Modern English and Beyond

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Modern English, since about 1650, has been more stable than any previous stage in the history of the English language. If you compare the English of 1300 to the English of 1650, and then the English of 1650 to that of 2000--well, there's just no comparison. The various non-standardized dialects of 1300 are remote from the standardized language of 1650, but the English of 1650 is near enough to our own to need no "translation" and hardly any adaptation. The poetry of John Milton, for instance, from the 1650s is difficult for modern readers, but only because it expresses difficult concepts in deliberately thorny language.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,-

Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?

I fondly ask:-But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies; God doth not need

Either man's work, or his own gifts: who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o'er land and ocean without rest:-

They also serve who only stand and wait.

The syntax of this sonnet may seem tortuous, but only because it is poetic; every word is common today (though some like "fondly," which for Milton meant "foolishly," have shifted in meaning). This is Modern English, from 350 years ago.

There have been few major changes in the pronunciation and morphology of standard English since Milton's day--I mean relative to the great changes in the three centuries before Milton. Even the word "doth" in Milton's sonnet above is slightly archaic, "poetic" for the mid-1600s. We wouldn't say "lest" anymore except in a formulaic phrase like "lest we forget."

Perhaps the greatest change between Early Modern and Modern English has been in vocabulary. The British Empire has influenced the borrowing of lots of words that we now think of as naturalized in English: tea and ketchup are Malay, shampoo is Hindi, trek is Afrikaans, boondocks is Tagalog.

The largest source of new vocabulary has been Latin and Greek. Again, you can take an entire course on Latin and Greek roots. Borrowings and new coinages in English during the years 1550-1950 tended to draw from Latin and Greek, especially in the sciences. This was because during those four centuries Latin and Greek were the basis of all higher education. Educated people who added new vocabulary items to express new concepts or newly discovered objects drew from their primary education in Latin and Greek. Just as a tiny example, think of basic Greek words in chemistry and physics that have become everyday words in English. Atom is Greek "uncuttable." Electricity is "lightness." Oxygen is "fast gas"; hydrogen is "water gas." Dinosaur is "awful lizard." All these words were first used in their modern sense in the period of transition between Early Modern and Modern English, or in Modern English.

Since 1950 the whole cultural literacy of the sciences has changed. Proton and neutron, first used early in the 1900s, have Greek roots. But quark, coined in the 1950s, is a nonsense word from the Irish novelist James Joyce. Some individual sorts of quarks are chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, reflecting a generation that grew up on American ice cream. Computer is Latin and technology is Greek, but more recent terms in computer technology: "boot," "cookie," "firewall," "hacker," &c. reflect a monolingual English culture for their inventors. Technical English now tends to draw on the resources of its own language rather than borrowing.

Two other significant changes since 1650 or so are the loss of the second-person singular pronoun and a vowel-shift in the RP "ask" words.

In Shakespeare's English, "thou" and "you" are quite distinct. "You" is both the plural form and the form used in respectful address. When people addressed others of higher rank, when children addressed adults, when they addressed a stranger whom they wanted to show respect, they would say "you." To close friends, children, social inferiors, and to God, the pronoun of address was "thou."

In many ways, English of the early 1600s was much like French today--the plural 2nd-person form was also the polite form of address to one person. English speakers alternated very purposefully between "thou" and "you," as French speakers do today between tu and vous. (Cf. the pattern in Mexican Spanish, which has tu and both singular and plural polite forms (Usted and Ustedes).

By the early 1700s, "thou" was almost unknown--so much so that contemporary memoirs by Friends, like the American Elizabeth Ashbridge, who died in 1755, recount incidents like this one:

In this Condition I continued till my Husband came, & then began the Tryal of my Faith. Before he reached me he heard

I was turned Quaker, at which he stampt, saying, "I'd rather heard She had been dead as well as I Love her, for if so, all

my comfort is gone." He then came to me & had not seen me before for four Months. I got up & met him saying, "My

Dear, I am glad to see thee," at which he flew in a Passion of anger & said, "the Divel thee thee, don't thee me."

By the early 1700s, use of "thou" and "thee" was a sign of belonging to the Society of Friends--unless you were addressing God in prayer or public worship, where the older sense of God as "thou" has persisted till very recently and still has a place in hymns and the King James Bible.

What happened? The linguistic change here reveals a social change--the breakdown of a hierarchy of respect that is still deeply encoded in Europe. It's hard to specify an exact origin or course of events, but we simply have chosen to eliminate the familiar form, to treat all people, including strangers and children, with respect. In a sense, we lack a form to use to social "inferiors," perhaps because the concept of social inferiority, though alive and well in English-speaking countries today, is now considered somewhat "unspeakable."


The second change is more trivial but interesting. In the early 1800s, another smaller vowel shift occurred in British English, between an older /æ/ and a newer /a/ before certain consonant clusters. Say the words "gas mask." If you are a native speaker of American English, you probably have an /æ/ in both words. Speakers of the RP, by contrast, have /æ/ in "gas" and /a/ in "mask." Speakers from the West Indies or from India frequently have /a/ in both words.

And if you have /a/ in "gas" and /æ/ in "mask"? You are doing a bad American attempt at a British accent. :-)

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