Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book Shows How The Evolution Of English Continues

We may take modern English for granted, but when you examine its roots and explore how our language has evolved over the years, you begin to see patterns emerge.  Once you feel you understand what English really is, it changes on us, with new words coined daily and old rules thrown to the side.  If you want a very good, but brief look at English, read The English Language:  A Very Short Introduction by Simon Horobin (Oxford University Press).

Here are some interesting excerpts, covering linguistics, dictionaries, Old English, and unwritten rules:

1.      English today is spoken by approximately 450 million people all over the world.  But the language used by its many speakers varies, in pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, to such an extent that it seems necessary to ask whether these people can all be considered to be speaking English.  Even more people speak English as a second language, with figures varying from 1 billion to 1.5 billion people, and with considerably greater levels of linguistic divergence.  Are all these people speaking the same language, or are we witnessing the emergence of new Englishes?  Sine more than half of the world’s native English speakers live in the USA, we might wonder whether the balance of power has shifted such that to speak ‘English’ today is to speak General American rather than Standard British English.

2.      English has been in use for 1,500 years; during that time it has changed to such an extent that the form of the language used by the Anglo-Saxons is unrecognizable to contemporary English speakers.  Today we refer to this language as Old English, but should we perhaps think of it as a different language altogether?

3.      What is the status of foreign words in English today?  Should we be restricting the number of words adopted from other languages?  Are foreign words corrupting the purity of the English tongue, leaving it impoverished and capable only of unintelligible gobbledygook, or do borrowed words add to the diversity and richness of English?

4.      The earliest recorded form of English is known as old English – a language used by the Anglo-Saxons, as well as other Germanic tribes who came to Britain from continental Europe in the 5th century, following the withdrawal of the Roman legions.  Despite the disparate origins of the various Germanic tribes who settled in the British Isles during this period, they eventually came to consider themselves a single people and adopted the name of the Angles, from which the world English is derived.

5.      The most obvious place to turn is to a dictionary, frequently held to be the ultimate authority in discussions of usage.  But this is not as straightforward as it may seem.  Where many people refer to the dictionary’ as if there were a single such publication, the reality is considerably more complex.

Does this mean it is a legitimate word or not?  Consulting a dictionary for an authoritative pronouncement is not as straightforward a solution as might initially appear.

The view that a dictionary should set standards to be followed can be traced back to Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

Although Johnson’s Dictionary is often celebrated as the first such work in English, earlier instances of the monolingual dictionary can be traced in list of hard words.  The oldest example is Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604), whose full title establishes its remit:  A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English words, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French.etc.

6.      Today, the inclusion of slang words, acronyms, and terms deriving from social media, such as amazeballs, YOLO, and selfie, into updated editions of dictionaries often provoke consternation among the media and the general public, who see such words as unworthy of inclusion in such an authoritative repository.  But since these words are in widespread use among English speakers, it is proper that they should feature in a dictionary.

7.      The popular view that a dictionary should uphold standards and prescribe, rather than reflect, usage was perhaps most strongly demonstrated by the furore that surrounded the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961, in which labels which had traditionally commented on the acceptability or otherwise of certain words were recast in a more neutral tone, reporting rather than dictating usage.

8.      Perhaps the closest England has come to having an institutionalized academy is the Society for Pure English, founded in 1913 by the poet Robert Bridges, who was concerned by the ‘advancing decay’ of English caused by the laziness of its speakers.  Bridges attracted a number of distinguished academic supporters for his mission to improve the language as an aid for ‘the intercommunication of ideas’.  Yet, alongside his desire to promote intercultural harmony was a darker purpose that sought to root out the ‘blundering corruptions’ caused by those ‘communities of other-speaking races’ whose imperfect acquisition of the English language was infecting and mutilating the superior tongue.  Bridges’ conflicted aims demonstrate how attempts to purify and control English are often driven by social, moral, and racial agendas; by seeking to keep English pure.  Bridges was really concerned with the purity of its speakers.

9.      If dictionaries cannot be trusted to provide the kind of prescriptive authority that people seek, and without an academy of distinguished scholars to draw upon, where should we look for reliable and authoritative linguistic pronouncements?  An alternative source to the dictionary is the usage guide, which tends to adopt a more prescriptive approach and which focuses on a small subset of frequently disputed points of usage.  But where we might turn to such a guide in search of a single, unassailable viewpoint, the reality is a wealth of conflicting advice in a range of publications.

10.  The importance of the canon of great literary writers continues to influence debates over correct usage today.  Appealing to such precedents remains a common tactic among writers seeking an authoritative basis upon which to sanction or outlaw a particular usage.


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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.

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