A Brief History Of The English Language Part 3 - Orthography
    By Patrick Lockerby | April 25th 2009 11:39 AM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

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    A Brief History of the English Language Part 3

    The historical development of English is an excellent model of how a grammar naturally develops.  I am trying to capture some of that history in this short series.  Part of the problem of understanding how language works evaporates completely if one can see the beauty in a flow of words, the magic in a few blots of ink.

    Part 1 briefly covered the period from the 5th century CE to the 14th century.
    Part 2 describes Chaucer's influence on the development of English.
    Part 3 now covers the period from Chaucer to the Elizabethan age.

    Chaucer achieved his fame as a writer in English in age when 'men of letters' wrote books mainly in Latin and French. His success led many another writer who would otherwise have written in French or Latin to 'endite', that is create, in English 'a bok for Engelondis sake'.
    And for that few men endite
    In oure englisch, I thenke make
    A bok for Engelondis sake.
    John Gower (ca.1330-1408)

    The above quote, from John Gower's Confessio Amantis shows the author's intention to write a book in English.   However, the title is in Latin, the prologue is named 'prologo' - a Latin word and the whole six-line prologue is in Latin.   John Gower, a close friend of Chaucer, wrote mainly in French and Latin for most of his life.    It was only about 1386 that he began to write in English.

    Chaucer invented his own ways with what may truly be called an experimental form of English. After him, writers experimented with other styles, or else tried to impose the rigours of a Latin-based traditional rhetoric on the English language.   From the 14th century onwards, commentators have almost consistently preferred the style of Chaucer over the styles of his contemporaries and followers.

    Ye flower of Poet in our English tung, and the first that
    euer elumined our language with flowers of rethorick and
    eloquence; I mean famous and worthy Chaucer.
    The Serpent of Division, John Lydgate (c.1370-c.1451)

    John Lydgate, whilst full of praise for Chaucer, failed to observe Chaucer's own avoidance of many of the traditions of rhetoric, and thus Lydgate made his own style too heavy and cumbersome.  John Skelton in comparing Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower seemed to favour Chaucer above the others. Whilst Skelton had a keen eye for the traditions, he tended to use a style of poetry that his detractors later found to be over-simple.  John Skelton was Henry VII's poet laureate, and his son Henry VIII's tutor, and later King's Orator.
    My name ys Parott, a byrde of Paradyse,
    By Nature devysed of a wonderowus kynde,
    Deyntely dyeted with dyvers delycate spyce,
    Tyll Eufrates, that flodde, dryvethe me into Ynde,
    Where men of that contre by fortune me fynde,
    And send me to greate ladyes of estate;
    Then Parot moste have an almon or a date.

    A cage curyowsly carven, with sylver pynne,
    Properly paynted to be my coverture;
    A myrrour of glasse, that I may tote therin;
    These maydens full meryly with many a dyvers flowur
    Fresshely the dresse and make swete my bowur,
    With, 'Speke, Parott, I pray yow,' full curteslye they sey,
    'Parott ys a goodlye byrde and a pratye popagay.'
    Speke Parrot, John Skelton (ca.1460-1529)

    Whilst John Skelton was a popular author in his own times, his style was not much imitated. In later times he came to be seen as a 'mere' satirist and comedic writer. However, his writings show a great diversity of styles, a rich vocabulary and an influence, perhaps too heavy an influence, of the traditions of rhetoric. It is certain that he helped to popularise the idea that English could be employed to good effect in writing, in an age dominated by Latin scholarship.
    "Skelton a sharpe satirist, but with more rayling and scoffery then became a Poet Lawreat, such among the Greekes were called Pantomimi, with vs Buffons, altogether applying their wits to Scurrillities&other ridiculous matters."
    The Arte of English Poesie, attr.  George Puttenham (1529 - 1590)

    In this, the age of Medieval Latin, Latin was the language of scholarship.   It was the international language.  When the word 'grammar' meant 'a body of writings', and 'rhetoric' meant 'the art of ornamental language', the grammar schools taught  'a body of writings' as supreme examples of  'the art of ornamental language'.  All was taught in Latin, to boys who were required to converse privately in Latin by teachers who were experts in Latin.   Skelton's great achievement was his adaptation of these tools of Latin to the task of enriching the English vocabulary by Anglicising Latin and French words, by adapting their meanings to new purposes and by making them fit into the naturally evolving grammar of English.

    In this age of a blossoming English language, paper-making was industrialised at exactly the right moment to feed the new printing presses. The printers had an economic incentive to simplify the orthography of English - simplicity lends itself to speed of production of new plates for printing. This was the first step towards a standardised spelling using standardised letters, a process continued with the invention and development of movable type.

    William Caxton  learned of printing in his travels abroad. His first books were printed in Bruges. The first book printed in English was Caxton's own translation of Recueil des Histoires de Troye by Raoul le Fevre: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, circa 1475-6. The first book printed by Caxton in England, at Westminster, was Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The British Library states that about 70% of surviving 15th century editions of books were in Latin. Of Caxton's editions, about 68% were in English, 28% were in Latin, 4% were in French - by a crude estimation.

    Caxton was an author, translator and  editor.  He chose to edit what he printed based on a sound observation: language is changed by its users. He was trying to achieve for English what had already been acheived throughout Europe for Latin - a standard to be followed by writers and printers. He was followed in this editorship by Wynkyn da Worde and Richard Pynson. Pynson, as a printer of legal writings had a greater incentive to regularise his productions. The law is an area with stated objectives of clarity and lack of ambiguity in language for a nation of users. A consistency of word choice, spelling and grammar assists in these objectives. The tradition of editorship is continued to this day by publishers.

    The English language changed and the old and homely terms of past times were now incomprehensible. Caxton had seen old texts written in an English which he could not himself understand.  He had even noticed a change in the English language from his youth to his old age: ‘And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne’ [and certainly the language now used is very different from that which was used and spoken when I was born].
    William Caxton (c. 1415/1422 c. March 1492) British Library

    The booming trade in printing, the industrialisation of paper-making, the spread of education through the (Latin) grammar schools, the popularity of the new writings in English;  all these came together at just the right time to influence the right man.  The right time was the Elizabethan age.  The right man was England's most famous grammar-school boy of all time: William Shakespeare.

    Continued in Part 4


    Wow!  Here are some things I didn't know I didn't know ...

    But concerning Caxton, he fixed some things in this English language, like:
    the Northern/Scandinavian "they, them, their" for the third person plural (in Anglo-Saxon "they" was "hie");

    Choice of words from of wealth of dialects, like "egges" instead of "eiren", cf. German "eier".
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Becky Jungbauer
    Fascinating article as always, Patrick. I still remember listening to one of my professors read Chaucer in the "original" Old English. It was beautiful. I've always thought it intriguing that the evolution of language isn't just refining spelling and slang and syntax. It seems as if the English language was changing at an exponential rate in this early time and while still evolving has perhaps slowed its rate of change...what do you think?
    Robert:   From your writings and comments you most certainly do know a lot about the English language.  So I'm very pleased to be able to write about  some things you didn't know.   :)

    Even before Caxton, the language was changing greatly.  My own theory about the loss of grammatical genders is that the common people, in adopting Norman French or Latin words, used the default neutral gender, as German does for adopted words.  As older Saxon words dropped out of fashion so did the genders that went with them.  By the time that English was becoming the dominant language again,  the use of neutral 'the' would have been intuitive for most speakers of English.

    I expect that Caxton certainly had doubts about his choices of what should be kept and what should be changed.  He would have observed the trends away from complexity of grammar and gone along with the majority.    After all, that is what language does if left to its own devices.  Latin became a dead language because it wasn't left to its own devices - it was stifled by 'experts'.  I shall write a little about these 'grammar police' in part 4.
    Latin never died out! It continues to be spoken by millions of people in Europe, the Americas and other places around the globe. It is now known by such varied names as French, Italian, Romansch and Spanish.

    Languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese etc., all evolved from their roots as did English by absorbing Latin words and making them a part of a new language.  Although having much in common with Latin, none of them is Latin.  Latin is a dead language.

    Latin, the language of ancient Rome, which in medieval times was still evolving and thriving, was killed off by the bookish grammarians who wanted to fit it into the straightjacket of Ciceronian grammar and vocabulary.
    Latin went right on being spoken after Rome was sacked in the various regions where Rome had brought it as well as in its home region. There are continuua of phonological, semantic and syntactic changes that clearly demonstrate that Latin merely changed into the various forms spoken today. One very strong piece of evidence is the still-present dialect continuum, where you can walk from Rome to France, with each village understanding the neighboring village's speech even though Roman speech is not intelligible to Parisians. Lain bears the same relationship to Spanish, French and the rest as Old English does to Modern English. Neither one died out.

    This is understood to be common knowledge in linguistics and to refute it, you need extremely strong evidence. Even Wikipedia agrees with me: The expansion of the Roman Empire spread Latin throughout Europe, and, eventually, Vulgar Latin began to diverge into various dialects. Vulgar Latin gradually evolved into a number of distinct Romance languages by the 9th century. These were, for many centuries, only oral languages, Latin still being used for writing. (

    What we call Latin today refers to general speech patterns extant during a certain time period, but you cannot draw a line and say, "Latin ended on this day" because it never happened. Latin changed in ancient Rome just as Old English (Anglo-Saxon) did. That is, Latin and the Romance languages are chronolects of the same language.

    The matter of Latin as used by the Roman Catholic Church is something different all together. Scribes copied Latin texts and the educated used it as a lingua franca, but it wasn't a form of Latin that people were learning natively, and like the other branches, it continued to evolve.

    Your series is very interesting, but putting forth the idea that a group of grammarians somehow killed a language is just silly and unfortunate as it brings doubt to the rest of what you have written. Please note: Language changes, all languages change. That includes Latin.

    Fossil Huntress
    Nicely worded Patrick. Hear, hear! Which sounds remarkably like, here, here.

    As an aside, let's add Romanian to the list. I had the chance to work there last year and was surprised to be able to speak and read it quite quickly (after a miserable attempt at Hungarian!) because of its similarity to Italian. I praised it's Latin roots.

    p.s. as a bit of evening reading, you might enjoy The Professor and the Madman, if you haven't read it already. It is about the writing of the Oxford English dictionary. You'd gobble it up! ; )
    Heidi:  You don't have to be
    crazy, mad, manic, insane, gaga, loopy, bananas, deranged, certifiable, delusional, raving, fixated, obsessive  ... 
    to be a lexicographer, but ...   :)
    Fossil Huntress
    .. crazy helps a little! ; )
    It seems as if the English language was changing at an exponential rate in this early time and while still evolving has perhaps slowed its rate of change...what do you think?

    Becky:  thanks for the kind comment.  The period around 1300 to 1600 was certainly a time of great changes for the English language.  The grammar became simplified and the vocabulary enjoyed a tremendous spurt.  I am getting somewhat ahead of myself here, but the printing press and the efforts of Chaucer, Skelton and such kick-started a process that peaked in the 16th century.  A few of the many hundreds of new words:

    drama, 1515 - satire, 1509 - poem, 1548 - geography, 1542 - precise, 1526 and many an -osity, -ize, - ation and -ism.

    Once the rules for new coinages were established, anyone could freely invent new words which would conform to the general feeling of what was a 'proper word' in English.  Good rules make for good language.  New words are still being coined in our times:  email, fax, texting, twit - as a verb rather than an insult, blog, malware, etc.
    All I can say is fascinating, & I look forward to more in this series!

    I'm glad you're enjoying this Kerrjac.

    This will probably be a 6-part series ending with today's international English.  After that, I plan to write an overview of linguistics, showing its origins, its components and where linguistic knowledge stands today.  I'll be giving an overview of the various tools that might be described as grammars.  That will be followed by some notes on my own experiments with computer analysis of language.
    It'd be cool to see something like a speciation tree for languages.

    Colin McEvedy has done something like that, breaking it down to Uralic,Indo-European,west-Med,Caucasian,Elamo-Dravidianm, etc. and correlating it to geography and technology in a pretty terrific fashion.  It seems to be a little easier in the west than the east because there were fewer 'total wars' where entire cultures and languages were wiped out.

    It has orphans, like Sumerian, with no relations in any language, live or dead, but that's as good as it gets, really.