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English Language Evolution Essay

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Updated: May 19th, 2020

The evolution of species is a natural process, and so is the language evolution. Indeed, being a part of people’s culture, which is prone to changes, language also shapes together with people’s development; some words become dated, and new ones appear instead, adding new shades of meaning to already existing notions. In addition, new objects and phenomena appear, making people come up with the words which the given thing can be named with; thus, the language shapes together with the nation, growing and getting increasingly more complicated. Political processes which a country undergoes must be taken into account as well; shaping the history of a country, certain political events can spawn the language evolution or, on the contrary, cause its regression, for politics shapes culture and, therefore, is inseparable from the latter. Because of the consolidation processes which England was experiencing in the course of the sixteenth century and the following strengthening of the empire, as well as the establishment of the relationships with other states of power, the English language was shaped greatly, including its grammar, syntax and especially vocabulary, influenced by both the communication with the foreign countries and the consolidation of the land, which meant the unification of the English language standards and the establishment of an official English language, shifting the existing dialects into the shadow.

When it comes to discussing the Middle Ages, the first work of literature that comes to people’s minds is the famous Beowulf. Even though its origins can hardly be traced and that no one can say with certainty who the actual author of the poem was, it still is and will be a decent specimen of the Old English language. In every single line, one can track the details which are characteristic of the Old English period. To start with, the influence of the Celtic languages becomes especially distinct when reading the poem. For example, the word stock of the poem indicates clearly that Beowulf belongs to the Old English epoch; the few Celtic words which are used in Beowulf are the graphic evidence of the above-mentioned fact: “Hwæt”, “Syððan” (Greenblatt et al. 29).

In addition, the fact that the Old English language has borrowed a lot from the Celts becomes obvious when considering the structure of the sentences in the poem: in “We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns” (Greenblatt et al. 29), for example, the sentence structure is fixed, with the verb taking the second place in the sentence, which is typical for a Celtic language. However, the Celtic elements are not the only indicators of the Old English language in Beowulf. Since the Norman Conquest has had a huge impact on England and the word stock of the English language since 1066, in Beowulf, one can track the elements of the Norman language as well, such as “Gardena” (Greenblatt et al. 29). However, the Norman features of the Old English language concern mainly the vocabulary; the grammar is still shaped by the Celtic traditions. Finally, when redefining Beowulf’s impact on the development of the English language in the Middle Ages, the introduction of the Anglo-Saxon culture into the English one must be mentioned. The Anglo-Saxon impact can be seen in such lines of the poem as “in mægþa gehwære man geþeon” and “Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean” (Greenblatt et al. 29).

However, when the Sixteenth Century with its Early Modern English norms came, the language rules started taking a new direction. When considering Thomas More’s work, one can see distinctly that the English language was abandoning the inflected forms and shaped towards being a more analytical language. Keeping one change at a time, one should consider first the drop of the “e” vowel at the end of the words – “e” becomes muted or even disappears completely in some cases. However, the disappearance or, in most cases, muting of the “e” vowel at the end of the words was not the only characteristics of the Early Modern English. It is also worth noting that in More’s novel, nouns are no longer inflected – the inflected forms have dropped together with the muted “e”: “between” instead of “abitweonum” (Greenblatt et al. 521) and “above” ousting “abufan” (Greenblatt et al. 521).

Moreover, the word stock underwent a number of changes as well – instead of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words, their Norman equivalents were used in Utopia: the word “glengan” was no longer of any use, and “adorn” was used in the text to make it sound more solid (Greenblatt et al. 521), not to mention the obvious fact that the verb “to be” took the place of “wesan” in Moor’s book. When reading Moor’s novel, one can easily realize that the language used in it is already one inch away from the English language which is used in the XXI century; even though the choice of words sometimes sounds rather weird for the XXI-century people, the vocabulary and the basic structure of the English language is already there, which can be indicated by the fact that in complex sentences, the word order is no longer fixed: “This Raphael, who from his family carries the name of Hythloday, is not ignorant of the Latin tongue” (Greenblatt et al. 522). Finally, the elements of the Latin and Greek can be seen in Moor’s work: “discoursing” (Greenblatt et al. 522), “church” (Greenblatt et al. 560). Unfortunately, the consequences of the Great Vowel Shift cannot be traced in the work, since it is written in prose and, therefore, does not have any rhymes, assonances or any other phenomena which could help show the dynamics of the “a” and “e” vowels, etc.

Finally, the changes which happened to the English language in the seventeenth century must be addressed. To analyze the issues which led to the further development of the English language, the political situation of England must be addressed. Because of the consolidation of the future British Empire, the language standard was supposed to be provided for all the cities and towns of England. The given measure was considered to be the driving force which could bring the country even closer. Hence, the rules for the English language were first introduced by Samuel Johnson, which was the final straw that the numerous English dialects could bear. The fact that the language rules finally came into force in the seventeenth century can be easily proven by offering a couple of examples from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, one of the major works of John Locke, a prominent philosopher of the seventeenth century. Even though the new rules introduced by Johnson still felt a little bit rough around the edges, Locke obviously followed them when writing his work – the pronouns “it”, “my” (Greenblatt et al. 2152) make it clear that the English language has been finally shaped into its modern form.

Unlike one might have thought, the development of the English language is linked directly to the political processes within the state, which the authors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature show in a very graphic way. To be more exact, the more consolidated and powerful England became, the more the English language flourished, with words obtaining additional meanings and metaphors becoming an integral part of the language. The above-mentioned process was quite expected, since the country was finally strengthening its relationships with the rest of the world, therefore, allowing that the rest of the cultures were introduced to the British one and, hence, the language could be enriched with the words possessed from other languages, such as the French one. Moreover, the fact that England was finally making steps towards consolidation meant that the empire was going to improve its score on all aspects, including social, political and cultural ones; hence, language, as an integrate part of culture, was also to undergo a train of changes. Offering good premises for the further evolution of the English language and introducing a number of changes to the language, including the changes in phonetics, grammar, vocabulary and syntax, English poets and narrators have changed the English language greatly within a matter of several centuries, which on the scale of the world history is an incredibly small amount of time.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. A. 9th ed. New York, NY: Norton & Company, 2012. Print.

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