[NTLK] [OT] English Language (was Re: 20 MB memory cards FAQ)

Gary McQueen GMMcQueen at netscape.ca
Sat Dec 22 11:38:14 EST 2012

Catching up on some e-mail and coming out of lurker mode for a bit to 
expand on an off-topic of interest.  :-) 

English, like many other languages, has undergone considerable evolution 
over the years.  Old Engish was spoken by the Anglo Saxons and had 
Germanic roots (same as the people).  The classic literary example of 
Old English is the poem Beowulf; an audio rendtion can be heard at 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4L7VTH8ii_8 .

The Normans conquered England in 1066, and their language (French/Latin 
roots) mixed with the existing language over the years.  This resulted 
in Middle English, the classic literary example of which is the 
Canterbury Tales (Chaucer; referenced in the original post).  The audio 
can be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE0MtENfOMU .

Standardization, assisted by the introduction of the printing press, 
resulted in the language evolving from Middle English to Early Modern 
English, the prevalent example of this being the works of Shakespeare. 

Add to that the influences of the Norse, who settle/ruled various parts 
of England over the centuries, and the Britons (Celts) who inhabited 
England before the Anglo Saxons (including the time of the Roman 
occupation), and you have a language with a mixture of origins that has 
some very peculiar rules. 

Other languages have some obscure histories as well.  French and German 
have evolved significantly over the centuries as well, but I'm not as 
familar with the particulars.  I suppose that's why, to me, Old English 
sounds nothing like modern German.

As an aside, I remember playing the Youtube video of Beowulf for my wife 
a while back.  She was surprised, because when I said it was in Old 
English, she though that meant Shakespeare!


Lord Groundhog wrote:

>Reference to Chaucer is an interesting point and one that's frequently made
>by "descriptivists".  However, I'd like to point out that Chaucer's English
>(technically, "Middle English") was a very different beast, one in which
>standards couldn't remain static because they didn't yet exist.  The English
>of his time was much more a collection of highly regionalized dialects than
>a single language, and it was written and read by a comparatively select few
>since literacy wasn't widespread.  Also, Middle English was strongly
>influenced by the more commonly spoken French and by Medieval Latin and
>German.   IOW, "English" at that time was still in gestation, and Chaucer
>did a fine job as one of its midwives.
>Also, standardization requires the ability to disseminate widely from an
>agreed upon authority.  Neither this ability nor the requisite authority yet
>existed in his time.
>Leaving it at that for now, quite simply, Chaucer isn't really relevant to
>this insofar as he is not a variation from "standard English" since there
>was none, and standards of language cannot be applied usefully in
>retrospect.  I'd argue that in fact Chaucer is evidence of the need for
>As for your question of English remaining static, "standard" shouldn't be
>confused with "static".  Most prescriptivists would, I think, argue for the
>former but not for the latter.
>The point of standards in language is to maximize the possibility of
>precision and accuracy in communication and to minimize or preclude the
>possibility of ambiguity, imprecision or error.

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