by Britt Hanson
Last week's column was the History of the English language in 5 Minutes, but I didn't quite make it in five, so today I'm going to finish it off—and hey, a history of English in two short columns isn't too shabby.
English literature began flowering in the late 1300’s. But as anyone who has tried to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will attest, they wrote in a very different English than we know today. Here are the first four verses from the Prologue:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote; The droghte of March hath perced to the roote; And bathed every veyne in swich licour; Of which vertu engendred is the flour.
Translation? When fair April with his showers sweet; Has pierced the drought of March to the root; And bathed each vein in liquid of such power; Its strength creates the newly springing flower.
The main reason for the difference between Chaucer’s Middle English and modern English—and this is about as nerdy as this column is ever going to get—is the Great Vowel Shift, in which the pronunciation of English vowels changed beginning in the 1400's. For example, what we call a boot was pronounced as "boat"; reason would have been "raisin"; the vowel "i" was pronounced as a long "e", so fit would have been "feet"; and Middle English would have pronounced feet as "fait". You know all those silent "e's"? In Chaucer’s day they weren't so silent.
No one knows for sure why the Great Vowel Shift happened. One guess is that Middle English literature reflected the language of London, but with the social upheaval and migration that followed the Black Death that killed 38,000 Londoners in 1603, other English dialects began to dominate.
Meanwhile, the Bible was translated into English. This was a big deal. It was big because the Bible is the most influential work of Western literature. But it was also a big deal because in order to morph the Bible from Latin to English, translators had to fashion a load of new English words. John Wycliffe’s first translation in the late 1300’s added birthday, godly, madness, middleman and thousands more. And it was a big deal because the Church really didn’t want the Bible to be read by ordinary folks. One Catholic Canton cried: “the pearl of the gospel had been cast before the swine.” After Wycliffe died, the Pope ordered his bones dug up, crushed and tossed into the River Swift. In the 1520’s William Tyndale had the audacity to translate the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. For his trouble, Tyndale was tried for heresy, strangled and, for good measure, burnt at the stake. But the horse was out of the barn, so now we swine can read pearls such as “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
English literature exploded in the Elizabethan era of the late 1500’s. The lustrous William Shakespeare alone generously added countless fashionable, flowery and satisfying time-honored words to the English language, including seven in this very sentence. This explosion was aided by the invention of the printing press, which was brought to England by William Caxton, who published the Canterbury Tales in 1476. Moveable type meant that spelling had to be standardized, which up till then had been a bit helter skelter. But their efforts weren't good enough for some, so along came the English dictionary. The first attempt at a thorough English dictionary was by one of those brilliant English eccentrics, Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary, published in 1755, contained 43,000 words.
This included a slew of new words consciously concocted in the 17th and 18th centuries from Latin roots, which led to the Inkhorn controversy—many people opposed this pollution of the pure English tongue, deriding the Latin enthusiasts as “Inkhorns”. But many of the words stuck, so we can still celebrate, extol and exaggerate the virtues of words derived from Latin, whether ingenious or mundane. Lexicographers discovered that dictionaries could not fix meanings of words—they continued to evolve in their own unmanageable way—but they did help fix the way words are spelled. The fixing of grammar followed, with a big assist from American Daniel Webster.
Speaking of Americans, the British colonization of North America, as well as India, Australia and other chunks of the globe, brought rich new words and strange new dialects into English. Radio and TV have now caused dialects to converge, yet there is still a delightful array of accents and idioms. Meanwhile, the might of the British Empire, and later the U.S., made English the lingua franca of the world.