19 August 2016

The Evolution of the English Language

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The Evolution of the English Language and How Technology Will Shape Its Future – Part 1

(published on 12 August 2016)

English might not be the most widely spoken language in the world by sheer numbers – that laurel goes to Chinese Mandarin.  However, English is largely believed to be the most influential language in the world based on its widespread use, and the number of people electing English as their target language for learning.  Indeed, the present form of English is a widely sought-after language tool.

But, English as we now know it was not born it its current state.  Any English student struggling to grasp the plot of a Shakespeare play will testify to that fact.  And even the form of English associated with Shakespeare’s day had undergone a great deal of development – enough that it is referred to as Modern English by linguists, albeit Early Modern English.

So, where and when did English begin, how did it evolve, and will it continue to develop as a result of modern society?  Let us take a brief look at these questions.

The Development of the English Language

The evolution of the language that we now recognise as English began in the 5th Century, AD, when Britain was invaded by three Germanic tribes – these being the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons.  There were native Britons living in Britain at the time, but these inhabitants were Celtic.

During the Germanic invasion the native Celts were forced north and west and began inhabiting the areas now known as Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  The invaders were then free to occupy what is now modern England.  In fact, the name ‘England’ is derived from the Angles, who hailed from Englaland.

The Angles spoke a language called ‘Englisc’, from which English would take its name.  But Englisc and Old English have very little in common with the version of English which we speak today.

The invading tribes all spoke different languages, yet those languages were very similar at their roots.  As a result, the three languages eventually morphed into one, which we now call ‘Old English’.  Though very Germanic in sound, Modern English does feature about half of the words of Old English.

Middle English

When William the Conqueror and his Normans invaded England in 1066, the development of the English language encountered a giant hurdle.  The conquerors spoke a variety of French, which then became the dominant language in Britain, as the Germanic of the previous conquerors had done.

However, while French was the language of the Court, businesses, and the upper class, English was still spoken by the lower classes.  The continuance of English under the dominant French language saw an amalgamation of the two.

English re-emerged as the dominant language in Britain in the 14th Century, though this time it featured a great deal of French loanwords.  Because of this, the period from 1100 to 1500 AD is referred to as Middle English, garnering a distinction from Old English on account of its French influence.

Modern English

From around the 16th Century, during the Age of Discovery, the British Empire came into contact with a great many cultures from across the globe.  This resulted in a change in the English language – most notably in its pronunciation – that ushered in the final stage of its evolution.

Named ‘the Great Vowel Shift’, English words adopted shorter vowels.  This period was also responsible for the language being enriched with words and phrases as a result of the Renaissance of Classical Learning.

Around this time words were finally able to be mass-produced via printing, which standardised the language greatly.  London’s dialect became the common dialect throughout Britain as the major publishing houses were based in London.

From the early 1800s, English expanded its vocabulary.  This was partly due to the Industrial Revolution creating the need for new words, and partly due to the size of the British Empire and its affinity for adopting the words of other languages.

The Future of English

Though it has not yet been recorded by historians, English is undergoing another stage of evolution.  Pop culture and its accessibility through modern connectivity have meant that a great many new words have entered the English language, and have been added to the dictionary.

The extent of the current development of English has not yet been defined, meaning that the language we speak in a few decades’ time may well be as foreign as Shakespeare’s English is to contemporary school students.

The Evolution of the English Language and How Technology Will Shape Its Future – Part 2

In Part 1 last week we spoke about where and how the English language began and how it has evolved through the times. Today we will look into its possible future influenced by technology.

History has shown us that the various stages of evolution of the English language have been declining in length.  The first phase of English, entitled ‘Old English’, spanned from 450 to 1100 AD – nearly 700 years.  The second phase, Middle English, was decidedly shorter, lasting only 300 years from 1100 to 1500 AD.

The same can be said for Early Modern English, which lasted from 1500 to 1800 AD.  Late Modern English is supposed to be the language we speak now.  But, looking at its form at the turn of the 19th Century compared to its current form, it seems that a new term is on the horizon.

Late Modern English was given a distinction in the evolution of the English language as a result of the Industrial Revolution.  With industry pushing on, the language was in dire need of words to describe new machinery and processes.  Add to this the fact that the British Empire spanned much of the world, and was absorbing the words of other languages, and it is clear that this phase warranted a new title.

However, looking at the current state of the English language and the development of modern language learning, it is again clear that we’ve entered a new phase of evolution.

The pace at which technology is developing is breath-taking.  Barely a week goes by in which we aren’t gifted a new app or piece of tech that forges us ever closer to the future imagined by science fiction films just a few short years ago.

But, like the Industrial Revolution, this Technological Revolution has brought with it the need for a myriad of new words and phrases.  Add to this the fact that video chat and instant messaging can link any two people (or more) from around the world instantaneously, and we have a duplication of the movement from Early Modern English into Late Modern English.

English Evolves to Accommodate Tech

Physical technology has been evolving at such a rate that, as with the Industrial Revolution, English has had to adapt to the new equipment which it never had to name before.

As a result, words and phrases like ‘Phablet’ (which is a combination of a smartphone and a tablet), ‘BYOD’ (which stands for Bring Your Own Device), ‘Click and collect’ (which is a form of online shopping allowing consumers to pay online and then collect items in-store), and ‘Digital detox’ (which is a period in which online users purposefully stay away from their devices) have all been added to the English dictionary.

Then, of course, there are the terms for acts that are a result of technology.  ‘Selfie’ is an obvious one, but some other words recently added to the Oxford Dictionary might surprise you.

‘Meatspace’ is one of these, which refers to the physical world as opposed to the digital one.  ‘Slacktivism’ is another, which applies to the act of ditching the picket line in favour of signing an internet petition about an important cause.

Also, in line with Modern English’s ‘Great Vowel Shift’, syllabic shortening has become accepted in English.  Words like ‘Vom’ for ‘Vomit’ and ‘Apols’ for ‘Apologies’ are now included in the Oxford Dictionary.

What Will the Future of English Look Like?

It is impossible to say what the future of English will look and sound like.  But, a quick skim of your Twitter feed might give you a slight indication.

What we can say for certain is that the English language is continuing to evolve quite rapidly, and it may be unrecognisable a few hundred years from now.

Should we despair in this fact?  Probably not.

Progression is, after all, perfectly natural.  Should he have been able to read it, Shakespeare may have despaired in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of English, and Chaucer may have scoffed at Shakespeare’s for that matter.

The best solution is just to accept that we are involved in the beginning of the next phase of the progression of the English language, and hope that our move to digital recording has enough staying power to impact and inspire future generations looking back at English as we are now.

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