Old English is the name given to the closely related dialects spoken in England from the fifth century, when raiders from north Germany began their settlements, until the eleventh century, when the effects of the Norman Conquest began to appear in the language. The Germanic settlers came from three tribes, the Jutes, Angles and Saxons ( Old English is often called Anglo-Saxon); and the Jutes became established in the extreme south-east of the country, the Saxons in the south-west, and the Angles in the part north if the Thames. From the period of the settlement, then, there were regional dialect differences in England corresponding to the regional differences in north Germany: Kentish in the area of area of the Jutes, West Saxon in that of the Saxons, Anglian in that of the Angles.
Our knowledge of Old English is concentrated on the literary and other remains in West Saxon dating from about 900 onwards, and on the language in which they are written. This Old English was already a language with a long history which we can trace, although not from written records. The strangeness of a page of Old English when we see it today arises in part from its employment of a number of letters no longer in the alphabet. The word is the same in sound, spelling and meaning as our word 'at', and so or are substantially the same as 'that' ( and both represented the sound we spell as 'th'; another form for 'w', and different shapes for a few other letters, do not appear so frequently in modern editions of Old English texts). The real strangeness, however is in less superficial differences between Old English and our present-day language, differences that have cone about through changes in the sounds of words (as when came to be pronounced 'boat'), in the shapes of words ( as when was progressively simplified to 'lord'), in the way words were handled in sentences (as when mannum came to be phrased 'to the men'), in the actual words used (as when was replaced by 'servant'). The Old English employs the ending -um to relate the phrase to the rest of the sentence (but we still use the ending -s, 'the king's' , 'of the king', to show 'possession', and the same ending, 'councilors' ---gepeahteras--- to show plurality). And the word gepeahtere itself has been replaced by 'councillor ': the Old English word is from another which survives in our word 'thought', so that it meant something like 'deliberator'. In present-day English, 'spoke' might follow he' or 'they' --- it might have a singular or a plural subject. In Old English, the ending -on of shows that it is plural. The only plural noun beside 'councillors' and 'aldermen' is 'words'; the only plural pronoun is 'these'. But we have seen that the ending -um shows that we should read 'in words', 'unto these'--- that they cannot be the subject of 'spoke', even though plural. In this way, the endings of Old English words, nouns and verbs alike, serve to relate the words to one another. Most of these endings, we have noted, are now lost; to express the same relationships, we depend on prepositions and on word-order. Old English is relatively sparing in the use of prepositions, and relatively free in the use of word-order.
As all languages change, so did Old English. When we talk about the characteristics of Middle English that distinguish it from Old English, we must recognize that non of them appeared as an overnight consequence of the Norman Conquest, and indeed that many of them had been continuing features of change in Old English. But the Norman Conquest had consequences that accelerated a number of these changes, and in the long run brought others to light. For a long time after the Conquest, the place of English as a language for official and literary use was taken by Latin and French. The place that English, and particularly West Saxon, had held in these uses during the Anglo-Saxon period had led to a conservatism in the written vernacular. We have noted how this conservatism influenced the vocabulary of surviving documents. It probably influenced the spelling too: the blending of -um and -on in writing must have taken place long after it had become a common feature of the spoken language. And changes in the shape of words and sentences doubtless took place more rapidly in speech than in formal writing. All these discrepancies are to be seen, in a way, in the present-day gulf between official and literary writing on the one hand and our ordinary speech on the other.
At the end of the domination of Latin and French for formal use, the kind of use that went into the documents that survive for our study, the English that we find had been changing freely as any language will, and absorbing the influences of the Norman Conquest. At an early stage the changes and influences are not so marked. Just over a century after the Conquest, a writer in or near the area of the previous West Saxon dialect wrote:
þah cleannesse of chasteté
ne beo nawt bune ed Godd,
Though purity of chastity is no purchase from God,
ah beo geove of grace, ungraciuse stondeð þer togeines
but is given out of grace, ungraciously (they) stand there against
and makieð ham unwurðe to halden se heh þing,
and make themselves unworthy to hod so high (a) thing,
þe nulleð swinc þervore bliðeliche polien.
who will not effort for it joyfully suffer.
(Ancrene Wisse, Part VI)
Once again the strangeness of the letters and the spelling make this seem very far from our present-day language, and indeed many features are still line Old English. The writer freely uses a double negative (ne beo nawt) to do the work of single negative, a characteristic of early English that continued to Shakespeare's time and beyond. He uses words for which we would always (þolien, 'suffer') or usually (cleannesse, 'prity') substitute one of Latin or French origin. He puts the infinitive at the end of the clause instead of soon after 'will not'. Most important of all, he does not need to write 'they stand' because the ending -eð (stondeð, makieð, nulleð) is still available to show that the subject of the verb is plural---- in this case present plural, just as in Old English -on showed that a verb was past plural.
But the real changes have taken place all the same. Against the survival of cleannesse and þolien we must consider the new words from the French, chasteté, grace, ungraciuse; against the retention of some older verb-endings we must consider the loss of some others and of noun-endings (Old English would have had to haldenne, Gode); against the infinitive at the end of the sentence we must consider the otherwise 'modern' appearance of the word-order and the reliance on prepositions (of, ed). We should be justified in saying that in these ways the sentence is transitional. it is transitional as well in style, for its organization depends not so much on the devices borrowed from poetry that characterized much that was best in Old English prose, but rather on the careful order and balance of the clauses. The writer has put his subordinate clause first; balanced it by another; introduced his major clause ( linking it with the foregoing by the echo of grace/ungraciuse), and balanced it again with another; and rounded off with a final subordinate clause, whose subject, however, was implied in the major clauses. The 'normal' order for such a sentence might have been 'People who will not... suffer, ungraciously stand against grace, and make themselves unworthy..., although (of course) chastity is not purchased from God, but given out of grace.' By reversing the order the author has saved himself numerous repetitions, and he has given force to his argument by saving the most important word, 'suffer', to the end; and of course he has made the sentence more interesting. Many of these aspects of his style, as we have seen, are directly evolved from the particular transitional state of English around the year 1200.
When we turn to the late Middle English period, we find in Chaucer
'Beth war, I
prey aow; for, by hevene kyng,
Ful many a man weneth to seen a thyng,
And it is al another than it semeth.
He that mysconceyveth, he mysdemeth.'
(Merchant's Tale, 2407-10)
The passage is not Chaucer's best-known, nor his most French in style or vocabulary. But even here the French element is significant: it appears in a conservative phrase like 'I pray you' (compare modern French je vous en prie), and it enters freely into combination with native English words, for while mysdemethis pure English (mis-, plus deem, 'judge'), mysconceyveth is a mixture of English mis- plus French conceive, the whole thing rounded off with an English verb-ending. The French words in Chaucer, then, have not the status of those we studied in the transitional prose text. The earlier writer uses them perhaps with a sense of their foreignness and specialness; they are available to him as English words, but mainly in special uses --- in this case, the technical vocabulary of theology. But for Chaucer they have become part of the material of the language, to be woven freely into his fabric. Many words we use today come to us from Lain, either directly or ---more often --- through French. How many depends on where you choose to look: the dictionary is not an appropriate book, because not everyone uses all of it constantly. But, for example, there are four such borrowings in the previous sentence: 'depends', 'dictionary', appropriate', a verb, noun, adjective and adverb. It is in these parts of speech that we meet French words most often: in prepositions, articles, pronouns, and conjunctions there are almost none.
In Middle English, the Germanic word-stock of Old English remained undisturbed in some parts of speech, but was changed with increasing rapidity in some others, chiefly by borrowing from the French brought by the Norman Conquest. At the same tine other changes, which had begun before the Conquest, were accelerated, co that many important word-ending signals were softened or blended, and many others disappeared entirely, with consequent new signals, particularly in word-order and the use of prepositions, coming to do the same job. The altered aspect of the language, although it is only part of a continuous change, justifies a new name for it.
Modern English is usually subdivided into early Modern English and Late Modern English.
Early Modern English
Whereas the change between Old English and Middle English involves chiefly the vocabulary and the shapes of words and sentences, the change between Middle English and Modern English involves chiefly the pronunciation, and involves it in a way the spelling hardly shows. Chaucer wrote,
'Now', quod oure Hoost, 'yit lat
me talke to the.
Why artow so discoloured of thy face?'
(Canon's Yeoman's Prol., 663-4)
Chaucer's pronunciations of the italicized words would have been something like this: face, 'fahs'; me, the, 'may', 'thay'; why,thy, 'whee', 'thee'; quod, hoost, so, 'quawd', hawst', 'saw'; to, artow, 'toe', 'artoe'; now, oure, 'noo, oor'. This change or the sounds of six vowels took place over a long period of time, starting soon after Chaucer wrote and still incomplete in a few details in Shakespeare's day. It is a very profound change and if we reas the two lines with the suggested pronunciations, the great difference between present-day English and fourteenth-century English will stand out as it hardly does on the printed page. The change of the six vowels which is the most important part of this change in pronunciation is called the Great Vowel Shift.
Just after 1600, Shakespear wrote
that heard him play,
Even the billowes of the sea....
(Henry VIII, III.i)
Here we note a great change in the language. Shakespear's language appears entirely familiar to us, although it is almost 400 years old; the spelling, the vocabulary, the shapes of the words and the phrases seem to have changed but little in that time.
After the Middle English period and especially after the introduction of printing, the main sorts of innovation in English vocbulary change, The innovations become less a matter of natural linguistic borrowing, and more a matter of deliverate addition to the vocabulary; and they are less to do with every-day life, and more to do with literature, philosophy and other subjects where the printed book is an obhect of interest on its own right. As a result, words enter the vocabulary of common speech through the familiarity that literature had given them, where before literature tended rather to base its vocabulary on the resources of common speech. In so far as the spoken language is 'natura^' and the written on 'artificial', the mew situation is on in which nature imitates art. In bringing this relationship about, the printed book, and the wide increase in literacy which it made possible, played a major role.
Late Modern English
The greatest change in this period has
been in the meaning of words. when Ben Jonson wrote 'they (in night Of
thrir anbition) [will] not percive the traine, Till, in the ingine, thy
are caught, and slaine' (Sejanus, 1603,II, 267-9), he unintentionally
laid a trap for the unwary reader three hundred or more years later. For
Jonson 'train' could mean 'ruse', from the French word meaning 'to draw';
that is, something that draws, not only aomething that can be drawn. And
'engine' ( which he spelled to show its derivation from Latin ingenium,
'invention', source of our 'ingenious') could mean any device to procure
a result, including a scheme, something very like 'train'. when the technology
of the nineteenth century produced steam locomotion, the language, as often
before and since, was called upon to name something which previously had
not existed. In this case it already had the resources to supply some of
the new nomenclature, and the words 'train' and 'engine' took on additional
senses developed out of those they already had (even though the new ones
wre no longer, in the railroad context, capable of meaning the same thing).
But the new meanings are capable of making sense in Jonson's lines, and
if we did not know that there were no railroads in his day, we should risk
--- in careless reading at least --- seriously misunderstanding what he
wrote. Not all words change their meanings this way, but the peril of misunderstanding
an early Modern English literary text because of unnoticed changes of meaning