The Historical Variability of English

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Last time we looked at variability and similarity across languages. Today we will look at some of the historical variability in the English language.

Standard English, like the standard versions of other European languages, is really just a single dialect, chosen from the many dialects of English and made the standard for various purposes: literature, education, law, broadcasting. Standardization in English is a long process, and we'll look at some aspects of it later in the semester. For now, my purpose is to get us thinking about English as a multiple thing. There is not now and has never been something that was simply "English"; the tribes of Germanic invaders who came to Britain in the 400s spoke several different West Germanic dialects, and the earliest texts in "Old English" already come to us from several different dialect communities in different parts of England. When we talk about the "history and development of the English language," we are not talking about a simple progression of historical stages within a single speaking community.

At the same time, English is variable across time, so much so that we divide it into periods that are in effect different "languages." If we go backwards in time and sideways across dialects, where do we find ourselves in a different "language," historically speaking? There actually is an unbroken generational community of speakers. But it's like a geographical variation in language, like going from village to village in a traditional linguistic continuum. If you were born in London in 1300 and died there in 1370, you'd be able to communicate with someone born in London in 1350 and dying there in 1420; that second speaker could communicate very well with someone who lived 1400-1470, who could in turn talk easily with someone born 1450 and dying 1520, and that person in turn could get along well with someone who lived 1500-1570. Someone who lived 1550-1620 could speak to that person very easily. Six lifetimes, and yet we've gone from pre-Chaucerian Middle English to post-Shakespearean Modern English. The person born 1300 would find a marked difference in speech from the one born 1550. And if you or I were time-transported to 1300 or to 1550, we could communicate with Londoners only with lots of difficulty. If we found ourselves in the Midlands or in Scotland, we might not share much "English" at all with people from 1300 or 1550.


Let's turn the clock back 170 years, to 1818. Here's a paragraph from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

"About two o'clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention, and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile: a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge, and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes, until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice." (Letter IV)

This is transparently Modern Standard English. We might use shorter sentences in standard prose today. "Sledge" is a word that Americans might spell and pronounce "sled." The diction here seems slightly "elevated" or "literary," but it is very much like modern standard literary English. 170 years backward seem to have made little significant difference.


Let's go back a century further, still in standard literary English, to Daniel Defoe's 1719 Robinson Crusoe:

"In this season, I was much surprised with the increase of my family. I had been much concerned for the loss of one of my cats, who run away from me, or, as I thought, had been dead, and I heard no more tale or tidings of her, still, to my astonishment, she came home about the end of August with three kittens. This was the more strange to me, because, though I had killed a wildcat, as I called it, with my gun, yet I thought it was a quite different kind from our European cats; yet the young cats were the same kind of house-breed like the old one; and both my cats being females, I thought it very strange. But from these three cats I afterwards came to be so pestered with cats, that I was forced to kill them like vermin, or wild beasts, and to drive them from my house as much as possible."

This is still pretty much transparent to us after 280 years. Yet I think we can point to numerous small oddities. "Who run away from me" is not in standard use any more. We would not call cats part of our "family" in that way (though it could be that Crusoe, alone on that island, is being ironic). "Tale or tidings" is a very old-fashioned phrase. So is the phrase "I heard no more"--we would now say and write "I didn't hear any more." Defoe writes in what we would call run-on sentences, though that may be purely a matter of different styles of punctuation. The phrase "the more strange to me" is strange to us. The "though . . . yet" construction of the second sentence is odd. The phrase "house-breed" is understandable but now gone from our language. We would never say "pestered with cats" and in fact would not use the preposition "with" in that way very often; still, the phrase is clear in its meaning. "Vermin" is an old-fashioned word. We would not speak today of "driving something from a house," I think. But in many respects this is still Modern English prose.


Going back just a few more years, to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678): 320 years ago.

"So Christian turned out of his way to go to Mr. Legality's house for help; but, behold, when he was got now hard by the hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it that was next the wayside did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the hill should fall on his head; wherefore there he stood still and wotted not what to do. Also his burden now seemed heavier to him than while he was in his way. There came also flashes of fire out of the hill, that made Christian afraid that he should be burned. Here, therefore, he sweat and did quake for fear."

Just 41 years before Defoe, but much stranger to modern ears. "Turned out of his way" sounds a little odd. We don't say "behold," "hard by" sounds very old-fashioned; "next the wayside" is used here where we'd say "next to the wayside." We don't use "lest" very much in the way it's used here, though we can understand it; it's in our vocabulary but not idiomatic in 1998. "Wherefore" is almost entirely gone (think of how almost no-one knows what "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" means). "Wotted" is perhaps the first really archaic word we've seen, though fairly easy to guess from context. We would never start a sentence with "There came also." Even "he should be burned" sounds odd; we would say "that he was going to get burned." We don't use "sweat" as the past of "sweat" and we would never say "did quake"--in fact wouldn't use the "did" construction or the verb "quake" for a person's actions.

Had the language really changed so much in 41 years between 1678 and 1719? I don't think so. We are starting to see a kind of dialect variation--Bunyan's language is deliberately archaic, old-fashioned, Bible-sounding. (Defoe's was deliberately contemporary in 1719.) Defoe was (relatively speaking) middle-class and Bunyan (again, relatively, and given great changes over the last 300+ years) working-class, so there's a class difference in diction.


Not long before Bunyan, we can turn to William Shakespeare, and to some prose from a play--again, we are dealing with London standard, but now of the year 1600 or so, from Henry V:

"though I speak it to you, I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army."

I will stop doing such a minute catalogue of differences from contemporary English, because literally every phrase here presents something unusual in 1990s English. Major points might be the "but a man" phrase, the word "doth," "shows to him," "sees reason of," "of the same relish," the meanings of the words "element," "stoop," the use of the word "possess." This is clearly a different "dialect" historically than that of 1998 and Texas. It is poetic, and Shakespeare is playing on words and using a compressed diction, but these words were meant to be understood on a public stage in 1600 (or so), 400 years ago. Clearly, this English is much different that another middle-class Londoner's English (Defoe's) would be just a couple of lifetimes later.


Yet all of the above examples are considered "Modern English" by linguists. Shakespeare's is "Early Modern," but the others are generally considered to be the same language as our own. If we go back much further than 400 years, we encounter texts that are less Modern and more Middle, and the differences become more striking; the language changes more quickly. Here is a letter from an English gentlewoman named Agnes Paston to her son John in London, written in 1465. Paston lived in Norwich in East Anglia, not far north of London today, but quite a distance to travel 533 years ago. The entire collection of Paston family letters is on-line at the University of Virginia e-text site.

"Tho my wele be-louyd son John Paston be þis delyuered in haste.

Sonne, I grete 3ow wele and lete 3ow wete þat, for as myche as 3oure broþir Clement leteth me wete þat 3e desyre feythfully my blyssyng, þat blyssyng þat I prayed 3oure fadir to gyffe 3ow þe laste day þat euer he spakke, and þe blyssyng of all seyntes vndir heven, and myn, mote come to 3ow all dayes and tymes. And thynke veryly non oþer but þat 3e haue it, and shal haue it wyth þat þat I fynde 3ow kynde and wyllyng to þe wele of 3oure fadres soule and to þe welfare of 3oure breþeren. Be my counseyle, dyspose 3oure-selfe as myche as 3e may to haue lesse to do in þe worlde, 3oure fadyr sayde, 'In lityl bysynes lyeth myche reste.' þis worlde is but a þorugh-fare and ful of woo, and whan we departe þer-fro, ri3th nou3ght bere wyth vs but oure good dedys and ylle. And þer knoweth no man how soon God woll clepe hym, and þer-for it is good for euery creature to be redy. Qhom God vysyteth, him he louyth. And as for 3oure breþeren, þei wylle I knowe certeynly laboren all þat in hem lyeth for 3ow. Oure Lorde haue 3ow in his blyssed kepyng, body and soule. Writen at Norwyche þe xxix day of Octobyr. "

The main difficulties we have in reading this text are the variable spelling (remember that this text comes from before the introduction of printing to Britain) and the use of the letters þ "thorn" (which we'd now spell "th") and 3 "yogh," which mostly in this passage would be the modern consonant "y." With those spelling changes in mind, we can see that this is still very much English--very little vocabulary is strange here. (The word "wete" means "wit," or "know." "Clepe" means "call.") Again, as in Shakespeare, there are many odd things for a modern reader. We do not say "I greet you well." We would not say "might come to you all days and times"; we would say "would always come to you." We would not say "By my counsel," but would say "If you want my advice" . . . "Our good deeds and ill" is a strange but interesting phrasing: we would say "The good things we do and the bad things," though again we understand what is meant here. "Our Lord have you in his blessed keeping" we would now put, even old-fashionedly, as "May our Lord have you in his blessed keeping."


When we get back another 75 years or so, to the 1390s and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, we find passages like this one from the General Prologue (ll. 820-828):

820: We dronken, and to reste wente echon,

821: Withouten any lenger taryynge.

822: Amorwe, whan that day bigan to sprynge,

823: Up roos oure hoost, and was oure aller cok,

824: And gradrede us togidre alle in a flok,

825: And forth we riden a litel moore than paas

826: Unto the wateryng of seint thomas;

827: And there oure hoost bigan his hors areste

828: And seyde, lordynges, herkneth, if yow leste.

The spelling is very difficult here, but remember that spelling is a superficial difference: "seyde" is just "said" and "gadrede" is essentially "gathered," and so on. Inconsistencies in Middle English spelling arise from the fact that the language had a manuscript, not a print, basis.

Copyright © Bob Thaves. Used with permission.

Many of Chaucer's words are now obsolete but are easy to understand: "echon" for "each one," "Amorwe"="in the morning," "oure aller"="of all of us," &c. There are some strange vocabulary items: "Watering" as a noun, for a place to take on water during a journey (a highway rest-stop). Verb forms have changed: We'd say "we drank," not "we dronken." (Cf. "laboren in Paston's letter.) "Began his horse arest" means "stopped his horse. "Herkneth" means "hearken" ("listen").

Still recognizable as English though, right? This is largely because, even though we are now 600 years deep, we are in the London dialect, and this dialect is the basis for subsequent standard English.


But take the beginning of William Dunbar's "The tretis of the twa mariit women and the wedo" (1508)--more than an hundred years closer to us than Chaucer is. It's probably stranger than Chaucer, for one reason: Dunbar was Scottish, and was writing in the literary lowland Scots dialect:

Apon the Midsummer evin, mirriest of nichtis,

I muvit furth allane, neir as midnicht wes past,

Besyd ane gudlie grein garth, full of gay flouris,

Hegeit, of ane huge hicht, with hawthorne treis;

Quhairon ane bird, on ane bransche, so birst out hir notis

That never ane blythfullar bird was on the beuche harde.

Dunbar's very strange spelling represents Scots dialect. There's really only one completely strange word here: "garth," which still in Scotland means what we'd call a "yard" (and English people call a "garden"). "Beuche" looks really odd but is modern English "bough." The "qu" spelling was used in Scotland where we'd use "wh" (actually Paston uses this spelling too). "Allane" and "ane" are still Scottish pronunciations.

To move back to the late 1300s, and to a Northern contemporary of Chaucer's, consider these lines from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Þe grene kny3t vpon grounde grayþely hym dresses,

A littel lut with þe hede, þe lere he discouerez,

His longe louelych lokkez he layd ouer his croun,

Let þe naked nec to þe note schewe.

Gauan gripped to his ax, and gederes hit on hy3t,

Þe kay fot on þe folde he before sette,

Let him doun ly3tly ly3t on þe naked,

Þat þe scharp of þe schalk schyndered þe bones,

And schrank þur3 þe schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,

Þat þe bit of þe broun stel bot on þe grounde.

Þe fayre hede fro þe halce hit to þe erþe,

Þat fele hit foyned wyth her fete, þere hit forth roled;

Þe blod brayd fro þe body, þat blykked on þe grene;

And nawþer faltered ne fel þe freke neuer þe helder,

Bot styþly he start forth vpon styf schonkes,

And runyschly he ra3t out, þere as renkkez stoden,

La3t to his lufly hed, and lyft hit vp sone;

And syþen bo3ez to his blonk, þe brydel he cachchez,

Steppez into stelbawe and strydez alofte,

And his hede by þe here in his honde haldez;

And as sadly þe segge hym in his sadel sette

As non vnhap had hym ayled, þa3 hedlez he were

in stedde.

He brayde his bulk aboute,

Þat vgly bodi þat bledde;

Moni on of hym had doute,

Bi þat his resounz were redde.


This is so nearly unintelligible for many reasons that English majors virtually never read it in the original, even though it's translated in many anthologies. Lots of the little function words here are perfectly familiar, but the whole passage is perhaps as hard as some modern Dutch might be to us, and harder than some modern French. And that's one simple rule of thumb for determining the boundaries among languages: do you need a translation to get across, or just a dictionary?


We will move further back and further afield this semester; today I wanted to provide a sense of historical variability.

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