A Brief History of the English Language Part 6 - Global English

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 covers the period from Chaucer to the Elizabethan age.
Part 4 describes processes in the natural evolution of English.
Part 5 presents a brief overview of Early Modern English

Global English

Modern English is a global language shared by many nations.  It has its national variants: British, American, Canadian, Australian, Indian, Jamaican etc.  Every human language evolves as its users come to favour some specific feature over another.  The instabilities of speech over time are greatly damped by standards in writing.  Spellings derived from attempts at capturing sounds on paper act on new generations as an influence in pronunciation.  Rules of grammar, whilst never slavishly adopted by all speakers of a language, nevertheless serve to moderate the rate and amount of change over the generations.  Although English is spoken with a very wide variety of accents, yet it is written formally with few variations other than style.

The influence of the King James Bible on the stability and globalisation of the English language is remarkable.   In a more religious age, the Bible was carried to the colonies where it was used in the churches.  In poor regions it was the main or even the only book available from which children could learn to read.  It was the primary source for many people learning English as a foreign language.  Perhaps it is the very beauty of the style that causes some people to believe that this specific version of a much-translated, edited and redacted canonical selection of documents from a larger set of source documents is literal truth.  For all of its faults, it must be said that the King James translation was a huge improvement in accuracy over previous translations.

Laws penned with the utmost care and exactness, and in the vulgar language, are often perverted to wrong meanings; then why should we wonder that the Bible is so?
Johnathan Swift.

The Evolution of English Grammar

The natural grammar of English has not evolved much since the King James Bible's  publication, in 1611,  although the vocabulary has swelled greatly.  A hundred years later, many of the words which had been called 'hard words' and 'inkhorn terms' when first introduced were now so well adopted and taken into the core of English that they served as a model for new coinages.  Words which did not conform to the new model began to drop out of use.  English had become more systematic.  The system, the evolved grammar, was both a product of the users and a tool of the users of the English language.   A language clouded by dead words was subjected to the filter of its living users and made to sparkle.

Most changes in the way the English language is written have been in the areas of spelling and punctuation.  Most of these changes in the written form of the language came, initially, not from academics, but from printers.  Standardisation is of great economic benefit to printers, most especially when using moveable type.  It is economically beneficial if a compositor can work 'on autopilot', rather than keep checking spellings against a list.  It is also beneficial if printers can agree amongst themselves on a set of standard spellings: if two or three adopt a standard and another does not, then who is to say which of them is using the 'right' spellings?

Even though the King James Bible employed a greater standardisation of spellings than any previous work, it was not sufficient as a reference work for spelling.  None of the new discoveries in the world and in the sciences feature in the Bible.  The English language needed a standard word list.  Various lists were produced, and various attempts made to record the grammar of English.  These were not generally adopted, mainly because changes in grammar and orthography were overtaking the language even as the books were being written, partly because the books were not accurate.  Also, there was too much desire on the part of some authors to impose their own view on others of of how the language ought to be.  These would-be experts were keen to find fault with the writings of even such luminaries as Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
Those rules of old, discovered, not devis'd,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodiz'd;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain'd
By the same laws which first herself ordain'd.
Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1711.

Samuel Johnson

Alexander Pope obviously knew a thing or two about the evolution of language.  So too did Samuel Johnson.  The most famous early spelling list was Samuel Johnson's dictionary.  In fact, it was more than a dictionary.  It was a fairly good introductory grammar of the English language.  In order to understand how that one book exerted such an influence on the literary evolution of English, a little economic background knowledge is needed.  In a boom time for printed materials: books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers and even early advertisement leaflets, standards were desired.  Without powered machinery, the only way to meet a publishing deadline would be to spread the workload over a number of printing shops.  It would be intolerable if that led to two or three different versions of a single publication.

Samuel Johnson was already widely known as a writer when he was approached by a consortium of printers to write a dictionary and a grammar of English.  A description of that monumental task would easily fill a book.  Originally contracted for 1500 guineas, BP1575, Johnson had to continually raise money to finance his dictionary, even whilst creating it.  The work took nine years.  The result was a masterpiece.
GRAMMAR, which is the art of using words properly, comprises four parts:
Orthography, Etymology, Syntax, and Prosody.

In this division and order of the parts of grammar I follow the common grammarians, without inquiring whether a fitter distribution might not be found. Experience has long shown this method to be so distinct as to obviate confusion, and so comprehensive as to prevent any inconvenient omissions. I likewise use the terms already received, and already understood, though perhaps others more proper might sometimes be invented. Sylburgius, and other innovators, whose new terms have sunk their learning into neglect, have left sufficient warning against the trifling ambition of teaching arts in a new language.

ORTHOGRAPHY is the art of combining letters into syllables, and syllables into words.
It therefore teaches previously the form and sound of letters.

There have been many schemes offered for the emendation and settlement of our orthography, which, like that of other nations, being formed by chance, or according to the fancy of the earliest writers in rude ages, was at first very various and uncertain, and is yet sufficiently irregular. Of these reformers some have endeavoured to accommodate orthography better to the pronunciation, without considering that this is to measure by a shadow, to take that for a model or standard which is changing while they apply it.

The established practice of grammarians requires that I should here treat of the Syntax; but our language has so little inflection, or variety of terminations, that its construction neither requires nor admits many rules. Wallis, therefore, has totally neglected it; and Jonson, whose desire of following the writers upon the learned languages made him think a syntax indispensably necessary, has published such petty observations as were better omitted.
Samuel Johnson  A Grammar of the English Tongue

The modesty of Johnson in trying to capture a little of the natural grammar of English without trying to impose an unreasoned prescriptive grammar on others contrasts greatly with the works of other grammarians.  Horace, 65 - 8 BCE and Quintillian, 35 - 10 CE,  knew that the purpose of a grammar was to describe the product of a natural process of evolution.  For about 2,000 years, grammarians have vacillated between positions of describing or prescribing forms of language.  Unfortunately, until about the 1950s, most grammarians studied literature in order to determine facts about the language, and the spoken form was studied for the most part only by phoneticians.

Between the publication of Johnson's grammar and the rise of modern descriptive linguistics, grammar was treated as though it had the truth of a science, whereas it was but a series of personal views of language as a form of art.  Right through until the 1960s, grammar was used as a hammer in an attempt to beat English into submission.  In earlier times, children would leave school with an acquired 'bookish' use of English.  With the general rise of literacy, children left school with a command of their language derived from authors such as Tennyson, Wordsworth, R.L. Stevenson, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Mark twain, Longfellow, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Lear and many, many more.  These days it is a brave person who will stick their head above the parapet and tell others just how wrong their use of English is, and offer to correct the errors from motives of the purest altruism.
"Now, in reality, the world have paid too great a compliment to critics, and have imagined them men of much greater profundity than they really are. From this complacence, the critics have been emboldened to assume a dictatorial power, and have so far succeeded, that they are now become the masters, and have the assurance to give laws to those authors from whose predecessors they originally received them.

The critic, rightly considered, is no more than the clerk, whose office it is to transcribe the rules and laws laid down by those great judges whose vast strength of genius hath placed them in the light of legislators, in the several sciences over which they presided. This office was all which the critics of old aspired to; nor did they ever dare to advance a sentence, without supporting it by the authority of the judge from whence it was borrowed. 

But in process of time, and in ages of ignorance, the clerk began to invade the power and assume the dignity of his master. The laws of writing were no longer founded on the practice of the author, but on the dictates of the critic. The clerk became the legislator, and those very peremptorily gave laws whose business it was, at first, only to transcribe them."
History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 1749, Henry Fielding

Oppressed by the Norman conquerors, then by kings, the church and the grammarians, English refuses to kneel in surrender.  Chaucer made English the language of England.  Since his times, English has spread over the world and other countries have made English their own.  Today, in England, I still hear people who decry the 'Americanisation' of English.  I have read Americanised English.  Americanized even.  Chaucer would have loved it.
Up from the South come the birds that were banished,
Frightened away by the presence of frost.
Back to the vale comes the verdure that vanished,
Back to the forest the leaves that were lost.
Over the hillside the carpet of splendour,
Folded through Winter, Spring spreads down again;
Along the horizon, the tints that were tender,
Lost hues of Summer-time, burn bright as then.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox