Thursday, September 21, 2017

Crossing the Pond

The history of American English usage marks the most recent, and in some ways the most dramatic set of changes in English since the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare.  And yet, in this change, there was no single author, no single literary or political influence to credit, or blame; like the United States itself it was a patchwork affair, arrived at by degrees and with contributions from both immigrants and indigenous peoples over a period of more than four hundred years.

There is, however, one name that is often linked to some of the key changes in spelling and usage which made American English distinctive, and it's that of Noah Webster (1758-1853). Webster was a schoolmaster who, like many such men of his time, wrote his own textbooks, with a focus on orthography -- the spelling and pronunciation of words -- as well as elements of grammar.  He used the books in his school, and sold them to others; at a time when the printing business was in its infancy, Webster's "Spellers" as they became known, soon dominated the market.  The money he earned from them enabled Webster to work on his Dictionary, on which his larger hopes and ambitions rested.  In his instruction, as in his books, Webster held that the study of Latin and Greek, admirable though it was, should not take precedence over the study of English, and that everyday American usage, not that of British aristocrats, should be the model. He once lamented that "the whispers of common sense, in favour of our native tongue, have been silenced amidst the clamour of pedantry in favour of Greek and Latin."

One may note his usage there -- clamour and favour used the older British spellings that Webster would eventually abandon, preferring clamor and favor -- but his was no overnight reform, and the changes he made took place gradually over the course of his career.  Perhaps that, along with the ubiquity of his books, helped American adapt to, and eventually adopt, his spellings. Not all of his reforms succeeded -- we still use ache instead of Webster's akesoup rather than his soop, and tongue rather than tung -- but for the most part, his changes have become permanent.  He even had some influence on British usage -- Charles Dickens, for one, tended to use the -or rather than the -our endings -- but his publishers corrected these and so the Brits (and Canadians and Australians) are stuck with with them.

American English also marked a period of renewed growth and change in our lexicon. We added words from native languages (moccasin, kayak, tomahawk), as well as from the waves of immigrants who arrived on our shores (look up brogan, schamltz, gauntlet, banana, tycoon, paprika, mammoth, or adobe for a sense of how wide the influence has been), along with all kinds of crazy coinages of our own, from shenanigans to shindig, from oink to woof, from pesky to phony, from vittles to vroom. Much like the UK, strong regional variations of English have developed, not only in terms of phonology but also lexicon and idiomatic phrases; the Dictionary of American Regional English catalogs these, and there are tens of thousands of them. Would you eat a "dropped egg"? How would you feel if you had the "mulligrubs"? And what does one do in a "chic shack?" All things considered, the American turn of English has been a wonderfully enriching one, and it ain't done yet.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Shakespeare's Influence on English

To the generations immediately after his career, Shakespeare -- described by his contemporary Ben Jonson as possessing "small Latin and less Greek" -- was regarded as a sort of rustic, untutored, native genius. "Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's Child / Warbling his native Wood-notes Wild," wrote John Milton, and most readers of Shakespeare then would have agreed with the description. True, he had his sources -- Italian plays (but always cribbed via someone else's translation), Holinshead's Chronicles (the source for most the the history plays), and a ragtag of old tales and legends that would be known to any schoolchild -- but yet Shakespeare was an original in every sense.

Like Chaucer, he imported a tremendous number of new words into English, most often by picking them up from the streets of London, though also by compounding or shifting one part of speech into another. Among them are madcap, hobnob, gloomy, jaded, dauntless, amazement, savagery, birthplace, cold-blooded, knock-kneed, gnarled, and grovel -- over 1700 in all. And yet there was one thing Shakespeare almost certainly did not have -- a dictionary. English dictionaries were a newfangled thing in his day, and were not often employed, as they would be later, as reference books for daily use. Most were lists of "strange and curious" words, glossaries for use with older authors such as Chaucer, or compilations of words thought to be elegant and prestigious in form. Recently, a couple of fine fellows came upon the book known as the ALVEARIE -- a compilation of words as used in proverbial phrases in English, Latin, Greek, and French -- and ascribed its many annotations to Shakespeare, on the basis of the fact that many of these proverbial usages also appear in his plays. But this is backwards reasoning; the first question should be, how many words annotated in the book don't appear in Shakespeare? To add to that, the annotations are in an Italic hand, rather than the Elizabethan "Secretary" hand that was the only one we know Shakespeare to have used, and were made by someone familiar with French and Latin, which would exclude Shakespeare if Jonson is to be trusted.

One of the other aspects of Shakespeare's English that's less well-known is that his pronunciation was actually quite a bit more different from contemporary UK "received pronunciation" than one might think. The "r" after vowels was pronounced, but the vowels themselves were not at all "posh," but more like a rural northerly UK accent of today. Linguist David Crystal and his son Ben have a good deal of fun demonstrating why they're (with apologies to Naughty by Nature), "down with OP."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chaucer and Middle English


Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

And Chaucer's language is very close to ours -- close enough that, with a modest amount of practice, we can pronounce it and understand it reasonably well.  The main differences are that many combination of letters which are now silent, such as kn and gh, were pronounced, as was the e on the end of so many words which has since become our modern English friend "silent e." Lastly, the vowels of Chaucer's day were further back in the mouth, since the "Great Vowel Shift" which moved them forwards had not yet taken place.  Thus Chaucer's "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote" is pronounced as "Whahnn that ah-prill, weeth hees shooriss soat-uh" in our reconstructed Chaucerian mode.  

The other difference is mainly vocabulary -- "lexical" as linguists would say. Chaucer still used a number of words left over from older English; a "swevene" was a dream; "eke" meant "indeed" or "as well"; he used "lykned" instead of "likened," "hem" instead of "them" and "hire" instead of "their" there was no neuter possessive "its" so everything had to be "hys" or hers. Happily, there are many fewer such survivals in his verse than in that of the Gawain poet, who, living the north-west Midlands, was removed from many of the changes of London English and still used athele (noble), sithen (since), schawe (show), and lovelokkest (loveliest).

Chaucer was also on the forefront of many changes of which modern English has been the beneficiary; he introduced many words and usages from French, some in their Anglo-Norman senses, nearly all of which are still with us today: bachelor, melody, adversary, bounty, refute, vein, army, season, and devout. He borrowed a few Latin terms, though most often via their French versions, and his verse structures, such as "rhyme royal,"turned out to be particularly effective in English. 

And yet, despite his many achievements, subtle changes in English -- particularly the "Great Vowel Shift" and the falling silent of 'silent e' -- made Chaucer's verse seem less melodious and metrical to readers from Shakepeare to Dryden; it wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that philologists were able to reconstruct Chaucer's diction and restore his original English to its proper form and meter.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Old English


The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be"fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (military follower) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

As with modern English, there were several major dialects of Anglo-Saxon: Northumbrian in the North, Kentish in the East, Mercian in the midlands, and West Saxon in the West of England. The political center of the Saxons was in Winchester (Wintanceastre) in the West Saxon area, and thus its speech became the prestige dialect of the language; more than 90% of surviving Old English texts are in this dialect. Much has changed since then, but even to this day, if you look at the top decile of English (the top 10% of our most frequently-used words), nearly all of them are directly descended from closely similar Saxon antecedents: stone (stan); house (hus); was (wæs); say (secgan); father (fæder); and many more.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Introducing .... the International Phonetic Alphabet!

One of the things that makes English so distinct from most of the other languages on the planet is its unusually inconsistent and unpredictable spelling. Due to changes in the sounds of English over time, many letters once pronounced are now silent -- particularly our old friend "silent e." Add to that the fact that, as our vowel system changed, many words that use the same vowel are pronounced completely differently, and you have a pretty difficult spelling "system." The spelling reformer and playwright George Bernard Shaw (a lifelong advocate of spelling reform) is said to have jested at this by claiming that "fish" should be spelled "ghoti" -- since gh spells 'f' in "laugh," o is pronounced 'i' in "women," and ti spells 'sh' in "notion!

To save us from all this, and to enable us to understand English's changing sounds, the powers that be sent us the International Phonetic Alphabet. It may look a bit daunting, but it has the great advantage that, within it, one letter indicates one, and precisely one, sound, and is always consistent. We'll go over it in class with some care, and although at first it may seem daunting, it's fairly easy to get used to. Plus, you'll the advantage of being able to impress your friends at parties by saying things like" I really admire your labiodental fricatives"or "please pardon my voiceless glottal plosives!" Then again, be careful -- people might take it the wrong way.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Welcome

Welcome to our class blog for English 433, Modern Grammar, Fall 2017, at Rhode Island College! This course, despite its official name, is not strictly speaking a course on grammar, though grammar will not be neglected.  What it really is is an introduction to issues in the study and teaching of the English language today, including (but not limited to) such matters as modern usage, the idea of the "standard," perceptions of "accent," the history of the language, and its inner mechanics. Throughout the course, by demonstrating that there is in fact a history to many aspects of our language -- particularly to the usage perceived as "correct" at different times and places -- we will be able to demystify some of its more arcane and troublesome features.  We will also pay special attention to current issues in the teaching of English, language development, and the ways in which new technologies of communication (satellite television, the Internet, texting) have affected patterns and perceptions about speech. No previous experience with linguistics is needed!

PLEASE NOTE: This fall, I'll be away in the Arctic on a lecture and research trip, and won't be on campus until the second week of classes (I will have limited e-mail contact) There will still be readings, and you'll be able to get the updated syllabus and everything you need here on our class blog. I look forward to seeing all of you in September!