Online Encyclopedia

MODERN ENGLISH

Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V09, Page 599 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: del.icio.us del.icio.us it!
MODERN ENGLISH thus dates from Caxton. The language had at length reached the all but flectionless state which it now presents. A single older verbal form, the southern -eth of the third person singular, continued to be the literary prose form throughout the 16th century, but the northern form in -s was intermixed with it in poetry (where it saved a syllable), and must ere long, as we see from Shakespeare, have taken its place in familiar speech. The fuller an, none, mine, thine, in -the early part of the 16th century at least, were used in positions where their shortened forms a, no, my, thy are now found (none other, mine own = no other, my own). But with such minute exceptions, the accidence of the 16th century was the accidence of the 19th. While, however, the older inflections had disappeared, there was as yet no general agreement as to the mode of their replacement. Hence the 16th century shows a syntactic licence and freedom which distinguishes it strikingly from that of later times. The language seems to be in a plastic, unformed state, and its writers, as it were, experiment with it, bending it to constructions which now seem indefensible. Old distinctions of case and mood have disappeared from noun and verb, without custom having yet decided what prepositions or auxiliary verbs shall most fittingly convey their meaning. The laxity of word-order which was permitted in older states of the language by the formal expression of relations was often continued though the inflections which expressed the relations had disappeared. Partial analogy was followed in allowing forms to be identified in one case, because, in another, such identification was accidentally produced, as for instance the past participles of write and take were often made wrote and took, because the contracted participles of bind and break were bound and broke. Finally, because,.in dropping inflections, the former distinctions even between parts of speech had disappeared, so that iro;,, e.g., was at once noun, adjective and verb, clean, adjective, verb and adverb, it appeared as if any word whatever might be used in any grammatical relation, where it conveyed the idea of the speaker. Thus, as has been pointed out by Dr Abbott, " you can happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. You can speak and act easy, free, excellent, you can talk of fair instead of beauty (fairness), and a pale instead of a paleness. A he is used for a man, and a lady is described by a gentleman as `the fairest she he has yet beheld.' An adverb can be used as a verb, as `they askance their eyes'; as a noun, `the backward and abyss of time'; or as an adjective, a `seldom pleasure.' " For, as he also says, " clearness was preferred to grammatical correctness, and brevity both to correctness and clearness. Hence it was common to place words in the order in which they came upper-most in the mind without much regard to syntax, and the result was a forcible and perfectly unambiguous but ungrammatical sentence, such as The prince that feeds great natures they will slay him. Ben Jonson. or, as instances of brevity, Be guilty of my death since of my crime. Shakespeare. It cost more to get than to lose in a day. Ben Janson." These characteristics, together with the presence of words now obsolete or archaic, and the use of existing words in senses ! A Shakspearian Grammar, by Dr E. A. Abbott. To this book we are largely indebted for its admirable summary of the characters of Tudor English. different from our own, as general for specific, literal for metaphorical, and vice versa, which are so apparent to every readet of the 16th-century literature, make -it. useful to separate Early Modern or Tudor English from the subsequent and still existing stage, since the consensus of usage has declared in favour of individual senses and constructions which are alone admissible in ordinary language. The beginning of the Tudor period was contemporaneous with the Renaissance in art and literature, and the dawn of modern discoveries in geography and science. The revival of the study of the classical writers of Greece and Rome, and the translation of their works into the vernacular, led to the introduction of an immense number of new words derived from these languages, either to express new ideas and objects or to indicate new distinctions in or grouping of old ideas. Often also it seemed as if scholars were so pervaded with the form as well as the spirit of the old, that it came more natural to them to express them-selves in words borrowed from the old than in their native tongue, and thus words of Latin origin were introduced even when English already possessed perfectly good equivalents. As has already been stated, the French words of Norman and Angevin introduction, being principally Latin words in an altered form, when used as English supplied models whereby other Latin words could be converted into English ones, and it is after these models that the Latin words introduced during and since the 16th century have been fashioned. There is nothing in the form of the words procession and progression to show that the one was used in England in the 11th, the other not till the 16th century. Moreover, as the formation of new words from Latin had gone on in French as well as in English since the Renaissance, we often cannot tell whether such words, e.g. as persuade and persuasion, were borrowed from their French equivalents or formed from Latin in England independently. With some words indeed it is impossible to say whether they were formed in England directly from Latin, borrowed from contemporary late French, or had been in England since the Norman period, even photograph, geology and telephone have the form that they would have had if they had been living words in the mouths of Greeks, Latins, French and English from the beginning, instead of formations of the 19th century.' While every writer was thus introducing new words according to his notion of their being needed, it naturally happened that a large number were not accepted by contemporaries or posterity; a long list might be formed of these mintages of the 16th and 17th centuries, which either never became current coin, or circulated only as it were for a moment. The revived study of Latin and Greek also led to modifications in the spelling of some words which had entered Middle English in the French form. So Middle English doute, dette, were changed to doubt, debt, to show a more immediate connexion with Latin debitum, debitum; the actual derivation from the French being ignored. Similarly, words containing a Latin and French t, which might be traced back to an original Greek 0, were remodelled upon the Greek, e.g. theme, throne, for Middle English teme, Crone, and, by false association with Greek, anthem, Old English antefne, Latin antiphon; Anthony, Latin Antonius; Thames, Latin Tamesis, apparently after Thomas. The voyages of English navigators in the latter part of the 16th century introduced a considerable number of Spanish words, and American words in Spanish forms, of which negro, potato, tobacco, cargo, armadillo, alligator, galleon may serve as examples. The date of 1611, which nearly coincides with the end of Shakespeare's literary work, and marks the appearance of the Authorized Version of the Bible (a compilation from the various 16th-century versions), may be taken as marking the close of Tudor English. The language was thenceforth Modern in structure, style and expression, although the spelling did not settle down to present usage till about the revolution of 1688. The latter date also marks the disappearance from literature of ' Evangelist, astronomy, dialogue, are words that have so lived, of which their form is the result: Photograph, geology, &c., take this form as if they had the same history.a large numbet of words, chiefly of such as were derived from Latin during the 16th and 17th centuries. Of these nearly all that survived 1688 are still in use; but a long list might be made out of those that appear for the last time before that date. This sifting of the literary vocabulary and gradual fixing of the literary spelling, which Went on between 161i, when the language became modern in structure, and 1689, when it became modern also in form, suggests for this period the name of Seventeenth-Century Transition. The distinctive features of Modern English have already been anticipated by way of contrast with preceding stages of the language. It is only necessary to refer to the fact that the vocabulary is now much more composite than at any previous period. The immense development of the physical sciences has called for a corresponding extension of terminology which has been supplied from Latin and especially Greek; and although these terms are in the first instance technical, yet, with the spread of education and general diffusion of the rudiments and appliances of science, the boundary line between technical and general, indefinite at the best, tends more and more to melt away—this in addition to the fact that words still technical become general in figurative or metonymic senses. Ache, diamond, stomach, comet, organ, tone, ball, carte, are none the less familiar because once technical words. Commercial, social, artistic or literary contact has also led to the adoption of numerous words from modern European languages, especially French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch (these two at a less recent period) : thus from French soiree, seance, depot, debris, pro-gramme, prestige; from Italian bust, canto, folio, cartoon, concert, regatta, ruffian; from Portuguese caste, palaver; from Dutch yacht, skipper, schooner, sloop. Commercial intercourse and colonization have extended far beyond Europe, and given us words more or fewer from Hindostani, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Malay, Chinese, and from American, Australian, Polynesian and African languages .2 More important even than these, perhaps, are the dialect words that from time to time obtain literary recognition, restoring to us obsolete Old English forms, and not seldom words of Celtic or Danish origin, which have been pre-served in local dialects, and thus at length find their way into the standard language. As to the actual proportion of the various elements of the language, it is probable that original English words do not now form more than a fourth or perhaps a fifth of the total entries in a full English dictionary; and it may seem strange, therefore, that we still identify the language with that of the 9th century, and class it as a member of the Low German division. But this explains itself, when we consider that of the total words in a dictionary only a small portion are used by any one individual in speaking or even in writing; that this portion includes the great majority of the Anglo-Saxon words, and but a minority of the others. The latter are in fact almost all names—the vast majority names of things (nouns), a smaller number names of attributes and actions (adjectives and verbs), and, from their very nature, names of the things, attributes and actions which come less usually or, it may be, very rarely under our notice. Thus in an ordinary book, a novel or story, the foreign elements will amount to from so to 15% of the whole; as the subject becomes more recondite or technical their number will increase; till in a work on chemistry or abstruse mathematics the proportion may be 4o%. But after all, it is not the question whence words may have been taken, but how they are used in a language that settles its character. If new words when adopted conform them-selves to the manner and usage of the adopting language, it makes absolutely no difference whether they are taken over from some other language, or invented off at the ground. In either case they are new words to begin with; in either case also, if they are needed, they will become as thoroughly native, i.e. familiar from childhood to those who use them, as those that possess the longest native pedigree. In this respect English is still the same language it was in the days of AIfred; and, comparing its history with that of other Low German tongues, there is no reason to believe that 2 See ext ended lists of the foreign words in English in Dr Morris's Historical Outlines of English Accidence, p. 33. stone, mine, doom, day, nail, child, bridge, shoot, Anglo-Saxon stein, min, dons, dreg, nags?, citd, brycg, sceot. The history of English sounds (see PHONETICS) has been treated at length by Dr A. J. Ellis and Dr Henry Sweet; and it is only necessary here to indicate the broad facts, which are the following. (1) In an accented closed syllable, original short vowels have remained nearly unchanged; thus the words at, men, bill, God, dust are pronounced now nearly as in Old English, though the last two were more like the Scotch o and North English u respectively, and in most words the short a had a broader sound like the provincial a in man. (2) Long accented vowels and diphthongs have undergone a regular sound shift towards loser and more advanced positions, so that the words ban, /Jeer, soece or site, stol (bahn or bawn, her, sok or saik, stole) are now bone, hair, seek, stool; while the two high vowels u (= oo) and i (se) have become diphthongs, as hits, stir, now house, shire, though the old sound of u remains in the north (hoose), and the original i in the pronunciation sheer, approved by Walker, " as in machine, and shire, and magazine." (3) Short vowels in an open syllable have usually been lengthened, as in nO-ma, co fa, now name, cove; but to this there are exceptions, especially in the case of i and u. (4) Vowels in terminal unaccented syllables have all sunk into short obscure e, and then, if final, disappeared; so oxa, see, wudu became ox-e, se-e, wud-e, and then ox, see, wood; oxen, lufod, now oxen, loved, lov'd; settan, setton, later settee, setter sett, now set. (5) The back consonants, c, g, sc, in connexion with front vowels, have often become palatalized to ch, j, sh, as circe, rycg, fist, now church, ridge, fish. A medial or final g has passed through a guttural or palatal continuant to w or y, forming a diphthong or new vowel, as in boga, laga, dreg, heg, drig, now bow, law, day, hay, dry. W and h have disappeared before r and 1, as in write, (w)lisp, (h)ring; h final (=gh) has become f, k, w or nothing, but has developed the glides u or i before itself, these combining with the pre-ceding vowel to form a diphthong, or merging with it into a simple vowel-sound, as ruh, hoh, bolt, dealt, heah, hleah, now rough, hough, bough, dough, high, laugh=ruf, hok, bow, do, hi, ldf. R after a vowel has practically disappeared in standard English, or at most become vocalized, or combined with the vowel, as in hear, bar, more, her. These and other changes have taken place gradually, and in accordance with well-known phonetic laws; the details as to time and mode may be studied in special works. It may be mentioned that the total loss of grammatical gender in English, and the almost complete disappearance of cases, are purely phonetic phenomena. Gender (whatever its remote origin) was practically the use of adjectives and pronouns with certain distinctive terminations, in accordance with the genus, genre, gender or kind of nouns to which they were attached; when these distinctive terminations were uniformly levelled to final 1, or other weak sounds, and thus ceased to distinguish nouns into kinds, the distinctions into genders or kinds having no other existence disappeared. Thus when Net gode hors, one godan hund, Pa godan boc, became; by phonetic weakening, pe gode hors, Pe gode hownd, Pe gode boke, and later still the good horse, the good hound, the good book, the words horse, hound, book were no longer grammatically different kinds of nouns; grammatical gender had ceased to exist. The concord of adjectives has entirely disappeared; the concord of the pronouns is now regulated by rationality and sex, instead of grammatical gender, which has no existence in English. The man who lost his life; the bird which built its nest_ Our remarks from the end of the 14th century have been confined to, the standard or literary form of English, for of the other dialects from that date (with the exception of the northern its grammar or structure would have been very different, however different its vocabulary might have been, if the Norman Conquest had never taken place. A general broad view of the sources of the English vocabulary and of the dates at which the various foreign elements flowed into the language, as well as of the great change produced in it by the Norman Conquest, and consequent influx of French and Latin elements, is given in the accompanying chart. The transverse lines represent centuries, and it will be seen how limited a period after all is occupied by modern English, how long the language had been in the country before the Norman Conquest, and how much of this is prehistoric and without any literary remains. Judging by what has happened during the historic period, great changes may and indeed must have taken place between the first arrival of the Saxons and the days of 9 -,7010 ,- boy ~, ENGL INN p4~~' a L A T I N CONQUES 0 BI- IN 000 ENO! ;SR - ONVERSIO / ® ~• creeltnon II/ a.L s... uaid. ir u a e0o DANISH CLD ENGLISH ° Ill K. Alfred .00 RAMalral W.rd../Cwaa.n,LU. \Irv, 1 1000--- OLD aue Dula ` ENGLISH 1 ~r •r i ~ NORMAN CONQUEST f' -__-.._. II.• ENGLISH TRANSITION _-. --' o er -:rlrin ~. OHO EMIDDLE EARLY 0 1 ••~ 190 ---~ ENGLISH ~' LIME ----F:.ria-aa:'a.it Otau 4' RD'1 RE b'! : *~ MIDDLE I LAT I '~ Wydif & C aucegGower' _ a~ate/ / i~ATE MIDDLE ENGUrSH 1 #Aog 160• T E RENASCENCE EARL MODERN ORrMm ~~':/ T 9• F I '/" w•• -------- Ia' 17*" CE URY TRANSIT? a MRtan kr v' 170 — HIaD~.. ODEN—ENGLI +•• .nM Primary Watch T..hale.I. f LO. •R M.e. • G.e.nl Tana. Belroofl.. Cammx.I. _ King Alfred, when literature practically begins. The chart also illustrates the continuity of the main stock of the vocabulary, the body of primary " words of common life," which, notwithstanding numerous losses and more numerous additions, has preserved its corporate identity through all the periods. But the " poetic and rhetorical," as well as the " scientific " terms of Old English have died out, and a new vocabulary of " abstract and general terms " has arisen from French, Latin and Greek, while a still newer " technical, commercial and scientific " vocabulary is composed of words not only from these, but from every civilized and many uncivilized languages. The preceding sketch has had reference mainly to the grammatical changes which the language has undergone; distinct from, though intimately connected with these (as where the confusion or loss of inflections was a consequence of the weakening of final sounds) are the great phonetic changes which have taken place between the 8th and igth centuries, and which result in making modern English words very different from their Anglo-Saxon originals, even where no element has been lost, as in words like English in Scotland, where it became in a social and literary sense a distinct language), we have little history. We know, however, that they continued to exist as local and popular forms of speech, as well from occasional specimens and from the fact that they exist still as from the statements of writers during the interval. Thus Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie (1589) says: " Our maker [i.e. poet] therfore at these dayes shall not follow Piers Plowman, nor Gower, nor Lydgate, not yet Chaucer, for their language is now not of use with us: neither shall he take the termes of Northern-men, such as they use in dayly talke, whether they be noble men or gentle men or of their best clarkes, all is a [=one] matter; nor in effect any speach used beyond the river of Trent, though no man can deny but that theirs is the purer English Saxon at this day, yet it is not so Courtly nor so currant as our Southern English is, no more is the far Westerne mans speach: ye shall therefore take the usual speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within Ix myles, and not much above. I say not this but that in every shyre of England there be gentlemen and others that speake but specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of every shire, to whom the gentlemen, and also their learned clarkes do for the most part condescend, but herein we are already ruled by th' English Dictionaries and other bookes written by learned men."—Arber's Reprint, p. 157. In comparatively modern times there has been a revival of interest in these forms of English, several of which following in the wake of the revival of Lowland Scots in the 18th and 19th centuries, have produced a considerable literature in the form of local poems, tales and " folk-lore." In these respects Cumber-land, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Devon, Somerset and Dorset, the " far north " and " far west " of Puttenham, where the dialect was felt to be so independent of literary English as not to be branded as a mere vulgar corruption of it, stand prominent. More recently the dialects have been investigated philologically, a department in which, as in other departments of English philology, the elder Richard Garnett must be named as a pioneer. The work was carried out zealously by Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte and Dr A. J. Ellis, and more recently by the English Dialect Society, founded by the Rev. Professor Skeat, for the investigation of this branch of philology. The efforts of this society resulted in the compilation and publication of glossaries or word-books, more or less complete and trustworthy, of most of the local dialects, and in the production of grammars dealing with the phonology and grammatical features of a few of these, among which that of the Windhill dialect in Yorkshire, by Professor Joseph Wright, and that of West Somerset, by the late F. T. Elworthy, deserve special mention. From the whole of the glossaries of the Dialect Society, and from all the earlier dialect works of the 18th and 19th centuries, amplified and illustrated by the contributions of local collaborators in nearly every part of the British Isles, Professor Joseph Wright has constructed his English Dialect Dictionary, recording the local words and senses, with indication of their geographical range, their pronunciation, and in most cases with illustrative quotations or phrases. To this he has added an English Dialect Grammar, dealing very fully with the phonology of the dialects, showing the various sounds which now represent each Old English sound, and endeavouring to define the area over which each modern form extends; the accidence is treated more summarily, without going minutely into that of each dialect-group, for which special dialect grammars must be consulted. The work has also a very full and valuable index of every word and form treated. The researches of Prince L. L. Bonaparte and'Dr Ellis were directed specially to the classification and mapping of the existing dialects,' and the relation of these to the dialects of Old and Middle English. They recognized a Northern dialect lying north of a line drawn from Morecambe Bay to the Humber, which, with the kindred Scottish dialects (already investigated and classed),2 is the direct descendant of early northern English, 1 See description and map in Trans. of Philol. Soc., 1873-1876, p. 570. 2 The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, its Pronunciation, Grammar and Historical Relations, with an Appendix on the present limits of the Gaelic and Lowland Scotch, and the Dialectal Divisions of the Lowland Tongue; and a Linguistical Map of Scotland, by James A. H. Murray (London, 1873).and a South-western dialect occupying Somerset, Wilts, Dorset, Gloucester and western Hampshire, which, with the Devonian dialect beyond it, are the descendants of early southern English and the still older West-Saxon of Alfred. This dialect must in the r4th Century have been spoken everywhere south of Thames; but the influence of London caused its extinction in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, so that already in Puttenham it had become " far western." An East Midland dialect, extending from south Lincolnshire to London, occupies the cradle-land of the standard English speech, and still shows least variation from it. Between and around these typical dialects are ten others, representing the old Midland proper, or dialects between it and the others already mentioned. Thus " north of Trent " the North-western dialect of south Lancashire, Cheshire, Derby and Stafford, with that of Shropshire, represents the early West Midland English, of which several specimens remain; while the North-eastern of Nottingham and north Lincolnshire represents the dialect of the Lay of Havelak. With the North Midland dialect of south-west York-shire, these represent forms of speech which to the modern Londoner, as to Puttenham, are still decidedly northern, though actually intermediate between northern prow,and midland, and preserving interesting traces of the midland pronouns and verbal inflections. There is an Eastern dialect in the East Anglian counties; a Midland in Leicester and Warwick shires; a Western in Hereford, Worcester and north Gloucestershire, intermediate between south-western and north-western, and representing the dialect of Piers Plowman. Finally, between the east midland and south-western, in the counties of Buckingham, Oxford, Berks, Hants, Surrey and Sussex, there is a dialect which must have once been south-western, but of which the most salient characters have been rubbed off by proximity to London and the East Midland speech. In east Sussex and Kent this South-eastern dialect attains to a more distinctive character. The Kentish form of early Southern English evidently maintained its existence more toughly than that of the counties immediately south of London. It was very distinct in the days of Sir Thomas More; and even, as we see from the dialect attributed to Edgar in Lear, was still strongly marked in the days of Shakespeare. In the south-eastern corner of Ireland, in the baronies of Forth and Bargy, in county Wexford, a very archaic form of English, of which specimens have been preserved, 8 was still spoken in the 18th century. In all probability it dated from the first English invasion. In many parts of Ulster forms of Lowland Scotch dating to the settlement under James I. are still spoken; but the English of Ireland generally seems to represent 16th and 17th century English, as in the pronunciation of tea, wheat (lay, whait), largely affected, of course, by the native Celtic. The subsequent work of the English Dialect Society, and the facts set forth in the English Dialect Dictionary, confirm in a general way the classification of Bonaparte and Ellis; but they bring out strongly the fact that only in a few cases can the boundary between dialects now be determined by precise lines. For every dialect there is a central region, larger or smaller, in which its characteristics are at a maximum; but towards the edges of the area these become mixed and blended with the features of the contiguous dialects, so that it is often impossible to define the point, at which the one dialect ends and the other begins. The fact is that the various features of a dialect, whether its distinctive words, characteristic pronunciations or special grammatical features, though they may have the same centre, have not all the same circumference. Some of them extend to a certain distance round the centre; others to a much greater distance. The only approximately accurate way to map the area of any dialect, whether in England, France, Germany or elsewhere, is to take a well-chosen set of its characteristic features—words, senses, sounds or grammatical peculiarities, and draw a line round the area over which each of these extends; between the innermost and outermost of these there will often be a large border district. If the same process be followed with the contiguous dialects, 3 A Glossary (with some pieces of Verse) of the Old Dialect of the English Colony of Forth and Bargy, collected by Jacob Poole, edited by W. Barnes, B.D. (London, 1867).
End of Article: MODERN ENGLISH
[back]
MODERN COMPLETE EDITIONS
[next]
MODERN GROOVE

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.