardized quickly after the introduction of printing into Britain after 1470. To a great extent, our standard spellings today reflect pronunciations that were still in use in the 1470s, like the initial consonants of knee, knight, knave . . .

And in spellings like:

--night, ought, fought, caught

where the gh digraph represents a once-spoken sound.

This semester, we will study the history and development of the English language using several different techniques.



We'll study the sounds of English words--how they vary in the present and how they differ over time. Spelling, as noted above, does not represent spoken language even in an alphabetic writing system like that of written English. The sounds of English words have changed greatly over centuries and continue to be variable today--variation in the present being a reflection of potential for further change. So we need to learn at least some phonetic transcription in order to represent the sounds of the words that we speak and hear.

Not just individual sounds but whole systems of sounds are variable and change over time.


Most American speakers pronounce the word bitter with a /d/ sound in the middle. For us, bitter is a homophone of bidder (they sound the same--not a problem most of the time). But the word bitter is spelled with two t's in the middle because that spelling reflects an earlier pronunciation that persists in British "Received Pronunciation" --with a clear /t/ in the middle. [OTOH, the British RP has no /r/ at the end of bitter, so that dialect has retained one sound while changing another.] But a great many British speakers today have neither /d/ nor /t/ in the middle of bitter but the glottal stop /?/ This is true as a systematic principle, not just as an "accent." English has a phoneme [t] that is expressed between two vowels as /d/, /t/, or /?/ depending on the dialect one speaks. A speaker of one dialect

(one sound system) will actually hear and reproduce this phoneme differently.

I noticed this when I brought some Gatorade to my English nephew. I said /geidreid/; he did not reproduce my pronunciation but called it /gai??ai?/ . . . it's the same word, but the entire systematic difference between our dialects caused him to hear this unfamiliar word differently than I said it, and to reproduce it according to his own rules.



Here we'll study the source of words and the changes in their meaning over time. Etymology is a powerful tool; it's often used as a rhetorical topos to help win arguments. We feel we have power over words if we know how they used to be used--though in practice one rarely has access to a lot of etymological information, and there are "dead" meanings buried in every word. "Manure" means to work with one's hands. "Person" means mask. "Glamour" and "grammar" are the same word. "Dilemma" means not just a problem but an impossible choice between two alternatives. "Disinterested" means impartial in judgment. . . . or at least, in each case, they used to mean those things, sometimes in languages that predate English.

Etymology can help us see past cultures frozen in present words. One of the best-known examples is Walter Scott (coiner of "glamour")'s comment, in Ivanhoe, that we can tell what Normans and Saxons ate, and how that reflected power in Norman England, by looking at words for food:



















You can see here Scott's basic point: that the English natives of Norman England cared for animals, but rarely got to eat them. When a large animal was turned into food, it was turned into French, because a Norman person was going to eat it.



Both cultural and linguistic history help us to specify how the language changed in the past and in what context. We'll study some cultural history as background to study of linguistic issues--and remember from above, that language and culture are often synonymous.

You must keep the following generalized chart in mind and know it well by the end of the semester--if nothing else stays with you from this course for the rest of your life, a knowledge of the basic historical periods of the English language must stay. :-)


Old English (600-1100) is a purely Germanic, highly inflected language with several literary standards: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish.

Early Middle English (1100-1300) is a radically simplified English, losing most of its inflectional endings, but as yet keeping a mostly Germanic vocabulary. It retains many different dialectal forms and has little standardization in spelling and other orthography.

Later Middle English (1300-1450) is heavily influenced by French vocabulary and has two major literary dialects: Midlands/Northern and London. Particularly in the London dialect, we begin to see standardization, under the influence of the Chancery clerks.

Early Modern English (1450-1650) moves sharply toward standardization, with the invention of printing being the major factor here; London standard tends to become a national standard, with consciousness that other dialect regions are sub-standard or non-literary. The impact of the English translation of the Bible is very strong in this standardizing of the written language.

Modern English (since 1650) is characterized by relatively rigid standardization (compared to other English periods, though not to Modern French) and by the increasing role of travel and electronic media in establishing a spoken as well as a literary standard. At the same time, the worldwide spread of English has resulted in new dialect areas well beyond Britain. In particular, American English becomes a competing standard with British "received" or "BBC" English.

In broad theoretical terms, what we see in the development of the English language is the intersection of "organic" or "natural" language processes (which however one should always see as political, not unconscious or biological) with technological forces.